In Chile’s beautiful landscape, inspired chefs are bringing the country’s traditional recipes back to life, discovers Rocky Casale.
Chile's vineyards may have become famous for alternative (and good-value) wines, but its cuisine remains largely unknown. Northern Chile's barren and beautiful Atacama desert, one of the most arid places on the planet, seems an unlikely place to have interesting menus, let alone abundant and fresh ingredients. But I have come here on a tip, to the Hotel Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa where 26-year-old chef Luis Garay recently moved to the dust bowl town of San Pedro de Atacama to invigorate its local cuisine.
Garay's first impression of the regional fare was that it needed help. "Menus at almost all the restaurants serve food like pizza or pasta that doesn't really have anything to do with our local culinary traditions," he says. "Out here, restaurants are catering to tourists with quick, freezable foods."
Early one morning, Garay drives me to Coyo, an oasis about 10 minutes from the hotel. From a distance it appears to be little more than a cloud of dust and scrub. But the oasis is flecked with houses and a patchwork of farms and pear orchards. We pull through a string of sleepy residences to Daniela Bega's restaurant and farm. It is planted with alfalfa, chenar and algarroba trees. As we sit on a terrace under bunting that flaps in the cool morning wind, Garay explains that their fruits and seeds once featured prominently in Atacama cuisine and as tourism has grown these traditional recipes have slipped away. We try algarroba-flour cookies which are mildly dry with a pungent carob flavour, and chenar fruits, mixed with honey and served with puffed quinoa. For me, it is sickly sweet.
Back at the hotel I sit in a blooming spring garden sipping pisco as Garay lays out a rainbow-hued assemblage of herbs, plants and seeds that he forages and is now incorporating into his menu. The herbs and tinctures he gathers - such as seeds from the airampo opuntia cactus - tint his homemade icecream pink. He infuses pisco with medicinal desert herbs such as rica-rica, known by locals to alleviate everything from stomach ache to altitude sickness. It gives the liquor a mildly minty taste and is hugely popular. By early evening, the whizz of blenders churning out pisco sours is competing with the clatter of guests.
Garay arrived at Hotel Alto Atacama from the kitchens of Borago, Chile's best restaurant. I head there to meet 36-year-old chef Rodolfo Guzman, a wiry man with a mop of unkept black hair. When I arrive, Guzman and his kitchen team are piling knives, plastic totes and polystyrene boxes into the back of an SUV. They invite me along for the ride and we drive out through thick morning fog to Isla Negra. As we weave between highway lanes towards the coast, Guzman explains he is creating an encyclopedia of Chilean food, called Endemics, about the country's edible ingredients and lost recipes.
"Even though we want to present food that we think is visually stunning and innovative," Guzman says, "we need to look back in time to bring our native culinary traditions forward." One of Guzman's assistant chefs says that 60 per cent of Chile's food resources still haven't been documented.
When we arrive at the beach, Guzman shows me how to forage among rocks for wild purple radish flowers and salty samphire. His team climbs these jagged beach rocks every week to collect clover-shaped bitter greens.
Later, while cutting wild mushrooms from a dim, damp forest carpeted in pine needles, Guzman tells me that it has been a challenge for his restaurant to gain traction in Chile. Most people are largely unfamiliar with the country's enormous cache of foraged land and sea ingredients. Still, I can tell from his enthusiasm and complicated menu that Borago has Michelin-star hopes. The restaurant is booked a month in advance but I manage to get a table thanks to a last-minute cancellation, and the food that we foraged earlier that day arrives in various confections of foam, gel or smoke. Everything is presented on beds of bright-green moss or hanging from miniature trees fashioned from rica-rica branches.
Not everyone in Chile needs to trick out their entrees to refashion the public's perception of Chilean cuisine. Two brief flights south of Santiago bring me to Chiloe Island, known for its bounty of enormous shellfish, such as clams and mussels, which come into port at the capital Castro. I stand at the far end of the market watching fishmongers drink cheap beer and dice up clam or salmon ceviche. In market stalls beside them, women huddle together whispering to each other and knitting alpaca woollen hats and socks to sell to tourists.
On the island's Rilan peninsula is Tierra Chiloe, a 12-room all-inclusive resort. The kitchen is led by chef Jaime Alexis Aguilera Tapia, who is exploring local recipes from the island. Most guests take their meals at the hotel because of its isolated location - there are coastal regions on the island as desolate and stunning as the Hebrides. For my first meal Tapia prepares his favourite local dish, a curanto, which could be considered the Rolls-Royce of clam bakes.
At twilight we walk out back together through the wet spring air and watch his assistant chefs turn hot stones in an open pit fire on to which they pile fresh clams, mussels, potatoes, fava beans, smoked pork, chicken and dough patties called chochoca made from baked potato, flour and pork lard. They cover the smoking pit full of food with giant naka leaves and let everything hiss and steam for an hour.
"We can't make dishes like curanto and chochoca without Chile's local ingredients and inherited recipes," says Tapia. "I continue to prepare these recipes to preserve the identity of the island and its unique culinary culture."
I leave Chile no longer thinking that it's just a one-stop place for extraordinary hiking, surfing and skiing - it's unique cuisine and chefs such as Tapia and Guzman are reason alone to travel there.
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Destination tip: Head for the hills to Valparaiso north west of Santiago. Make sure you pack good walking shoes and explore Chile's Pacific port, picking out the colourful, shingle-walled townhouses that twist around the cliffs and ravines of 45 hills.