Chile: Food and Chileno Gourmand Poet Pablo Neruda
A long and slender sliver of land, Chile stretches along the west coast of South America, clinging to the continent between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the rugged Andes to the east. To the north, at 3500 meters elevation, lies El Norte Grande: the stark and desolate Atacama dessert, known as the driest dessert in the world. Vast salt flat, geysers and star gazing are some of the extraordinary features of this magnificent region. To the south lies Patagonia (land of giants as described by Magellan), the Tiera del Fuego archipelago and the famous Cape Horn, at latitude 55ºS the closest land to Antarctica. In between these two extremes is a 500 miles temperate corridor where most of the Chileno population lives and the heartland of agriculture and viticulture.
Our first entry into Chile was in Patagonia when we we crossed over from Argentina and sailed around Cape Horn. From there we cruised along the Beagle channel and then the Straits of Magellan to Punta Arenas and from there continued along the gorgeous Chilean fjords and millennial glaciers before entering again into the Pacific Ocean and heading north towards other Chilean destinations.
En route north to Santiago we stopped at Coquimbo, a fishing town along the coast, and spent a few hours at a local fish market that wowed us with its authenticity and diversity of seafood. King crab, oysters, sea urchins, giant scallops, razor clams and other varieties of fish and shellfish I have never seen before were in abundance. The vendors prepared little containers of ceviche and mariscal and offered them for sale at their stalls. A few casual restaurants offered chilean seafood soups and other dishes made from just caught fish and shellfish that you could pick yourself from the ice if you wanted and they would prepare it for you as you wish. The market was only opened for a few hours. The vendors set up their catch and within hours everything was sold and gone. Seafood doesn’t get any fresher than that.
From the port we made a side trip to La Serena, the capital of Coquimbo region and the second oldest city in Chile, founded in 1544. Serena is known today as a resort town for Chilenos and Argentinos. It is a beautiful town with unique architecture known as neo-colonial, meaning the municipality intentionally preserves older buildings to maintain the colonial architecture style of the city. A main square opens to side street leading to a 19th century cathedral and the central market for craft and some produce. Being a resort town it has a series of beaches along Avenida del Mar and an international airport to bring in vacationers travelling from Santiago, Valpariso and Argentina.
Due to its clear skies, La Serena hosts the largest concentration of astronomical observatories in the world. The surrounding is the placement site of a number of important telescopes in domed structures on the hilltops surrounding the area.
From there we continued north and eventually made it to Santiago, Chile’s capital. Santiago is cosmopolitan city of 7 million people, set against the majestic Andes to the west. The temperate climate and metropolitan nature makes it a fabulous destination full of history, museums, restaurants, shopping and more. They city’s main square, known in South American countries as Plaza de Armas, dates back centuries to Colonial times in the 1500s but completed in the 1800s. The plaza is home to the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago and the Central Post Office. It is also home to the Royal Palace, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago that was the seat of the government, although this building is now a National History Museum and the government moved to another palace at La Moneda more than one hundred years ago. Although our visit to Santiago was hampered by the fact that we were on an excursion from the ship, we did manage to see the changing of the guards ceremony at the La Moneda Palace but all too briefly.
To my great annoyance we did not stop at the Mercado Central which we passed just off the Plaza de Armas. No set excursions for me ever again. The market, housed in a 1872 building, has seafood and produce vendors as well as restaurants and will be where I first head next time we are in the area.
We did drive up to Cerro San Cristóbal, a hill at the northern end of Santiago from where you get a panoramic view of the city, pollution permitting. The hill rises 850 meter above sea level and about 400 meters above the city of Santiago. The hill is an urban park with plenty of paths for walking and biking and you can also reach it by funicular and cable car, depending on the area.
Our visit to Santiago was too brief to really appreciate what the city has to offer, and this means we have to go back.
Here is some of the food we came across in Chile, by no means a conclusive list:
Each south American country has its own version of empanadas and the chilean empanadas were one of the best. They are larger than the Argentinian enchiladas and folded into a square. Traditional filling is called pino (empanadas de pino), made with chopped beef with hard boiled eggs, raisins and olives. There is also a cheese empanadas (empanadas de queso)
A traditional Chilean seafood soup made with catch of the day fish and shellfish cooked in seafood broth together with a few vegetables, parsley and paprika. Thick and packed with flavour.
Pastel de Choclo:
A traditional Andean corn and meat pie baked in a clay bowl but without a dough crust on top . The cheesy looking topping is actually the ground sweetcorn mixture cooked with milk mixture to a creamy consistency. The bottom of the pie is made with onions and ground beef or chicken to which they add seasoning, then the corn mixture is spread on top and baked into a crust.
Similar to tamales, humitas are made with corn husks filled with fresh corn or cornmeal and flour mixture, wrapped and tied and then steamed until cooked. They are mostly savoury food but can be made sweet for special occasions.
congrio a los pobres
This an eel chowder I wrote about before but had to reintroduce it here. Poor man’s eel is a stew of eel and leftover shellfish cooked with garlic, onion and tomatoes. Pablo Neruda wrote a poem about this salt of the earth Chilean dish.
Bistec a los pobres:
A shredded steak, french fries and fried egg on top.
A specialty of fishing villages where fresh fish and shellfish are abundant, this a salsa made with olive oil, onions, parsley, cilantro, hot pepper and lemons used to top fresh chilled seafood mixture such as oysters, shrimps, scallops, mussels etc. See image at the top of the page.
Popular in South America these are two cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche. Yes please.
Pablo Neruda, a gourmand, connoisseur and a poet
Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet and politician, born in remote southern Chile in 1904. His talent was recognized early and he moved to Santiago where he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. His writing eventually led to a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 while he was living in Paris, “for a poetry….that brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams”.
One of my favourite love poems is titled “If you forget me“ , a heartbreaking poem of a love not reciprocated. It may have been written to a lover, or to his beloved Chile (he was in exile when he wrote this). Either way, that ends like this:
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.”
Alas, it’s not his love poems or his politically themed work (communist) that attracted my attention but rather his food poems, naturally, and there was no looking back.
Neruda was a known gourmand and cherished the traditional foods and simple ingredients that were found at local markets and kitchens. What may seem like an ordinary vegetable to some was magical, timeless, organic and sensual to him. He wrote poems to celebrate maize (corn), artichokes, lemons, tomatoes, onions, orange, wine, tuna, a Chilean eel soup and an ode to salt among many other subjects. The poems were titled invariable “an ode to…” and they are a poetic commentary on our relationship with food, eating and cooking and the human element, intimacy and sensuality underlying them all. These poems were published as a collection The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda.
Here are a few lines from his Ode to Tomato, well worth searching out and reading the entire poem:
it enters at lunchtime,
…Unfortunately, we must
into living flesh,
populates the salads
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding…
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
of fiery color
and cool completeness.