Artsy, Boutique Lima a la Carte

by Liz Caskey on July 2, 2014

On Friday night, Santiago was overtaken by a thick, cold low-hanging fog that shrouded the city. It rolled in, unnoticed, like a sly fox. As I walked to the corner to buy a few staples for Saturday’s breakfast, I shivered in my light wool sweater. The afternoon had been nearly 65F and now the damp, cold air, which had plunged over 25 degrees, penetrated every pore and bone of my body.

The next morning we arose to zero visibility.  At 10am, it still felt like sunrise was coming. By sundown at 5:30pm, it had been the darkest day of the year. A good part of our apartment faces north with a lovely view of Parque Forestal towards Cerro San Cristobal, the Fine Arts museum, and the high rises across the other side of the Mapocho River and we could not see beyond the first line of trees. It made getting out of bed a chore and leaving the house unthinkable. Fittingly, when I glanced at the calendar I noticed it was officially our first day of winter, June 21, in the southern hemisphere.

There’s something eerie and mysterious about fog. It quiets and masks a city. It casts a spell of temporary invisibility. The dense fog reminded me of Lima’s misty garúa, that gray, invisible “rain” that often blankets the Peruvian capital for days on end during the winter and the city’s only source of humidity as a desert.  My husband and I reminisced about such a foggy long weekend we spent in Lima at Hotel B, the city’s smartest boutique hotel. It is very odd that such a creative, cosmopolitan city as Lima had lacked this type of hotel for so long. However, Hotel B arrived less than a year ago and has reinvented the hotel, and artistic scape.

Located in the artsy, colorful neighborhood of Barranco, home to the city’s famous Puente de Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs), the hotel sprawls across a scenic corner in a coverted early 20th Belle Epoque century mansion. Once a private summer home for the Bedoya García, it was a private residence prior to becoming a Relais & Chateaux hotel. Even if today it looks impeccable, the story of its rebirth is one of persistence and passion by the team who brought this dream to fruition. Just negotiating and acquiring the house took over three years and then another two years of tedious red tape to approve the reconstruction of this historic monument. The remodeling took a little over a year, as it converted the older part of the palace with a newer construction. In fact, the team brought on an Italian artisan specialized in the ornate wooden floors, ceilings, and walls to seamlessly integrate the old and new styles.

Beyond the refinement of a stay at Hotel B, the hotel’s vision lies in unifying the neighborhood, design, gastronomy, and history. Situated only two blocks from the Pacific coastline (with a dynamite view from their rooftop terrace, I may add), it’s within walking distance of the city’s top galleries and museums like fashion photographer’s Mario Testino, MATE, or the MAC (Modern Art Museum) along with all the dining hot spots in nearby Miraflores.

As you enter the sweeping marble staircase, large vases full of fresh-cut red roses adorn the reception with plush velvet couches. The ceilings are over 15-feet tall and there’s a subtle hint of fresh figs and jasmine flowers, the house “scent”. The décor fuses the elegance of early 20th century in the mansion’s attractive “bones” but here, contemporary art is the true protagonist. Hotel B is, in fact, the first hotel in Lima to have its own extensive collection of modern art with works from renowned Peruvian artists like Cherman, Elliot Tupac y Fernando de Szyszlo. There are other pieces by international artists like Andy Warhol, Marta Minujín, Aldo Chaparro, José Tola, Miki Aguirre, Jorge Cabieses and Clo de la Puente. The hotel shares its collection with the well-known art gallery (conveniently next door) of Lucia de la Puente, one of the partners.

During our stay at Hotel B, we found recluse in the library every afternoon. Surrounded with shelves with photographic books, watercolors of characters from Lima’s city life, cushy leather couches, and a proper tea time every afternoon (for guests only) with homemade macarons, cakes and teas, it was a delightful way to read, write, and listen to music and leave the misty garúa outside.

Hotel B is now quite a “hub” in Barranco and has become a hit with chic locals. In the evenings, the restaurant is the real drawl. With sultry candlelight, it sets the perfect mood for a relaxed evening of tasty food and people watching over Pisco Sours. Prestigious Lima-chef Óscar Velarde, designed the menu to integrate Peruvian ingredients with a touch of Mediterranean in a well-executed bistro style. All the products are local with seafood hailing from the fishing dinghies of the nearby Chorrillos wharf on the Pacific. I was enamored with the fresh tomato soup that had a little nest of dried figs and swirl of creamy chevre dissolving into the aromatic broth. We savored quite possibly the most tender octopus in Lima–which I cut with a spoon (the true test). We sipped Spanish cava, then some Argentine Malbec and conversed by candlelight while nibbling on minty lamb meatballs or homemade pizza. It was a hopping place.

The next morning, after a night of blissful slumber, we’d have a relaxed breakfast in the library. Waiters brought up plates of homemade tamales; a breakfast tradition in Peru, in crisp, white jackets and poured steaming local coffee from a silver pot. So local, so refined, so laid back. Love at first stay.

Hotel B is our preferred property in the Peruvian capital and will be our home base during our Flavors of Peru tour this October 2014. Contact us for more information and rates!

