SLOW FOOD WORLD Red Hot Chile

When I heard there was a Chilean chef in town, I expected to encounter a dark, suave Latin type. Instead I met the charming, mild-mannered Francisco Klimscha, soon to be leader of the first Slow Food Chilean Convivium in Santiago. The son of Swiss and Czech parents, he was born in Chile. Unlike many Americans with foreign parents (Asian-American, African-American), he puts no hyphen in his nationality, but firmly states “I am Chilean”.

It would be hard to find a more food-savvy leader for the new Convivium: Francisco is a trained chef with a restaurant consulting business in Santiago, and is the ninth generation, on his father’s side, of chefs. His mother comes from a family of wine producers, so food and wine run through his veins.

A member of Les Toques Blanches, an international group of top chefs, he has a lot to say about the traditional products of Chile. Top among his picks of outstanding local products are tender lamb from Patagonia, slaughtered at four months of age; wild salmon from Patagonia; potatoes from Chiloe Island, where the women cultivate a variety of unusual shapes and colors; rare grains and beans first cultivated by indigenous peoples thousands of years ago; King Crab, locally called centolla, caught off the coast of Patagonia; and merken, a spice mix typical of the southern province of Temuco. Merken is made from dried red chiles, either smoked or unsmoked, and ground coriander seeds, sometimes with the addition of salt, and is used to season everything from lamb to bean soup.
Francisco is interested in the possibility of creating a Presidium for the Chiloe Island potatoes and some of the bean varieties, of which there are over 70, passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Two main goals of the Santiago Convivium will be to work with children on taste education, providing a counterpoint to the ever-increasing presence of fast food restaurants, and to increase the popularity of local Chilean food products.

As for Santiago’s restaurant scene, Francisco notes with pride that many of the most prestigious restaurants, often found in the grand hotels, are using local ingredients to serve refined versions of traditional dishes. This celebration of locality gives tourists a chance to savor the true flavors of Chile, as well as giving a boost to farmers and small producers.

I ask Francisco for some traditional recipes, and he is at a bit of a loss. Unlike in Italy, where cities fight over the exact ingredients of their regional dishes (take, for example, the addition of ground amaretti cookies into the pumpkin filling in Emilia-Romana’s famous tortelli di zucca), Chile does not have a tradition of written recipes. Instead, dishes are prepared following general guidelines and based on whatever ingredients are readily available.

One very convivial dish which follows this principle is called curanto. A bit like a clambake, it takes all day to prepare. First, large stones are placed in a roaring fire to heat up. Next a large hole is dug in the ground, and the hot stones are put in the bottom, followed by a varying combination of chicken, beef, pork, lamb, fish, mussels, potatoes and vegetables. The mixture is then covering with green leaves and sealed with earth. At this point, the feasters sit back, relax, and open a bottle of Chile’s famous white wine. The curanto takes about two hours to finish cooking. Everything is dug up and served, simply seasoned with salt or merkin, or perhaps a spicy Chilean salsa (tomato, cilantro, salt, merkin, oil).

Even before the first Convivium arrives in Chile, it is clear the Chileans have a good understanding of slow food!

Sarah Weiner, who has a BA in Economics from Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, currently lives in Italy, where she is a member of the editorial staff of old.slowfood.com.

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