This is entry six of an ongoing travel journal. Click here to read the first. March 11, 2017 I’ve never lived in a metropolitan city before and Santiago – which is home to 5 million people – was starting to make me feel claustrophobic. Literally claustrophobic packed shoulder-to-shoulder on sweaty rush-hour subway rides, and mentally claustrophobic with […]
March 11, 2017
I’ve never lived in a metropolitan city before and Santiago – which is home to 5 million people – was starting to make me feel claustrophobic. Literally claustrophobic packed shoulder-to-shoulder on sweaty rush-hour subway rides, and mentally claustrophobic with my broken Spanish and longing for fresh air. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a Saturday out in Chilean wine country for an asado (barbeque) with some of my colleagues.
We drove out to Llay Llay, which is about an hour north of the city, on Saturday morning, and must have turned around four or five times before we found the unmarked turnoff from the expressway for the narrow, uphill gravel road to our remote weekend getaway.
Our host, Marek, and his family live higher up on the hill, in a beautiful red house overlooking the sweeping valley and the Pan-American Highway that runs through it – an expressway that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. Further down on the hill is a guest house – our home for the next 24 hours. In between the two houses is a horse corral, a hand-built child’s play structure, and an indistinct number of farm dogs.
Marek was born in Germany and moved to Chile in the early 90’s because of his interest in politics. With the brutal Pinochet dictatorship coming to a close in 1990, Chile had a very interesting political landscape during that time. During the week, Marek rides his motorcycle into Santiago for his job as a consultant to congress, and rides back to bask in his gaucho (Chilean cowboy) lifestyle, riding his horses through the mountains and roasting lambs over an open fire. This weekend, he taught me how to roast a lamb, Patagonian-style.
If you’re in a rush, you can roast a lamb in four hours. Throw some extra logs on the fire and really crank the heat. But, there are a few problems with a four-hour lamb roast. Four hours doesn’t give the lamb enough time to properly absorb the smoky aroma and rich flavor from the open fire. Also, if you’re roasting on high heat, the lamb cooks too quickly, drying out the juicy goodness and sacrificing the melt-in-your mouth tenderness of a lamb roasted with patience. Additionally, for those with health concerns, four hours isn’t enough time to cook the fat out of the animal, which, according to Marek, is bad for the liver, es malo para el hígado. Roasting a lamb properly takes at least six hours.
I learned this weekend, that someone who is willing to spend at least six hours standing around, slowly stoking a fire on a mountainside during the blistering midday heat of the Chilean summer, is the type of person who lives for roasting lambs and riding horseback and his gaucho lifestyle.
We walked up the hill from our guesthouse to find a lamb splayed out over an open fire. Marek’s skin was cooked a deep dark red from years of Chilean sun and he wore a leather cowboy hat to shade his face. He was slowly stoking the embers, splashing saltwater on the meat, and periodically turning the lamb, with a look of pure satisfaction on his face.
As our group mingled about, walking up and down the hill, drinking cervezas, and swimming in the pool with picturesque views of the surrounding mountains, Marek held his post at the fire, stoking, splashing, turning.
We asked him if he was cooking it Chilean or German style. He smiled and spoke in his thick, raspy voice, “Este es Patagonian.”
He told me that the indigenous people of Patagonia had gouges on their lips, because they would cut into a piece of meat, bite onto it with their teeth while leaning their body over the open flames, and slice the rest of the way, pulling a chunk right off the lamb. I don’t know if he was pulling my leg or not, but when he handed me a knife, you better believe that I leaned over that fire and bit down into the meat of the beast and ran that blade right in front of my face.
Seasoned only with salt and smoke, the lamb that spent its entire life grazing and roaming the same mountains where it was cooked, was amongst the most tender and succulent meat that I have ever tasted. As my teeth glided through the first bite, I could feel the look of surprise and excitement on my face. It was like a drug, and we were all hooked.
On our westward facing mountainside, we spent the remainder of the evening watching the sun go down behind the mountains and primordially sliced meat off a lamb roasting over an open fire. As we licked our fingertips under the orange Chilean sky, Marek stood, satisfied and honored to share his corner of heaven with us, a handful of city-dwellers.