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Gluten Free Sticky Orange-Almond Cakes

by Liz Caskey on June 5, 2014

This past Saturday was my first baby shower. This last trimester has snuck up on me so quickly. I am finding it hard to believe in little more than a month and a half I will have a babe in arms; a little person completely dependent on me for everything. It’s not as if I have not known this was coming, but moving from a far off date to the present feels like it’s happening all of a sudden. Pregnancy, for me, has been delightfully creative, vital, and productive with lots of “me” time. I have enjoyed it so much. The shower hit home the realization that this period of our life “together” (me, husband, in utero baby) will be ending very soon, and we’ll be three. It makes me appreciate how fleeting the time is during these ten months, and how I must relish every second of it…even the afternoons when my cramped rib cage feels props up little feet and Gaviscon is my preferred “beverage” of choice as the karate-style baby kicks churn my stomach acid.

Baby showers in Chile are still a fairly new concept and certainly not as common as in the US. In fact, I was not even sure I would have one earlier in the year. In the US, from the time we are little girls, we attend baby showers and are groomed that when it is our turn to have a baby, well, not having one would be unthinkable. In fact, many friends up north mentioned they had not one but multiple showers (family, office, best girlfriends) to outfit them for the new arrival. In Chile, my hypothesis is that baby showers have never been totally necessary since the family network here is very strong to start. It is normal to have aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extended family showering the new parents with gifts, lending cribs and baby equipment, offering child care support. It’s a different social structure. Thus, the need to throw a “party” for baby stuff is only now arriving, much like Chileans began importing Halloween ten years ago.

Baby showers here tend to feel more like birthday parties with baby presents. Registries and lists are optional and often not adhered to at all. A Chilean friend of mine even mentioned many Chilean women opt to have baby showers in the evening almost like a carrete, party with booze, starting at the very Chilean hour of 9pm versus a more typical weekend afternoon or brunch in the US. What mother-to-be can stay up that late, anyways (not me!)?

So all this being said, a couple of my girls offered to help organize the shower. We decided they’d manage the invites, the décor, the games. I tried but I just could not outsource the food (nor venue). Blame it on the entertainer and cook in me but I had to micromanage this part of the event. My mother seemed to be a little shocked by this and mentioned, more than once, “the mother-to-be should not have to lift a finger”. Nonetheless, I knew that if I have my immaculately produced brunch filled with “baby-sized” portions, petit fours, and favorite flowers, I would need to be involved. It was important—to me–and that, my friends, counts. A lot.

I also calculated this probably would be my last entertaining foray for the next 6 months, at least, so why not enjoy it . The thought of planning the menu and spending an afternoon “playing” in the kitchen to crank out gorgeous honey-dijon ham-Parmesan palmiers, choux puffs for shrimp cocktail salad, baby-sized quiche, stuffed rosemary baby muffins, among others, all sounded like fun to me. What joy to prepare for an intimate celebration with my best girlfriends marking my transition into motherhood and the arrival of our baby. What more noble reason could there be to cook and share?

Given that baby will be born in the middle of the Chilean winter, the weather has turned and is feeling more season. Citrus and pomegranates are flooding the markets. In fact, on many corners of Santiago, vendors crack open pomegranates and sell them like popcorn, which people buy to snack on. Pomegranates have a delightfully sweet-tart-crunchy flavor and texture. I was itching to make a dessert with them and something citrusy.

Then I remembered an old go to recipe from my catering years: sticky orange-almond cakes. Back in the day, this was always a huge crowd pleaser, and marvelously gluten free/flourless (not sugar free so it’s not health food!). The recipe for the cakes itself is extremely easy and has few ingredients. The magic here is the union of pureed oranges, eggs, almond flour, and sugar that all join together to form a moist cake. I stamp these out with a pastry cutter into the cutest little circles and put a dollop of natural yogurt and pomegranate seeds on top. You could make these cakes larger for a proper-sized dessert but they are so dainty, why not just serve them as nibbles?


Gluten Free Sticky Orange-Almond Cakes
Adapted from Hors d’Oeuvres

5-6 whole clementines, peeled
6 large free-range eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups almond flour (almonds with no skins)
1 teaspoon double-action baking powder (if you don’t have this, double)
1/2-cup non-sweetened yogurt, whipped
4 tablespoons pomegranate seeds, for garnish

In a small pot, cover the clementines with water and cook until very soft, at least 1 hour. They will become very pale. Cool thoroughly and then drain. Pick out any seeds that may have been left behind.

Preheat oven to 170C (350F). Prepare a jellyroll pan (approximately 14×10 inches or 55 x 25 cm) with greased parchment paper. You must cover the entire pan with paper and generously grease (canola spray or butter) to avoid sticking. I cannot emphasize this step enough.

Place the oranges in a food processor. Process till you get a very smooth, silky puree. Add the eggs, sugar, almond flour and baking powder. Pulse until blended. Pour the batter into the lined pan.

Bake until firm to the touch, 30-40 minutes. If the pan gets too brown/golden on one side, rotate half way through baking. It should feel firm and “bouncy” to the touch when done (do not use a knife to test for doneness, won’t give you any feedback!). Remove and cool completely.

Next, cut the cake into rounds with a pastry cutter. I used one that was about 1-inch diameter. Place the rounds on a tray with parchment paper. Whatever you do, do not toss the scraps. I repeat. Do not toss the scraps. This would be total sacrilege. While they are not adorable like the cut outs, this cake is so delicious, they should be shared with others. Trust me, they will easily disappear with afternoon tea at home or in the office (and you will be praised by your spouse or co-workers).

