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Chile Photo Essay 7: The Really, Really Good Life—Lunching in Wine Country (Viñas Haras de Pirque, Montes, Estampa)

What, then, is the meaning of life, besides 42? The answer to that question, my friends, is not to be found in philosophy class (especially not if it’s a Walter Benjamin seminar) or at Sunday mass or blowing in the wind. It is to be savored leisurely over lunch in the vineyards of Chile.

Perhaps you will make your way to Maipo Valley winery & stud farm Haras de Pirque,
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where you’ll nibble on estate-grown walnuts between sips of Syrah in the gorgeous skylit tasting room

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before repairing to the farmhouse for a wine-paired repast of local cheeses,
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ensalada de camarones,

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lamb chops with fava bean mash
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& mixed berry mousse.

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Or maybe you’ll while away the afternoon with the affable Dennis Murray of Colchagaua Valley’s Montes Winery, discussing something like a dozen wines in full view of the Apalta foothills,

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then joining him on the patio of the estate’s own eatery, Café Alfredo, for more domestic cheeses—

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which I heartily wish were more easily available in the States; they’re lovely, generally mild & creamy, buttery on 1 end & nutty on the other—as well as fine luncheon-style stuff like the salad with mixed lettuces, turkey, cream cheese & chive rolls, dried tomatoes, avocado & quail eggs plus honey-mustard dressing or the baguette with serrano ham, camembert, mushrooms & dried tomatoes,
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delivered on adorable trays
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in which you can see the reflection of your own glass of rosé, getting a tweak from a cherub.

Or maybe, just maybe, you & your cohorts—Wines of Chile‘s Sam Kass on the far left; Ariel Lacayo of New York’s Havana Alma de Cuba & master sommelier Alpana Singh on the right—will be joined in a Colchagua Valley grove by your hosts from Estampa,

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who will proceed to furnish a soul-warming spread
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of yet more local cheeses—these made by a group of nearby townswomen—along with crackers & nuts & salads,

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smoked salmon & bread,
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all centered around a pie of pork, corn & peppers

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& followed by a platter of bananas, pears, kiwi & pepino melon with dulce de leche for dipping.
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Now that’s what I call 42.

Chile Photo Essay 6: Roadside Empanada Stand, somewhere in the Maipo Valley

Couldn’t tell you its name—maybe it didn’t have one—or its exact location if my life depended on it;
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then again, there’d be worse ways to die than with visions of this ramshackle little roadside before my eyes. Check out those adobe ovens—front

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& back—

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& you begin to get an inkling of the marvels that were these typically giant empanadas de pino (beef, onion, egg & olives)
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& these flat, flaky, charred yet still so soft dobladitas—a Google search for which yields mainly recipes using butter, but as long as I’m at it I’d bet my life yet again that these contained lard—
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made all the more marvelous by a squirt of the vinegary hot sauce set at every table. Baguettes & croissants can suck it; Chilean baking’s where it’s at.

Call it Itale, call it Chily: Pasta e Vino, Valparaiso

Occupying a sliver of coastline & the hillside beyond, all bar-lined beaches & rickety funiculars, ultracolorful Valparaiso reminded me a lot of the funkier villages along the Mediterranean coast of Italy—your Positanos, your Camoglis—only a little more urban & a little more rural at the same time, what with a downtown strip on the 1 hand &, on the other, a cacaphony of stray dogs barking & roosters crowing all the livelong day.

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So the fact that one of the city’s best-loved restaurants, Pasta e Vino, happens to be Italian—but for the all-Chilean wine list, that is—seems fully well & good.

Minimalist as the tiny space is, constantly packed from the dining room

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to the kitchen itself,

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the vibrant, luscious food is anything but, starting with an excellent bread basket filled with herbed ciabatta & carta di musica–like flatbread
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& an amuse of sesame-honey chorizo.

