In this second half of my report about my trip to Chile earlier this year (here’s the first half), I take you to some of the most beautiful destinations I’ve ever visited: three of Chile’s wine valleys, and to a few points along the country’s long coastline.
Rodolfo Guzman, chef of Boragó, and his cooks forage often. And they travel extensively to do so.
One day, he and his cook Tommy de Olarte took John Sconzo and me to one of their favorite spots along the coast, about an hour and a half drive outside of Santiago.
The coast of Punta de Tralca is piled with boulders, over which we climbed to reach small pockets of vegetation in the tidal pools. Along the way, Guzman and de Olarte stopped to point out herbs – like an unusually large purple oxalis plant – and other edible vegetation – like these succulent fruits that they called “sea strawberries.” Justin Cogley, chef of Aubergine, finds these same “fruits” along the coast of Carmel, California; he calls them “sea figs.” I remember seeing these bright red succulents carpeting Fan Shell Beach near Pebble Beach when I visited in March. Both Guzman’s and Cogley’s descriptions are fairly accurate, although, I’d say they look more like figs and taste more like strawberries, except they’re salty like the sea.
When Guzman and de Olarte stumbled across a patch of green and red samphire, you would have thought it was Christmas morning. Yet, despite their enthusiasm, the two collected just enough of the briny succulents for a couple of days of service, and no more.
On the drive back into the city, while stopped at a toll, Rodolfo rolled down the window and bought a package of chilenitos from a street vendor. A chilenito is a common Chilean confectionary that I can only describe as a bowl-shaped half of a thin, crispy pita lined with dulce de leche and piled with dried meringue. It is very sweet.
Between 2011 and 2012, Chile saw an 87% increase in the production of wine, making it the seventh largest wine-producing country in the world. And it looks very likely that its rank will only rise.
Given the country’s burgeoning wine industry, Foods From Chile packed our itinerary with tours of wineries. We also visited orchards, and olive groves, and fruit packing plants in between.
On the first full day of the Foods From Chile tour, we flew, in the early morning, to the coastal city of La Serena, the second-oldest city in Chile (Santiago is the oldest). From there, we drove two hours into the arid mountains surrounding the Elqui Valley at the Southern end of the Atacama Desert to Viña Alcohuaz, a young, biodynamic winery perched at about 6,000 feet above sea level (Viña Alcohuaz has yet to release their first vintage to the public).
Viñedos de Alcohuaz’s wine maker, Marcelo Retamal, walked us through the vineyards, and explained the local viticulture.
Viñedos de Alcohuaz grows pisco grapes, in addition to a few others that can survive the dry, high-altitude climate (averaging about 2.8 inches of rain a year) and wide range of temperatures of the Elqui Mountains. During the day, it gets quite hot. And, since it is in a desert region, the temperatures plummet at night.
Retamel gave us an abbreviated tour of his winemaking process. First, he took us to a large, stone pit filled with grapes and invited us to wash our feet and jump in for a stomp (here is John Sconzo, knee-high in grapes). After walking around the vineyard under the hot, noonday sun, the cold, slippery mash felt wonderful against the legs. The concentrated fragrance of a million of grapes was intoxicating. You could almost taste their sweetness with your nose.
Next, he showed us the concrete “eggs” in which the winery’s grapes are fermented. And finally, he took us into a cave, which, at the time, was still being excavated in the side of a mountain. This will be the main cellar where the winery will keep and age its bottled wine.
During our tour, Retamel also explained that the Elqui Valley is rich with quartz, making it a longtime destination for mystics and shamans, who believe that the area is home to a host of energy gateways and vortices. One of these gateways is in the middle of the Alcohuaz vineyards, marked by a circular rock formation under a wood, pyramid frame.
And, because of its altitude and extremely clean air, the Elqui Valley is favored by astronomers and star-gazers, who travel there to study the night sky, lit up, as Retamel described it, like a field of diamonds.
We returned to the main house of the winery, where a cornucopia of Chilean products awaited us under a canopy of grape vines. There were dried fruits, nuts, and cheeses of all types. There was an amazing display of fresh fruit, including plump figs that were candy-sweet, pomegranates spilling their tart rubies, clusters of juicy grapes, fragrant quinces, and an almond-shaped fruit that looked like a tomato. There was some dispute among the Chileans whether the fruit was actually a variety of tomato or not. But they all agreed that the best way to eat them was to splice them, dip the cut side in sugar, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. And so we did.
