A Patagonian Crusade

by Liz Caskey on May 24, 2016

Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_33I am standing, or better said, paralyzed on a steep mountainside in the Chilean Patagonia. To the west in the distance, the Torres del Paine (the three granite towers from which the park takes it name) are shrouded in dark, threatening clouds.

We are already a couple hours into this trek and it’s only been pura subida. An icy wind whips against our backs. Gazing up at the summit, our progress feels like we are inching along. There’s no path here. Just loose stones, gravel, and boulders with patches of snow and ice.

Daniel, our guide, suggests zigzagging compactly in this last section as it becomes more vertical. I look below and see our hotel, Awasi Patagonia, nearly 1,000 vertical meters below. We are almost at the top of Sierra Contreras, the mountains rising directly behind the hotel. Somehow, those mountains didn’t look quite so tall from the lodge. A strong wind gust rips again, making me wobble and almost I loose my balance. I slide and catch myself.

What on earth did I sign up for?!

I momentarily curse my decision to have embarked on this full day “adventure” trek. This is supposed to be fun? Surveying my options, there’s no easy way up nor down. The only solution is that I have to get a handle on this situation. NOW. I collect myself and focus. I follow Daniel by stepping in his footsteps. I concentrate on taking that one step with all my intention. I don’t look up nor down. I stay totally present. I breathe deep and have some faith that I can do it and I will (eventually) get there.

After what felt like an eternity on that mountainside, we arrive at the summit of Sierra Contreras and are rewarded with a stunning 360-degree panoramic vista of Sierra Baguales, the Torres, the Horns of Paine, Sarmiento Lake, rolling valleys and the golden prairie of estepa extending towards El Calafate, Argentina. I feel like the last woman on earth. A lone condor circles low overhead keeping a cautious eye on us. In reality, this was only the half point of the trek (getting off the mountain proved to be equally harrowing), but it was the mental tipping point of the excursion for me. I had conquered myself. During this trip to Patagonia, our sixth time (if I haven’t lost count…), I would conquer myself again…and again.

Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_16 Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_36Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_5 Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_25Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_10 Patagonia_Chile_Awasi_2We returned to our villa at Awasi in the late afternoon with our private, wood-fired hot tub heated up and bubbling away with a dry sparkling wine in an ice bucket. I could have hardly imagined a better set up after the severe thumping my quads had just taken. Awasi is remote. Very remote. From our home in Santiago, it had taken us nearly 12 hours to get there, door-to-door. Entering their reserve, partitioned off from the Tercera Barranca Estancia, the sensation is perhaps the same isolation and grandeur of nature that the European settlers felt when they arrived in these far-flung lands over a century ago.

Remoteness is the big draw and reason why people make the journey. The twelve luxury yet eco-friendly villas (860 sq. ft. each) were built with native lenga (beech) wood and each has a sweeping view of the Torres del Paine. The view of those granite towers and the Paine Massif is haunting. Inside the villas are planked with the same wood to mimic the surrounding beech forest with handsome, warming touches like sheep’s wool skins on the floor and blue oversized armchairs. The villas are discreet and blend into the surroundings of the reserve. Here it’s not uncommon to see guanacos (Patagonian llamas), rheas, foxes, condors, and according to guides, even Puma tracks. I sincerely hoped not to have a close encounter with a Puma walking back from dinner that evening.

The main lodge sits slightly above the villas with picture windows framing that bewitching view. Awasi Patagonia is now a Relais & Chateaux property and is the most intimate and exquisite of all the properties in Chilean Patagonia today. With a staff-to-client ratio of 3:1, the service is outstanding as is the cuisine, headed up by the dynamic duo of Federico Ziegler and his sous chef Víctor Vilugrón. Every evening, after a hard day of excursions and being exposed to Patagonia’s fickle climate, you sit down to a Michelin-star level restaurant with a tasting menu that creatively incorporates indigenous ingredients, local flavors and often foraged foods. Everything is made from scratch on-site: the bread made daily from a collection of different sour dough starters to the exquisite desserts, including a chocolate cake scented with pines from the property. The cuisine is refined yet experimental, pushes the envelope yet is sufficiently familiar, and most interestingly, channels the rugged Patagonian landscape outside the window onto your plate.

The next morning I awoke very sore. Sore as in getting up or sitting down from any position was near impossible. A day of restoration was in order. Plus, we wanted another afternoon to relish that view from our villa, followed by another hot tub / sparkling wine session and, most likely, a long siesta. We went to ride on the far side of Sarmiento Lake in an ancient lenga forest. Many of these native deciduous grow to be huge, like redwoods, and date back hundreds of years. They possess a particular elegance and presence that I find very zen. Tragically during the fire in late December 2011, which burned over 40,000 acres of forest, many of these trees perished. Somehow, though, this particular forest had been spared.

Our gaucho was a quiet, pensive guy who was very at one with his horses. It was exactly the energy we needed that morning. He silently led us across crystalline babbling streams, weaving the horses through the lenga forest covered in old man’s beard. Many trees bore clusters of pan de indio, a sweet, spongy funghi found only in the Patagonian region. This local delicacy foraged by Natalinos and the cooks at Awasi was prepared as a pickle for dinner that night. We rested up because the next day we had a very long trek ahead of us. A trek that I had been putting off for over 18 years to repeat.

