Want to go to South America? Liz Caskey shows us how.
Given that I've been thinking a lot lately about making dreams happen, it seemed an appropriate time to introduce you to a truly inspiring friend of mine, Liz Caskey. Liz left a career in investment banking to focus on what she loves the most: food, wine, and travel (you can read about her foodie adventures on her fantastic blog Eat Wine). She's lived in Santiago, Chile the past 12 years, where she works as a chef, sommelier, food/wine writer, cookbook author, and entrepreneur. (Phew!) Passionate about Latin American culture and cuisine, Liz and her husband Francisco run a boutique travel company – Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences – that creates bespoke food- and wine-focused trips all over South America. They regularly travel around the continent, scouting out hidden gems to share with their clients: the hottest restaurants in Lima, Peru's unspoiled Lake Titicaca, under-the-radar wine regions in Uruguay and Chile, new boutique hotels in Buenos Aires, and outdoor yoga retreats in Patagonia.
I met Liz years ago when I was working on a story about Buenos Aires, and reached out to her for advice on where to eat while I was there. We became fast friends over email (given all of our shared interests) and for years she told me that I had to come to Chile. She described the haunting beauty of Patagonia, the burgeoning food scene in Santiago (and its colorful farmers' markets), the vibrant coastal town of Valparaiso, and the abundance of great wines (thanks to the varied microclimates in the country). Brandon and I finally made the trip last fall, and we were mesmerized. Everything she said was true, and then some. We spent two weeks there – traveling to Patagonia (a 36-hour-trip!), to Santiago, through the coastal wine regions and up to Valparaiso – and barely scratched the surface. We stayed with Liz and Francisco for a couple of days at their beautiful apartment in Santiago, and had so much fun cooking and eating together. Liz took me on a tour of Santiago's best markets (La Vega and Mercado Central) and we prepared a beautiful Sunday lunch that involved multiple courses and much wine-drinking. We finished eating at 5 pm and all took naps afterward (my kind of lunch!).
All that said, Liz is a wealth of knowledge on all things South America. She was recently named to the 2013 Travel + Leisure A-List as their recommended expert in South American Food & Wine Travel! I recently chatted with her about some of her favorite foods in Chile, the wines (and wine regions) she's most excited about, and where she'd travel if she could go anywhere. Read on, and be inspired!
How many years have you been living in Chile? Why did you choose Santiago?
I have been living in Chile since January 2001 and in addition to that, a full year abroad during college. That makes 13.5 years (note to self: how'd time go by that quickly?). Initially in college, I chose Santiago because of the study abroad program, and because I wanted to be in South America over Spain. I loved it so much that when I saw a job in finance (at that time I was working in investment banking in New York), I jumped at the opportunity to return to Chile on a full-time, indefinite base. Somehow I knew that moving there would change my life for the better. I never looked back.
You are passionate about promoting the cuisine of Chile, and recently wrote a fantastic cookbook! How did you learn to cook Chilean dishes? What are some of your favorite local ingredients and dishes?
Chile really is heaven for a cook. Given that the country spreads north to south over 30-odd latitudes, there is a lot of variety in ingredients. Specifically in Santiago, where I live, we are in a Mediterranean Eden that is very similar in climate to California or Italy. As such, we have incredible fresh produce year-round. Asparagus, artichokes, fava beans and strawberries in the spring; glorious cherries, apricots, berries, melons, peaches, and the best shirt-soaker tomatoes, cranberry beans, and indigenous (large) corn in the summer; persimmons, figs, chestnuts, Mapuche pine nuts, and 12 kinds of grapes, in the fall; Jerusalem artichokes, chard, citrus, pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, and radicchio in the winter. This is the short list (!), in addition to artisan cheeses, peppery green olive oil, and a plethora of seafood and meats.
Chilean dishes are very seasonal and elemental because the produce is local, fresh, and needs little doctoring. I learned how to make many of the classics through my mother-in-law, my maid, and by asking cooks in markets like La Vega Chica how they put them together. I've always been fueled by a natural curiosity as to what is being served during a certain season. Favorite local ingredients that I go to year-round are Chilean pink garlic (that has the most wonderful, pure taste and is non-GMO) as well as Merkén, Chile's spice gift to the world. This unique spice blend is a combination of cold-smoked red cacho cabra chilies ground with cilantro – it's still made by the Mapuche indigenous communities in the south. A pinch of this gives an earthy, smoky to everything from lentils to pumpkin soup to scrambled eggs or adds some fire to their pebre, salsa.