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Each dish being beyond critique, the captioned pics thereof should say it all:

gorgeous salmon & reineta carpaccio with capers, cress & lemon juice
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shrimp with merquén (smoked ground chiles) & crostini

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cream-sauced phyllo stuffed with red peppers,

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in turn stuffed with shrimp & goat cheese
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fettuccine with smoked ham & lemon-Sauvignon Blanc cream

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fettuccine with crudo ham, walnuts & honey in a parmesan sauce
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squid-ink pappardelle with frutti di mare in white wine

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& what was probably my favorite, the strikingly innovative squid-ink ravioli over spinach & cream, stuffed with smoked salmon, & topped with queso fresco & curry, of all things,
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cooked until it was almost dry—more a heady spice mash than a sauce.

I was so stuffed I couldn’t see straight, & even so I kept lusting after all my group of 5 had neither table space nor gut room for: gnocchi with king crab, shrimp & caviar; fettuccine with mozzarella, roquefort & mushrooms; ravioli with parmesan, wedge clams & white wine…sigh. There’s my review: just sigh.

Dish of the Week: Chorrillana

Having just formulated my policy against naming anything eaten outside of the US as Dish of the Week for practical reasons of availability, I’m breaking it for chorrillana, an insane scramble of french fries & chunks of beef fried up with egg & onion; after all, it would be so easy to recreate at home. I tried it twice in Santiago—once at Galindo (see here) & once at El Parrón, where the topping seems rather to have been sauteed in a red wine sauce.

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Given its location in a giant modern mall, El Parrón has a surprisingly swanky air about it;

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it’s apparently well-known for its traditional Chilean cuisine, particularly parrillada, an extravaganza of mixed grilled meats we were still too stuffed from our seafood blowout at the Mercado Central that afternoon to attempt—although we somehow made room for what I guess translates literally as queso de cabeza, or head cheese (edit: an expert tells me it’s actually called arrollado, meaning “rolled”),

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& pastel de congrio, a sort of crab casserole that was unfortunately rather gruel-like in comparison to the custardy versions we had elsewhere.
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Still, the chorrillana was the be-all end-all—what’s that, ser todo terminar todo?

Chile Photo Essay 5: Chilling & Chowing en el Barrio Bellavista, Santiago

Once home to Pablo Neruda, Santiago’s best-known bohemian enclave is a riot of fantástico graffiti, architecture, nightlife & all-around élan.

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Amid all this funk & splendor, there was nary a sidewalk café, sleek bôite or sketchy pub I didn’t hanker to hang my hat in, but we had to make do with 2.

Galindo

Galindo‘s a beloved, scuffed-up, decades-old bar serving homestyle Chilean classics like
Galindoempanada
empanadas de pino with beef, onion, egg, olive & raisins (the Chilean style, at least at the humbler joints & roadside stands, tends toward the oversized & folded rather than crimped at the edges)

Galindopasteldechoclopastel de choclo, a baked corn pudding with more beef, chicken, onions, olives & raisins
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porotos con plateada: ugly but luscious white beans with mashed corn, pumpkin, red pepper & basil

& the dish that became an obsession for the 4 of us on this Wines of Chile–led trip: chorrillana.

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Light years ahead of chili fries, it’s a platter of papas fritas beneath a pile of beef chunks fried with egg & onions. Ridiculous.

Rather more elegant was El Mesón Nerudiano.

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Of the many pisco sours I sampled throughout Chile, theirs was my favorite, punch-packing, laced with bitters
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& a perfect complement to the signature appetizer composed of all sorts of seafood salad canapés

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as well as tilapia ceviche & bracingly but pleasurably acidic shrimp ceviche,
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rounded out by empanadas. (Whatever shape they take, the vast majority of Chilean empanadas are stuffed with beef or seafood; we didn’t encounter any that contained queso.)
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The entrees too were typically Chilean—very straightforward, no frills, be it foil-wrapped salmon or beef filet; hardly gorgeous, the photos do accurately portray the satisfying, ingredient-driven simplicity of the national cookery:
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All this—& so much more yet to share from South America’s extraordinary left coast.

Chile Photo Essay 4: Mercado Central, Santiago

At 2653 miles N to S & an average of 109 miles E to W,  Chile isn’t a country so much as a fat coastline. Naturally, then, seafood is a crux of its culinary & economic identity—& the Mercado Central in Santiago a sparkling exemplar thereof, as is clear the second you set foot in the entrance hall.