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We arose to blue skies, not a single cloud, and no wind. The Universe was providing the perfect opportunity to tackle the hardest trek in the park to the base of the Torres del Paine. I had done the trek many years before as a study abroad student in Chile in 1998. On that first trip as an ill-prepared, non-camping backpacker in the park, our group had set off in not the best of conditions: high winds, no guide, non-sufficient food and water, no map, and zero idea of what to expect. Even in the greatest conditions, this trek is quite demanding. On that trip as a student, in the “Valle de los Vientos”, a windy pass, we had encountered nearly 90km wind gusts. Mind you this is a narrow stretch of the trail with a sheer drop off (no guard rails) thousands of vertical feet below. Then, towards the end to reach the base of the towers, scaling the vertically stacked boulders proved to dizzying. Not being much of a hiker at the time, compounded with no guide, I nearly lost it. I came home unscathed but mentally traumatized. I was acutely aware of the real danger you could get in trekking. It had been one of the longest days of my life. I swore I would never do it again.

My husband on the other hand, a real mountain goat, had been lobbying for this hike for years during many trips to the park. With the Awasi set-up of a private (experienced guide), an appropriate amount of food and water (that the guide even carries, how wonderful!), hiking sticks, proper shoes, and no wind, I finally caved. Deep down, I knew I had prove to myself it could be different. It could even be a wonderful experience.

The trek is the longest in the Torres del Paine at 19 kilometers round trip. Keeping a good pace, that means eight full hours of hiking. Even if you just walked leisurely (not considering several serious climbing/cardio parts), that’s nearly a half marathon on your feet. It’s also a trail that you do twice: you ascend and descend the same valley. More than the stamina, which I knew I had, my challenge would be in facing my fear of the Wind Valley, that vertigo, and those big, scary boulders.

I decided to employ the same strategy as on Sierra Contreras. As we got to the first hairy section, the Valle de los Vientos, I just took a deep breath and moved through it.

“Don’t look down. Don’t look up. Just concentrate on where you step. Daniel knows what he’s doing. Francisco (my husband) is behind me. All cool, Liz, all cool.”

And like that….it was over. Not a single breeze blew through that valley the entire time (I gave a nod of gratitude to Mother Nature). We hiked peacefully for a long time alongside the river and then through the forest. As the terrain became rockier and higher approaching the base of the Towers, I knew what was coming. The boulders still had snowpack melting which formed gushing streams diverting around the stones. It was muddy, slippy, and even icy in parts. We had to crisscross back and forth over the water, leaping at times. The guys naturally read the best line to follow so I let them show me the way: where and how to step. When unsure, I stopped to assess and accepted a steady helping hand. My walking stick was my BFF. Near the top, I didn’t look down at the huge rock pile hundreds of feet below. I was too busy figuring out my footing in knee-high snow on an edge. Once again, the summit felt so close yet so far away. We arrived to those magnificent granite towers stretching 3,000 vertical feet into the blue sky above, like they had for millions of years. Nature like this is so incredibly humbling. We often forget that in our modern lives where we look more at our phones than at the sky. At that moment, human life felt so small and fragile against something so large and eternal.

Daniel set up a delicious lunch on an improvised “table”, a large boulder, complete with a checkered table cloth. The warm sweet pea soup was incredibly nourishing. We absorbed the sun’s warm energy and our weary feet were grateful for much needed rest (only 10km  to get “home” afterwards). After a noisy Brazilian group left, the silence became deafening. Occasionally a boulder would shake loose and barrel with a hollow echo towards the frozen lagoon. As it hit the water (or ice), it sounded like a loud clap of thunder.

The return trip was easier. I visualized the complicated parts and moved with more assurance. I actually was, wow!, enjoying myself. On the last downhill stretch, in the bliss of the nearing the finish, I gained too much speed gawking at the stunning view of the shiny turquoise Nordensjkola lake below. I took one distracted step and rammed my hiking boot at full speed into a very large rock. Mierda!!! Pain, pain, pain in my right big toe. I did the “OMG that hurt” jig and tried shake it off, keeping the pace. It was throbbing. Back at the hotel, peeling off my socks, I was relieved that nothing was broken, but definitely some damage had been done. I had stunned (rather, killed) my toenail from the blunt hit. It was already turning deep purple from the trauma. A couple of months later, it would completely fall off as a new one grew in. I had to laugh at my souvenir–a physical reminder of having conquered myself on those Patagonian mountainsides. The good news: the toenail would grow back. The slight pain and discomfort was worth it for the huge breakthrough I had experienced on this trip.

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We bid farewell to Awasi the next day and started the long journey home to Santiago; our toddler was anxiously awaiting our return. As we crossed kilometers of golden estepa, I reflected on the few past days . I didn’t have anything to show for it (other than my purple toenail) but what mattered was what I had proven to myself; what I was capable of doing.

Isn’t this what we seek when we travel? Besides a little adventure, we want to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, no? We have to stretch to grow and believe in what we can achieve. This is an analogy that applies not just to trekking but to life in general. It is a way of approaching everything. It is a way of being. Patagonia had simply been the catalyst to help me reconnect with my inner confidence and knowing that I can succeed at whatever I decide to commit to. It was profoundly empowering.

Back in the civilization, I continue to keep conquering myself, again and again. The process is pretty simple: focus on the goal, stay present, and always take one step at a time.

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Chupe de Centolla (Creamy King Crab)

This dish appears on the permanent Awasi Patagonia lunch menu. Chef Federico agreed to generously share his recipe with us as we loved it. Chupe in Chile can often be synonymous with a gloppy, heavy casserole-type dish. This version was light and succulent with a copious amount of king crab meat and the addition of savory vegetables. King Crab is in season during the spring and summer months in the southern waters of Magallanes. While this chupe can be served family style in a single dish, I prefer the individual ramekins. It’s too yummy to share.

