South America

20140211-202151.jpgOr “location, location, location!”

Let’s face it, I’m not just living in a new country, but also a new continent, which brings with it a variety of different places, people and culture, and fantastic opportunities to explore.

It’s not like I’m on the move all the time like last time I visited South America and covered 7 countries in five months.  I work and have some form of daily/weekly routine that keeps me in Santiago most of the time.

But living here allows me to get out from time to time, and get to know places that would be   s o   f a r   away if I was still in Australia.

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I have managed to see a little more of Chile, flying up to San Pedro de Atacama when a friend visited, taking a road trip up the coast and into Valle de Elqui with another visiting friend, and another road trip south as far as Valle de Maule with another friend. These latter two trips obviously incorporated some wine and, indeed, my interest in that field has also led me to explore, in depth, many of the wine regions around Santiago.

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I saw a lot of the rest of Chile when I was here last time, but I’m sure the opportunity will come up at some stage to revisit more of this beautiful country.

But there is, of course, also opportunity to get out to see a little more of the continent.

Last August, I took a truly-foodie trip to Lima with fellow-foodie-friend Fernando and, in addition to seeing some of the city’s sites, experienced the great range of Peruvian food, from the street, to China Town, to the city’s top two restaurants.  Although I would have liked to have seen the sun sometimes (Lima is notoriously cloudy), the trip was delicious, fun, and worth the extra 5 kilos!

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Over New Year, it was great to be able to take a friend up on a very kind invitation to spend some time on his country property in Uruguay.  After finding some reasonably priced flights, a group of four friends enjoyed a relaxing time together, sharing home cooked meals and exploring the coastline and surrounding areas.  Those of us who were visiting, albeit for a second or third time, got to know a different part of country and enjoy seeing it through the eyes of someone that had lived there for 10 years and knows it very well.

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When a Buenos Aires-based friend managed to get a free apartment for a week in Mendoza, I was able to find a very reasonable flight (US$140 return – cheaper and quicker than the bus) and join her and another friend for a girly week of wineries and restaurants.  With the exchange rate very much in our favour, it turned out to be an indulgent week with a relatively cheap price tag.

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So, I’ve managed to get to know some places a little better and it’s great to be able to jump at these opportunities, which would be so far from reality back home, when they arise.

This year, I plan to see some places that I’ve never been before, both of Chile (e.g. Easter Island), and abroad, like Colombia.

Although flights here are not cheap compared to Europe or the US, where competition is more intense, good offers come around and I will be keeping my eye on them to see what other opportunities present themselves.

So, I don’t just love living in Chile, I love living and experiencing all that a whole new continent has to offer!

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Valpo

20140209-220606.jpgValparaiso is Chile’s biggest port city and, before the Panama Canal, was thriving.  Now, it’s still an active, if less-busy, port, but the city now thrives on tourism.

The lower part of Valpo is built on reclaimed land from the sea, and the surrounding steep hills are filled with colourful, tightly packed houses – all different colours because they were apparently originally painted with whatever leftover paint was available after the ships had been painted.

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Another unique characteristic of Valpo is the “elevators” that carry people up the hills, for about $200 pesos (40 cents).  Many of the elevators are currently under repair, but a few of the main ones still operate.

20140209-220549.jpgI visited Valpo for the first time when I was here five years ago, stayed a couple of nights, ran around and saw the major “tourist attractions” (including one of Pablo Neruda’s houses), got debilitating food poisoning from something and, when I was able to, went back to Santiago.

No wonder that, when I got back to Santiago last year, I wasn’t really in a hurry to go back to Valpo.  I went to the beautiful Casablanca Valley (which is on the way) a number of times, but never bothered to go any further than that.

My next trip to Valpo eventually came about after living in Santiago for 7 months, when some friends were visiting from Argentina and we took a day trip on the bus.  I went again shortly afterwards when a bestie visited from Australia, and we spent a day in Casablanca before continuing on for an overnight stay in Viña del Mar, and an exploration of Viña and Valpo the following day.