To assemble, spoon a little bit of yogurt onto the cake and artfully garnish with three pomegranate seeds. Dust with powdered sugar and serve on a silver tray for a dazzling presentation (I used the base of our Moroccan tea set since it seemed to go with that flavor theme). The cakes taste best at room temp so don’t stick them in the frig or heat them up.

The other beauty of these babies? They are ideal for work ahead for parties, like a baby shower. They can be made two days in advance and kept in an airtight container or frozen for up to one month and defrosted overnight in the frig.

Makes 30+ cakes, plus scraps (see note above).

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Eyes on Mendoza’s Uco Valley

by Liz Caskey on May 23, 2014

In late March, my husband and I embarked on our annual road trip over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina, one of the most scenic routes in South America. We said tchau to the sprawling metropolis of Santiago and cruised past arid, caramel-colored hills north of Santiago into the Aconcagua Valley, carpeted with green vines and the sharp-toothed granite peaks of the Andes in the distance. After slowly ascending two dozen caracoles, switchbacks, we neared the Chilean-Argentine border at over 10,000 feet above sea level, close to Portillo Ski Resort, and passed through the Cristo Redentor tunnel into Argentina at the base of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.

It always amazes me how the Chilean side of the Andes has such vertical terrain. It is relentlessly steep. In fact, Chileans often jokingly call the Andes the “Gran Muro Chileno”, Great Wall of Chile, referring to how this natural barrier has maintained the country isolated during much of its history. As we emerged from the tunnel into the glaring morning sunshine, squinting like moles emerging from hibernation, the river valley widened and there was no more sense of vertigo nor dangerously dangling on a curvy mountain road with the valley floor thousands of feet below. The Andes changed instantaneously from steel gray granite to shades of red, yellow, and even green from the mineral content.

We were lucky on this trip. We breezed through immigration and customs in only 15 minutes (and a record driving time for the whole trip). A couple hours later, as we passed the Portrerillos reservoir, a deep azure lake colored by the glacial runoff, I could not believe my eyes. Mendoza was green. Not only that, it was, in fact, blooming. Yellow wild flowers alongside the road danced in the wind. I cast my eyes high up on the red mountains to discover the stratified layers covered in a soft green moss. The shrubby plains were unmistakably verdant and full of soft grasses. What happened to Mendoza…the desert?

“So that’s where all our rain has gone”, I commented to my husband. We remembered several cloudy days in Santiago when Mother Nature teased us with the promise of rain only to have the storm clouds move over the Andes and leave us dry. Mendoza in 2014 has received a record amount of precipitation so far, part of the undeniable changing global climate.

This trip, we were not headed to Mendoza city. Rather, we turned south to another “oasis” within the region known as the Uco Valley, about 80 kilometers from the capital and wine growing region of Lujan de Cuyo. Between Uco and Lujan de Cuyo there is only desert scrubland with a smattering of oil pump jacks and the massive, brooding, snow-crested Andes to the west and the looming Tupungato volcano. Route 40 here feels like the highway to nowhere and little like the wild west.

In Zapata, a police check point, and entry to Uco, we waited behind old trucks filled to the brim (with no tarps) with Roma tomatoes and garlic. No doubt the destiny of these tomatoes was conserva, or homemade tomato sauce, to be consumed during the coming winter months when there’s not a tomato in sight. Uco is its own “agricultural corridor”, irrigated by two rivers producing not only top quality grapes, but two thirds of the other agricultural products are fruits for export like apples, pears, plums, peaches almonds, and walnuts. While it may be considered one single valley, it is not homogenous at all. The valley is punctuated by the green, water-fed oases of crops and trees surrounded by mountains and desert, but there are also hills, gorges, and ancient pine forests.

Uco Valley reminds me of the countryside south of Santiago. Certainly as the vineyards around Lujan de Cuyo have been engulfed by larger Mendoza city, Uco still is far enough to move at its own, slower pace. Winding roads are encased by tall, century-old poplar trees that in autumn turn mustard yellow as fall descends on the region. In the many tiny towns and villages, seemingly frozen in time, vintage trucks from the 70s pulled out of vineyards with cases of dark purple grapes stacked high, baring the fruit of the high-altitude Malbec that has made the region so sought after.


However, what really strikes me about Uco is the light and the scale of distance. The visibility extends for, seemingly, hundreds of kilometers. The sun here also has such an intensity that by 9am, you must have sunglasses and high SPF (well, for my fair skin that is!). The mountains dominate the western horizon of the valley and even a leisurely walk west in the vineyards looks deceptively easy. It’s more like a constant incline that after a while makes your quads burn and you’re out of breath. Uco without the Andes would be unremarkable. With them, it is a haunting beauty and you can never seem to stop gazing.

We arrive at our “home” in Uco, The Vines Resort, a 1,600-acre vineyard-focused property aimed at giving guests an “experience” in the Argentine countryside–a highly pampered one. As we turned off the paved main road, we drove for a couple kilometers among the vineyards belonging to the 135 small vineyard owners (producing over 225 private wine labels). Creative names like La Luna or Amor de Mi Vida. We pulled up to the main lodge, built with low-slung architecture that melded into the mountains. The Andes felt so close I could reach out and touch them. For a minute, I lost my bearings. I was not sure if I had arrived in Arizona, Napa Valley or Mendoza. The Vines Resort has a distinctly American vibe yet the setting is obviously Mendocino.

