June 2014

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2014.

On a whim, I stopped by the Museo Neruda, better known as La Chascona, the odd treehouse-like Santiago home of Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda. I had been wandering around the neighborhood of Bellavista looking for a little shop Liz had told me about, Emporio Nacional, hoping to buy some merken or perhaps a bottle of Chilean olive oil (which is quite remarkable) only to find that the store was closed. Rather than immediately take a taxi back to my hotel, I decided to wander around the neighborhood and quite by accident came upon La Chascona.

Photos by David Lansing

Photos by David Lansing

Only a handful of people are allowed through the house cum museum at a time and usually you need to make a reservation at least a day in advance, so I was half expecting to be turned away when I showed up and asked if there was any way I could join the next English tour. It just so happens one was just starting up and I was permitted to join a South African couple.

Our guide was a young college-aged woman named Alejandro. In the courtyard behind the main part of the house, she told us that Neruda moved to La Chascona in 1955 with the woman who was to become his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, while still married to his second wife, the painter Delia del Carril. La Chascona was Neruda’s nickname for Matilde and referred to “her rebellious red hair.”

Then Alejandro took us inside one of the buildings, constructed like a lighthouse, to look at a painting by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Frida Kahlo’s husband) called “Medusa Matilde.” According to Alejandro, Neruda quite liked the painting; Matilde, not so much. Which is understandable considering that in Greek mythology Medusa is a beautiful maiden with the ability to turn men into stone.

A decade or so before Rivera painted Matilde as Medusa, Sigmund Freud wrote an article suggesting that Medusa was the “supreme talisman who provides the image of castration.”

Was Revera aware of this Freudian interpretation? Impossible to know. But, according to Alejandro, not everyone was thrilled when Neruda abandoned his painter wife (who was a decade older than him) and took up with the much younger Matilde, a singer. One of the more interesting things about the painting is that Rivera hid the profile of Neruda in the unruly hair on the right side of her head. I don’t know how well you can see it in this photo (which I had to take on the sly since it is forbidden to photograph inside the house), but if you move in a straight line from the eye on the right, you’ll see his lips and from there it’s not hard to make out his chin, protruding nose, and a single eye.

Whether Revera was a fan of Matilde or not, she was definitely an important muse to Neruda. Probably his best-known book of love poems—One Hundred Love Sonnets—was written for her (though he withheld publication for a number of years to spare the feelings of his previous wife).

It sounds like Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina who recently admitted to having an affair with a woman from Argentina, also has a poetic streak. From one of his e-mails released last week: “I could say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself in the faded glow of night’s light.”

He’s no Neruda but he’s definitely a romantic.

Tags: ,

There are some things I just don’t get. Like meringue. Is there anything more insipid than lemon meringue pie? I don’t think so. Which explains why I wasn’t exactly giddy when Liz suggested we stop in at this little pasteleria across from Parque Forestal in Barrio Lastarria known for their merenguitos which are basically whipped egg whites and sugar baked into a puffy cookie.

Oh but these merenguitos, made by hand by the owner of Pasteleria Robymar, Maria Luisa Barbieri, are amazing Liz insisted. “They’re like marshmallows on the inside but with a crisp crust and the whole thing has this nutty flavor.”

See, this is why I don’t do dessert. A crispy, nutty-tasting marshmallow cookie? Big deal. Just give me a really good piece of chocolate instead.

But we go in and I meet Maria who is tall and thin (obviously she doesn’t eat her own pasteries) and quite charming. She’s been making merenguitos and pino, or meat, empanadas here for 45 years she tells me and never grows tired of the work. “The young girls I hire to help me make merenguitos can’t keep up with me,” she says. “Maybe I’m almost 80 but it doesn’t matter. Me, personally, I think I’m aging backwards because I feel twenty.”

Maria Luisa Barbieri and her merenguitos. Photo by David Lansing.

Maria Luisa Barbieri and her merenguitos. Photo by David Lansing.

Maria offers me a merenguito and just to be polite I take a tiny little bite and…oh my god! It’s the best thing ever. What Maria does is spread the meringue on a very thin cookie wafer and then tops it with another cookie wafer spread lightly with lúcuma and manjar which is a bit like Nutella but better. Lúcuma is a subtropical fruit, usually grown in the cool highlands of Peru and Chile. It’s got an orange-yellow flesh, kind of like a mango, and a very unique flavor that is difficult to describe. You just have to taste it. In Chile you’re most likely to come across it in ice cream where it is a more popular flavor than vanilla or chocolate.