3 tablespoons butter

1/3 cup fresh red bell pepper, minced

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 medium onion en pluma, thinly cut with the grain

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 cup fish or seafood stock (if neither available, use vegetable stock)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

½ cup fresh (white) bread crumbs

½ cup good quality grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon leaves of fresh oregano

3 tablespoons fresh chives, minced

1 ¼ pounds (500grs) cooked king crab

Juice of half a lemon

Sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste

Method:

Pre-heat the oven to 190C / 375 F.

Heat a fry pan and melt the butter. Add the garlic, red pepper, and onion, sweating until they are cooked but not browned. Add the paprika and fry for 1 minute. Incorporate the stock and cream, whisking. Reduce to low heat and cook for five minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

Add the bread crumbs, most of the Parmesan (reserve a little for the topping), and let sit for 10 minutes to absorb some of the liquid while the flavors develop. After, gently fold in the fresh herbs. Combine with the crab meat, lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide among four deep ramekins or in greda (Chilean clay pots). Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese on top is melted and bubbling. Serve hot, ideally with a crisp Chardonnay.

Four Portions.

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One Fall Day

by Liz Caskey on April 22, 2016

Montevideo_Uruguay_1 The last day of our Southern Cone Sampler tour, we woke up to glorious sun streaming through the hotel curtains. A mixture of clouds and golden rays illuminated swathes of the blue-grey waters of the Rio de la Plata. It was that kind of pure light that only appears after a stormy night.

We set off to visit the Villa Biarritz market located right off the Rambla, in Punta Carretas–one of the largest and oldest markets in the Uruguayan capital. Ferias, open-air markets, are a tradition in Montevideo and nearly every neighborhood has them at least twice a week. These outdoor markets take place rain or shine, no matter what the weather is up to. The vendors never go on strike and even work on holidays. They are always there selling their fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheeses, fish, and meats to Montevideanos.

The morning was blustery and brisk and it was the first time I needed a scarf in months. Perhaps it a preview for the scores of leeks, gourds, potatoes, and citrus I’d see in the market, signaling the change of seasons to cooler months ahead. To get to the heart of the market, where the food stalls are, we had to skirt a branch that has sprouted up with all kinds of “stuff”: toys, household items, vendors hawking colorful mate gourds (which every single person had in hand sucking through a straw). Villa Biarritz reminds me so much of European markets (particularly French) that I get nostalgic even writing about it. Certainly it stems from Uruguay’s strong European heritage (many Uruguayans are only second generation of European immigrants) from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland. It’s quite the cultural melting pot.

Montevideo_Uruguay_2 Montevideo_Uruguay_3Montevideo_Uruguay_4Here, market vendors neatly arrange their seasonal produce so that it looks like a still life. Butchers, cheese mongers, fishmongers all sell their goods from refurbished, and miraculously still running, 1940s vintage trucks that just add another layer of charm to the experience. As Uruguayans haggled over cuts of beef and which is the best artisan morcilla (sweet black sausage with walnuts) or chorizo (sausage) for their afternoon asado, at the next truck, the cheese truck (my favorite), clients lined up for slices of artisan cheeses from Colonia, particularly the ubiquitous Queso Colonia, the base of the beloved dessert/cheese course, Martin Fierro which is paired with Dulce de Membrillo (quince paste). At the next truck, the poultry guy sold milanesas (breaded cutlets) like hotcakes. Along the stalls with homemade goodies, there was a casera selling pascualina, a classic covered quiche made with eggs and Swiss chard, frequently gracing Uruguayan tables. All of us made a pit stop to stock up on one, cannot-live-without-it item: dulce de leche. The literal translation is “candied milk”, and that pretty much sums up this milk caramel. This stuff begs to be slathered on toast and many Uruguayan desserts have it as the centerpiece. Of course, you can also just eat it (shamelessly) with a spoon. In fact, at this market, it was sold from huge tubs (yes, you read that right) of easily 30+ kilos.

Locals wheeled their little trolleys around filled to the brim with all the fresh ingredients and stoppped to chat with each friendly casero (vendor). Caseros are often farmers themselves, or sometimes a middleman who’s had a stall for decades with his family. These are relationships with people you have for years; they see patrons’ kids grow up and then bring their own kids back to this same market.

Montevideo_Uruguay_5Montevideo_Uruguay_6Montevideo_Uruguay_7Montevideo_Uruguay_8Montevideo_Uruguay_9Montevideo_Uruguay_10Montevideo_Uruguay_11Walk through any market anywhere in the world (not just in Montevideo), and you quickly understand a lot about the country you’re in and its people. It always, always starts with the food. People everywhere need to eat and nothing says more about a culture than the seasonal foodstuffs, preparations, and folks shopping. Since we were heading to the airport later, the frustrated cook in me could only ogle the produce and buy a few portable goodies to take home (like dulce de leche, of course). During our stroll though, I became obsessed with the adorable round zucchini I kept seeing everywhere, the last of the summer season. Uruguayans just love to fill them with ground meat and top them with creamy cheese. It’s the perfect one-dish oven meal. Paired with a robust Tannat, it’s Uruguayan comfort food at its finest.

When we landed back in Santiago, guess what was the first thing I prepared? You guessed it. Here’s the recipe. Good thing we also thought to slip a few extra bottles of Tannat into our suitcase, too.

