The flavors of Patagonia
Nothing reflects a region’s culture and identity – and lets you get to know its people – like food. Come along on a different kind of adventure, a relaxed journey where perfect landscapes recede into the background, complementing the flavors, textures and colors of Patagonian cuisine.
Texts & photos: Evelyn Pfeiffer @evelynpfeiffer
Thirty-five miles from Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén, the Balmaceda Airport is the principal point of entry to one of Chile’s most geographically complex, captivating and isolated regions. A little more than 100,000 inhabitants populate a region where nature rules, something the people here have known since the first pioneers settled in the early 20th century. They made a home amid a tangled geography of fiords, forests, steppes, rivers, lakes, mountains and glaciers, the stars of a postcard-worthy landscape.
Settlers came from Chile (particularly the island of Chiloé), the Middle East, Belgium, Germany, England, Italy and many other countries around the world. Each group brought its own culinary customs, but they all had to learn to be creative, self-sufficient explorers in order to survive the region’s hostile climate. They sowed seeds in gardens and greenhouses. They brought cattle, plowed fields and spent weeks, even months, on horseback to take lambs to market at the pulperías (general stores) in the neighboring Argentinean territory or at some of the new ports popping up along the coast.
Born of this drive to survive, the local cuisine gradually evolved into a rich tradition of home cooking. And yet, more gourmet flavors are being incorporated every day, old recipes are being revamped, and local ingredients are used in innovative creations. These ingredients – including nalca (giant or Chilean rhubarb), calafate berry, rosehip and rhubarb – once grew like weeds in the area’s fields and gardens. But the main attraction is lamb.
“How many have you prepared?” Juan Arriagada and his son (who goes by the same name) laugh and look at each other, speechless. “A few thousand?” they respond, still laughing, before falling silent and returning their focus to the fire roasting two lambs perfectly skewered on iron stakes. The two men move in a well-coordinated, almost synchronized routine. They light cigarettes at the same time, pass a leather wine bag around and know exactly when to put another log on the fire, stir the embers and turn the lambs, which slowly drip fat as they grow more crisp and succulent.
The aroma is divine, and the four to five hours of cooking time stoke a fierce appetite, which can be fought off by snacking on tortas fritas – triangular fry bread served with pebre, made with finely minced onion, tomato, garlic, hot chili pepper and cilantro. The lamb dish called cordero asado al palo (because it used to be cooked on wooden stakes) is the Patagonian king of the international “slow food” movement, which promotes the appreciation of eating well and the preservation of traditional local cuisine.
But there’s more than one way to cook a lamb. For example, the locally produced jamón crudo de cordero is similar to Serrano ham, but has a more intense flavor and a negligible amount of fat. Try it as part of the cold-cut platter at the restaurant El Reloj in Coyhaique.
The slow food movement is part of daily life here, promoting good food and the preservation of local culinary tradition.
If anyone who knows how to prepare lamb, it’s Señora Teruca at the Estancia Punta del Monte, in the neighborhood of Coyhaique Alto, where they breed fine sheep for wool exports and local meat consumption. Most visitors come to the estancia (ranch) to see condors, which gather by the dozen, but we recommend staying with the family at the ranch and trying some of the 90 lamb recipes prepared by Señora Teruca. A favorite is the lamb casserole with apricots and almonds, a real explosion of flavors and textures.
It’s impossible not to become a fan of Patagonia’s culinary star.
The Estancia ravioli, stuffed with lamb, mushrooms and caramelized onion, served with nuts and a red wine sauce, is another delicious local dish. You’ll find it at Mamma Gaucha, one of the most popular spots in Aysén’s capital, thanks to its pizzas, pastas and La Tropera beer, one of 16 craft beers available in the region.
Yes, you read correctly: 16 brands have earned a warm critical reception thanks to their use of Patagonia’s pure water. And more varieties are in the works. Most local craft beers are available at Emporio Patagonia Gourmet, which features a comprehensive selection of Aysén’s fine products, including honey with merquén
(a Mapuche spice blend with smoked hot chili peppers), sheep’s milk cheese, marmalades and jams, smoked salmon and juices that showcase the flavors of the region, like nalca, rosehip (with mint) and rhubarb.
The Tehuelches – the stocky, native peoples who Ferdinand Magellan dubbed “Patagonians” in honor of Pataghon, the fearsome character from the chivalric romance El Primaleón – are said to have used stakes of calafate wood to roast the animals they hunted. So the same technique used in cordero asado al palo has existed in these parts for thousands of years. More than lamb is cooked on skewers over an open fire: goat, beef and – perhaps the most delectable and least-known – sierra, a fish with tender, pink meat cooked over luma wood. This last ancient tradition is only practiced on the archipelago of Guaitecas, specifically in the towns of Melinka and Repollal, where Paulo Vera and Jessica Leviñanco offer rural tourism expeditions, boat excursions around the archipelago and perfect renditions of these recipes, which they want to save from extinction.
In the costal town of Puerto Aysén (40 miles from Coyhaique), the hotel/restaurant Patagonia Green has taken pains to create truly special dishes. “We wanted to innovate using local products, and we took on the challenge of creating gourmet dishes that were visually attractive as well as delicious. It’s been a great success,” says owner Isabel McKay. The star dishes come from the sea and rivers – salmon smoked on site with coigüe wood, southern hake and puyes (small, freshwater fish), although beef, pork and lamb are also served, accompanied by exotic flavors like nalca and grosellas (red currants). Our recommendation? Don’t miss the pork tenderloin with rhubarb sauce and the calafate sour (made with pisco): tradition says that whoever eats calafate will return to Patagonia, and you’ll certainly want to come back. in
Daily flights to Balmaceda from Santiago and Puerto Montt, then ground transportation to Coyhaique.
For more information, visit lan.com
Av. Gral. Baquedano 84, Coyhaique
Puerto Aysén, Carretera Austral
Avda. Gral. Baquedano 828, Coyhaique
Horn 47, Coyhaique
Estancia Punta del Monte
Emporio Patagonia Gourmet
Ignacio Serrano 247, Coyhaique
Paulo Vera & Jessica Leviñanco, turismo rural