We landed in Chile's capital, Santiago, this steamy morning, in South America's full summer.
In the 36 hours before we go to Valparaiso to meet a ship headed south, we will dive into learning about Chilean food. Helping us is Santiago-based guide Francisco Klimscha, who happens to be a chef.
We haul our jet-lagged carcasses into Mr. Klimscha's Land Rover, itself a rattling veteran of off-road expeditions over his thin country from northern desert to central vineyards to Patagonian wilds. Slow Travel, his company, leads custom tours through Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador for students of food, wine and culture.
Genial, unflappable and efficient -- as well as entrepreneurial like many of his countrymen -- Mr. Klimscha is a Swiss-trained Toque Blanche chef, sommelier, winery rep and corporate brand consultant.
He also used to be involved in Slow Food Chile. That is how we connected in the first place (I'm a Slow Food Pittsburgh co-founder and leader).
You'll find specialties here such as empanadas -- Chile's often are baked, not deep-fried -- and humitas: velvety, tamale-like bundles of grated sweet corn. We gobbled these earlier at a sidewalk table near our hotel, with Chile's national salad, a pile of tomato chunks and raw onion, and a liter of icy beer.
But we aren't here for Chile's tempting take on street food. We also turn down our guide's first suggestion, which would have been a look at the city's emerging food scene: his friend, a chef, is known in several South American countries for brilliant play with Peruvian ingredients and technique.
We seek hyper-Chilean food, and it doesn't take long to work out an approach.
Chile is a country with 2,600 miles of coast, its waters chilled and churned into nutrient richness by the north-streaming Humbolt Current. Unique to Chile will be pristine edibles pulled from the Pacific, many of them found nowhere else on the planet.
The setting is humble: we sit at formica tables at Bahia Pilocura, a well-known picada, meaning roughly, "great little joint," owned by Mr. Klimscha's fisherman friend, Alejandro Soto.
First comes a square platter of shimmering Calbuco black-rimmed oysters, so delicate, a squirt of lemon is all they need. They are protected, taken in permitted quantities by artisanal fishing cooperatives, including the one Mr. Soto's family belongs to, from the water off Chiloe Island, 725 miles south, or about half the way to Cape Horn.
The ship we will travel on stops at Puerto Montt, a ferry ride from Chiloe. In about a week we'll learn to cook some local seafood legends -- such as a palm-sized mussel -- that a gringo could only dream of.
"Eat," says Mr. Klimscha, pushing the Calbucos our way.
Even more precious is the next course, el loco, the native mollusk of such firm, sweet and nutty flesh that it is called Chilean abalone. Loco means crazy in Spanish, but this loco is an indigenous tribal word.
Locos are not abalone, but a very tasty snail that earlier last century caused "loco fever," a Gold Rush hysteria of international scope. Divers swarmed to their beds and nearly wiped them out. Since 1989 they've been strictly regulated. We spot a few in their purple-gray shells in the open-air market.
Sobering: the chubby white disks, delicious with a dab of mayonnaise, need four or five years to mature to harvestable size; eating them, even worshipfully, takes that many minutes.
They thrive all along Chile's coast and on the Juan Fernandez archipelago, three mid-Pacific seafood-rich islets, 400 miles out from Valparaiso.
A Scottish mariner, Alexander Selkirk, voluntarily marooned himself there in 1704, leaving a leaky ship he thought would sink. He spent four years and four months on what is now called Alejandro Selkirk Island. His diary inspired Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe." In 1966 Chileans cannily named the largest of the three islets Robinson Crusoe Island.
Robinson Crusoe inhabitants have fished for at least three centuries, catching interesting -- and now protected -- species of fish, mollusks and shellfish.
Mr. Klimscha has done a lot to put Chilean seafood on the map. He describes squiring Chiloe Island fishermen to Terra Madre in Turin, Italy -- Slow Food's biennial global conference of food communities -- to put black-rimmed oysters on the map. He co-produced a documentary telling how their hard-won protected status came to be. And he continues to support and publicize the Robinson Crusoe fishing communities.
Next morning, we are back in the Land Rover speeding to Santiago's sprawling central market to provision for a meal we'll prepare at Mr. Klimscha's city apartment.
Chilean sidewalks accommodate sleeping dogs, bumping handcarts and the swish of old fashioned brooms -- soothing antidotes to the hard-edged tapestry of the country's omnipresent graffiti. The capital is a dynamic mixture of glitz and corrugated iron, Colonial architecture and trendy malls.
We are joined by Mr. Klimscha's friends, Juan Torres de Rodth, from Robinson Crusoe Island, who will schlep and sous-chef, and photographer Juan Pablo Lira Besa, who has amassed the country's largest stock photo collection on assignments for clients including National Geographic.
Two-thirds of Chile's 17 million people are clumped sociably in the middle of the country near Santiago and Valparaiso. Distances can be long between ports and villages elsewhere.
