Chiloé Cocina: a Bridge Between the Community and the Kitchen

What do the owners of Ristretto Caffè, Café Blanco and Café Sur Emporio all have in common? Simply put, they are dedicated to preserving traditional culinary practices throughout La Isla Grande de Chiloé.

 Just another beautiful day on La Isla Grande de Chiloé. Photo by Jacob Atkins
Just another beautiful day on La Isla Grande de Chiloé. Photo by Jacob Atkins

At the forefront of this initiative is Mauricio Ayala Cortés, the owner of Café Sur Emporio in the regional capital of Castro. According to this enterpriser, the goals are twofold: to safeguard age-old knowledge of Chilote cuisine while making farm work more profitable for the next generation of campesinos. To accomplish this, Cortés has created an intricate network of buyers to purchase goods directly from local producers.

¨We are building a bridge between the community and the kitchen,¨ says Cortés. ¨I act as a go-between, selling their products for them.¨

"If you ask me about the origin of a paté that I bring you, I'm going to be able to tell you who made it, under which climactic conditions, what animal, what practices were used, and lots more information," says the owner of Café Sur Emporio, Mauricio Ayala Cortés. Photo by Jacob Atkins
"If you ask me about the origin of a paté that I bring you, I'm going to be able to tell you who made it, under which climactic conditions, what animal, what practices were used, and lots more information," says the owner of Café Sur Emporio, Mauricio Ayala Cortés. Photo by Jacob Atkins

Over the years this partnership has incentivized Chilote farmers to invest in high-value crops, such as maqui (Chilean wineberry) and truffles (the illuminati of fungi). As demand for these high-end products increase, the agriculturalists of Chiloé are now supplying cafés and restaurants with provisions, expanding their markets and revenue in the process.

Despite this new-and-improved business model, though, many young Chilotes continue to leave the countryside for economic and lifestyle reasons.

¨As a consequence, the landscape in southern Chile is well-supplied in terms of prime material but not in terms of people with the knowledge to work the land,¨ says Cortés. ¨We're working on that in 30 years, we don´t run out of people with this knowledge… so that they don´t quit producing and go work in the mall or a salmon company for a fixed salary.¨

 The rolling hills of Chiloé. Photo by Jacob Atkins
The rolling hills of Chiloé. Photo by Jacob Atkins

To prevent these skills from vanishing altogether, members of Chiloé Cocina facilitate kitchen workshops throughout the island to provide jovenes with professional experience. Not only does this collaboration sustain cultural traditions, but also expands job prospects for the island’s youngest residents by offering them new skills to learn.

In particular, the art of cooking lloco is a quintessential custom being conserved through these workshops. Traditionally this hearty dish is prepared during the celebratory slaughtering of a pig, consisting of meat sautéed in lard, potatoes, dumplings and blood sausage. While this workshop teaches participants how to properly butcher the pig, it also distributes knowledge about utilizing every imaginable part of the animal after the matanza to use for various cooking purposes.

Along those lines, lloco is also a gift of sorts (laden with pork) to those who couldn't attend the carnivorous festivities. So if you are bestowed with excess pork fat as a gift, don't fret. Although it may not sound appealing, its versatility can be used to make local favorites such as milcao, sopaipillas and chapaleles.

Another venerable Chilote dish being taught in these workshops is curanto- a robust medley of shellfish and meat prepared in a deep hole with smoldering hot rocks at the bottom. As each layer of clams, mussels, barnacles, sausage, chicken, potatoes, dumplings and vegetables are covered with nalca leaves (Chilean rhubarb) wet sacks, dirt and grass, the ingredients are smoked to perfection within this do-it-yourself pressure cooker. Such workshops sponsored by Chiloé Cocina provide instructions to those interested in mastering such a distinctive cooking procedure, which dates back to pre-Colombian Chono traditions.

 Curanto is one of Chiloé´s most beloved (mouth-watering) dishes. Photo by Jacob Atkins
Curanto is one of Chiloé´s most beloved (mouth-watering) dishes. Photo by Jacob Atkins

Members of Chiloé Cocina consider food to entail more than just fulfilling daily needs for basic sustenance. On the contrary, food is an integral part of Chilote culture with direct correlations to the kitchen and the manner in which people express their devotion to one another. In that regard, not only is this program devoted to nourishing classic entrées and promoting economic opportunities for young farmers, but also steadfast in celebrating a culture known for authentic (not to mention delicious) dishes that are guaranteed to leave you satisfied.

"Everything here in Chiloé happens in the kitchen," says the owner of Café Blanco, Sanny Idini Castillo. "Chilotes prove their love between the food and drink."

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