Rodeo Cuisine

Edmundo Bejares is the very image of a traditional Chilean rancher: craggy-faced, whiskey-voiced, sinewy, and tall—taller still when sitting in the saddle. But at the age when most of us are thinking about retirement, the last place you'd expect to find him is riding in a rodeo. Yet here he is, paired with his grown son (another Edmundo), both of them galloping their horses sideways to keep a panicked steer rumbling along the periphery of the rodeo ring. As lead rider, Edmundo deftly uses his steed's chest to nudge the steer to and fro until the beast slows down and then tamely allows itself to be guided out of the ring and into the pens. "Not so bad for an old guy, huh?" he asks afterwards.

Bejares, who is president of the rodeo club in San Fernando, a small town 85 miles south of Santiago, in Chile's bountiful Central Valley, has just won convincingly against riders half his age—some of them former rodeo champions. And now, famished, he sits down to eat, devouring a tough steak and greasy fries in the cavernous restaurant next to the stands. Which is a shame, because at the same moment, many of the huasos—Chilean cowboys—who tend the cattle and horses at the rodeo are being far better fed nearby, at the modest home of Emilia Briceño.

Most of the year, Briceño, wife of the rodeo groundskeeper, cooks only for her family. But at rodeo time, which in San Fernando covers an extended weekend in March and another in November, she prepares her version of comida criolla—the hearty cuisine linked with the rodeo traditions of the Central Valley—for the huasos, charging them about five dollars a meal. On this particular Saturday, she is serving cazuela de carne (beef stew) and empanadas accompanied by the spicy salsa known as pebre to about 20 cowboys and grooms, who arrive in shifts throughout the afternoon. The previous day, her menu featured pastel de choclo—a pie of chicken or beef (and sometimes both) baked with grated corn, milk, olives, boiled eggs, and raisins, beneath a burnt sugar crust. On Sunday, the rodeo's climax, the main dish will be charquican, a combination of beef, potatoes, and whatever vegetables are in season, all boiled and then mashed together. She is also considering requests for porotos granados—a mixture of beans, squash, corn, and onions, flavored with basil.

Comida criolla is filling enough to replenish anybody who has spent the day on horseback. But it's a good deal more varied than American cowboy fare or Argentinean gaucho cooking. Beans, corn, chiles, tomatoes, and seafood—dietary staples of Chile's Mapuche Indians—play at least as important a role as the beef, lamb, pork, and chicken introduced into the region by European settlers.

In recent years, Chile has experienced an economic boom unparalleled in Latin America, and the new wealth has spurred a fascination with rodeo—among both traditional ranchers and urban wanna-bes eager to invest in the sport. At the same time, a revival of interest in the comida criolla associated with the rodeo has counterbalanced the influence of the trendy nouvelle cuisine that affluent Chileans consume on their workdays back in the city.

Emilia Briceño's customers, though, aren't dilettantes. Briceño, a stout, no-nonsense grandmother, with a strong, broad face and smoldering charcoal eyes, began serving comida criolla to rodeo hands soon after she and her husband moved into their blue wooden house in 1973. A hungry huaso dropped by one day and offered to pay for a helping of whatever was on the stove. Soon, word of Briceño's culinary talent got around.

"We wouldn't keep coming back if the food got any worse," says huaso Segundo Busto, with a display of typically laconic Chilean cowboy humor. The guffaws turn into laughter when another huaso suggests that Busto's judgment has been impaired by a recent fall from his horse. Huasos have a gentler reputation than their counterparts elsewhere in the Americas. They have no folklore of gunslinging or knife-slashing bravado. Even their rodeos are more restrained. Instead of lassos, the riders use only their horses to waltz the steers around the half-moon-shaped ring, and they can lose points for mistreating the animals. Participants are also rated by the way they keep their composure in the saddle, and even by the elegance of their attire: the flat-brimmed hat, the colorfully patterned manta (poncho), the pinstriped pants.

Above all, riders must display a level of sportsmanship unfashionable nowadays even at cricket matches. "If a huaso so much as glares at me, I will disqualify him," asserts Marco Millan, the slim, unsmiling judge at the San Fernando rodeo. "It may sound harsh, but respect and dignity for the event must be maintained at all costs." Even after the contest, around Briceño's table, the huasos are models of propriety. There are no off-color jokes or cussing. When the meal is finished, they push their chairs back and ask for permission to smoke. With their hats off, they reveal the distinctive facial characteristics of Chile's rural population, reflecting the intermingling of Mapuche Indians with waves of European immigrants—Spaniards, beginning with the conquest in the 1500s and later Basques, then British, French, Irish, Germans, and Italians, among others.

A shoestring of a country, 2,600 miles long and rarely more than 125 miles wide, Chile is agriculturally very well endowed—and nowhere is the Chilean farmer more blessed than in the Central Valley. Vineyards, grain fields, and grazing lands here are bordered by weeping willows and trim Lombardy poplars. Hot summer days give way to nights cooled by Pacific breezes and Andean winds. The winters are nearly devoid of killer frosts. The land is irrigated by regular rainfall and rivers swollen by snowmelt from the Andes. It is little wonder that Chile has become a major greengrocer for North America and Europe during our winter (and thus their summer) months.