Uco has been desperately needing a top notch hotel for years. While close to Mendoza, those 80 kilometers are often slow on the country roads, a situation made longer after a day of wine tasting. It was high time for a closer retreat to savor this pristine place. Many of Vines’ guests do not leave the premises. They engage in playing winemaker for a day, if they own a vineyard sit down with the resident sommelier to plan their blend, or simply walk the vineyards, hit the spa, sip wine, eat, relax and take in that grand mountain views. We decided the first day to follow suit and settled into our comfortable, well-appointed condo. After hours on the road (about 7.5 to be exact), we dozed off on the terrace on the soft lounge chairs under a blue sky studded with clouds in the warm sun. Perfect for decompression.

The next morning we arose to clouds. It was the first sweater day of the season for us. I was delighted to have a reprise from the heat in Santiago where March temperatures still felt like January (Hades!). We put on some good driving tunes and set off in the direction of the Manzano Historico on scenic backroads towards San Jose de Tupungato for a morning round a golf in a centuries-old pine forest. Uco Valley, in a short period of time, has become arguably the most exciting wine region in Argentina. It makes the country’s best Chardonnay, along with the coveted high-altitude Malbec (complete with unique floral aromatic profiles) since the wines display intense color, aroma, fresh acidity, and succulent tannins. Don’t be fooled though, these are still “big” wines, there’s no such thing as a low-alcohol “subtle” wine with Mendoza’s dry, continental climate.

Uco has really become quite an international valley, developed by notable foreign wineries like O Fournier (Spain), Achaval Ferrer (Italy-Argentina-US), Andeluna (US), Salentein (Holland), Lurton (France), Clos de los Siete wineries (Michel Rolland, France), Alto Las Hormigas (Italy), and Cobos (US/Paul Hobbs). Within Argentine wine circles, it’s also an elite address with homegrown wineries like Catena Zapata, Zuccardi, Mendel, Rutini, Trapiche and Finca Sophenia all sporting vineyards in the region.

After golf, we stopped off in the “wine corridor” of Tupungato for lunch at one of my favorite spots for honest, homemade food. The chef here “gets” food understanding a dish’s intrinsic balance yet at the same time, infusing everything with care (which always makes food taste amazing). The cuisine playfully deviates from the Argentine triology of grilled meat, pasta, and grilled vegetables by integrating a tasting menu of appetizers and desserts. The clouds covered the Andes but we quickly forgot sipping a favorite Malbec from Lurton.

Back on the Vines homestead, I decided I needed to burn off some of the morning’s medialunas (Argentine-style croissants dangerously delivered every morning to your condo as part of breakfast). The all-glass gym is elevated two stories with a 360-degree of the vines—45 minutes on the treadmill goes by very quickly with that kind of a view.

That evening, we dined at the resort’s signature restaurant called Siete Fuegos, Seven Fires, overseen by Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann, a bit of a personality in these parts. Mallmann, who’s cooking style is inspired in grilling and “burnt” flavors using different fire techniques, has inspired a generation of cooks from his 1884 restaurant in Mendoza, many who have opened their own restaurants to serve an identical menu. A large American group took over the outside patio and no doubt were slowly being ahumados (smoked) by all the grill action. Vines puts on these special dinners several times per week where the chefs demo the seven fires that make up the backbone of Mallmann’s cuisine: the grill, the chapa (flat piece of cast iron over a fire), the infiernillo (two fires with a cooking level in between), the horno de barro (mud oven), rescoldo (method by covering vegetables with hot embers), the asador (to butterfly and cook whole animals), and salt-crusting technique (in this case a whole trout). Each technique is essentially a course and the grill team presents the final results to the group with “oohs” and “aahs”, all paired with Vines’ line of wines.

Although a grand feast, my husband and I opted to avoid the smoke and eat inside a la carta. I personally do not do well with the large, heavy dinners so common in Argentina (all at 10pm), and have a love for Mallmann’s salads that marry “burnt” vegetables, artisan cheeses and greens. My husband ordered a crunchy salad with grilled seasonal pears wrapped in tender Serrano ham, studded with blue cheese and a pungent olive oil sauce. It was fruity yet acidic and worked well with the Rutini sparkling wine (I sipped my one glass ever so slowly with baby en route). I was seduced by the smashed beets salad with baby greens goat cheese, and garlic chips. Over the years, I have come to love beets. Their true beauty is not apparent when boiled into tasteless submission (the usual cooking technique here). In this dish, Mallmann has his team cook them in a broth enriched with olive oil and vinegar, then smashed and griddled. The natural sugar content creates a chewy, burnt crush that is delicious when paired with the greens and this creamy, tangy cheese. Love at first taste.


My husband and I toasted our day. Tomorrow we were meeting new, smaller wine projects, a trend starting to flourish in the valley. There is most definitely a lot happening in Uco and it merits more than a day away–maybe several. Good wine, beautiful mountains, a laid back vibe, a great trio.