Chileans also like to mix lúcuma paste with manjar which is like dulce de leche. The combination of lúcuma and manjar to a Chilean is like peanut butter and jelly to Americans. And put it on top of Maria Luisa Barbieri’s merenguito and you’ve got yourself one kick-ass cookie. Which is why I bought six more. Which Liz and I finished before we even got back to her apartment in Bellas Artes.

Tags: , ,

As Liz and I were walking through the Mercado Central I told her how the concierge at my hotel said I couldn’t say I’d been to Santiago until I tried a terremoto, that elusive Chilean cocktail (I still haven’t had one). Then I asked her how she’d answer that question—If you’ve been to Santiago but you haven’t had a (blank), you haven’t been to Santiago.

“Oh a completo,” she said. “You definitely haven’t been to Santiago until you’ve had a Dominó completo.”

Okay, before I explain about completos and Dominó let me just say that the closest American comparison to both would be a Big Mac at McDonald’s, and I haven’t been inside a Mickey-D in over 20 years. Just not my thing (besides, I’ve always hated clowns and Ronald definitely creeps me out).

But the completo is not a hamburger. It’s a Chilean hot dog. Sort of. Actually, it’s a bun of mayo and mushed avocado piled on top of a sliver of weiner. Remember I said that Chileans think mayo is a food group? This may be the best proof of that theory. But, you know, I have this philosophy about travel which boils down to, Wherever you go, you have to eat the goat. And since Liz says that I haven’t been to Santiago until I’ve had a completo, the goat today is a Chilean hot dog at Dominó.

The hot dog doctors at Domino. Photos by David Lansing.

The hot dog doctors at Domino. Photos by David Lansing.

There must be two hundred Dominós in Santiago. Okay, maybe it just seems that way because everywhere you go, there they are. They’re meticulously clean (which is true for most fast-food joints in Santiago). And just as all the servers at Fuente Alemana are women, at Dominó they’re all men. Dressed in long white gowns with deep pockets in the front so that they look more like medical assistants than waiters (I think they should put stethoscopes around their necks).

So Liz and I go into a Dominó and order a completo. The waiter takes my order and, without turning around, yells over his shoulder to the cook, “Italiana, maestro.” Why Italiana? Because it has chopped tomato, avocado, and mayo on it—red, green, and white, the colors of the Italian flag (also the colors of the Mexican flag but I guess they figured it didn’t sound as much fun yelling, “Mexicana, maestro.”)

Liz with a completo (not healthy) and carrot juice (healthy!).

Liz with a completo (not healthy) and carrot juice (healthy!).

Anyway, the other thing that kills me about Dominó is that they have these wonderful milk drinks with mango or chestnuts and fresh squeezed juices, the most popular being a blend of orange and carrot juice which is just so healthy tasting that your blemishes seem to clear up after drinking a glass. So of course, Liz orders a completo, which will double her cholesterol level the minute she puts it in her hand, and a fresh-squeezed glass of orange and carrot juice to somehow do a negative ion thing in her body to reverse the 640 calories she’s about to eat so that somehow she’ll actually lose 5 pounds from eating the weiner. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

I take a bite of my completo. I’m sure there’s a hot dog in there somewhere, but I can’t see it and I don’t taste it. All I taste is a big mouthful of slippery avocado and sweet mayo. One bite and I’m done. (When I said you have to eat the goat I didn’t say you had to eat the whole goat.) But, hey, that orange/carrot juice is great. So great that I decide to get another (plus the roof of my mouth still feels coated in mayo fat). And while I am gone, a homeless lady steals my completo.

The perfect ending as far as I’m concerned.

Tags: , ,

One dances, the other shucks

So Liz and I are walking through Santiago’s produce and fruit market, Vega, when she pulls me over to this stall fronted with giant garlic in purple netting and celery stalks as thick as Kobe Bryant’s thighs and mounds of onions and lima beans and Jerusalem artichokes.

Photos by David Lansing

Photos by David Lansing

We stand in front of a woman seated before a basket of green beans. “Watch her,” Liz whispers without taking her eyes off the woman. The woman selects a bean, puts it in some gizmo sitting on her lap, and quickly juliennes the bean into a plastic bag. Then she grabs another bean and repeats the process. Over and over again. The gizmo the woman is using is a wondrously simple tool, something like a cross between a potato peeler and a hard boiled egg slicer. Still, can you imagine having to julienne green beans by hand all day long?