Montevideo_Uruguay_13Montevideo_Uruguay_14Stuffed Round Zucchini

6-8 medium round zucchini

500grs. Ground beef

½ cup grated (mild) cheese

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1 egg, beaten

1 egg yolk

1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 190°C/375°F.

Montevideo_Uruguay_15Montevideo_Uruguay_16In a frying pan over medium, heat the olive oil. Caramelize the onions and garlic until golden brown. Add with the meat and rest of the ingredients.

Prepare the zucchini. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the zucchini for 4 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Let cool to handle then scoop out the pulp and reserve the shells and tops.

Fill the zucchini shells with the meat and top them. Place in a deep oven pan and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 20-25 minutes until meat is cooked through and zucchini is soft.

Remove the tops and sprinkle with the cheese. Turn the oven to broiler mode and gratin for about 5 minutes until golden and bubbling.

Makes 4 portions.

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Four Young Santiago Chefs

by Liz Caskey on March 31, 2016

Restaurant_Europeo_1The food scene in the Chilean capital is sizzling and truly having its moment. The catalysts? A new generation of chefs who have trained abroad, returned to their country and are digging deep roots in Santiago. They have forged restaurant projects focused on Chilean ingredients and indigenous foodstuffs linking foragers, farmers, growers, fisherman, and food artisans to the table. They transform classic recipes with refined European technique. Menus are inspired, and change, by seasonality resulting in hundreds of unique dishes in a year’s time and a reason to return again and again. Each restaurant’s wine list brings  small producers, organic wines, and terroir projects from north to south to the table. This uniquely Chilean style of locavore cuisine is not a trend. These trailblazers are inspiring chefs in training along with Chileans “revisiting” their own gastronomic heritage and they are here to stay. Here are four chefs, four food philosophies, and four obligatory, must-eat stops on your next visit to Santiago.

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Alvaro Romero

Executive chef of the classic Santiago white tablecloth restaurant, El Europeo, Romero first spent time in Europe and then worked under El Europeo’s founder, Carlos Meyer. After a short move to The Singular Santiago, he “came home” to lead the kitchen at El Europeo, breathing fresh air and new life into its continental fare. His philosophy can be summed up as “highly refined homemade”. Alvaro is passionate about the producer-to-table connection and invests considerable time getting to know his producers: farmers, cheese-makers, even duck breeders in Casablanca. He believes this connection is the greatest gift being a chef has bestowed him: you know where your food comes from. On the menu, his love for stellar ingredients is brought together with purity, flawless technique, and clever flavor combinations. The constantly rotating seasonal menus are little melodies like the duck magret with a delicate almond puree and barely sweet quince sauce and then there are constants like the duck filet tartare. The wine at El Europeo makes an aficionado swoon. Alvaro’s strategy is the better the wine, the less the mark-up so top guns like Emiliana Organico’s G or a small terroir project like Pedro Parra’s Clos des Fous are at almost the same price as retail. Chef says, though, that his secret ingredient is love: “Anyone can learn a technique but love gives you that personal touch”.

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Rodolfo Guzman

This pioneer in the Chilean food scene, the chef behind Boragó is often credited for leading the culinary awakening in Santiago (and Chile). There’s a reason this restaurant warrants being on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, the first Chilean restaurant to ever land there. Rodolfo, besides being a chef, is a scientist. He’s literally cataloging many indigenous species of foodstuffs, plants, fungi, and flowers as he figures out how to transform them into taste sensations in his restaurant. This type of curious mind and experimentation translates into hundreds of different dishes that appear on a constantly rotating, uber seasonal menu. First things first, go to Boragó knowing it’s a “dining event”, similar to going to the theater. The combination of flavors, textures, presentations, and tempo is a show that with the long tasting menu (called “Endemica”), can easily last 4 hours.  There’s no printed menu, either, for the 10+ courses–the cooks and servers will explain each course as you travel up and down Chile’s latitudes at the table. On our visit during the Chilean spring, the most memorable dish was tender morels aromatized with fresh eucalyptus leaf steam that were tender, earthy, and succulent. Other dishes (for my taste) fell on the unusual side of the spectrum with texture/flavor and came served in nature-like presentations. That’s part of the allure. The wine list is focused on top Chilean wines, big and small projects, and here there was a major aha moment. Tara Chardonnay from the Atacama Desert (a single vineyard project of Felipe Tosso, winemaker of Ventisquero). Mindblowing wine. Apparently it’s only served in the world’s top five restaurants and Boragó so I guess we’ll have to just go again. Reservations with considerable advance notice essential.

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Carolina Bazán

For over a decade, Carolina and her parents ran the successful Ambrosía in the historical Casa Colorada in downtown Santiago, a lunch venue. She then took off on a series of stints around the world from Peru to France to further hone her culinary skills and food repertoire. Once she landed back in Chile, she joined forces with her family and partner Rosario Onetto a top Chilean sommelier, to relaunch Ambrosía on the other side of town in a spacious, converted Las Condes home. New menu. New concept. New “home”. Ambrosía has a homey vibe, perhaps because it’s in an unlikely setting for a restaurant with a blooming garden and series of wood-floored dining rooms displaying large-paned windows. The cuisine took us back to Paris with its bistro style (perhaps a nod to her time spent at Frenchie). While laid back, there’s a clear preoccupation with the use of noble ingredients and maximizing “deliciousness” in each dish. I still dream about their “Caprese” salad made with tomato water infused with basil oil and the freshest of fresh mozarella. A very Chilean delicacy, sea urchins al matico (with onions and herbs), are transformed here into a delicate tart which Carolina compares to “eating a plate of butter.” Everything is tasty and satisfying. Rosario, an encyclopedia of Chilean wine, leans heavily towards terroir-driven small producers like El Principal which are the perfect complement for this kind of local place you can go again (and again)for real food made with care and primo ingredients.