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Each time I go, I discover a little more about Valpo and love it a little more.  Sure, at ground level, it’s still a port city – grungy and dirty and at times, a little shifty.  But there is beautiful architecture and interesting life and, hit the hills and (as touristy as they are), they are an open-air gallery of beautiful street art and lovely hidden art galleries that you can explore for hours.

20140209-220737.jpgThere are also great restaurants and, in a case of third-time-lucky, I finally got to “Pasta e Vino” with some visiting Aussie friends, and have been back twice since!

It’s quickly become probably my favourite restaurant in Chile and, yes, I’ve been known to take a Sunday trip to Valpo just to have lunch there after fantasizing about their corn gnocchi with carne mechada.  Yum!

20140209-220757.jpgIf you have a car, great, but it’s a cheap and short 1.5 to 2 hour bus trip from Santiago, and you don’t have to worry if you have a couple of wines at lunch.

So, now, I’ve come to think of Valpo less as a place that you go to show visitors around, and more as a nice day trip from Santi to get out-of-town on the weekend, eat well, and spend some quiet time exploring the meandering and colourful side streets and their resident galleries.  It’s almost like the Melbourne equivalent of Daylesford, without the spas.

Valpo, you have definitely become one of the things I love about living in Chile.

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berries

20140207-185125.jpgBerries, berries and more berries!

Summer is a great time for berries and, here, they’re SO cheap!

The market is full of them, and they are so vibrant and colourful.  I can buy raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and cherries by the kilo!  Can you imagine doing that in Australia, where a 125g of blueberries is cheap if it ever gets down to $4?

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I can put a handful of blueberries on my muesli in the morning, and know that I will still be able to pay my rent.  When there’s too many to eat fresh, I stock the freezer for use in cooking, smoothies, or blended with greek yoghurt for an easy low-fat ice cream-style treat.  Blueberry pancakes with raspberry sauce?  Done!

Summer’s here, it’s berry season, and it’s one of the things I love about living in Chile.

vendimia

20140204-171315.jpgVendimia!  Vintage!  Harvest Festival!

I had SO much fun last year, and the first festival of the season is just one month away. The biggest, held in Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, will run from 7-9 March, and the other regions will soon fill the calendar in the weekends after that, finishing in early April.

I managed to make it to at least four last year, Colchagua, Buin, Pirque and Casablanca, plus a couple of private ones at wineries and restaurants. Hopefully I can get to as many this year, and maybe fit Curico into the mix.

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Folk dancing (cueca), live music, grape squashing, traditional costumes, local produce, great weather, country settings, good friends, lots of delicious food, and wine, wine, wine!

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It’s the best time of year to be in Chile, and one of the things I love most about living here.

cordero al palo

20140203-232139.jpgSorry vegetarians, but “cordero al palo” (“lamb on a post”), a specialty from the Patagonia region in the south of Chile, is just plain yummy.

Luckily, we don’t have to travel the 2,000 kilometres to the south just to eat it (though the trip would certainly be worthwhile to see the amazing scenery).  Technically, a whole lamb impaled on its “post”, it’s a popular addition to various festivals held locally, like the patriotic 18th September week “fondas”, “vendimias” (wine festivals), and other food festivals.

I’ve also been lucky enough to enjoy a home-style version using half a lamb, cooked over a drum, similar to what we’d call “lamb on the spit” in Australia.

Slow-cooked for hours (approx. 5 for a full lamb) over hot coals, it is simply juicy, sweet, and finger-lickingly delicious.

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Thankfully, there are also a couple of good restaurants around Santiago if the cravings get too much, like El Meson de la Patagonia in Lo Barnechea for one.

What’s not to love?

My first Thanksgiving dinner

20131124-203822.jpgIt’s been a while between posts, and I’m sorry about that.  There’s a number of reasons, but a lack of fun things to write about is certainly not one of them.  Rather than backtrack, I thought I’d sit down and write about an event while it was still fresh in my mind.

