Saturday, May 26, 2012

Curanto in Southern Chiloe Chile

An enchanted island archipelago, Chiloé is a bewitching place of silent forests and craggy peaks that tumble down to fishing villages and mist-shrouded bays. Once believed to be a place of demonic and benevolent spirits, its fishermen still look out for a beautiful mermaid, La Pincoya, who is said to ensure a bountiful catch – and fresh ingredients for curanto, an ancient feast.

Separated from mainland Chile by the narrow Chacao Channel, the Chiloé archipelago comprises one large island, Isla Grande, and several smaller ones. A magical, mystical world of emerald woods and silent fjords, its indigenous people, the Mapuche, lived here undiscovered for millennia until Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s.
Spain steered Chiloé on a historical course quite distinct from the mainland: the archipelago evolved its own culture, a unique cuisine, and a distinctive mythology rooted in Spanish Catholicism and Mapuche legend, with mythological figures like La Pincoya. In the 1600s, Jesuit missionaries built wooden churches across Chiloé to evangelize the Mapuche, and colorful towns grew around them.
On Isla Grande, Chiloé’s capital city, Castro, is the archipelago’s cultural heart. A small city of hilly lanes and fishermen’s houses built on wooden stilts on the waters of the Castro Fjord, it was the beachhead for attempts to conquer the Mapuche. Nowadays, it is a springboard for inspirational road and ferry trips that travel through haunting waters, forest-cloaked mountains, and spooky fishermen’s villages full of ghostly churches and tales of witchcraft.
Traditional customs still abound, and the steamy feast known as curanto seems to have sprung from the old fishermen’s habit of adding fresh fish to long-life foods such as cured meats, which they kept on board in case the weather forced them to stay at sea for weeks at a time. Curanto still blends shellfish and fish with meats such as pork and chicken in a kind of ancient “clambake” that’s unique to this southern archipelago.
Traditionally, islanders cook curanto by digging a wide pit in the ground in which they build a fire beneath smooth, round stones. Once these are hot, the flames are doused, and a blanketing layer of the huge native nalca leaves is spread over the stones. Layers of food are then piled on – fresh seafood, including baby mussels, clams, and fish, then meat and vegetables, including pork, chicken, potatoes, dumpling-like chapaleles, and milacos, a mix of fried raw potatoes, butter, and crackling. The food is covered with more nalca leaves, and then stones or chunks of sod to trap the heat, and the food is left to cook slowly over several hours. Today, restaurants prepare curanto “a la olla” – in huge cauldron-like pots, from which they serve small mountains of its many meats and vegetables. It’s a magical concoction that’s strangely perfect in these mystical islands.

Best Places to Eat Curanto

Restaurant Octavio
The setting for this restaurant is an old fisherman’s house overlooking the glassy waters of the Castro Fjord. Built from native island wood, the house stands on tall stilts in the fjord’s frigid waters and has an exterior painted in bright primary colors. On the inside, it is total rusticity and warmth. A wooden entrance door creaks inward, floorboards groan underfoot and, at the heart of the restaurant floor, an open fire crackles and roars. Choose a window table for its magical views across the Castro Fjord to mist-shrouded, forest-swathed mountains on the opposite shore.
The menu at Octavio brims with Chiloé specialties. Choose the cochayuyo (seaweed) soup appetizer and curanto main course.
Prepared a la olla, in a cauldron, your curanto arrives steaming with clams and mussels plucked from the ocean at daybreak, and piled high with sausages and more. Servings are huge – you’ll probably only need one portion to feed two. Round off your meal with Octavio’s celestial papaya-fruit-and-cream dessert.
Avenida Pedro Montt 261, Castro; open noon–midnight daily; +56 65 632 855

A heaped bowl of curanto, demonstrating what a feast this is – slow-baked seafoods, meats, vegetables, and dumplings are piled high

Also in Chiloé
In Ancud, Restaurant Kuranton (+56 65 623 090; moderate) faces the sea and serves an inspired curanto. It has a snug ambience, with low ceilings and tangerine walls that are hung with carvings and aged artwork. All across the archipelago, colorful, family-run restaurants at fishermen’s markets serve first-rate, and very cheap, curanto. Ballena Sur (+56 99 414 354; inexpensive), over the waterfront and inside the market at Chonchi, is one of the very best, with beautiful views of Chonchi Bay. In Curaco de Vélez, on Isla de Quichao, Restaurant Los Troncos (no telephone; inexpensive) is a delight. A rustic garden restaurant with ocean vistas, it serves curanto, fresh salmon, and the house specialty: salty oysters, eaten raw with a hunk of lemon.
Also in Chile
On the mainland, Chiloé’s gateway city, Puerto Montt, shares the curanto tradition. At its raucous Angelmó Fish Market, climb wooden stairs to La Estrella de Angelmó (no telephone; inexpensive), which serves the dish amid a mind-boggling variety of ultra-fresh seafood specials, from stewed crabs to sea urchins. In the capital city, Santiago, Restaurant El Galeón (; moderate) is a seafood restaurant located within the capital’s atmospheric Mercado Central (Central Market).
It has dished up a fantastic curanto since 1935.
Festival Costumbrista
The Festival Costumbrista Chilote is Chiloé’s biggest annual festival and a vibrant celebration of its island culture. It takes place at locations across the archipelago in January and February. Festival-goers take part in island activities including cooking curanto in traditional earthen pits (visitors take a hand in creating the pit and its food), as well as weaving, sheep-shearing, driving oxen, and making jelly. Food stands serve curanto and archipelago staples such as shellfish empanadas (savory pastry turnovers), licor de oro (a fermented cowmilk liqueur), and ulmo honey – a sweet honey made from the native ulmo tree.
Three Days on Chiloé
Frequent bus and ferry services connect the islands in the archipelago, but you’ll need to rent a car to really explore the back-country roads and village life.
DAY ONE : Visit Castro, Chiloé’s capital. Tour Iglesia San Francisco, a UNESCOprotected Jesuit church; then descend hilly lanes to the Castro Fjord. Stroll along the waterfront, past the stilted, wooden fishermen’s homes in the water. Go to the Museo de Arte Moderno Chiloé, where modern art examines Chiloé’s island identity.
DAY TWO : Rent a car and explore Isla Grande. Head north to Ancud, a historic fort settlement; then drive south to Chonchi, a village built into a vertiginous cliff overlooking a scenic bay. Visit Iglesia de Chonchi, a Jesuit church whose vanilla-andpowder- blue facade hides a vaulted interior painted with a thousand tiny white stars.
DAY THREE : Hop on a ferry to small Isla de Quinchao, to walk the beaches and the gravel streets of old fishing village Curaco de Vélez. Back in Castro, round out your stay with a visit to a waterside restaurant for a dinner of steamy curanto.
Getting to  Chiloe Chile
Fly to Santiago international airport, then take a domestic flight to the southern mainland city, Puerto Montt, where ferries cross to Chiloé.
Where to stay  in Chiloe Chile
Hotel Huildin (inexpensive) has garden cabins and rooms in Chonchi.
Hotel Unicornio Azul (moderate) is a restored 1910 building set on the Castro waterfront.
Hostería Ancud (expensive) overlooks the ocean and Ancud’s historic fort. +56 65 622 340

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