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Kurt Schmidt

Along with his partner chef, Gustavo Saez (overseeing pastry), Kurt is part of this creative duo and impetus behind the cool 99 Restaurante, a petit restaurant tucked off a shady side street in bustling Providencia. Kurt cut his teeth in many kitchens from Boragó in Santiago to Noma in Copenhagen and Azurmendi in Spain. Here, the approach is a refined yet simplistic market-to-table menu, that changes so often (a lunch menu daily), that it’s written on a simple chalkboard. The kitchen is open, the tables made with recycled wood and there’s a slight hipster vibe among the servers. At lunch, there are only two options with a set menu and at night, a 5 or 9-course tasting menu that changes seasonally. There’s a heavy focus on vegetables (hallelujah!). Kurt’s team of cooks gently coaxes out the maximum possible flavor out from seasonal veggies ranging from wild mushroom-infused butter to maybe a spring pea puree or delicate beet risotto.  The wine list is fun and all organic. We found favorite hits like Montsecano Pinot Noir, Garage Wine Co. Cabernet Franc and a good selection of pipeño, Chile’s young, low-alcohol, grapey tasting wine that’s become a trend in the wine scene. Great price/quality ratio, service, and once again, loads of veggies, makes this a fabulous addition to the Santiago food scene.

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The Chilean Chocolatero

by Liz Caskey on February 19, 2016

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Meet Mark Gerrits. He’s the energy, and passion, behind Chile’s first bean-to-bar chocolate: ÓBOLO. Made right here in Santiago de Chile.

ÓBOLO is provoking a long-awaited, and very necessary, revolution in chocolate here in Chile. Prior to existing, chocolate was imported and mostly manipulated into sweet bonbons with remelted European chocolate. ÓBOLO is turning that playing field upside down. It’s Chile’s first, and only, bean-to-bar chocolate project. That means a bar of ÓBOLO chocolate only contains two ingredients: (organic) cacao and cane sugar.

ÓBOLO’s name is symbolic. Meaning gift, a synonym of regalo in Spanish, its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece where it also was the word for a coin. Fittingly, prior to the Spanish arrival to the New World, the cacao bean was used as currency for trade in Mesoamerica.  Gerrits also adds that, “I have a lot to be thankful and grateful for.  I am in debt for everything that Latin America has given me in the past 20+years. I would like to be able to say thanks and pay back a bit, and ÓBOLO is a way of doing it.  If I can contribute by inspiring a tectonic shift in the chocolate culture in Chile, improving quality and connecting the consumers to its roots in the rainforest, then that will be my grain of sand to the country.”

So how did a gringo like Mark get to making chocolate here, anyhow?

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Gerrits has been living in Chile for over two decades during two separate stints from 1993 to 1999 and then in 2003 to present. In between, he lived in Ecuador where he discovered the fascinating world of cacao and chocolate in the rainforest. He worked with the cacao-producing communities for Yachana Gourmet (a direct trade, gourmet chocolate company) and got first hand experience in directly sourcing cacao from small farmers to transform those beans into a finished chocolate product for export. Around that time, he met Robert Steinberg, the co-founder of the outstanding San Francisco-based Scharffen Berger chocolate who was traveling to Ecuador to search for new sources of cacao beans. In particular, Steinberg was on a quest to procure the rare porcelana, a white cacao bean.

Having heard of Mark’s work with cacao producers in the Ecuadorian jungle, he outreached and they set off on epic adventure in search of those highly coverted porcelana beans. They traveled by canoe through Amazonian tributaries, trekking into the forest to meet locals, learn about their cacao, and sample beans.  While they never did find them, Gerrits unearthed something equally valuable—a friendship with Steinberg who became his chocolate mentor. He credits Steinberg with teaching him much about cacao and chocolate making; things he employs today with ÓBOLO.  As Gerrits points out, “The most significant lesson I learned from Steinberg is about cacao bean fermentation: How to do it properly and how it influences the final taste and quality of the chocolate. “

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As a chocolate-maker, Mark sources his production from the central Peruvian jungle in “nano-lots”, bringing in several sacs of 64 kilos at a time. He found the organic farm sourcing his beans on a scouting trip to Peru in 2015. He selected them not only for the quality of the beans (flavors, aroma, fermentation, and genotype), but also the co-op’s governance, relationship with producers, and finally social and environmental impact. He has the beans selected, dried, and imported (via ship) to Chile. While this sounds easy enough, dealing with SAG (Chile’s agricultural police), is a huge hurdle no other chocolatero has done locally. Ever. Given the strict limitations on how organic goods can come into the country (Chile is essentially an island and free of many pests found elsewhere in the world), it took significant time, energy, and patience to navigate the red tape to get his dried cacao beans to Santiago.

Perservance, though, paid off. He received his precious cargo and was able to start his venture. Things have gone so well that he took the leap and quit his ten-year job at The Nature Conservancy to fully dedicate himself to ÓBOLO. Currently, he makes three bars: plain, with sea salt from Cahuil, and fresh nibs. He also sells freshly ground chocolate nibs, whole cacao beans, and is evaluating selling the cacao skins in the future for winter-time infusions (tea), given the health benefits of pure cacao.