Favorite chilean foods: I love humitas, fresh corn tamales with basil that are only made in the summer time. With a Chilean-style tomato salad (sliced with tempered onions and cilantro), it is heaven. I also can never get enough of machas a la parmesana, razor clams baked on the half shell with a sprinkling of good Parmesan or goat cheese. It is the taste of the ocean, just like the delicious, tiny ostras de borde negro, black-lipped oysters from the island of Chiloé. Chilean cuisine may not have the outside recognition (yet!) of other cuisines, but it is simple, fresh, and delicious. I can keep naming favorite dishes if you like…
Tell us a bit about your boutique travel company Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences. What's your travel style? What makes your trips really unique?
We essentially work as a travel design firm with a niche on culinary, wine, and culture travel. We focus on customization and the client experience from first consultation to the trip itself to follow-up after (and getting those wines home!). It is a bit like when you have your wedding dress made—you need to alter a little here, a little there. A good designer will listen to you and help you create a dress that reflects your style and what's perfect for you. Travel should be like that too.
One of the things that really draws me to travel, and food & wine, are the strong stories and characters. I am passionate, and somewhat obsessed, about understanding how this works into the weave of the local fabric and culture. There's a story behind each ingredient—and an experience in connecting with it. That perfect dish often means meeting the cook; a terroir wine and passionate winemaker, an exquisite queso fresco has a devoted cheese maker, etc. The choreography in putting together those experiences and connecting our clients to the farmers, gauchos, historians, top chefs, winery owners, in one fluid experience (some more wine- or food-heavy than others) is our job—and art.
Infused to this is the profound belief that travel is transformational, and we never return from a trip as the same person. We push our own boundaries, we grow, we open our minds and hearts to others and different ways of experiencing life. We take in new vistas and parts of the earth. It is pure inspiration and I see our work as being facilitators to help make that happen for our clients. Of course, our clients do like to stay in the exquisite hotels and travel in total comfort, that's the market we serve, but ultimately it's the growth from travel we all crave. To be able to be part of this and share this region of the world we love so much is a truly an honor.
You all travel all over Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay scouting out the best destinations. What are some of your favorite recent under-the-radar discoveries?
It depends what your definition of under-the-radar may be. I think that South America is still grossly overlooked by US media so much of the time! That being said, away from mainstream, right now I am totally smitten with Chilean wines from the Maule valley (about 300km south of Santiago and 100km south of well known Colchagua Valley). They are growing extraordinary old bush vine Carignan, all dry farming, and the reds are the closest to Bordeaux I have tried in this region. There are great small projects down there the only issue is that there's a lack of hotel infrastructure on a high level—yet.
In Peru, we just revisited Lake Titicaca region in April and I was bewitched. So many people place all their travel eggs in the Cuzco and Machu Picchu basket—which is stunning, but more trafficked. Here, we came into contact with local island and Aymara cultures that have lived the same way since the Spanish arrived over 500 years ago. Weavers making gorgeous textiles and tending their fields of quinoa, potatoes, and oats (by hand) where the only change has been the advent of cell phones. The lake itself gleams like the ocean and is simply gorgeous. We stayed at a newish property, Titilaka Lodge, which I adored.
Uruguay is still South America's best kept secret—not so much Punta del Este but rather, wine country. Many people even give me a puzzled look when I mention they make GREAT wine. The main wine-growing region, Canelones, is just outside of Montevideo and besides Tannat, they are really doing amazing things with whites like Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc along with Merlot, too. What I most love though, is that we visit small, family run wineries where you meet the owner/winemaker and they serve salame or cheese made by their neighbor or cousin. Most Uruguayans are of Spanish or Italian descent and it's very noticeable in the way they make you feel like an old friend.
You gave us pointers for our Patagonia trip last fall and it was PHENOMENAL. Tell us a bit about your upcoming Yoga, Wine, & Patagonia trip!
This trip was born from my own yoga practice which I started ten years ago. In traveling and knowing many of our clients, quite a few were dedicated to their yoga practice and always mentioned how so many of the places visited would be spectacular backdrops for outdoor yoga. The idea percolated for a long time but on a trip to Patagonia last year, I just thought, how cool would it be to set up a yoga trip combining vineyards and this pristine place. The trip was born. We will be splitting the time on this weeklong trip between a day in Santiago, and getaway to the Mediterranean central valley wine country (Colchagua) with a daily yoga practice focused on either Iyengar or Ashtanga style with a local professor. The rest of the trip will based at The Singular Patagonia in Puerto Natales and have evening (post hiking/kayaking/active yoga classes) and a couple outdoor sessions. It's a small group, maximum 12 people and I will be personally hosting and participating in the classes.