One of the good things about living in a diverse city with so many expats, is that you get to sample a lot of different cultures, not just the local one.  It’s been “French Week” here for example, so there have been a number of French-style events around Santiago.  I also recently enjoyed a South American festival, with a great selection of food and wine, on a sunny Spring day in the park.  On top of that, the North American Thanksgiving is upon us, Christmas will promptly follow, then it’s New Year’s, etc.  They don’t call it the “Silly Season” for nothing!

untitledIt seems rather ironic that, although I’ve spent time in the US (and have an American brother-in-law!), I had my first Thanksgiving dinner in Chile.  When I first saw the event published, I thought the menu looked great, but I didn’t immediately sign up as I didn’t think of it as “our holiday”.  The event had been organised by Kimberly, another fairly recent arrival, this time from New York, who has set up her own business “Savory Five” and works with local chefs to deliver events with a twist.  As the date got closer, I heard from a few “gringo” friends about what Thanksgiving means to them and, no, it wasn’t ALL football, the discovery of America, and turkey.  In fact, for many, it is the launching pad for the holiday season, a great time to share with friends and family, and an opportunity to reflect on all the things you are thankful for.  With a new perspective, and a few places still remaining at the table, I enlisted seasoned foodie friend, Fer, to join me and we booked ourselves in.

20131124-203833.jpgThe evening started relatively early by Chilean standards, at 7pm, and was held at Casaluz, a pretty little restaurant in Barrio Italia.  When we arrived, we were shown to a beautiful, leafy courtyard where we were immediately welcomed with a refreshing cocktail.  Always a good start to an evening!  Despite the recent bout of hot weather, the day had been quite cool and the evening threatened rain.  Given the outdoor setting, and the amount of work that had been put in to make the courtyard look beautiful, I really hoped that it wouldn’t be the case.  The organisers were prepared for the cool change however, with soft, fluffy blankets available to wrap yourself in as the evening cooled down and, thankfully, the rain held off and the sky cleared as the night went on.

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We initially mingled, armed with our cocktails, and enjoyed some Thanksgiving-themed appetisers, my favourites being a yummy Pumpkin Arancini, and a Goat’s Cheese and Bacon bruschetta with Apple Chutney.  We bumped into some friends we already knew, and met new people, including a lady who had recently spent time with her daughter in Melbourne and couldn’t speak highly enough of our beautiful city.

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As people filtered in, musicians played softly under a nearby tree, and the pumpkin-resembling lanterns were lit up.  The courtyard and tables had been decorated with abundant Thanksgiving produce, some embellished with gold paint.  The overall effect was relaxing and lovely.

We were soon seated at our tables, and our order was taken for our choice of entrée, main and dessert, all with a Thanksgiving flavour of course.  Fer and I chose different dishes for entrée and main, but both decided we really needed to try the Pumpkin Pie for dessert.

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The rocket salad with figs, pecans, dried cranberries and parmesan looked great, but my Pumpkin and Ginger soup was not only good, but also reminiscent of home.

By the time the mains were being served, the sun had fully set and the lantern-lit courtyard was full of the buzz of people enjoying their evening.

For the main, Fer had ordered the quintessential Roast Turkey.  It was a little on the dry-side, an easy thing to do with turkey, especially when feeding so many people.  I went for the Rib-Eye, not being able to go past the promise of a good pepper sauce.  I felt a little like Fred Flintstone when my huge steak arrived and, although the meat was nicely cooked and tender, there was no way I was able to get through it all, not even with the help of some willing neighbours.  I wasn’t sure about the connection between Rib-Eye and Thanksgiving but, as we ate, our hostess Kimberly explained that her Great Uncle Stan always prepared a fresh Rib-Eye at Thanksgiving and the dish was on the menu in his honour.  A sweet tribute.