Mr. Klimscha pulls money from his cargo shorts for sweet peppers, eggplants, giant ears of native corn called choclo (with kernels the size of field corn but sweeter), a wedge of green zapallo pumpkin with orange flesh, spring onions, giant celery, melons, berries. Everything seems burstingly large except the tiny native limes. Though a sprawling scene of plenty, "nothing here is organic," says our guide, who clearly knows the sellers.
In the Peruvian aisle, among the multicolored potatoes, lie four dozing cats.
A footbridge to the fish market is lined with seviche vendors. "Don't buy it," orders Mr. Klimscha. Is it dirty? "No, it's 90 degrees, and it's raw fish."
The lofty fish market building is an architectural wonder -- its lacy Victorian cast-iron ceiling was shipped beam by beam from Brighton, England, in 1872. We make a beeline to La Conchita's stall to peruse sweet-smelling fish.
Back in the tiny kitchen, things take off. I am shelling fresh cranberry beans for porotos granados, a savory Mapuchan Indian stew. Beans, grated corn and pumpkin will cook down into a rough, basil-scented puree. It is comfort food all over Chile, and I can't wait to make it at home. It'll be sprinkled with the iconic smoked chile, merken.
Mr. Klimscha is squeezing two kinds of tiny aromatic native limes, limon sutil and the limon de pica -- de picas are famously used in Chilean pisco sours -- and ordinary lemons. Their juices will citrus-cure the rosy flesh of a silver-clad fish called vidriola for a pre-lunch crudo. For a seviche salad on arugula, he's flaking the white flesh of the mild reineta, a fish as locally popular there as sea bass back homoe, with citrus, avocado and herbs.
No salad spinner here -- just Pablo's hands, swooshing the greens in water and squeezing. To puree corn, a grater stands in for a Cuisinart.
Three showy, red-tailed fish called vilagay, a type of rockfish, are stuffed to gaping with immense celery stalks, "Nothing goes to waste," Mr. Klimscha says. Crowned with red pepper rings, onion and fistfuls of herbs, these are swathed in foil to go on the outdoor grill.
Shellfish are set a-steaming with no moisture other than from herbs and onions. The shelling bean stew is boiling hard in a battle-hardened clay cazuela over a fierce flame. Our host is literally on the run, issuing soft commands, chopping, grating, topping glasses with endless Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.
"He has good hands," says Juan Pablo, steadily photographing.
Francisco needs to be out of here in an hour to set up a luncheon the Chilean state department asked him to prepare for French dignitaries next week.
It all comes together, the fastest slow food ever. We toast the chef and his clean shirt as he sprints off to the Land Rover, leaving us to melon and more wine at his sun-dappled table on the patio.
Next: South to Puerto Montt, where it rains every day.
Where's the rain?
Our cruise ship has come south from Valparaiso to an excursion stop at Puerto Montt. This port, about two-thirds of the way down Chile's coast toward Cape Horn, is the gateway to Patagonia.
Santiago people jibe about southerly residents' webbed feet. It rains every day. Revised weather report: "You must understand! It isn't -- ever -- supposed to be this sunny or hot." The ship's excursion bus has no air conditioning.
Who's complaining? We have a date with local chef Richard Knobloch, a German, as are many Puerto Montt immigrants. He'll guide us through this port's intimate market. Mr. Knobloch is known in these parts for an elegant restaurant he recently sold in order to move his family to Santiago, where his two daughters are in school. As we shop for a meal he'll prepare, he loads diverting insights into what sets southern Chile's table. We bring home:
• Congrio, conger eel. I've been dying to taste this grotesquely long, red-blotched creature, not an eel at all but a lo--o--o-ng fish, with mild, firm. white meat. It is permanently eulogized in an ode by Chile's Nobel poet, Pablo Neruda:
"In the storm-tossed Chilean sea lives the rosy conger, giant eel of snowy flesh."
We'll have it in soup.
• Navajuela: A most odd Chilean bivalve residing in a shell that could be mistaken for a Civil War glasses case. Its white flesh, the shape of a baby finger, is tender; the flavor, delicate. It will star in a memorable seviche with avocado.
• Choro zapato: The giant "shoe mussel" inhabits a shell that can span your palm. This creature's flesh is not the tough chew you imagine, but pillowy -- another miracle from Chilean waters.
As for the leathery strips baled into cubes piled as tall as we are, we are stumped. They are cocoyuyu, Chef Knobloch says -- an ocean algae, popular with the Japanese, and a kitchen staple here.
Back in the kitchen, he will unfurl lengths to soften in with a pan of simmering potatoes. They'll be minced or whirled, letting their gelling property give silken body to soup and seviche. Their flavor is pleasantly tart.
Everything brought from the market supports the mild flavor profile of Chilean cooking -- except the red spice mixture called merken.
The coarse grind of Mapuchan Indian smoked chile pepper and coriander seed has been quietly toasting in a pan. Its volatile oils suddenly cue a chorus of violent sneezing. The sneezing is as traditional as the merken. All right, it's hot in the kitchen; we're sweating, too. The last thing we need today is a warmer-upper, but merken swirled into Chile's good olive oil keeps calling; we can't stop dipping homemade bread into it.