You're quite the Chilean wine expert (which is impressive given how many wine regions there are!). What are a few of your favorite wine regions in Chile – and a few favorite wines you've been drinking recently?
Chile's wine scene is on fire and so effervescent. I really don't think that most people are aware that there are 12 wine appellations in the Central Valley. It's like taking most of the west coast wine appellations and squeezing them into a very narrow "bowling alley" of about 1,000 kilometers delimited by two mountain ranges and the big climatic moderator, the Pacific Ocean. Right now, winemakers are really learning about the terroir they have been blessed with and the myriad of microclimates that allow them to plant just about everything. Chile is all about diversity because of that and there are so many grapes from whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gerwurztraminer, Viognier (to name a few) to reds like the king Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Merlot, Carginan, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault, Syrah, among others. It is truly a carta blanca to experiment. It's hard to pick one valley alone since I tend to gravitate towards many styles of wines and grapes. I like elegant wines with finesse, balance, and personality that really show their terroir (place they are born), which often has a lot of minerality in Chile.
Right now, we gravitate towards the coastal appellations like Casablanca or especially San Antonio where the wines have lots of spark—high acid, low pH, zesty, zingy wines full of life. Pinot Noir has ton incredibly well here with the granitic soils and Sauvignon Blanc is really making a name for itself. There also is a smattering of reds that are not typically cool weather wines but have found ideal microclimates.
As for wines I have been drinking as of late, as a Pinot Noir lover, I love Pedro Parra & Francois Massoc's Clos des Fous Latuffa, that hails from one of the southernmost valleys in Chile. It's a different, softer expression on par with Williamette type wines. I also love Montsecano Pinot Noir from the Casablanca Valley, a biodynamic project. It has such juicy, intense fruit and would be more like a California Pinot (Russian River). We go through a lot of Sauvignon Blanc in our house, given our love for seafood and vegetables, so an all time favorite is Garcés Silva Amayna (in truth, I love all of their wines!) and Casa Marin's Los Cipreses. If we are hanging out over the weekend with pizza, pasta, or grilling a house staple is the Loma Larga Cabernet Franc, especially the 2009 vintage, another coastal small winery focusing on great reds. It has these herbaceous notes and rounded tannins that are just amazing and a departure from the big reds from Colchagua which I often find very heavy on the palate. If price is no question and we are drinking the collectables in our cellar we recently kicked our last bottle of EPU 2001, the "second wine" of Almaviva; both Epu & Almaviva are probably two favorites from Chile. Another wine we swoon over is Altair, particularly the 2004 vintage, from the piedmont of the Cachapoal Valley. Both Almaviva and Altair are made like true grand crus from Bordeaux and speak of the terroir where those grapes are born.
I know you love to buy fresh ingredients from the markets in Santiago and cook at home–and you're quite the healthy eater! What sort of things do you love to cook/eat on a weekly basis?
I am fortunate to live about five blocks from La Vega, one of the big wholesale markets in Santiago, along with the fish market. It really changed my way of living since you cut out the necessity of a grocery store other than for dry items and cleaning supplies. My mission is to eat as close to the source as possible with copious amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. Generally, I eat mostly seasonal fruit for breakfast and green juice. My husband sticks to a very Chilean breakfast—whole wheat toast with mashed avocado and sea salt. We keep things pretty simple during the week with pulses of some sort (Chileans have tons of heirloom beans and love to eat them with pumpkin, spices, etc.), grains like quinoa, and fish. Green salad is a staple along with steamed or roasted veggies. We love all kinds of wild, cold water fish that are usually roasted or mock fried (coated in rice flour and browned in sprayed olive oil). We don't eat red meat, pork, or chicken at home (a few times a year when we go out).
I am lucky to have help at home with a wonderful housekeeper who cooks for me three days per week. She is key and is really my sous chef since she preps out all my salad ingredients, makes our nightly vegetable soups (broccoli, caramelized cauliflower, carrot-ginger-honey, watercress-leek-potato, etc.), prepares the daily lunch menu, and is a great cook, making my ethnic food hankerings from Pad thai to Indian Dhal. To eat like this is extremely time-consuming since the food comes from the markets with dirt on it and takes quite a while to put away and prepare.
What I most love about eating like this, besides the very clean, elemental flavors, is the relationships I have built over time with my caseros, vendors in the market. I consider them as friends and each transaction supports their business and they give me their best produce or fish. They ask about my family, my last trip, we talk about life, where the best avocados come from, what season is in the ocean right now (yes, there's a season for seafood!). There's a human component that is heart-warming and puts you in touch with where you food comes from that is so important.