For Emilia Briceño, the twice-weekly street market that sprawls along the five blocks between the rodeo grounds and the town center in San Fernando offers a cornucopia of Central Valley produce. Here she can stock up on rice, four varieties of potatoes, a half-dozen types of bean, carrots, avocados, tomatoes, spinach, artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, yams, cucumbers, berries, peaches, plums, apples, pears, cherimoyas. On the other hand, her own garden supplies her with the fragrant herbs she uses in her cooking. The garden is also the site of a dun-colored clay oven, shaped like a giant termite hill, in which Briceño bakes up to a hundred empanadas at a time. The oven, whose style is typical of the Central Valley, looks ancient but was in fact built to replace one destroyed by an earthquake in 1985.

The same earthquake brought Raquel Orellana back home to San Fernando. It had made a shambles of the successful seafood restaurant she and her husband, Alberto, a retired naval supply officer, had run for almost ten years in Valparaiso, Chile's largest port. So they decided to open a place in San Fernando, calling it En Familia—"In the Family"—not only to emphasize the home-style cooking, but also because the building was Orellana's childhood home.

Orellana, a small, sturdy woman, discovered her gastronomic aptitude in elementary school, in the days when classes in the "household arts" were required for girls. "Later," she says, "I started buying cookbooks and trying out the recipes. I also learned from the navy cooks who were friendly with my husband." Although she still concocts some of the same seafood dishes she made in Valparaiso, Orellana has adapted to local San Fernando tastes. "We serve a lot more comida criolla than we did in Valparaiso, because this is real huaso country," she says. Her specialties include porotos con riendas (beans with noodles) and humitas (Chilean tamales). At the moment, however, she's preparing ajiaco, a formidable concoction of beef, onions, carrots, bell peppers, garlic, and spices, fried together in corn oil and then boiled with rice, potatoes, peas, and green beans. The huasos consider it a sure antidote for hangovers. "Come Monday mid-morning," Orellana predicts, "they'll be here in droves asking for it."

No doubt, many of them will be drawn from the crowd gathered this weekend inside the rodeo's makeshift banquet space to celebrate the winning riders. At the long wooden bar, a group of locals seems intent on sampling and comparing the merits of some 20 wines from regional producers. The floor fills with couples shuffling through the cueca, the national dance, which imitates a rooster courting a hen: The man, waving a white handkerchief, appears to stalk the woman, who flicks her own white scarf as she darts away from him. Bejares, fresh from his rodeo triumph and fortified by a few pisco sours (a deceptively potent mix of clear brandy, lemon juice, sugar, and egg white), looks as limber on the dance floor in pursuit of his wife as he did earlier that day on horseback. "That's what's so great about rodeo and dancing," says his brother-in-law Sergio Mangensdorf, who is president of the provincial rodeo association. "Age doesn't count in either one."

A more refined version of comida criolla is offered about 11 miles northeast of San Fernando, at Hacienda Los Lingues. This 9,000-acre, colonial-style estate has been owned by the same family since 1599. And, for more than two centuries, Los Lingues has been one of the most prestigious horse-breeding ranches in South America, specializing in criollos—descendants of the Berber horses introduced to Spain by the Moors and brought by the conquistadores to the Americas. The criollo, a sturdy, thick-bodied, gentle breed, is favored for cattle herding, and horses from Los Lingues, called Aculeos, win prizes every year at the San Fernando rural society fair held behind the rodeo stands, and are ridden in rodeos throughout the country.

Under the current proprietors of the hacienda—German Claro Lira and his wife, Maria Elena Lyon de Claro—Los Lingues is best known, however, as a deluxe country hostelry, with some of the finest comida criolla in Chile. The hotel is furnished with heirlooms. Hanging on the dining room walls are coats of arms from all four family lines. But just when the ambience starts to verge on the pompous, Lyon de Claro—a lithe, stylish woman—points out a startling pair of silver roosters from the Spanish colonial period and delivers a bit of self-deflating levity: "Impressive aren't they?" she asks. "They were stolen from the real owners during a war we had with the Peruvians a century ago."

She could hardly have avoided developing a fine palate, Lyon de Claro explains. More than a half-century ago, one of her great-aunts coauthored a standard text on aristocratic Chilean cooking—and food was always a serious affair at her house. "When I was growing up," she recalls, "we'd have as many as eight courses for weekend lunch." There are almost that many in a midday meal she prepares for us one Sunday and serves under a huge maple in one of the hacienda gardens. We sample shellfish empanadas, porotos granados, charquican, chicken with cognac, and a meringue made with a tart local fruit called lucuma. Claro Lira, who oversees the wine cellar, chooses local sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon as accompaniment.

It's a far cry from the informal huaso table at Emilia Briceño's house, but the cooking is no less savory, and no less genuinely Chilean.