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The mains were served with “fixings” or sides, served “family style”, shared in the middle of the table.  There was a lovely plate of roast vegetables, mashed potato, an apple sauce for the turkey (as fresh cranberries had proven elusive in Chile at this time of year), and the delicious pepper sauce for the Rib-Eye.

During the meal, we were served different wines by our friendly sommelier, starting with a Sauvignon Blanc and a 100% Petit Verdot, and followed by a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which was my preference.

20131124-204123.jpgOur dessert arrived and, although the pumpkin pie was soft and sweet with a good texture, it really wasn’t to my taste.  I guess that’s what comes from a lifetime of eating pumpkin as a savoury food.  The alternative dessert, a pecan bar, arrived for my neighbour and he was kind enough to let me taste it.  It was nutty and tasty, but a little dry and possibly could have benefited from a little caramel sauce (yum!).

After being offered coffee, and lingering a while longer, we decided to make a move before we ourselves turned into pumpkins.  As we said our goodbyes, our hostess gave us a lovely “care package”, which contained a hand-drawn Chilean card, and a take-home serve of roast turkey.  I guess, like any good Christmas, there’s never a Thanksgiving without leftovers, and it certainly made the next day’s dinner an easy choice!  The package was trimmed with a card, prompting us to think of things to be thankful for, of which there are certainly many.

Overall, it was a fabulous, very well-organised evening, with every detail given careful consideration.  Considering that the kitchen had no experience with Thanksgiving dishes, the food was very well prepared, plentiful and delicious.  Most of all, it was lovely to mingle with a diverse and fun group of people, many of whom were also experiencing their first Thanksgiving dinner.

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Salvador – “cocina” and cafe in the centre

There has definitely been a recent surge in “hidden dinners”, “pop-ups” and “closed-door restaurants” in Santiago and, amongst them, Salvador could almost be considered a veteran, recently celebrating a year in business.

I met chef and owner, Rolando, at another cena escondida, in my dining room actually. A friend, collaborator and supporter, he had been invited along by Colmado co-owner and chef, Manolo, after helping with some recent bureaucratic issues.

As we enjoyed Manolo’s delicious food, we listened in awe to the description of Rolando’s restaurant and, before the end of the night, a group of us had booked the last remaining places at his next “comedor clandestino” (clandestine dining room).

20130821-235028.jpgSalvador is open every weekday for lunch, and the menu changes every day, depending on the market-fresh and seasonal produce that is delivered, and now churns out 120 lunches a day.

Once a month, the team welcome a group of up to 14 people into the restaurant to enjoy a six-course dinner with matched wine.

And so, within two-weeks of our last hidden dinner, we arrived at Salvador, in a quiet cobbled street in the centre of Santiago, to enjoy just one such dinner.

20130821-234902.jpgWe were escorted upstairs, where we were greeted by our host, introduced to the other guests, and welcomed with a refreshing glass of bubbles, a Viña Casablanca Blanc de Blancs. A lot of love and detail has gone into the decoration, and the shared table looked inviting and homey, perfect for sharing a culinary experience with new and old friends.

It wasn’t long before our first course arrived, shared appetiser plates distributed along the table.

20130821-234703.jpgA warning: Rolando’s food is not for the faint-hearted or dieters! With many “multi-course” degustation dinners, you start out small and light, and gradually build up to the bigger courses but, here we were, presented with roasted butternut pumpkins, the flesh removed and enhanced with goat’s cheese and mint, then replaced in the shell and served with merken-perfumed toast. Yum! I think I ate a quarter of a pumpkin on my own. This is definitely a simple, delicious, and visually beautiful dish that you definitely want to try at home and share with a group of friends.

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The first of the entrées soon arrived, an innocent-looking and simply described dish of potato and asparagus. But a surprise was waiting! Upon cracking open the potato, an ooze of perfectly cooked quail egg escaped, adding “wow” factor and completing the dish perfectly. I’ve never liked a potato so much in my life!