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Peruvian chocolate may not be overly mainstream yet but it’s exotic cacao, especially the white variety, is becoming highly appreciated by leading chocolatiers around the world like Pierre Marcolini, Pierrick Chouard, Jean Paul Hevin, Philippe Bernachon, Stéphane Bonnat, and Valrhona, all who source their beans directly from this region.

White criollo cacao beans are grown mainly in the north of Peru in the region near Piura, just 4 degrees south of the Equator. Most of the year, the climate is dry, but during January, February and March large amounts of precipitation fall to keep a tropical-arid climate. Only recently the quality and rarity of the region’s cacao have been properly recognized. Prior to this, white cacao beans had often been regarded as a defect due to an abnormality of the cacao pods, and sold to the national market for making cacao powder. Genetically speaking, white beans have fewer bitter anthocyanins, which produce a more mellow-tasting, less acidic chocolate. Usually white beans are mutations that happen only when trees are left undisturbed for hundreds of years, such as the case in a remote area like this.

Today in Peru, these white beans are highly prized and often called “Manjar de los Dioses”, or God’s Nectar. This cacao pod is filled with a whitish, viscous pulp embedded with seeds, and inside these seeds are the beans.  Unfermented white beans have a  milky color and are permeated by aromas like citrus nuts, honey, and even a hint of toast. The percent of cacao butter in these nibs reach 50 to 60% , making them far richer in fat for a more fluid and “buttery” chocolate. Chocolate made from 100 percent white beans is extremely expensive so often, chocolatiers will create a mix of beans.

How does cacao become chocolate? A primer

To go from the nibs to chocolate is a long process that involves the first critical step of fermentation of the beans, typically lasting 5-7 days to avoid the bean from germinating. Fermentation also produces the flavor profile that will develop when the beans are roasted.  Post-fermentation, the beans are dried out in the sun, continuing to develop their aromas and flavors. Next, the beans are cleaned for roasting, which happens at 110-220°C depending on the type of bean to reduce the moisture content of the bean to less than 2%. During roasting, the beans are crushed to separate the nibs from the shell. The nibs are the base to make the cacao butter.

With the nibs ready, let the grinding begin. The chocolatier must grind as much as possible to make the chocolate flow, they are looking for that secret ingredient…cocoa butter. The particles need to get as small as possible so that the butter is not grainy. It should feel smooth and soft in the mouth. After this stage, the chocolate mixture, often called “liquor” is left to rest for about a month and allow the flavors to further develop.

After a month or so, it’s time for mixing and refining. Here, sugar is added with the cocoa “liquor” to definte the texture and acidity of the chocolate. The chocolate needs to be thoroughly refined or it will have an unpleasant “sandy” texture. At this point, additional aromatics like natural vanilla bean essence are added before moving to conching. Conching is really where the magic happens. Durign this process, the chocolate becomes silkier and smoother. Its acidity is decreased and the flavors and aromas are rounded out. It’s only after conching that the flavor of chocolate becomes uniform and it’s this step where each chocolatier puts his/her signature style on the chocolate being produced. In fact, when working with the white cacao beans from the north of Peru, the country’s top chocolatiers agree that its texture becomes extremely smooth when melted, with a full-bodied, nutty flavor that is not bitter. When made into 65 or 70% (dark chocolate), the result is a pure, intense, deep, chocolate that has the intensity and depth of a good Italian espresso in the mouth. Amazing.

If you’re in Peru, where to taste some of this extraordinary chocolate made from these beans? Chefs like Virgilio Martinez of Central Restaurante in Lima are sourcing chocolate made from these beans in their kitchen. However, it really depends on the chocolatier (many of the top ones are only exporting since the national chocolate market still favors heavily sweetened, milk chocolate). On our upcoming Flavors of Peru tour this October, we’ll meet with one of Peru’s top chocolatiers for a tasting and in-depth discussion on chocolate in Peru. If you cannot join us or want to do some additional self-exploration, try to the delicious chocolate boutique in the Miraflores district of Lima called Xocolatl. The young, inventive chocolatier here crafts custom truffles and bonbons (about two dozen flavors!) made with uniquely Peruvian flavors from Maras Salt-Caramel to Pisco Sour and Chili. She also makes bars and the local chocotejas, chocolate mounds stuffed with manjar (milk caramel), a walnut and aromatized with citrus or other flavors. Mmmmmm….

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Wine During Pregnancy

by Liz Caskey on April 2, 2014

If you drink alcohol while pregnant, people often feel free to judge you. This topic has become a very relevant theme for me now that I am 24 weeks (six months) pregnant, given that my profession revolves around travel, food, and wine in South America. The morning I found out I was expecting, while on vacation in Europe, I had been consuming about 2-3 daily glasses of wine during the past 2 weeks. That came to a screeching halt until I could meet with my doctor upon return (well, minus one small glass of champagne on the flight home). Much to my surprise, he was extremely laid back about the whole thing, as most Chilean obstetricians tend to be. He advised against drinking much in the first trimester, but my wine tastings (spitting everything) were fine and from the second trimester on, a few glasses or so of wine per week was no problem. He was far more concerned about the consumption of raw foods and not taking certain drugs like ibuprofen—and me staying relaxed. It became very apparent that wine consumption during pregnancy in Chile was very different than the experiences relayed from my US-based girlfriends. I sensed this was a highly cultural topic with “taboo” factors and attitudes varying greatly.

