Food

The Salt of Cahuil

I am currently reading the most amazing book, ´The Omnivores Dilemma´ by Michael Pollan. In it, Pollan explores the production of – and costs behind – our food, from the realms of industrial agriculture, organic farms and small providers, right through to exploring the acts of foraging (see below) and hunting. This is an eye opening book and one that raises many questions, particularly because Pollan himself is such an accomplished writer and researcher.

(I have linked to the Book Depository site, as this is where I buy all my books unless it´s for my Kindle. Over the last few years, I have never had any issues ordering to Chile and arrival times range between two weeks to three months, depending on how functional the postal network is at the time, as well as how Customs are working given they continuously strike).

Here in Chile, a nation where UHT milk reigns supreme (read my essay here) and where the battle against soft drink is real, we are both blessed and unlucky. We are unlucky because the murkier side of food production, namely big business, has got its claws firmly sunk in to everyday society, at least in Santiago anyway (essay here).  How else do you explain the proliferation of fizzy drinks at every meal and the goody bags overflowing with lollies at each birthday party (at a recent birthday party E sat down at the table to his individual paper plate laden with different packets of biscuits, chocolates, cakes, candies, as well as being surrounded by bowls of various chips, lollies, and other unusually colorful things).

We are blessed because – as I keep saying over and over – it is still possible to buy nearly all that you need in the local feria, (market), a place which forms the vital breath of the outer lying comunas, including right here in Recoleta. We shop from this ragged tumble of stalls each week, sometimes more than once, and it is there that we fill up our reusable bags and pull-behind shopping trolley (the most practical shopping invention, and one unfortunately relegated to the elderly in New Zealand). It is here where Chile shows itself at its most exotic, the place where I feel all manner of emotion, from being humbled, surprised and even uneasy as I walk past realms of fruit and vegetables, deciding which stall vendor best deserves my hard-earned pesos.

This is a country that produces in its truest sense, where even in the starkest of places you can find life springing forth with more colors than a Monet painting (i.e. the Desierto Florido in the Atacama).  And it helps the rest of the world grow food too, in the form of fertilizer composed of Chilean Nitrate (NaNO3) which is found only in the deserts of Northern Chile. For a foodstuff a little more direct, that you can apply directly to your plate at the dinner table, you can use sea salt, famously harvested near Pichelemu, in a tiny place called Cahuil.

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To some, a trip to this patchwork of colorful pools beside an estuary marks no big occasion, but to others (like myself) this is a trip into the heart of food, for is there another ingredient more essential to a meal than salt?  Salt is one of the five primary tastes humans have evolved to recognize, and its addition can help the release of certain molecules into the air, heightening a dish´s aroma, while also overriding bitterness and balancing other flavors. It also helps to balance fluids inside your body, and contains two of the most essential elements for all living creatures on the planet, namely chloride and sodium ions.

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Salt has also been recorded as far back as our records go, to preserve food that would otherwise decay and become hazardous to eat, and the indigenous of Chile were no different. The original inhabitants of the Barrancas area, where the Cahuil saltpans are today, worked this spot for hundreds of years, taking advantage of this naturally salty river flowing on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Close to this meeting point are the ´cuarteles´, networks of various pools measuring 20 square meters each, all with different levels of water that will eventually evaporate to leave behind salt. The process begins in spring once the rains have finished and the estuary decreases in water level, allowing the pools to be cleaned.  The water then re-enters, decanting via small gates between each pool, and by the time summer rolls around the salt is ready to be extracted, although this is a highly sensitive process that depends upon humidity, rain and other external conditions. The pools, with their different levels of water, therefore place the salt at a different proximity to the mud, thereby creating different types of salt. There is the ´flor de sal´ which is very fine, and then the ´espumilla´, or regular sea salt, while the bottom layers are used for things like leather tanning and the removal of snow on roads.

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The saltpans of Cahuil have been declared a ´Living Human Treasure´, a remarkable slice of culture and history that you can take home with you in the form of bathing or cooking salt, available with a variety of additions such as merken, seaweed and smoked salmon.  For me, this is a spot where you can immerse yourself in nature which swims and flies all around you; it is here where I have seen more birds than anywhere else in Chile, so if you are a budding ornithologist you should put this place on your list.

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The Nitty Gritty

How To Visit Cahuil:

Open all year round and completely free; though production begins from September and finishes in March. It is located 2km south of Cahuil in the sector of Barrancas. Check out the map here.

What The Family Thought:

You cannot use a pushchair or wheelchair if you want to explore between the pools as the paths are not very wide, however the pools are not deep so they are suitable for toddlers to walk around (with supervision). My 3 year old son really enjoyed himself. There is not much else to do in the area although it is geared up for summer visitors in the form of cabañas, probably to house the streams of Santiaguinos who escape the city in the hotter months to relax by the beach. Cahuil makes an excellent day trip from the Colchagua Valley or from Pichelemu.

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Where You Can Shop:

Agricola Tinajacura sells pasture raised chickens that live glorious lives beneath the sun (they are fed a mixed grain), beside grass-fed lamb.  The chickens (both laying and broiler) are moved outside from 3 weeks of age, where they live always on the grass, which supplements their diet with bugs and flowers, an area which they spend less than 24 hours on a time (so no living on top of their waste and more ground gets fertilized). The lambs eat only grass and the land is untouched by fertilizer. The animals receive no hormones.

Santiago & Viña Organic Pastured Cowshare is run by expat, Frank Szabo, where you can order a percentage of grass-fed beef cuts. Orders are in bulk and killing takes place at selected times during the year.

La Paloma Saludable delivers fresh milk and eggs from the farm as well as a plethora of organic foodstuffs.  Email orders only.


More Like This:

For a restaurant that serves foraged food, visit Silvestre Bistro;

to learn more about the local feria and Chilean food, read Fantastic Food;

to read about my favorite walking spot, read about La Campana National Park;

to discover some of the interesting history of Valparaiso, visit City of Artists and Dreamers;

for a list of local small providers you can support, browse my Local Business Directory.

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Helen, Terrific pice on Sal de Cahuil. I just picked up a sack of it while in Cajon Del Maipo over the Fiestas Patrias weekend. Now looking for a grinder to use with such large, delicious chunks….
    In your piece your description of the local ferias is great — I just did a piece on the La Vega family of ferias, which you can see on my Foodwakers website — http://www.foodwalkers.com . Seems we have very similar views of the local market scene. I really enjoy and appreciate you blog Querida Recoleta and would like very much to post a link to it on my Foodwalkers blogsite if you have no objection. If you want, I’d also love it if you added such a link on your site to Foodwalkers, as I think our respective readers would all enjoy each other’s posts. Thanks for such a great blog — I look forward to seeing it with every dispatch!
    Kevin Cox a/k/a the Foodwalker (www.foodwalkers.com)

    Like

    1. Hi Kevin thanks for reading! I will have a look at yours later and see how I can incorporate it in 🙂 Let me know if you have any suggestions for places to visit and foods to try (on that note, I´m heading to the La Serena area soon for Fodors so if you have any good food spots/sights tell me!)

      Like

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