20130821-234719.jpgThe next entrée was a cold carrot and ginger-spiced soup with a cured fish (“rollizo”). My fish had been replaced by pickled fennel and blue cheese and, I think in this case, my substituted plate won hands down! The flavour combinations created an unforgettable and amazing flavour punch.

Both of the entrées were served with a very-locally produced Aquitania Rosé of cabernet sauvignon, a dryer style rosé that complimented both dishes nicely.

Next up was the first of the main courses, and Rolando watched with interest for the reaction of the table. Described on the menu as a medallion of pork with a puree of apple, we should have known that none of Rolando’s dishes were going to be quite so pedestrian. We were presented a “terrine” of pig’s trotter, served on a bed of apple puree.

20130821-234755.jpgI tried to like it, I really did, but the chewy and gelatinous texture, and the search for actual meat, was a bit much for me, and I was thankful for the Las Niñas Reserve Shiraz (sorry, Syrah) to wash it down. Our Spanish companions at the other end of the table however, polished it off and, although contentious, it was a dish that I was glad to say I had at least tried (and know I never have to try again!)

20130821-234816.jpgWe stuck with the Syrah for our second main course, osso buco braised in wine and served in a crunchy sourdough loaf, accompanied by a sprig of fresh rosemary that added a delicious aroma and flavour to the dish. It was also accompanied by the roasted bone marrow, which we enjoyed lavishly spread on the crunchy bread. Another winner, although I was definitely running out of room by this stage, and dessert was still to come!

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20130821-234839.jpgDessert was described as a “teacup” of cheese with pomegranate and Late Harvest. I wondered just how we were going to be served a “cup” of cheese but, by this stage, I knew it would be something wonderfully inventive, and I wasn’t wrong. A delicate mix of lightly aerated creamy cheese was topped with grains of pomegranate, and covered a piece of Late Harvest-soaked sponge. It was a perfectly light and fresh end to a hearty meal.

To finish the night off, the chef joined us at the table for a fruity and fresh cocktail, and great conversation, before a group of us walked home in the crisp but pleasant Santiago night.

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I have been following Salvador on Facebook ever since, where they publish their daily menu and many hunger-inducing photos.  Of course, I knew I had to check out one of their famous weekday lunch menus so, on a work-free sunny Santiago winter’s Friday, I grabbed an equally work-free friend, and we set off early to make sure we got a seat.

We were given a table upstairs, with a view to the relatively small kitchen where Rolando was hard-at-work, directing the frantic show.

20130821-234909.jpgThe small, market-fresh menu presented a range of delicious options, which could either be ordered “a la carte”, or in a very-reasonably priced three-course “menu” with an iced tea, and either coffee or dessert.  We, of course, chose the menu and, the wannabe-Mexican in me couldn’t go past the entrée of chilaquiles.  Made with homemade toasted tortillas and topped with a delicious salsa and perfectly cooked egg, I would go back for this dish alone.  My much-larger-than-me friend chose the much-lighter-than-mine option of cream of zucchini soup which was also reportedly delicious, but we were too busy hoeing into our own plates to share this course!  The iced tea was a fresh homemade blend of celery, beetroot and ginger.

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For the main, I opted for a “milanesa” or schnitzel, stuffed with goat’s cheese and jamon, and served on a very-big bed of rustic baked potato.  Rodrigo chose the oven-baked penne with rocket and vegetables which, this time, I can vouch for and confirm was also delicious.

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Thankfully, dessert was a fine sliver of apple tart that couldn’t be refused, but that topped off the meal nicely.

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With most of the lunchtime rush behind him, Rolando came out of the kitchen to greet us, which gave us the opportunity to thank him for another delicious meal.

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I still watch the tempting menu every day and, thankfully for my waistline, I am often on the other side of town and working at lunchtime, but I am sure that this will not have been my last Salvador experience.

The “clandestine dining room” continues, and has grown to include some collaborative dinners with other chefs, including Colmado, the first of which was reportedly a great blend of different styles from two very talented chefs.  Watch their Facebook page for details, and get in quickly to reserve your seat at the communal table.