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According to Garrits, “Making a bean-to-bar chocolate is difficult.  Making a successful business out of bean to bar chocolate is even more difficult.  I respect and find inspiration in all of the bean-to-bar chocolate makers around the world who are following their dreams and sharing their passion with others, while trying to make a living out of it.”  He also mentions that his goal is to produce a world-class chocolate that can be enjoyed locally in Chile, and put Chile on the chocolate-making map. For the time being, he is focusing on sourcing the beans from Peru and growing his chocolate baby. Down the road, though, he doesn’t rule out single origin bars from Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia.

Not long ago, we met with Mark and his wife, Annie, at our home for wine, tapas, and an ÓBOLO (dessert) tasting. During our ramblings on life, food, wine, chocolate and Chile, we discussed if there really are discernable differences between varieties and origins of cacao beans, similar to grape varietals and terroir in wine.  Flavor obviously varies not only in the origin (between say Peru, Madasgascar and Java) but can potentially change from year-to-year. To this point, he had just received an importation of the 2015 harvest and is still working on test roasts and batches in order to identify the unique flavor and aromatic profile. We thought a “vertical” chocolate tasting of his two harvests, 2014 and 2015, would be incredibly fun.

While I don’t want to ruin your own impressions of ÓBOLO, because you HAVE to try it, the flavor is brisk and fruity with almost no bitterness or harshness in the aftertaste. It lingers and leaves your mouth clean. We also found some nuttiness in the ending. The mildness of the bar allows some of the gentler flavors of the beans to shine through. This was the first time both my husband and I truly sensed how a chocolate is born from a fruit. Yes, cacao is a fruit.

We’ve tried ÓBOLO with coffee and wine, and for our palates, wine wins every time. Sparkling wine, a variety of reds from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, blends…all worked. This chocolate is truly one of the most wine friendly chocolates out there. Mark cited that many high-end wineries have started pairing their wines with his chocolate, too, for the same reasons. Dark, complex, fruity, low in sugar, it’s the perfect partner for a glass of Chilean red.

The night we got together, Mark had (beforehand) generously “sourced” me some samples of his 70% and 100% chocolate to let my culinary creativity run with ÓBOLO. While I initially had visions of recreating a Pierre Hermé layered chocolate dessert, after assessing options, ÓBOLO is so pure that I decided I had to take the road of least intervention in order to honor it’s flavor profile. That is, I only needed to play with texture. I decided to do a trio: moist classic US-style brownies with the 100% chocolate and the 70% for chocolate covered almonds and truffles. The truffles went in two directions: one nutty & fruity rolled in crushed pistachios and matcha powder; the other, intense and chocolaty rolled in crushed (ÓBOLO) nibs and flaky sea salt from the Argentine Patagonia (similar to Maldon). Both truffles were insanely good. Deep, deep, DEEP flavor. Clean. Fruity. Intense. Nutty. I loved them both, but the nibs-sea salt won (Mark agreed).

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During our evening together, Mark said something that really resonated with my husband and I: “I have always found beauty and peace in observing the expert craftsperson working purposefully on their art and passion.  I find it noble, courageous and contributing.  I do believe that I have found my craft and passion with chocolate and ÓBOLO.”

We most definitely, too, think he has.

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Chocolate Truffles

Makes about 16-18 truffles

These truffles actually get better in flavor the next day. Ideally make 12-24 hours ahead and keep in the frig in a tin, or wax paper-lined plastic container.

 

For the truffles:

4 cups premium dark chocolate like ÓBOLO (if in the US, Gerrits suggests companies like Rogue Chocolate), broken into small chunks

2/3 cup heavy cream, at room temperature

1/3 cup pistachios, toasted, shelled and pulsed in food processor to a find meal

1 tablespoon matcha powder (available from Asian grocers)

1/2 cup freshly ground cacao nibs

1 tablespoon sea salt (I used flaky crystals from the Argentine Patagonia (Chabut province) similar to Maldon, which would work nicely as a substitute)

 

In a large saucepan, bring 2 to 3 cups of water to a simmer. Create a warm water bath by placing a heatproof glass or stainless-steel bowl over the saucepan of simmering water.  Add the chocolate and heavy cream to the bowl. Mix well with a spatula to combine as the chocolate melts. Be gentle here when tempering chocolate!

Remove the bowl from the heat and transfer the chocolate mixture to a parchment paper–lined loaf pan or shallow bowl and cool completely to room temperature. Place in to the fridge for 90 minutes to solidify.

Using a small melon baller, or your hands, scoop out the truffle mixture and roll into 1-inch balls.

On a plate, place the ground pistachios and roll half the truffles in them, pressing the nuts gently into the surface. Using a sifter (or fine-mesh strainer), dust the truffles with the matcha powder.

Pulse the nibs and sea salt in a food processor to grind to a fine, even meal. Place on a plate and repeat the truffle-rolling process with the other half of the truffles.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

I suggest letting them sit out at room temperature approximately 20-30 minutes before serving so they are tender in texture when you bite into them. Similar to decanting a wine (which you could do when you get the truffles out of the frig), you fully appreciate the flavors at room temperature. Eating a cold truffle will mute all that gorgeous fruity chocolaty expression.

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The Renaissance Port

by Liz Caskey on February 2, 2016

Valparaiso_01February is vacation month in Chile. Half of Santiago seems to relocate to the coast, only about an hour or so away. While many are clustering on the petit stretches of sandy beaches on those rocky shores, we have been revisiting the port of “Valpo”. Ahem, I mean, Valparaiso.

