It was that time of year again recently, when the whole country stops to celebrate its heritage and the coming of Spring. It’s Fiestas Patrias, highlighted by the Big Day: Dieciocho de Septiembre (September 18). And I’ve been here long enough now to know that one of the great loves of most residents in this geographic wonderland called Chile is the outdoors. So it seemed only natural that this year’s national celebration take place not in the confines of my well-worn quincho (BBQ pavilion) or at one of the many public festivals honoring everything Chilean (see prior post: Chiles Festivals of Festivals), but rather outside. The only challenge: where to go to relish in Chile’s great outdoors while still avoiding airport crowds and heavy highway traffic. The answer was less than a couple of hours away; Cajon Del Maipo.
Cajón del Maipo is a remarkable mountain canyon area just south of Santiago. It encompasses the upper Maipo River, squeezed into a narrow but rugged valley, with a collection of smaller rivers branching off. The result is a steep canyon with a healthy mix of acacia, scrub and even deciduous forest lining both steep sides -- all forming a diverse environment perfect for outdoor fun of nearly any skill level. The Cajon's main town is San Jose De Maipo, a tidy series of adobe lined streets leading to a central square and many small shops and eateries. It's also the last chance for gasoline, so fill up before heading further down the sealed road and higher into the mountainous canyon. After about twenty kilometers that road diminishes into dirt, rising higher toward rugged natural thermal pools and the Argentinian border. In the warm Southern Cone summer, you don't really need four-wheel drive to get up there -- but you'll wish you had it, as the road is rutted and rough. But in the winter, if you don’t have a full-blown 4x4 and chains, well, forgettaboutit....
Ours was not to be an expedition requiring such technology, though by the look of the things packed in the cars one might have thought otherwise or suspected that the Beverly Hillbillies had moved very far south. Our destination was Tres Continentes -- a trio of tidy cabanas on the edge of the Maipo River, in the shadow of rocky cliffs. Rough hewn of natural wood, stone, a potbellied woodburner inside and a wonderful quincho outside, each cabana offered all the comforts of really nice glamping. Perfect for our National Day getaway with friends to embrace the near Andes for a long weekend.
The plan was simple: merge the exploration of outdoor activities with good food and wine along the way. This included horseback riding up rough terrain, zip lining across the river, hiking to beautiful waterfalls and whitewater rafting. And, of course, cooking over open flames – Chilean style. Which immediately translates into grilling an array of meat and veg and washing it all down with good Chilean wine.
At Casacada de Animas, an enclave of outdoor activities and river relaxation, we kicked off our weekend with dinner of local classics at La Tribu, in its comfortable, treehouse-like setting on the edge of the river. It was a good start to a weekend of the nation’s favorite foods – an indoor prelude to what would be a celebration of Chile’s best way to cook its great food: over open flames. So it was back to our rustic hand-carved cabanas, to cook, eat and drink nothing but Chile.
During the days we played hard to burn off the prior night’s feast and prepare for the next. And to fortify ourselves for such outdoor activities came another true Chilean staple: empanadas. Filled with shrimp, or cheese or pino (ground meat with spices, olives and a hard-cooked egg), the bubbles of bronzed crust and tender dough forming half-moons larger than your hand were the perfect portable daytime treat that left us wanting for nothing more than a cold Kunstman lager in the early-Spring sunshine.
But we were here to cook and eat, so it was important to start out right. And malaya is one of the best starters for any plate of grilled food in Chile -- at least for lovers of all things porcine. It can be best described as a blanket of fresh pork that normally covers the ribs in a marble of flesh and fat -- which in the US might be called pork rose meat. Now I'm not talking about those skinny strips of soon to be overly-crispy, rendered down pork belly (aka bacon). I'm talking pork strips the way they should be prepared – spread over a hot grill like a comforter on a bed, sizzling ad popping and releasing a haze of pure piggy-porky goodness. Flip it a couple of times, then spritz with fist-squeezed lemon and slice into finger-friendly pieces. That’s all anyone needs for the perfect appetizer – pork, pure and simple. So if you like pork, and you haven’t tried malaya yet, you gott’a go do it. Now.
Of course Fiestas Patrias wouldn’t be complete without that grilled sausage centerpiece known as Choripan. It’s the beauty of sausage simplicity – local spiced chorizo grilled to perfect plumpness, shoved into a fresh-baked mini-loaf of mariqueta and slathered with the national (not so) hot sauce: pebre. Throw in some local corn (choclo) cooked in the coals and a few tasty sides and you have yourself a Fiestas Patrias plate that no self-respecting Chileno would exclude on this holiday of holidays in South America’s downunder.
Of course, once hot coals of a quincho have settled to that perfect glow and the heat is smooth and steady, it’s nearly impossible for any Chilean to not throw on a few steaks. It is, after all, the preferred protein throughout the year and the big holiday here is no exception. So to embrace that tradition we kept it simple, great Lomo Vetado (in the US, Rib Eye) steaks thick cut by hand and kissed with a dry rub of herbs and spices, cooked a punto (medium rare). Along side the feast of beef rested fire-charred broccoli spritzed with lemon and sweet, soft onions.
And while an oenophile might suggest a well-aged Cabernet as the perfect accompaniment to such exceptional flame-kissed flesh, we kept it uniquely local with the fruity chewiness of Chile’s favorite wine – Carmenere – to wash down our ridiculously good celebration of all things Chilean.