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Breathtaking as it all is, excitement reaches its peak upon the sighting of creatures rarely if ever encountered in the US—

Marketlocos Locos: Chilean abalone

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Piures: the “strangest sea critter Andrew Zimmern has ever eaten,” they seem to be sea squirts, which according to Wikipedia undergo “many physical changes” in the course of their lifetime, “one of the most interesting being the digestion of the cerebral ganglion, which controls movement & is the equivalent of the human brain. From this comes the common saying that the sea squirt ‘eats its own brain.'” Yes!

Marketurchins Erizos: sea urchins

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Ostiones: scallops in the shell

Marketoctopus Pulpo: octopus, complete with gaping siphon

—not to mention the ultimate thrill of tasting them.

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Abalone—darker & more pungent than the US version—topped with a mustard-mayo mixture over potato salad

Marketpiures2Piures, marinated & served at room temperature, topped with a variation on pebre

Described variously as “outrageously strong” “iodine bombs,” I found sea squirts to be anything but: watery, rubbery, passively rather than aggressively sour—not uninteresting but not particularly savory either—sort of the Noah Baumbach character in the cast of Chilean seafood.

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2 shrimp dishes

The Spanish-style preparation on the left in sizzling garlic & oil appears to be the more typical (see below); salt & black pepper, meanwhile, seem to be used sparingly if at all, their function in Chilean cookery relegated to DIY table salt as well as my new favorite seasonings, merquén & pebre (see here).

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Crab in more sizzling garlic & machas à la parmesana, the wonderful red wedge clams broiled with parmesan you can also see here

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Broiled mixed fish, including salmon, fresh conger eel & albacora—not a type of tuna but a cousin of swordfish

Eye- & button-poppingly enough, after all that came fresh mixed fruit, the sort of folded custard of which Chileans seem to be especially fond,

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& the refreshing, none-too-sweet street snack known as mote con huesillo, or wheatberries stewed with dried peaches, of which I myself have become especially fond (see also here).

Mariachis roved throughout lunch, but the far more entertaining floor show involved the tableside preparation of whole steamed king crab;

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any wine geeks within 50 feet, meanwhile, might have spent their meal gawking at my own table, surrounded as I was by such bright oenological lights as

MarketAlpanaandTKCanada’s Véronique Rivest—1 of 12 semifinalists at the Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2010 (see here) & the winner of the Peter Lehman Shiraz Award; Chicago-based master somm, author & TV personality Alpana Singh, who has her own damn Wikipedia page; &

MarketFionaillustrious UK-based pairing expert Fiona Beckett (who has already knocked out a post on ceviche & pisco sours).

The sign above her head doesn’t read “Experiencia Memorable” for nothing.

Chile Photo Essay 3: Chowdown at the Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2010, Santiago

***Cont’d. from Chile Photo Essay 2.*** Amid celebrated winemakers & brilliant wine writers & masters of wine & master sommeliers, oenological conversation over every meal at the Concours undoubtedly sparkled & bubbled. I hope I soaked it up by osmosis, because I was too focused on bite after bite on plate after plate to hang on so many words. Behold: pre-competition almuerzo at the Concours, W Santiago:

Concoursbrandade Grouper-avocado brandade with pebre & tomato cream

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Roasted goat au jus with potatoes & favas

ConcoursmoussePapaya mousse–filled papaya in passionfruit–prickly pear soup with lavender spun sugar & sliced prickly pear of a type we don’t seem to get in the States (here called tuna)

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Array of truffles, shortbread, macarons, nut clusters, wedding cookies, tropical shooter

And behold some more: the closing gala dinner at the Castillo Hidalgo, Santiago.

ConcoursgalareceptionReception on the terrace: oysters, empanadas, foie gras on apple chips, guinea hen sausage on potato puree, etc.,. etc.