It’s a colorful jumble of a city clinging to the steep hillsides (over 20 of them). While the historic area has had a renaissance recently, Valparaiso has always had an appeal. For over a century, it’s a melting pot of people coming from all corners of the globe (many via sea, how romantic). There’s a corriente of artists that give it a very Bohemian vibe, including the bright graffiti and murals that are painted across the hills. The architecture is bright and charming, and whispers of its past when it was gem on the route from Europe to the west coast of the Americas. And, perhaps for many foodies, the motive (mine included), is the gastronomic draw. It’s a very happening place to eat and drink.

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Here are some favorite things in this fascinating city that definitely merits a day–or three.

Be a Kid Again

Plaza Sotomayor may be where the naval heroes rest, the dinghies bob in the choppy port water, and the tourists throng in high season, but the true meeting place in Valparaiso is Plaza Victoria. Across from the cathedral, it’s a typical plaza studded with beautiful Chilean palms and grand old trees, benches, a gazebo and vendors selling churros and palomitas (popcorn). Local kids play on the swings or hop on the vintage carrousel (including our daughter who took her first ride here). One of my favorite spots in Chile, Puro Café, is on the corner. The owners are Colombian and know their craft. They toast their own beans to perfection and the espresso is exquisito.

Enter Time Machine

No, not referring to your computer. One of Valparaiso’s inherent charms is this vintage vibe it maintains year after year. The 1950s electric trams (with the same vinyl seats from decades ago) still run like clockwork. You can sip a pisco sour in al century-old, haunted bar like La Playa. Meander near Cardonal Market on Pedro Montt and you’ll stumble upon old emporios (grocers) with their elegant wooden shelving from floor to ceiling–the same many grandparents would remember as children. And then, there are all those Valparaiso “characters”: el Motemei, the sailors, the nuns circulating in their habits. Bells toll always in the distance on a hillside. Valparaiso feels authentic. Real. Very old world.

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Whipped Bread

The rest of Chile calls it Marraqueta. In Valparaiso, it’s pan batido, or whipped bread. It’s the same bread with different theories on how it came to bear its present name. Everybody seems to agree that it originated in the port in the late 19th century when many European immigrants were arriving. Local tales say two French brothers with the last name Marraquette were responsible for getting Chile hooked on this baguette-like bread. Whatever the name’s origin, nowadays with so many artisan bakeries caving to supermarkets, it pays to scout out an oldie here. An oldie but goodie is Panadería Andina near Plaza Victoria. I suggest going in the afternoon around 6pm—aka, onces (Chilean tea time). Be sure you are fully prepared to honor that warm marraqueta with acceptable toppings such as mashed avocado and sea salt; or good mantequilla de campo (country butter) with jam.

An Urban Gym

When Sportlife (a big Chilean gym chain) opened on the main plaza, I almost fell over. What fools are running on those treadmills when there are literally THOUSANDS of staircases connecting the labyrinth of streets, alleys, and passageways in the hills?! Many of these staircases look fairly short and sweet. Mind you, most are vertical quad busters that will leave you a sweaty, heap at the top of them. That’s actually, I realized, a blessing in disguise. With the before-said food scene, and calories inevitably to be consumed, using your feet to take you into the hills is a good idea. Plus you can be nosy (but not weird), and sneak a peak into porteño private lives as you wind past front doors and intimate courtyards. Just wear very comfortable shoes. If you are too pooped to make it back down, or have a “wine situation” post lunch, salvation appears in the form of the rickety (but reliable) ascensores, funiculars. They will take you to the plano level in about 45 seconds. Just hold on.

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Comer y Ser Feliz

Eat and Be Happy. This is why we come to Valparaiso. Maybe for the day. Hopefully a weekend. There are so many cool restaurants and food projects happening here (and cool boutique hotels, too). Want a quick study in porteño foodstuffs? Head to Mercado El Cardonal where bushels, crates, and piles of seasonal fresh produce teem from every corner with lively caseros (vendors). Across town in the more rough-and-tumble port barrio, there’s the fish market. Quality can be hit or miss depending on the day of the week but joints around the market like Los Porteños have been around forever to taste unpretentious Chilean seafood classic dishes like paila marina or machas a la parmesana. 

Personally? I love getting high into the hills to the hip, refined spots that have come into their own. If before I couldn’t step foot in Valparaiso without eating at Pasta e Vino, now I am totally obsessed with Espiritu Santu. It’s an unassuming little trattoria on a typical street on Cerro Bellavista. Maybe it’s the natural flight that floods the place with high ceilings, the short and sweet menu that’s truly perfectly executed locavore cuisine, a fantastic list of MOVI wines, or most likely, the gracious (English-speaking) owner Laura (the chef’s mother). Right now, it’s my Valpo oyster. When I woke up dreaming the other night of their grilled octopus with miso sauce, I knew it may have gone too far.

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Candy Woman

There’s been a boom in food artisans and I am smitten with La Dulcería in the heart of cool Cerro Alegre. This candy store is just too cute for words. I become a child again when I pass the threshold. The colors, the flavors…the sugar. Owner Ángela Alfageme is the genius behind this colorful corner who sharpened her craft as a candy-maker in Barcelona. Everything from the soft, floral violet chews to the tangy and very Chilean pisco sours caramels, and the handmade red hots are amazing. The flavors change weekly, seasonally, and are all natural. They also showcase their candy-making art as they roll out designs on the handsome marble counter right in front of you.

