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written and photographed by

Joseph Lieberman

of Peralillo

Cheesemaking in begins to show signs of diversity and daring




ABOVE: Gemma Serrano Orellana of the women’s cooperative. MAIN PHOTO: Licanabur volcano at sunset


The village of Peralillo in Chile’s verdant Valle Central has so few They had inspiration: It was less than 30 ago that Chilean wines were a rarity on buildings that you might years the international market. Today dozens of vintages with excellent reputations miss it driving past at Chilean are exported to 90 countries on five and eight out of every ten grapes even moderate speed. Yet continents, we consume in the United States were there as well. So why not expect on the strength of a novel harvested the same daring success with cheese? bonding of Chilean wine than Four with queso fresco (fresh More That, at least, was the thinking of Ms. Gemma Orellana, originator and legal farmer’s cheese), a dozen Serrano representative of the women’s cooperative Quesos de Peralillo wine cheese. pioneering women here producing As pragmatic as she is spirited, Orellana is too aware that cheese is not the first have put Peralillo dead allproduct that comes to mind when people think of Chilean cuisine. center on Chile’s map of “After all, Chile only has four major kinds cheese,” she explains during a recent culinary innovations. ofmeeting with a group of international journalists, including yours truly. “Apart from the queso fresco, or quesillo, that we use, there’s queso de cabra (goat’s milk cheese); chanco (cow’s milk cheese), mainly produced in south-central Chile; and semisoft Andean panquehue. Oh, and the industrial sliced gauda cheese, but that doesn’t really count, does it?” Smiling, Orellana adds, “So the odds were against us for making a big splash. But on the other hand, what were the odds that


Chile’s first president in 1818 would have a name like Bernardo O’Higgins?” The village of Peralillo is actually located in Chile’s O’Higgins Region, named for the unlikely independence war hero and later politician who was the illegitimate son of an enterprising Irishman employed in the colonial service of Spain and the elite daughter of a wealthy Spanish colonial family. More significantly, however, this region overlaps the Colchagua Valley, voted Best Wine Region in the World by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2005 for its ability to consistently provide world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Syrah, and Malbec. “We marinate the cheese in a Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively from the local vineyards of Johana Pereira Bisquertt,” Orellana explains. “It sounds simple to say now, but getting here was quite a process. In early 2010 I met with a group of 12 women in a Peralillo commune to resolve how to use local resources in a sustainable way that might turn a profit. Creating a cheese facility in the center of the popular wine route seemed like it had real potential.” The determined dozen’s idea was not to blend the cheese with wine but to coat it in a deep purplish “crust” of Cabernet that permeates just below the surface but leaves the interior white. This creates a subtle hint of smoky wine without overwhelming the natural cheese flavor. Ideas are one thing. Making them real is another. “Yes, we needed external help,” Orellana says, “and luckily the Service of Technical Cooperation [SERCOTEC], a private law corporation working with the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism, took an interest in our plan.”

After visiting district ranches and dairy farms to establish that there were sufficient resources available, SERCOTEC officials decided to assist. They arranged a connection with an Italian company from the Piedmont region that was looking to outsource highdemand fresh cheese exports such as mozzarella and ricotta, which the Peralillo cooperative is now contracted to produce. In return the Piedmont company sent over specialists from Italy to help train the women and ensure quality and reliability. Better still, the Italians provided funding and contributed essential pieces of high-tech machinery. “We started small, experimenting with just 300 liters of milk, producing little more than 30 cheese rounds,” Orellana says. “We rapidly developed label designs and packaging. Within two years we began averaging around 4,000 liters of milk daily, producing close to a thousand cheese rounds [about 1,200 kilos], with seasonal fluctuations. We began distributing beyond the Region O'Higgins and into metropolitan Santiago, which is located less than a hundred miles north of Peralillo.”


Espirita with a handful of dried corn; Flamingoes wade in the shallows of Chaxas Lagoon; Quesos Peralillo is coated with a deep purplish “crust” of Cabernet; Hand-dying Llama wool is a multi-generational activity.