But the woman behind her, wearing the baseball cap, has an even worse job. She’s peeling celery. One stalk at a time. I’m not kidding you. I guess all I can say is that if you’re going to sit in front of a produce stall all day long selling habas verdes and apio, you might as well keep busy doing something.

While I was taking this photo of the two women, this little gypsy-like ensemble of musicians suddenly appeared out of nowhere playing guitars and the accordion. I have a sweet spot for the accordion. I love it, whether it’s in Mexican ranchera music or zydeco. Everything sounds better with an accordionist.

But that wasn’t all. Suddenly this red-haired woman wearing a bright red bolero jacket and white shoes starting dancing in the middle of the mercado. Even more amazing, she was balancing a wine bottle on her head and had a Chilean flag stuck in her ponytail. It was so bizarre that I kept looking around expecting some film crew to be shooting the whole thing. Surely she had to be an actress and this was some crazy scene in a Moulin Rouge-like Chilean musical.

She was dancing the cueca, Chile’s national dance. And that was interesting too because the cueca is like a courtship dance. You have a guy who dances in a way to evoke a rooster looking to get some from a hen in heat. According to a book I read, “The woman approaches the man with elegance and flirtatiousness, then she slightly lifts her skirt with her left hand and gracefully moving her handkerchief with the right, she flees from the man.”

Which, as you can see from this photo, is exactly what this woman with the wine bottle on her head was doing except she did not have a partner in the dance.

Unless…you don’t suppose she saw me as the rooster, do you?

Tags: , ,

The other day I was walking around downtown Santiago and got really, really hungry so I stopped in at Fuente Alemana, the funky German-inspired sandwich shop Liz Caskey wrote about earlier (see the Friday blog), to get a lomito completo, which is a big ol’ honkin’ pork sandwich topped with what looks like about a quart of mayo and a half-dozen mashed avocados. I’m kidding—kind of—it probably has only a cup or two of mayo on it and no more than four avocados.

As I’ve said, in Chile, mayo is one of the major food groups (and sugar is another). Anyway, one of the Nurse Jackie-looking waitresses served me my sandwich with a tall schop, which is a Chilean draft beer, and asked me if I wanted any aji oro with it.

Si, claro,” I told her.

She put her hands on her hips and raised a singleeyebrow at me. Was I sure?

Porqué no?”

She fanned her mouth as if it were on fire. They’re very hot, she said.

This is funny. Chileans have no idea what hot food tastes like. And these pickled yellow peppers—the aji oro—are nothing. Still, when I piled them on top of my lomito, the waitresses in their Bavarian Hausfrau outfits gathered around to stare at me like they were expecting the top of my head to explode at any minute.

Bags of merken next to aji oro at the Vega Mercado in Santiago. Photo by David Lansing.

Bags of merken next to aji oro at the Vega Mercado in Santiago. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s the thing: Chileans don’t do spices. There are two reasons for this: One, they have an incredible abundance of wonderful fruit and produce and their philosophy is to serve it as simply as possible (the two exceptions being, of course, that everything tastes better with mayo and avocado on it). Secondly, Chileans have always equated spicy food with the underclass. In their minds, the only people who put garlic or chilies in their food are peasants. Because, you know, it’s kind of stinky and everything.

The best example of this may be the Chilean spice called merken. Merken has been around forever. It’s something that comes from Chile’s indigenous people, the Mapuche. The Mapuche dry 6-inch long smoked red chili peppersand then grind them up with coriander seeds in a stone mortar until everything has the look and consistency of paprika and then add salt, cilantro seeds, and oregano to it. This is like the key spice for Mapuche and they use it to season meats, potatoes—whatever.

It’s fabulous. But until a few years ago, you’d never go into a nice Santiago restaurant and find a dish with merken in it. Because, you see, it was a spice of the peasants. And who wanted that?

But that’s changed. I’ve had merken in a couple of very nice dishes here—in soups, on chicken—but my favorite was a lovely dish of pureed potatoes seasoned with merken. Perfection.

Now if they’d just start using a little more garlic with the chicken….

Tags: , ,

« Older entries