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One of the joys of food is how every culture has its own traditions, some of them dating back thousands of years. On the coast of Patagonia, people have always cooked shellfish in holes in the ground. Today, that tradition continues, and tourists are able to join in the fun. Our Chile correspondent Steven Bodzin went to see how the old cooking style survives in the modern world.
AMBI: FIRE SOUNDS
Getting a fire started is always a challenge in they rainy climate of Southern Chile. You can hear the wood hissing and popping. But lighting the fire is just the first step in preparing the traditional Patagonian feast, called a curanto (kur-AN-toe).
It’s a very old way of um cook seashells, shellfish, and fish or lamb or whatever it is that you want to cook inside this.
I’m with Michael Opitz, the general manager of the Arrebol Patagonia Hotel in Puerto Varas, Chile. Today, he’s expecting a tour group of more than 50 Germans, and he wants to give them food to remember.
The idea is to make a hole in ground and then you make a fire, put stones that are already cooked, we say cooked because you have to prepare the stones or else they explode (laugh), and the idea is to make a fire and make these stones get warm, very very warm, and if you then have to take all the wood out of this fire, so the only thing that remains is the stones, and then up, um, then on top of it you put the shellfish or whatever it is you want to cook, and then you have to cover it, so it’s like a pressure pot. but natural.
AMBI: Kitchen – cleaning seafood
While he heats up the rocks, I go down into the hotel kitchen, where the staff is cleaning clams and mussels.
cholgas, choros, almejas en curanto. obviamente carne ahumada, pollo, longaniza.
The cook says that along with the seafood, they’ll cook pots of smoked pork, chicken and longaniza sausage. For the 50 guests, he is cleaning 50 kilograms of seafood. I ask him why so much.
lo que más sobra es mariscos, después del curanto. no puede poner muy poco, por la calorias que la pone a la piedra. si no los quemaría.
There’s always too much seafood after a curanto. You can’t put too little, for the amount of heat being put off by the stones. If it’s too little, they’ll burn.
Meanwhile, women are peeling and grating potatos for two special kinds of dumplings. Milcaos are fried potato pancakes with bits of pig skin mixed in. Chapaleles are made from a batter much like gnocchi, with a mix of mashed potato and flour.
Upstairs, the rocks are now hot, and Michael has pulled all the wood and coals out of the hole in the ground. All that remains is super-heated volcanic rocks, each roughly the size of a brick.
FX: dumping the shellfish on the rocks
The staff dump 50 kilos of seafood right onto the hot rocks. They also place metal bowls of raw meat in the hole to be cooked by the steam.The staff hurry to trap the steam with the huge leaves of a local plant, called nalca. These thick, leathery leaves are each a meter or more in diameter.
FX: putting leaves on top, continue down & under
After the first layer of leaves, they lay down the chapaleles. Remember them? They are like pancake-sized gnocchi. Placed on top of these nalca leaves, they make one of the best, most special flavours I’ve ever had. They take up tannins from the leaves, giving the bread a toasted, woody flavour. They also absorb smoky smells from the smoked meat, and of course they are being steamed in boiling clam juice.
And that’s how the feast is prepared. If this were a traditional curanto, workers would be now finishing up moving a house or hauling a new fishing boat down the beach into the water. The food is typically enjoyed throughout the afternoon, with everyone heading home at the end of the day, satisfied.