A peculiar tradition inherited from the British, who settled in Chile in the 1800s, tea time in Chile is deeply rooted in Chilean food culture and is affectionately called Onces. Although the origin of the word is disputed, it seems to have its roots in the eleven-letter word, aguardiente, meaning fire water. At the end of the 19th century, the workers in the salt peter mines, run by the English, would have their tea time accompanied by shots of fire water. To disguise the word, they simply called it once, now referred to in the plural as “Onces.”
Onces in Chile today is as popular as it was a century ago. It reminds me of breakfast-for-dinner; a sort of evening brunch that will commonly take place at home with family, friends, and neighbors. It can range from a simple cup of tea and some toasted marraqueta with butter, mashed avocado, jam, cheese, cold cuts, or addictive manjar, milk caramel, to gigantic slices of cake that would certainly suffice as dinner. Chileans have a m-a-j-o-r sweet tooth and will look for any plausible excuse to indulge it. Onces is their perfect excuse. While Onces can be salty with even empanadas and crustless sandwiches filled with shredded chicken, avocado and mayo, this is typically the meal where they will serve elaborate pies, cakes like mil hojas, dulces chilenos, cookies, crepes drowned in manjar, German küchen fruit tartlets, sopaipillas, juice, and even ice cream.
Onces now is popular outside the home and cafés in every village, town, and city magically fill up at the strike of 6pm. Friends meet to debate politics, soccer, and life over tea, sweets, and in many cases, between long drags of nicotine. Onces is usually served anywhere from 5-8pm, although if you are on the late side, it is completely acceptable to have what they call Once-comida, a funky combination of tea with leftovers from the night before and a fat slice of cake. Back in the day, when I was a college exchange student in Chile from 1997-98, Onces was the main evening meal with my host family that always accompanied the latest national soap opera. I loved it! Who wouldn’t want to have breakfast for dinner every night?!
Today, I will admit that I don’t do onces at home too often, salad rules in our house, but I particularly crave Onces in the south of Chile in bucolic towns like Frutillar and Puerto Varas where the German blood runs strong and the baked goods are particularly tempting. Rainy cold weather, plush green hills, and snow-peaked volcanoes in the distance make you want to cuddle up with a pot of Earl Grey and plow your fork into that glossy pie at the gorgeous tea house on Lake Llanquihue’s shores, Casa Lavanda, or tuck into an ethereal vegetarian empanada and cortado coffee from Café Danés.