There was also a lot of pisco, made from the winery’s grapes, which Retamal used liberally in a batch of pisco sours.
Inside the house, a group of women finished preparing our lunch in a beautiful kitchen lined with a checker of red and white tiles and a gorgeous wood-fired stove fueled with vine clippings.
They laid out a beautiful feast made from local ingredients: buttery avocados; shredded green beans; spinach salad with cheese and candied walnuts; a bowl of beans, simply dressed with olive oil; juicy tomatoes, sliced; and a giant, clay casserole heaped with incredibly delicious roasted pork ribs. This was followed by more fresh fruit, candied grape skins, sugary cones of ground nuts, Chilean papayas in simple syrup, and mote con huesillo, a traditional Chilean summertime drink of wheat (mote) and dried peaches (huesillo) rehydrated in a mix of water, sugar, and cinnamon.
After lunch, we were invited back outside to enjoy the afternoon, and to watch our shadows lengthen in the setting sun.
Casablanca Valley is about fifty miles northwest of Santiago.
Mornings in this valley are shrouded in a thick, coastal fog, making it surprisingly cool compared to the second half of the day, when the clouds roll back, raising the temperature significantly.
And so, it was under a chilly blanket of fog that we arrived late in the morning at Viña Casas del Bosque, a winery that is most-known for its Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah varietals. Our tour of the winery was brief. The highlight of our stop there was the view from the winery’s private event space, the Casa Mirador, which sat high atop a hill, surrounded by the winery’s vineyards.
The view from Casa Mirador was breathtaking, especially through the big, picture window in the dining room that framed a lone hawthorne tree, standing guard over the winery’s sprawling expanse. Winemaker Grant Phelps, a New Zealander, explained his wine-making process, walking us through half a dozen of Casas del Bosque wines over lunch.
We spent two full days in the Colchagua Valley, which lies at the southernmost part of the Rapel Valley, a little over a hundred miles south of Santiago.
The Mediterranean climate of the Colchagua makes it a lush growing environment. It is home to fruit orchards, olive groves, and miles upon miles of vineyards, which have become famous for their full-bodied varietals – Cabernet, Carménère, Malbec, and Syrah.
In our brief visit, we saw a number of wineries – stopping briefly, for example, to have lunch at Viña Montgras in the spacious courtyard of its hacienda-style house – and spent an afternoon at Olisur, an Italian-run olive oil production facility surrounded by seemingly endless hectares of olive groves.
But there are two places in particular that I’d like to highlight.
Pilar Rodriquez worked for Tommy Hilfiger in Panama City for a decade.
But she had other interests, other dreams. And so, she left the fashion industry for France, where she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. After finishing her studies there, she began working under Christian LeSquer at one of my favorite Parisian restaurants, Ledoyen. She returned to Chile to bring her knowledge and skills to her homeland.
Now, Rodriquez runs a “Food and Wine Studio” at the stunning Viu Manent Winery in the Colchagua Valley, where she teaches cooking classes.
We arrived at her tidy little workshop in the early evening, just in time to watch the sun set among the vineyards and mountains beyond her gravel-lined garden out back. The scene was indescribably beautiful, a slowly dimming sky that saturated everything with a spectrum of colors, turning a sea of rustling green grape leaves into a sea of gold, and making silhouettes out of a range of mountains that stretched into the fading horizon.
Rodriguez designed a menu that would teach us about Chilean ingredients and cuisine.
We divided the work among us, and made dinner together.
Sitting around a communal table, Rodriguez started us off with an olive oil tasting, teaching us to warm the oil by cupping our hands around the little ramekins, thereby releasing the oil’s fragrance. She instructed us to slurp the olive oil loudly, and coat our mouths with it, letting the flavor grow from a floral grassiness to a warm spiciness that tingled the throat.
She encouraged us to smell and taste the wine in a similar fashion.
Our dinner started with macha clams (I wrote about these triangular-shaped bivalves in my first post about Chile) served in salsa verde, followed by a scallop, served with is roe in a cold tomato gazpacho-like soup.
