One of my favourite parts of travelling is having any preconceived ideas completely quashed. For example my image of Chilean cuisine would be homely, simple and perhaps seafood based. But there's a whole new generation of Chilean chef that is breathing new life into a cuisine using traditional rediscovered indigenous Chilean ingredients. Enter Chef Rodolfo Guzman.
Guzman, a youthful 36 years old with a tan, freckles and blue eyes is looking a bit frantic. His wife is about to have their third baby and his restaurant Boragó in the wealthy area of Vita Cura is full this Wednesday evening. He has just returned from a trip to Australia.
The restaurant open in 2010 wasn't an instant success. Chileans were skeptical about embracing this new type of cuisine and challenged by a completely home grown concept. It was only after accolades and the inclusion of Boragó in the Latin America Top 50 restaurants list that things really changed.
Rodolfo's team of thirty chefs stand behind the glass wall, each with their own role. One is responsible for dolloping, another holds tweezers and once these manoeuvres are performed, they switch places and stations.
Rodolfo's passion is rediscovering Chilean ingredients and working with the foraging community and small producers. This year he will set up a council with the Catholic University of Chile to study ancient Chilean food. One of the focuses is on food from the Mapuche community which is the largest indigenous population in Chile with a population of 750,000. The Mapuche hail from the Southern Lake District and their diet is mostly vegetarian.
The restaurant also has a plot of land outside Santiago on which they grow produce and he has close relationships with small producers and foragers. " I may have 30 chefs in the kitchen but I have 200 people with the same amount of participation. They are part of the team," Rodolfo says.
Pouring the Terremoto
We start the meal with a Terremoto, a cocktail which translates to earthquake. Made with sweet, fermented wine and a scoop of pineapple ice cream, it is dessert-sweet and quite addictive. And that's where the meaning comes into play as you feel your legs turn to jelly if you partake in one too many.
I'm not quite prepared for the table arrangement that comes next. A member of staff sets down seven items on the tale including several amuse bouches. We are eating from Borago's Endemica menu tonight that focus on endemic ingredients of Chile.
I start with a cuchufli, a delicate, slender rolled fine pastry which is normally a type of street food or sweet snack. It is filled with apple and wild walnut praline. The tiny baton melts in the mouth leaving behind a taste of walnut on the palate.
We follow this with a mouthful of a tiny donut split and spread with rich chicken liver pâté. This miniature donut is their take on a Berlin donut.
I cleanse my palate with the cube of melon with a toasted flour crust and topped with a flower called Chilco. This is to be eaten in one bite and is refreshing and mild.
The next morsel is a typical sort of Chilean bread called Tortilla de Rescoldo that is cooked in ash. If I had to describe it, it reminds me of a Chinese biscuit filled with taro. The bread is served in a cute bucket on a small grill plate with chips underneath referencing the traditional way of cooking these.
One of my favourite bites is the half sweet potato dusted with cochayuyo powder. Cochayuyo is a type of seaweed found in Chile and Southern New Zealand with a strong savoury taste. The sweet potato half is finished with a tiny onion flower on top.
To our side there is a small brown bag closed with a sticker. We remove the contents - it's a marraqueta bread roll that is a popular traditional Chilean bread. In a small bowl there s a spicy pebre mixture that you mix up with a spoon and spread on the bread. Pebre is an ubiquitous condiment usually found on every table in Chile and it is made with capsicum, chilli and coriander.
The first course arrives with the amuse bouches and it is a razor clam dish from Niebla near the coast of Chile. These pan fried razor clams are served with mayonnaise, clarified parsley, kefir yogurt, black seaweed and mastuerzo or geranium green leaves on top. It's utterly delicious and I lament that we only have one per serve. But I shouldn't be greedy as there are plenty of courses to come.
All of the courses can be paired with wine but there is also a juice pairing so I go with that. The first juice to arrive is a bright green lemongrass juice which is aromatic and sweet.
The dish that this is paired with is their take on Pichanga. Usually Pichanga is a pickled deli snack made with pickled vegetables and ham consumed while watching sport. Borago's version is of course different. The mixed pickled vegetables are served as a salad of beetroot balls and sea strawberries. These unique strawberries have the flavour and texture of strawberries but with a pronounced saltiness to them. The mastuerzo or geranium leaves have a flavour like green grape skins while there are little squirts of pink hued cream that taste like goat's milk.