As I dug more into the topic to set up my own parameters that would form the base of my experience during this pregnancy, I outreached to a few female colleagues here in Chile working in the wine world that already had children and had consumed wine throughout their pregnancies, giving birth to healthy babies. Their experiences, along with Emily Oyster’s highly eye-opening book, Expecting Better, that blasts open vague pregnancy “recommendations” and “myths”, has formed the base of my strategy for consuming wine while pregnant.

As Oyster points out, Draconian restrictions stating, “No amount of alcohol is safe”, have their own problems. While there is no question that heavy drinking during pregnancy is bad for you and your baby, this does not automatically imply that an occasional glass of wine is a problem. What about overeating too much of certain food and having too much potassium or magnesium in your system? What about all the junk and chemicals in the SAD (Standard American Diet)?

The fact is that here in South America, similar to Europe, most doctors are much more permissive about light drinking during pregnancy. It seems that some North American doctors must think that most women exhibit no self-control and wouldn’t be able to stop at just one glass. Really? Thanks for the vote of confidence. Well, Chilean doctors here are cool with a few glasses of wine per week, and even in restaurants, I have rarely had an eyebrow raised when ordering with dinner. However, the objective is enjoyment and savoring the wine with food, a very different attitude than pulling up a stool at bar for a drink. Many doctors, mine included, often refer to those times when our mothers or grandmothers would down drink malta con huevo (malt with eggs), or gin & tonics, and drank with no second thought.

Another point that Expecting Better makes is that the glass of wine it is not directly channeled to the fetus. The alcohol from the wine passes into the bloodstream and through the liver, which processes it into a chemical called acetaldehyde and then into acetate. The blood shared between the mother and baby through the placenta can have acetaldehyde remaining in blood stream that could be shared with the baby. The baby’s liver can process some alcohol but not as much as an adult. So, as the author maintains, by sipping small amounts of wine very slowly, your liver can keep up and no acetaldehyde gets sent to the fetus. Speed, and drinking wine with food, really do matter.

How Do Wine Pros Do It?

What about those women in the wine industry? Think of all the mothers worldwide that are wine journalists, winemakers, work for wineries, and whose careers depend on tasting wine, all the time, for their job. Do they take a nine-month hiatus? Um, NO. They employ a strategy and most share the opinion that moderation is key.

Chilean wine journalist Ana Maria Barahona, who pens the best-selling wine guide Mujer y Vino is expecting her second child in May. She has continued her normal, busy schedule of weekly tastings for both annual wine guide and tastings for La Cav magazine. How does reconcile tasting while pregnant? She tastes, spits, rinses and rests as needed. She asserts that every taster/mother knows her own body and limit. She does admit that she did cut back her consumption of wine during pregnancy but will indulge in a glass on occasion with meals (she’s completely cut out, however, all spirits/hard alcohol). In fact, she cites that her OB-GYN is a total wine lover and gave her no restrictions other than common sense. Ana Maria firmly believes that wine is a “food” so you cannot just look at wine as alcohol alone. In her opinion, wine has documented health benefits and in moderation, does not hurt babies. What does she have to base this comment on? Meet her adorable seven year old son, Max, who’s a perfectly healthy, happy, intelligent little boy. From the day he was born, he’s seen his mom working in wine and he loves to smell the wines alongside food. Do we have a budding wine connoisseur in the making? Most definitely…and wine will be an important part of his life—because it is for her.

Marie Chaisson, an independent business consultant, who worked as an export manager for Estampa Winery during her first pregnancy, took a slightly different approach. Her palate completely changed while pregnant, and as she said, “I became pretty much worthless in tastings.” As she remembers, “we had a huge tasting (40+ wines) with our winemaker to compare our wines against other Chilean wines in the same category. I kept asking, ‘Don’t you think this wine is off?’” and our winemaker kept shaking his head. It was then that I realized that it was ME that was off! Once I realized my palate was shot, it got me off the hook with clients and journalists.”

Marie drank wine mostly in the first and second trimester, necessary both for her job and her own daily routine. She put her own self-imposed limit around 2 glasses a week. During professional wine tastings, she would spit everything because she calculated she would absorb about half a glass. “Sometimes”, as she noted, “I would have a glass at dinner, just because it was so hard to break the habit!” By the time my third trimester came around, she decided to stop the wine since even one glass made her fell sub-par. Interestingly enough, Marie mentioned that in Chile she feels people judge rigorous exercise regimes more harshly than wine drinking (I completely second this notion!). Most importantly, she believes that a happy and relaxed mother leads to a relaxed baby and most doctors agree that it’s better to have a glass of wine and relax than transmit that stress to the baby. Is the proof in the pudding? Marie drank more wine and did yoga in her first pregnancy with her daughter, Juliette, and had a “Zen baby”. With her second child, she didn’t do much yoga nor drink much wine after changing industries and her son was born very nervous, which eventually wore off after a few months.

So what has my experience been thus far? After finding out the happy news of the little one coming, I barely drank any wine in the first trimester. This was partially because of my doctor’s suggestion, knowing it was the base for everything, and honestly, feeling very tired and nauseated for a good stretch from 6 to 12 weeks. Even over the holidays, when we opened nice bottles of wine with family and I was feeling tempted, the moment the wine hit my lips it tasted off. The wine felt hot and I knew it was my body’s own way of telling me to avoid it for the time being. Was this right or wrong? No, it was simply my experience.