We had abalone chupe. Chupe, as Rodriguez explained, is a stew that is traditionally thickened with potatoes, or some other kind of starch. It can include meat, or, like that night’s chupe, seafood. Rodriguez’s chupe had been thickened with saltine crackers, which yielded more of a paste than a brothy stew.
Pulmay is basically a curanto (which I also explained in my earlier post about Chile) made in a stockpot: meat, sausage, shellfish, chicken, and potatoes layered, and simmered with lots of white wine. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night.
We had lamb, marinated in adobo. And for dessert, fresh figs with meringue stained lavender with red wine.
We lingered over coffee and after-dinner drinks. I don’t think any of us wanted to leave Rodriguez. She was so full of enthusiasm and life, a woman who abandoned her career for the sake of her dreams, which have now come to life in a jewel box dropped in the middle of paradise.
If you have the chance to visit the Colchagua Valley, I highly recommend a night at Pilar Rodriguez’s food and wine studio at the Viu Manent Winery.
If you ever want to see the splendor of Grand Marnier money on display, visit Viña Lapostolle. For me, it was the highlight of our tour of Chilean wineries.
The winery sits at the foot of the mountains in Colchagua Valley. Drilling down about nine stories into granite bedrock, the winery uses gravity to move the grapes from stem to bottle.
Andrea Leon, one of Lapostolle’s winemakers introduced us to Lapostolle’s environmentally conscious wine-making process in a large facility on the ground level, where dozens of workers de-stemmed crates of grapes by hand.
The grapes were then collected in large, mobile metal drums that the winery’s workers affectionately and aptly named “R2D2s.” We followed one of these R2D2s into the first fermentation room, where the large drum was positioned over a hole in the grated floor. A latch on the underside of the drum released the grapes, dropping them into large oak barrels on the level below.
We followed Leon down a grand staircase through the many levels of the winery. At each stage, she showed us how the wine was siphoned, using gravity alone, from barrels on one level to barrels below.
When we reached the bottom, we found a giant pendulum swaying gently in a sand pit, tracing the earth’s rotation with every swing. It was cold down there. Insulated by bedrock, Viña Lapostolle needs no air-conditioning to cool its cellars from the daytime heat of the valley.
On the lowest level of the winery was a stunning tasting cellar with a gently domed wooden ceiling reminiscent of an oak barrel. In the center of the room was a long tasting table topped with smokey, black glass. Spreading out from it were concentric rows of oak barrels.
Leon uncorked a few bottles and let us taste a variety of Lapostolle wines, among which my favorite was the Cuvée Alexandre, an inky mix of organically grown Carmenère and Syrah grapes from the winery’s Apalta vineyard in the Colchagua Valley.
After our tasting, Leon flipped a switch on the side of the tasting table, and one end of the glass top slowly tilted upwards, revealing a cleverly hidden entrance. A staircase lit up below, glowing through the glass top, which, having been a dark, reflective mirror-like surface before, all of a sudden became a window in to secret cellar below.
Beneath us were two more levels lined with the best labels from around the world, the winery owners’ private stash of wine. If Ian Fleming had ever pitted a oenophilic villain against James Bond, this would be his or her cellar.
It took all of us a few minutes to close our jaws and catch our breath. It was magnificent.
In addition to being a celebrated winery, Viña Lapostolle also runs one of South America’s only Relais & Châteaux properties. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay at the Lapostolle Residence, but we did get to have lunch at the resort’s private dining venue
Surrounded by vineyards and in the dappled light under a canopy of grape vines, we ate and drank away the afternoon wrapped in blankets to ward off the chill of the shade.
The lunch focused on the produce of the Apalta region of the Colchagua Valley, including locally grown organic greens, fruits, and, of course, wine. We had saddle of rabbit stuffed with local prunes and sauced with a demi glace made from Canto de Apalta wine. We had lamb loin,crusted with pistachios and served with a jus made from Clos Apalta wine and figs.
And for dessert, a tribute to the House of Grand Marnier: apples poached in Sauvignon Blanc, with Grand Marnier sabayon and Navan ice cream. On the side, a snifter of Grand Marnier.
Given all the the exciting places in this world I have yet to explore, there are relatively few places I want to revisit. But Viña Lapostolle in the Colchagua Valley is definitely one of them.
We spent one night in the coastal town of Valparaíso.