My next drink arrives and it's a refreshing prickly pear juice. This is paired with Portulaca, a biodynamic wild summer plant grown 50kms south of Santiago. Rodolfo explains that they treat these thin ropey strands like meat and salt and grill them high heat. These are served alongside kefir yogurt dabs. This is a fantastic dish and the grilling brings out the flavour of these greens.
My next juice is a watermelon juice and the matching dish features wild sea asparagus or samphire that grows directly on rocks - Chile has a long coastline on the Western side side. On the base is a creamy layer with samphire and on top is a squid ink macaron topped with a puree of beach peas. There are tiny pops of molle or Peruvian pepper that gives the sublime dish a gingery and cardamom aspect.
The next dish is a real treat. Is not usually on the menu but Rodolfo brings it out as its one steeped in history and tradition. It is based on the curanto, an underground seafood and meat bake. Chileans can be superstitious and at times, if their crop fails they may believe that an area is cursed. To avoid the curse they may move their houses and the whole community gets involved in this process.
A minga is the process of moving and to feed the community during this monumental effort, the mover cooks up a curanto in which layers of food are baked in the ground using a layer of hot stones. On top of the food and stones are nalca Leaves which are large leaves up to a metre wide in diameter.
The dish is a take on a pullmay which is a version of a curanto cooked in a pot where the liquid is saved for a soup. Rodolfo removes the large green leaf to reveal a broth that is said to perfectly capture the taste of a curanto in every mouthful. It reminds me of a miso soup with kombu and has a wonderful depth of flavour. There is a tiny round of purple colour chewy potato flour pancake bread called milcao to go with it and I particularly like the spongy texture.
I take a sniff of the next drink and reel back. "Is this what I think it is?" I ask and indeed it is. It's a red capsicum or red pepper juice, all blazing aroma and colour but mild and sweet and taste. It is paired with a dramatic looking dish of conger eel coated in ash. The eel sits next to a sweet vegetable puree coated in seaweed that resembles a pine cone in shape. It is served with a cochayuyo broth. Is a wonderful dish tasting of the sea and the eel is perfectly matched with the sweet puree.
Murra is popular berry for juicing and murra juice resembles a sweet grape juice. It is paired with our final savoury dish of free range veal cooked in its own veal milk. Rodolfo sets it down on the table saying, "Please enjoy the dish, but don't eat the tree."
The milk is cooked down to a sweet reduction much like a dulce de leche and the skin that forms on top is served in wrinkled pieces. The veal is butter soft and there is an intensity of flavour from the milk skin too. And although I know that I have a few more courses coming, I finish it all.
The first of the dessert drinks arrives and a boldo juice. Smelling of rosemary and reminding me of herbal tea, it is said to be an excellent digestive. The first dessert is a long trail of wild blackberry ice cream made with murra berry topped with wild plants and murra cheese. It is sweet and satisfying and I enjoy the novel flavours.
My second last juice arrives and it's a pineapple and coconut juice. The others I'm dining with receive a chicha, a fermented fruit drink made using grapes or apples. Here it is made using Chardonnay and Carmenere grapes. The dessert is made using rica-rica which is a medicinal herb grown 3,500 metres above sea level in an arid desert. The rustic macron is filled with a chañar syrup, similar to treacle.
Pouring chicha into a serving horn
By now my head is spinning with all of these novel Chilean ingredients, their names carefully recorded, many of which I have ever heard of before.
The last drink is a drink made with espino, a spiky bush and chancaca, type of sugar that smells disconcertingly of coffee breath (I'm not kidding I promise!). The dessert is a sphere of espino and chocolate. They found that when it respino is treated a certain way, it tastes like coffee. It is frozen on the outside but soft and molten on the inside and despite the fact that we've had twenty or so tastes, I scrape the plate clean.
So tell me Dear Reader, are you familiar with any of these ingredients? And would you be interested if chefs started using native ingredients in your country?
NQN dined as a guest of Boragó and visited Chile as a guest of LAN Airlines and The Aubrey Hotel
Vitacura 8369, Santiago de Chile 8320000, Región Metropolitana, Chile
LAN Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN launched the new air connection to Chiloé Island in November 2012, enabling travellers to connect to and from the island in Southern Chile more easily. www.lan.com
Constitución 317, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile Phone:+56 2 2940 2800 http://www.theaubrey.com/