Where is your favorite foodie destination in South America?
Lima right now is getting a lot of glory—for a reason. It is really coming into its own with the chefs, and locals, appreciating and being proud of Peruvian cuisine and its regionality. Since Lima is the capital, and a town of serious foodies from high-end restaurants to shacks selling the best choros a la chalaca, you have an effervescent food scene. Here you can try all kinds of ceviche varying by ingredient to technique (grilled, chili sauces, etc.), including speakeasies that you have to have the dato, tip, to get in. There are regional restaurants focusing on fiery food from Arequipa in the South or Moche-style cuisine from Chiclayo in the north or even a hip cocktail bar with a focus on small plates from the Amazon. There's the Asian influence in chifa (Cantonese-Peruvian) cuisine with a large Chinatown and a dim sum tradition many weekends. I am crazy about nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) with sashimi-esque tiradito, creative sushi rolls rolled in crunchy quinoa with guacamole on top. And then you have classic colonial Limeño cuisine touting must-eats like ají de gallina (chicken in yellow chili-walnut sauce), causa (potato terrine) with crab/octopus/tuna, and sinful sweets like suspiro de limeña, a caramel pudding with soft meringue and cinnamon on top. There are also super high-end restaurants experimenting with ingredients from all over the country like the flagship Astrid & Gastón whose chef, Gastón Acurio is the father of the foodie movement. You also have young-ish chefs like Virgilio Martinez of Central creating tasting dinners like Thomas Keller that are modern yet representative. Last but not least, every September, Peru holds Mistura, a MAJOR foodie festival drawing over 100,000 people to showcase to Peruvians, and visitors, this culinary heritage. I am going for the first time this year and cannot wait. It draws big name chefs like Ferrán Adriá and this year, Alain Ducasse.
So many people many a beeline for Cuzco and Machu Picchu but we encourage our clients to take time to explore Lima and its food—at least a few days. Chileans these days do foodie weekends leaving on a Thursday and coming back Sunday. That's probably all your waistline can hack!
If you were cooking an impromptu dinner for 8 friends tonight, what would you make?
Since the base of our diet is mostly fresh vegetables, I usually open the refrigerator door and start there. If I am close to market day, the refrigerator is an explosion of greens, seasonal veggies, and fruits. Since the first tender asparagus and artichokes are coming into season, I would gently steam these and serve the hearts with shavings of Matetic Vineyard's amazing raw sheep's milk cheese, chives, slivered mint, and a drizzle of homemade Champagne vinaigrette. Probably would pair this with a sparky white like a new, dry Riesling from a garage project in Casablanca. For the main course, I would first call my fish monger, Arnaldo, and see what the current brought in (since the Central Market is only 5 blocks away, they deliver). If I am lucky and he has a white, flaky rock fish from Valparaíso like villagay, I would roast this in a very low oven to retain the moisture and inherent sweetness of this fish, only with a brush of peppery green olive oil (made by a friend of ours in Colchagua). I would serve this with merkén roasted baby potatoes and a leek-warm wild mushroom salad with changles (foraged mushrooms common at this time of year) and hearty callampas, a sort of local porcini. Maybe a touch of fresh thyme.
Here, I would prove you can break the rules and pair white fish with red wine and pour a brilliant Pinot Noir like Garcés Silva's Amayna (probably the house wine!). For dessert, I would make an almond-strawberry tart with strawberries from San Pedro (tiny and perfectly sweet in September), and run down to the corner to Café Opera to take away their vanilla bean ice cream. The ice cream "chef" is Belgian and it is creamy heaven. In Chile, we do espresso like in Europe, after dessert, because part of the culture is a long sobremesa with friends. We sit for hours to discuss life, politics, and love.
What's your current dream travel destination? (Somewhere you've never been...)
That's hard because sometimes I feel like I want to go everywhere in the world—and then just want to revisit places I have fallen in love with like France. If I had to pick right now, I would say Southeast Asia—and yes, it's mainly because of the food followed by Buddhism, the exotic factor, and warm weather with good beaches. A monthlong exploration though Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia with cooking classes, street eating, and staying at the amazing Aman properties (on my bucket list). I would love to take the new Aqua Mekong cruise down the Mekong River in 2015, touching on several of these destinations. We work with them in the Peruvian Amazon and I can only imagine how amazing this cruise will be.
Thanks Liz! See you in Chile again, sometime soon I hope!