Classic local food, Pastel de Choclo (corn stew); Diners overlook Lake Villarrica at sunset; Chilean huasos such as Señor Ernesto ‘Conejo” are skilled horsemen. OPPOSITE: Elisa Cea Epuin, Baker


Chile stretches over 2,700 miles north to south (roughly the distance from San Francisco to New York) but is never wider than 150 miles. Peralillo is almost exactly at the center of that slender topography, yet there is no hint of urbanism here. While we sat sampling cheese, a cowboy rode up to the shop in ornate head-to-toe leather gear. “Chilean huasos are skilled horsemen, like the gauchos of Argentina,” Orellana says. “This is Señor Ernesto ‘Conejo’ — ‘the Rabbit,’ he is called. Cowboys are a vital part of Chilean folkloric culture. They are legendary.” Peralillo’s cheese is quickly becoming legendary itself. “In Chile our products can now compete as equals with the most recognized brands in the market,” Orellana boasts. “We have done so well in such a short time . . . our cheese gives us newfound financial power.” The dozen female entrepreneurs of Peralillo are not the only ones celebrating Chile’s continuing surge in economic strength, especially when much of the world is in a financial backswing. Winemakers in the Colchagua Valley, now the leading zone for fine wine production in Chile, are riding an inter-

national wave of popularity. Still, the volatility of the land itself has been the source of several setbacks. This Central Valley, cradled between the volcano-studded Andes in the east and the Cordillera Range in the west, is sometimes restless. An 8.8-magnitude earthquake on February 27, 2010, severely damaged Santa Cruz, just 25 kilometers from Peralillo. Closer still, near the village of Apalta, vintner Jaime Rosello thanked his lucky stars that he had installed earthquake-proof supports below the fermenting vats of his Neyen winery before that disaster hit. “The rivers here were running red with wine from toppled vats, bottles, and barrels on other nearby properties,” Rosello tells me. “For us only the old adobe housing suffered a bit.” His father-in-law had developed the land 40 years earlier for other labels, but the pedigree of Chile’s vineyards dates back to Jesuit missionaries who planted the first vines to create communion wine. Rosello started bottling his own brand—an 80:20 fusion of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon—only a decade ago. Even so, many connoisseurs have been calling his blend, which is aged for 14 months in French oak, the best wine in all of Chile. In Rosello’s tasting room we found glasses set out, together with Chile’s omnipresent round, flat pan amasado (literally “kneaded bread”), pine nuts, and a wedge of artisanal queso de cabra, a semihard goat’s milk cheese with low acidity, smooth texture, and an intensely aromatic flavor.

“We have done so well in such a short time . . . our cheese gives us newfound financial power.”



Hotel Antumalal (hotel and restaurant) 2 Camino Pucón, Villarrica Pucón, Región de la Araucanía (+56) 45 441 011


Valle Central, Chile

Viña Casa Silva (hotel and restaurant) Hijuela Norte, PO Box 97, San Fernando (+56) 72 710 204 This bed and breakfast was once an old family home on the estate at Angostura winery. It has just seven bedrooms and guests can visit the winery, join in the tastings, ride in a horse drawn carriage, or watch a rodeo. The hotel restaurant is situated within one of the oldest barrel rooms in Colchagua Valley. The dishes are international but made with local ingredients.

Santa Cruz Plaza (hotel and restaurant) Plaza de Armas 286, Santa Cruz, Valle de Colchagua, Santa Cruz (+56) 72 209 600 An historic hotel from the colonial era located in the heart of the Colchagua Valley, this hotel is perfectly positioned for day trips and outdoor activities. It has two dining options on site. Los Varietales Restaurant offers sophisticated dishes that are rooted in the traditional recipes and ingredients of Chilean cuisine, from north to south. Bar Chamán is a place for wine lovers. Learn about local grape varieties and vineyards, while nibbling on pizzas and an extensive bar menu.