As soon as I hit 13 weeks, the nausea and tiredness fog miraculously disappeared and I had a surge of energy like no other. The desire to sip wine returned. I resumed going to tastings and having an occasional glass of wine, particularly Champagne, a favorite. My nose was like a bloodhound in tastings. I could pick up aromas and nuisances never before sensed. I savored and spit and rinsed and felt glad to at least be able to partake. When I did decide to have an occasional glass, I sipped smartly and slowly with food, always in ½ glass pours and measuring if I really wanted the second half. Often, I realized, I didn’t. But I loved not giving up the ritual, not sacrificing what wine means for me as a way to share culturally. There are many nights my husband opens a bottle and I pour myself a glass of fizzy cranberry juice sweetened with stevia or rooibos iced tea. When I want a little though, there is no guilt, no judgment, just enjoyment.

 

My Tips for Wine During Pregnancy:

Spit during a tasting: This sounds like a no-brainer but I will repeat it because it can feel like sacrilege, especially if you taste very fine wines (trust me, I’ve been there). If there’s a real knock out wine, like me swooning and wanting to buy a case of the special vintage for my child-in-utero, I will let myself swallow one sip. Ok, maybe two. It must be clearly memorable. Otherwise, as I move the wine around my mouth and oxygenate, I really focus on the present and savoring the flavor. It is possible to appreciate flavor without activating the swallowing instinct.

Drink lots of water: This goes before and after the tasting. Be sure to snack as needed on the water crackers. In some cases, I often will actually rinse my mouth out after each wine with water to clear out any residual alcohol clinging to the palate before drinking the water since it can add up, particularly in the lengthy professional tastings.

Know your limits: Most people can feel alcohol in their system after a couple sips. It comes on first as a slight warm sensation in the stomach, face becoming flush, then that little buzz starts. My personal guidance system is to not feel any effect from the alcohol. In the very few times I have felt it (often when needing to eat more), I stop immediately, eat something, drink more water and put the wine aside and take a little break.

Measure your pour: A lot of restaurants these days pour larger-than-average wine glasses. I measured a standard glass of wine and found many run around 5 ounces versus the standard 4 ounces. In deeming what seemed to be my own “happy” place in having a small glass of while with food, I poured out 2 ounces (1/2 glass) and got to know what this looked like in several different glass formats. This was the amount I was comfortable drinking slowly, and often never want more. For my birthday, I was looking forward to a glass of French champagne at Baco so the bar served me half a chilled glass with the appetizer, and the other half with my main course. Perfect.

Sip slowly and drink wine with food: I cannot emphasize this enough. Of all of the things I took away from Emily Oyster’s book these recommendations really hit home. I do not drink wine on an empty stomach, nor would I ever go to a tasting in that state. I sip slowly. I relish each little sip. Granted, I won’t lie that I am looking forward to that day in August or early September when I can drink a big glass, maybe even two, of wine but for now, it is perfectly fine. My husband has confessed to loving this new “Liz wine-drinking scenario” since he has no problem in assisting in finishing my share of the bottle.

Make that wine count: This may be my thing as a wine lover, but since I have so little these days, I make it count. If I know I have a dinner party or special occasion, I will save it on another night and drink water. When I do imbibe now, I only drink fine wine. The wines must be amazing, delicious, something truly exceptional to pass my lips if swallowing. Little Baby seems to be in agreement with this strategy. The few times I have swallowed a sip or two in tastings, there’s been some “dance moves” and kicks with very notable reference wines like Almaviva, Cheval des Andes, and Amayna’s sultry Pinot Noir. Obviously we have a wine lover in utero.

Yes, the last photo is my petit baby belly at 22 weeks!

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Long Weekend in San Pedro de Atacama

by Liz Caskey on March 14, 2014

Last Friday, we left big city life behind and jetted 2 hours north into the vast, arid Atacama Desert. We touched down in the desolate mining city of Calama. After rendezvousing with our driver, we drove past a “field” of new wind turbines that will provide clean electricity for the entire city. We climbed over the Domeyko mountain range towards the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, an hour away, the jumping off point to some of the most spectacular scenery in Northern Chile.

We arrived at our hotel, Alto Atacama, strategically located three kilometers north of town near the Pukara de Quitor in the beginning of the green Catarpe valley along the San Pedro River. As we emerged from the van into the blinding sunshine, my body warmed up with the sultry temperatures and I felt my mind slowing down. One glance at my phone revealed I barely had a cell signal. Wi-Fi was patchy at bet. Blessing or curse? Ultimately a blessing–I read (gasp) an entire book in two days.

We moved slowly upon arrival, as San Pedro is sneakily located in the pre-altiplano at 2,400 meters, or 7,800 feet. This was one of several trips to the region so we had already explored many remote salt flats, volcanic formations, altiplanic villages, the steaming geysers of El Tatio, and meandering rivers. This geological bonanza was all a relatively short distance from town. Besides relaxing, we were keen to further explore. We wanted to revisit some favorite experiences, get creative with some new hikes we had not yet done, and get a hearty dose of sun before autumn and winter descended on Santiago in the upcoming months.