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Seared yellowfin over quinoa-pebre cake with green chile aroma; sliced abalone (ahhh) over avocado & potato with mango caviar

ConcoursgalafishCape Horn king crab “chowder”—more like a casserole—with skewered scallops over greens & truffled mushroom salsa

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Goat cheese–topped beef filet with thyme juice, potato cakes & grilled vegetables

ConcoursgaladessertL to R: rice pudding ice cream; mote con huesillo—wheatberries with dried peach in juice, a classic Chilean street food; orange custard

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Array of truffles, chocolates, nut clusters & bark

Chile Photo Essay 2: Grand Finale, Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2010, Santiago

As the disgustingly lovely & prematurely illustrious MS Alpana Singh explained to me, the Concours de Meilleur Sommelier du Monde is the Olympics of oenology, a major global event for virtually every wine-drinking nation except the US, whose absence glares a bit on the long roster of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale. Apparently we got kicked out a while back—undoubtedly with good reason for bad breeding.

Still, it’d be interesting to see how our homegrown master somms (including a disproportionate number of then-or-still Coloradans, not least Bobby Stuckey & Richard Betts) would perform against the crème de la crème de la culture in a grueling competition that takes place over the course of 6 days—in this case at the W Santiago—encompassing written, oral & practical exams on every subject from the obvious (viticulture, organoleptic analysis, service) to the obscure (alcohol legislation, cigar pairings, fluency in 3 languages—English, French & Spanish).

I arrived in Chile on the last day of the Concours, in time for the championship round. Here’s a look-see.

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Introduction of the 12 semifinalists (among them 4 women!) before the announcement of the 3 finalists—hotelier & French-born representative of the UK Gerard Basset; France’s David Biraud, of the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris; & Switzerland’s Paolo Basso, owner of Lugano wine boutique Ceresio Vini:

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This trio of almost cartoonishly distinguished gentlemen had to serve champagne, make cocktails, pour wine from a traditional basket (top below), suggest food pairings for a wine list, taste, describe & identify several wines & spirits (bottom below), & answer oral test questions ranging from the philosophical to the geographical—all in front of a crowd of 100s, among them the flashbulb-popping global wine press. (I’m keeping the narrative brief for various reasons, not least that the pics tell their own story; for further details, however, don’t hesitate to comment or e-mail me at denveater@earthlink.net.)

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Drum roll for the champ: the charming-under-fire Basset, a 5-time contestant & 3-time finalist before this year, for whom the 6th time was clearly itself a charm.

Concourswinner2On the right, being congratulated by 2007 winner Andreas Larsson

Painfully exciting as it all was, the ultimate thrills for me came at the luncheon preceding it (top below) & the gala dinner (bottom below) following it. Keep your eyes on these tables, soon to be laden with all manner of Chilean delicacies.

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Chile Photo Essay 1: Tasting, Tour, & Lunch at Amayna, San Antonio

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If, with the briefest of captions, these pictures of San Antonio winery Amayna—which translates roughly as “the calm after the storm”—don’t say it all, then you either need an eye exam or a soul transplant.

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Sorting the pinot noir harvest

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In the cellar with the owner, Mr. Garcès Silva

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Tasting with winemaker Francisco Ponce

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Outside the farmhouse

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Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir grapes—the distinctly grassy taste of the former turning mushroom-honeyed where affected with botrytis (noble rot)

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AmaynamachasHors d’oeuvres: machas, a native red wedge clam, broiled with parmesan & herbs, plus strawberries that, gasp!, taste like strawberries

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The lunch table set with rolls, merquén (smoked ground chiles), ultra-refreshing pebre with tomatoes (pico de gallo’s superior by far), butter & olive oil

The 1st course: fresh tomato & avocado with marinated cucumbers, celery–black olive salad, roasted beets & pebre without tomatoes

AmyanamaincourseThe main course: gray-fleshed, dark-flavored reineta, apparently a local type of bream, roasted with olive oil, butter, lemon, onions & tomatoes, plus roasted potatoes (as served to Sam Kass of Wines of Chile & man-about-New York dining scene Ariel Lacayo)

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Dessert: floating island & custard with dulce de leche & fresh strawberries

Such idyllic, easy grace as to echo Rilke: you must change your life.

What’s long & thin & red & white all over? Bingo—Chilean wine country!

Yep, babies & bitches, I’m headed there for 10 days, which may or may not mean I post more or less about food here or there—we shall see.

Ciao for the nonce.

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