Lapostolle Residence (private suites and restaurant) Ruta I-50 Camino San Fernando a Pichilemu Km 36, Cunaquito, Santa Cruz (+56) 72 953 360

Located on five acres of parkland and the shores of Lake Villarrica, Hotel Antumalal is a deluxe choice for getting away from it all. Far away. The hotel’s on-site Restaurant Parque features lakeside dining, with dishes made from the kitchen’s organic garden. The hotel also offers a unique culinary excursion to Curarrehue, a small nearby village where guests can experience the authentic Mapuche cooking of Elisa Cea Epuin, at her restaurant La Cocina de Elisa.

With extraordinary views of the Apalta vineyards and the surrounding mountains, Lapostolle Residence has just four suites nestled into the native forested hillside of the valley. The Residence, where the living and dining rooms are located, is a place where you can share your experience with fellow travelers. The house menu uses products from an on-site organic vegetable and herb garden, as well as local fresh markets.

The Aubrey (hotel and restaurant) Constitución 299 - 317, Bellavista, Santiago. (+56) 45 294 02800 A premier boutique hotel in Santiago with 15 rooms, The Aubrey’s restaurant, called The Dining Room, is one of the few in the city to open at 6:30 pm (8:00 is typical) and to serve Sunday brunch. It’s ambiance one of the most beautiful in the city, especially for those who dine outside in the pebbled courtyard surrounded by giant arches and water cascades.

Rosello limits himself to a single awardwinning label: Neyen des Apalta. The name means “Spirit of the Apalta Valley” in the indigenous Mapuche language. Today’s descendants can still be found in pocket communities here, interfacing with modernity while tending to the ancient ways.

Viewing the Volcanos

Farther south, in the Lake District near the resort village of Pucon, the Mapuche have a major presence. At the cozy Hotel Antumalal, nestled in lush gardens within sight of the snow-peaked, smoky-topped Villarrica volcano, owner Rony Pollack tells me, “Our chef, Maria Ignacia Jara, creates dynamic recipes blending local Mapuche ingredients with contemporary world cuisine.” One of Chef Jara’s popular appetizers is fried cheese empanadas with a melty filling of chanco, also known as queso mantecoso (“buttery cheese”). Originally from the Maule Region above the Lake District, this mild-tasting cheese, soft and sweet with a delicate acidity, is now produced throughout south-central Chile. From the southern rain forests we flew north and east to Chile’s Atacama Desert, measurably the driest place on earth. The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge, with its spa, swimming pool, and all modern conveniences, serves as a breathtaking contrast to a land where life barely exists. Volcanos again dominate the horizon, but here and there are also high-altitude lagoons inhabited by pink, orange, and red flamingos.

In the kitchen of Alto Atacama’s Restaurant Caur (“mountain” in native Atacameño), Andean quinoa and similar classic ingredients are channeled into wondrous new applications in the culinary arts. Cooked Italian style with butter, cream, and panquehue, a semisoft Chilean cheese produced in the Andean Aconcagua region, the popular gluten-free grain becomes quinoa risotto. (Similar in taste to Swiss Tilsit, panquehue became the first Chilean cheese imported into the United States in 2005 under the free trade agreement). On our final afternoon Alto Atacama provided us with champagne and crusty bread to accompany a round of Quesos de Peralillo wine cheese we had brought along. Our picnic spot was atop a craggy ledge overlooking the incredible Valley of the Moon, an eyepopping panorama of multihued rock formations. As the wind whispered a soft evening lullaby, we toasted the setting sun’s reflection on the mighty Licancabur volcano, glowing now in magnificent shades of pink, orange, and red. Just like the flamingos. c


(buttery cheese) is soft and sweet with a delicate acidity; At Santiago’s covered market; Machuca church tHIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: A tray of Queso de Cabra, an artisanal, semi-firm goat’s milk cheese;Strange rock formations in the “Valley of the Moon” in the Atacama desert; Llamas can withstand the extreme climate of the Atacama desert; The smoking peak of Villarrica’s volcano.

Joseph Lieberman is a travel, food and features photojournalist.



Culture 2012  

Valle central en Culture Magazine