On the drive from Santiago to the Colchagua Valley, if a friend told me I was in Southern California, I would believe her. The dry rolling hills, the front range, and tall mountains beyond (the Andes instead of the Sierra Nevadas) look like the terrain where I grew up. Even the produce is similar. We passed flatbed trucks laden with boxes of just-picked oranges, avocados, and tomatoes. It’s fall here in the southern hemisphere, so our April is their October, and workers harvest fall squash and bundle garlic into piles to dry in the fields. Rows and rows of grapevines with leaves turning red and mahogany stretch across the flatlands and up into the hills. It’s a rich and busy agricultural area, so cars share the road with tractors. One difference from SoCal is pastures of horses raised for meat. I had tried some a few days earlier at Peumayan Traditional Foods in Santiago. The first bite took a bit of courage, the horsemeat taste (fortunately) masked by an earthy sauce. Along the freeway we saw fruit stands every mile or so, little shacks on the shoulder of the road. I pulled over, screeching from 60 mph to zero, to buy grapes. Travelers stop to load up on bags of produce from nearby fields to take home to their kitchens.
The town of Santa Cruz is at the center of this region, and at restaurant Etiqueta Negra, chef Mikhael Grichka showed me the typical grill used here. It’s a table-high slab of concrete where he builds a small fire to the left of the grill. When it has burned down, he slides the hot coals under the grill rack to cook an order of steak, fish, or vegetables. Another order, another fire. I asked Mikhael to make me anything with a vegetable, and he stuffed a red bell pepper with quinoa (native to the Andes), and charred it on his grill. The Colchagua Valley is Chile’s top winemaking region, and bottles from the Carménère grapes are fabulous, and so are the many types of Pisco, a brandy made from wine. Both are delicious and go perfectly with the area’s food, so it’s easy to overdo it, trust me!