Merken goes into and onto everything here: soup, seviche, corn on the cob, particularly mashed potatoes. I can't wait to float some on my hot chocolate.
Meantime I'm dreaming about the sea creatures that got away: we never got to taste sea urchin, king crab or spiny rock lobster, most celebrated of Juan Fernandez catches.
There are reasons aplenty to come back to the hospitality of this isolated and original country.
Get your merken glow
Maricel Presilla, author of "Gran Cocina Latina," devotes a section in her new book on Latin American cooking to Chilean smoked hot pepper and spice blends. "If I could take only one spice blend to a desert island, it would be this one: a coarse, brick-colored blend of smoked cacho de cabra or goat's horn chile pepper, herbs and pices. Merken is a specialty of the Mapuche Indians, who live in Chilean Patagonia. Unlike the Mexican chile de arbol, which immediately sets your mouth ablaze, goat's horn performs like a fireworks effect, taking time to blossom ... at first you feel a suggestion of heat, which then intensifies and fills your mouth." Partisans fight over whether cumin or other herbs should be a part of the mix or not. Absolutely not, says Slow Food's Merken Foundation, which nurtures and publicizes production of a version containing peppers and coriander only, grown, smoked and ground by the Mapuche, and blended in a set ratio with salt. Merken, usually available online at La Tienda and Amazon, is in short supply in the United States. Here is Ms. Presilla's version you can make at home for now:
6 dried New Mexican or Anaheim peppers
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika, hot or sweet)
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Wipe the peppers clean with a damp towel. Stem them and cut open. Do not remove the seeds. Place the peppers in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast until completely dry and brittle, 1 hour or more, depending on how thoroughly dry they were to begin with. Turn them after 30 minutes so they dry evenly. Crumble or coarsely chop the peppers. Reserve.
Briefly roast the coriander seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Place all ingredients in an electric coffee or spice grinder and grind. Use as you would paprika.
-- "Gran Cocina Latina" by Maricel Presilla, (Norton, 2012, $45)
About the fish
• Chile is the second largest exporter of farmed salmon, behind Norway. The industry was shut down by disease in 2007. It has since recovered. One result, says a 2011 Packard Foundation assessment: "In a country where marine conservation has been slow to emerge as a priority, safeguarding the coastal ecosystems is now a prominent concern." Chile now partners with marine foundations in the United States and elsewhere.
• Chileans don't eat fish as often as you might think. Except for mussels and clams, it's too expensive. Prices are equivalent to what we pay top seafood vendors here.
Old vines, new winemakers
• The phylloxera parasite that wiped out the vineyards of Europe and California in the late 1800s and did it again a century later, never got to Chile. This gives the country claim to coveted old vines. Supposedly the Andes form a barrier the length of the country to the east, as the Pacific does on the west, providing natural protection for the country's huge winery and produce investment. The government backs up nature with strict regulations. It's not kidding when it tells tourists not to bring in plant life of any sort. A shipmate was arrested and briefly detained for an apple she'd forgotten in her backpack.
CHILEAN-STYLE SEA BASS CEVICHE
It's all about the freshness of the fish. Here sea bass is "cooked" in a blend of lime and lemon juices and garnished with a pinch or two of merken, the intriguingly smoky dried chile blend of Chile. Ceviches call for pricey, "sashimi-grade" fish. But half a pound makes a beautiful appetizer course for 4 to 6.
-- Virginia Phillips
1/2 pound "sashimi-grade" sea bass, red snapper or halibut, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
About 3/4 cup citrus juice (a mixture of half lemon, half lime; limes can be ordinary limes or Key limes or a mix; I used 2 lemons, 2 regular limes and about a dozen Key limes)
1/2 small red onion chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 banana pepper, seeded and minced
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Merken spice mixture (see above or use a pinch of hot smoked pimenton and a pinch of ground coriander)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
"Cook" the fish in the citrus juice mixture. In a stainless steel or glass bowl, combine the fish, citrus juice and onion. The fish should float freely in the juice; if not, add a little more. Cover and refrigerate until the fish is as "done" as you like -- an hour or so for medium-rare. You will see the rosy fish firm and whiten. (About an hour was the time frame for the ceviches we made in Chile. The sea bass in this recipe reached doneness to our taste in about 45 minutes.) You may leave the fish in the marinade up to 3 hours longer if you like your ceviche very "done." Discard the citrus marinade.
Flavor the ceviche: Add to the fish the minced banana pepper, diced red pepper, chopped cilantro, olive oil, merken spice or the pimenton and coriander. Season with a scant 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a scant 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Refrigerate until ready to serve, preferably not more than an hour or 2. Spoon over arugula and baby mustard greens, or serve in martini glasses. Makes about 2 cups.
-- based on Frontera Ceviche in "One Plate at a Time" by Rick Bayless, Jean Marie Brownson and Deann Groen Bayless Scribner, 2000)
Correction: (Published March 11, 2013)
Santiago chef Francisco Klimscha is no longer affiliated with Slow Food. Contacts for leaders in Chile can be found at slowfood.com.
Virginia Phillips: Phillips.email@example.com