Home to one of Chile’s most significant seaports and the Chilean navy, Valparaíso isn’t a particularly attractive town. It spreads, in not a very organized or pretty way over a number of seaside hills.
That being said, Valparaíso is full of history, character, and color.
At one time, Valparaíso was one of the most important ports of call in the New World (its importance diminished greatly after the Panama Canal was opened in the early 1900s). As such, it was home to an internationally diverse citizenry. The influence of Europeans, for example, is visible today in the city’s architecture. Particularly, the British – who helped found the Chilean navy – built many great Victorian-style homes around the city, including the one in which we stayed.
The Palacio Astoreca is a stately, Victorian mansion perched on the steep sides of Valparaíso (from the city’s main plaza near the water, we took a funicular to reach the hotel, although there are stairs). It was recently refurnished and turned into a luxury, boutique hotel.
Like most of the homes and buildings in Valparaíso, the Palacio Astoreca is painted in bold colors, although it’s not clad in corrugated metal, the curiously favored siding of most of the homes we saw in Valparaíso.
To say that Valparaíso is a colorful city is an understatement. Nearly every building was painted and trimmed in multiple colors, and many of them graffitied (thankfully, often quite tastefully). Even sidewalks and public staircases were painted a rainbow of colors. I joked that I should open a paint store there.
So taken was I with the city’s strange, whimsical, and light-hearted sense of design that I spent a couple of hours before dinner wandering the streets of Valparaíso photographing the colors of Valparaíso, which came in daring combinations. You’ll find some of these photos in my album “Places (2013)” on my Flickr site.
Although I covered a lot of ground in my two weeks in Chile, I admit that my knowledge of that country, its culture, and its cuisine is still deficient. But, what I did see, learn, and taste excited me. Chile is a country on the rise, not only as an industrial power, but as a culinary destination.
As I stated in the first part of this two-part post, Latin American chefs are moving into the spotlight. But, there is work to be done among them, as I witnessed and experienced wide gaps in identity. They need to stop chasing the other continents and begin to understand their own. In this way Central and South America will slowly displace Northern Europe as the situs of new culinary discoveries and narratives, ones that will only need to be refined and heard.
Indeed, it is, once again, the New World, untapped, untamed, and full of potential. I can’t wait to go back.
My return flight to the United States didn’t take me back to Kansas City, but rather to San Francisco. That’s where I’ll pick up in my next blog post.
Allegre at the Palacio Astoreca (Valparaiso)
Casa Mirador at the Casas del Bosque (Casablanca Valley)
Viña Lapastolle (Colchagua Valley)
Pilar Rodriguez Food + Wine Studio (Colchagua Valley)
Viña Montgras (Colchagua Valley)
Viñedos de Alcohuaz (Elqui Valley)
Photos: The lone hawthorne tree at the Casa Mirador at the Viña Casas del Bosque in the Casablanca Valley of Chile; Rodolfo Guzman and Tommy de Olarte foraging on the coast at Punta de Tralca, Chile; grapes on the vine at Viñedos de Alcohuaz in the Elqui Valley, Chile; an energy gateway in the vineyards at Viñedos de Alcohuaz in Elqui Valley, Chile; the veranda at the Viñedos de Alcohuaz in the Elqui Valley, Chile; the dining room at the Casa Mirador at the Casas del Bosque winery in Casablanca Valley, Chile; trellised grape vines at the Viña Montgras in the Colchagua Valley, Chile; Pilar Rodriguez’s Food + Wine Studio at the Viu Manent Winery in Colchagua Valley, Chile; the view from the back of Pilar Rodriguez’s Food + Wine Studio at the Viu Manent Winery in Colchagua Valley, Chile; dinner at Pilar Rodriguez’s Food + Wine Studio at the Viu Manent Winery in Colchagua Valley, Chile; a worker releases grapes from an “R2D2” drum at the Viña Lapostolle into oak barrels below, Colchagua Valley, Chile; the tasting room at Viña Lapostolle, Colchagua Valley, Chile; the “secret” cellar at the Viña Lapostolle in Colchagua Valley, Chile; lunch on the patio at the Lapostolle Residence private dining venue in Colchagua Valley, Chile; the last four photos are of the painted, corrugated metal siding on homes in Valparaíso, Chile.
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