After leisurely arrival lunch and settling in, we departed in late afternoon to explore the Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, a few kilometers outside town in the Cordillera de la Sal, Salt Mountains. My husband and I had visited this valley over a decade earlier in our college days and decided it was time to revisit this classic spot at sunset. These mountains are a marvel to behold. Nature over millions of years has carved them with wind and water and their composition is clay and Sodium Chloride (salt). There is no vegetation, just rock formations in colors ranging from reddish-brown to clay to caramel to white. There’s a reason that it is called Moon Valley with its arid, not-hospitable-to-life environment. Taking a hike was not unlike moonwalking, with the sun shining of course. This year in San Pedro they had unusual out of season rain in February so there was a layer of newly formed salt coating the landscape that honestly look like snow.

As we walked in the late afternoon, the wind started whipping up (not a good combo with sand). We went on a little exploration into a canyon with a cave, all formed from salt and clay crystals. The only way to describe the place is as eerie. You hear the formations creaking constantly. They moan, they groan, some even sounded like the pitter-patter of moisture dripping on the roof after the rain stops.

We headed to a bluff for a majestic view of the mountains, valley, Andes, and volcanoes in time for Nature’s nightly show: Sunset. Plus, a pre-dinner aperitivo. As the clock hit 20:00, the sun sunk into the western horizon. Its soft, golden rays turned the landscape golden, then orange, then pink, then purple, and then finally a deep cobalt blue of the early evening sky. I shivered as the mercury dropped. Stunning.

Early the next morning, we set off to the remote area near Yerbas Buenas, about 45 minutes from town, to see perfectly preserved prehistoric petroglyphs, carved by the Atacameno people. Dating back over 10,000 years, we saw depictions of llamas (a sign of fertility), chamanes (medicine men), even monkeys, that were in pristine condition. We made a pit stop nearby in the stunning Rainbow Valley with rocks and cliffs in all shades of colors of the rainbow. The soils derived their colors from the different mineral content and were yellow, white (salt), blue (cobalt), green (copper), red mountains, (clay). I had déjà vu several times of Northwest Argentina, only 8 hours away by car by Paso Jama and the altiplano.

In the afternoon, we decided to lay claim to one of the lovely six private pools at the hotel for ourselves and make the most of the sunshine. I delighted in reading a book for hours on end. My husband braved the cold pool water (non-heated!). Okay, it was surprisingly refreshing after being in the sun although I only submerged to my waist. I took a long, long siesta. It finally felt like a real weekend. I didn’t have to do anything, be anywhere, and get anything done. In this day and age that is a true luxury.

Before sunset, we decided to mosey into town for a little paseo. The town is still a backpacker hub with primarily restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops. My husband and I reminisced about our days in San Pedro in the 90s before the town had electricity all day (generator from 8-10pm each night) and was a dusty, adobe outpost. It had changed so much. The petit main square still housed the Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama, a beautiful, white washed adobe church dating back to 1745, finally being repaired! In the colorful artisan market, we hunted for hand-stitched stuffed llamas and darling Atacameno dolls. I had fallen in love with them at Awasi on a previous trip. However, we weren’t going to use them to decorate our living room or be a placeholder on the dinner table… these were bought thinking about Baby’s future nursery (pending project coming in May-June).

That night after dinner, walking back in nearly pitch black to our room, we stopped to stargaze in the cloudless sky. We could see the Milky Way galaxy with a naked eye. Thousands of stars blinked. According to our guide, who would explain on a hike the next day, we were actually looking at the past. By the time the light from those distant celestial bodies arrives to earth some of them are 400 light years away. Can you wrap your mind around that? Four hundred. Light. Years. San Pedro, and northern Chile, is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky with the high altitude, dry, clear weather, and low light pollution. It is as beautiful at night as during the day. I, at least, always have the sensation that there’s no way we can be alone in this infinite galaxy when I peer up to that endless cosmos.

So were our days in San Pedro. Full of sun, hikes, relaxation, a wonderful massage in the hotel spa, beautiful scenery, and most importantly togetherness without work. One morning, we trekked along the high ridge of Las Cornizas with sweeping views of the green Catarpe Valley below. We ran down the humungous sand dunes into Death Valley like little kids. We arose before dawn to take in nature’s early morning spectacle at Laguna Tebenquiche, an evaporating salt lagoon. Alone without another soul, not even a bird, for miles, we walked across the white, crusty sand towards water’s edge. As the sun peered from behind the volcanoes, the soft light reflected in the water so that the horizons touched. It was one of those moments you give thanks to be alive and realize how beautiful life truly is. It was also freezing cold. Bone-chilling cold. I shivered in my fleece, wishing I had thought to bring my trusty chullo from Santiago. I forgot shortly after as our guides served us steaming cups of coffee and the emerging sun warmed our bodies. Lagoon-side breakfast was a nice start to the week.

As we rode in the van back towards Calama and onwards to Santiago, we took in the final vistas of this beautiful place, one of the driest on earth. It is always amazing to me how after a few days in such stunning natural surroundings that you become “used” to seeing them. Oh right, that pink sunset on the volcanoes is just another daily occurrence. Or contemplating the rolling contours of the land for hundreds of kilometers is something we all do. Being a city dweller, this never gets old. However, Santiago and reality, was calling. So long San Pedro.

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