One Last Word

For those coming to Valparaiso in vehicle (and not familiar with the city previously). Parking can be difficult, pricey, streets maze-like and not well marked (although GPS oddly does ok). For those challenged with the only manual shift option with rental cars in Chile, please don’t forget the steep hillsides. Man, those can be a bee-otch, especially in the rain. (Remember Lombard Street in San Francisco? Yeah, that’s average here). While Valparaiso is tranquilo, it’s best never to leave things in the car. The easiest solution is letting somebody else who knows the city man the ship (so to say), and just gawk at the beautiful facades, hillsides, and sparkling Pacific below.

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Dreams Can Come True

by Liz Caskey on December 9, 2015

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What if you could make your dream a reality? Would you sell everything you own, move to another continent, and dedicate all your passion and energy to making that happen? That’s what Michael Paravicini did. The Swiss-born owner of Vira Vira Hacienda Hotel, in Southern Chile, decided on his 50th birthday that the time was now. And he acted on it.

Paravicini always had a dream to build and run a small boutique hotel since he was a boy. He first visited Chile in his youth in 1976 with his family and was awe stuck by the beauty of Pucon, Villarrica, and the Chilean Lake District, an hour’s flight south of Santiago. That smitten feeling lingered, even while pursuing a career in IT in Switzerland. A few decades later, he searched, and found, his perfect corner to build the boutique hotel he’d envisioned just outside Pucón. It was the right place to grow his seed. He cited Chile’s safety, unmatched beauty, hardly-touched national parks, and a variety of activities ready to be developed as the right conditions to bring it to fruition. He then gathered a top-notch team of architects, designers, and the support of his wife, Claudia, with her incredible taste for interior design.

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We visited Vira Vira when it was just a “newborn” last spring. At that time, not all the grass was planted, some details were still being sorted out in the villas and suites, and the service team was just coming together. However, Michael cared. And it showed. His belief and commitment to his dream had an infectious trickle down effect in everyone at Vira Vira. They wanted to do their best. In the months to come, not only would Vira Vira flap its wings and fly, but would go on to surpass any initial expectation. Imagine, at the tender age of one year, it has become Chile’s newest Relais & Chateaux property.

Given it was our infant daughter’s first trip on an airplane (three months old at that time), we couldn’t help but notice the parallels between a dream and a small child. Both needed nurturing and love to grow. Vira Vira was so accommodating to us as a young (new) family as we set up “home” from their a handsome split-level villa facing the babbling Liucura River. Clad in local lenga and alerce wood, the villa was tastefully decorated with colorful, hand-crafted woolens. Micaela fell in love with Vira Vira’s iconic wooden sheep that grace every room and many corners of the hotel. Michael kindly sent them for her nursery in Santiago so we remember Vira Vira every day.

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Most of the time, though, Vira Vira felt more like visiting a friend than being in a high-end hotel. Sure it was all-inclusive, high design, and activities galore, but it had a different scale. It was human and personalized (it only has 21 rooms total). A highlight of Vira Vira was the food. They truly employ the farm-to-table concept. In this day of industrialized food and production chains, it is a rare, connective experience to wake up each day knowing where your meal comes from. Vira Vira grows its own organic grains like rye, wheat, and oats (which are milled for their own flours in a special imported machine); organic seasonal vegetables (some even foraged); has all types of dairy like eggs, milk, yogurt, and different kinds of cheeses (including their exquisite mature Parmesan); raises and slaughters (ethically) free range fresh meat like poultry, turkey, goose, duck, goat, sheep and wild boar. This coming year, Michael proudly mentioned they would be starting their own in-house production of smoked fish and artisan sausages.

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Guests at Vira Vira accompany him on a tour of the (working) Hacienda to get a sense of his vision, the wholeness of the project, and where their meals come from. It’s a link to humanity and nature not seen in most hotel projects—anywhere. We walked along the edge of the property near the river, past Paravicini’s home (who lives there much of the time), moved by the beauty, care, and effort going into this place and every single detail. It was done the way it should be…but most importantly, with love. Michael confesses that, from a purely commercial point of view, many of his hotel decisions may not be considered the best return on investment (at least in the short term). However, his larger commitment to his dream is clear. His belief that his guests deserve the best, regardless of the cost.

Every night, the tasting menu was an adventure and foray into seasonal vegetables, perfectly prepared meats and local foods. Anything nature was bearing at that time of year was game. Dihuenes (sweet golden funghi growing on lenga trees) were made into a limey-pineapple ceviche. The succulent sautéed morels came with toasted cashews and a honey-merken dressing. I could have lived on their handpicked green salads alone, present at every meal. The flavors were pure, clean, healthy, and delicious. The well-curated wine list showed a similar level of care in selecting wines representative of Chile’s diverse terroir.

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Besides eating, during our short visit at Vira Vira, we hiked in ancient forests with towering Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle trees) and walked past gushing crystalline rivers. We had high tea one sun-drenched afternoon on the shores of Lake Caburga. We visited an authentic Mapuche village where we met a traditional weaver. We explored the cutesy, albeit touristy, town of Pucon on a mission to find rhubarb jam (success!). On a future trip, we hope to do Michael’s favorite excursion, which is simply floating (on a raft) down the Liucura River. As he puts it, “It’s simply spectacular”.

In Michael’s eyes, Vira Vira is really about three things: “Enjoying a cozy, luxury hotel embedded in a beautiful and hardly touched landscape; savoring every day healthy, home-grown gourmet food; and, finally, experiencing unique excursions with some of the best guides in the region. The only thing we care about is that the client feels at home, enjoys every moment and truly feels that a personal dream has come true”.

What could be more delicious than sharing your life dream with the world? Well, for guests who come to Vira Vira, partaking and savoring his.

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