HOLIDAY FOOD – Christmas cooking in Chile

12 Dec 2001

How is Christmas celebrated in Chile? What are the typical Christmas dishes? As we know, festive occasions for human beings mean food. As the whole family comes together for Christmas, which is probably the most meaningful and symbolic celebration of the whole year, special care and attention is given to the preparation of food.
In Chile, like in the rest of the southern hemisphere, Christmas comes in mid-summer. Although the country does not have a particularly torrid climate, it is still hot at Christmas time. Therefore the Christmas menu is likely to include salads, fresh fruit, ice cream and cold drinks. The main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, 24th December, and many families attend midnight mass (known here as misa del gallo) and then return home to gather together at the table – grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandchildren.
In the past Christmas decorations here had nothing in common with the customary style of decorations used in the north – ie. in the US and Europe. In Chile, tables used to be decorated with garlands of colored paper, flowers and early summer fruits: small peaches (duraznos de la Virgen), pears (peras del Niño), custard apples, early apricots and figs. The northern tradition of a fir tree decorated with lights did not exist, but a nativity scene was always made in the living room – a Belén (Bethlehem), as Chileans call it – with the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. Nowadays, though, the influence of foreign customs has taken hold and a Christmas trees is usual, the traditional nativity scene often placed below it. The preparation of decorations is part of the celebration and all the family gets involved.

Nativity scenes are also made in the churches, and are decorated with flowers, shepherds and angels which wait with Mary and Joseph for the arrival of the Christ Child on 24th December. In the days leading up to Christmas it is traditional to visit churches to admire the various nativity scenes and recite the novena of the Child (Novena del Niño) – a nine-day devotion in preparation for Christmas.
Christmas dinner centres around one inalienable dish: a large roast turkey usually stuffed with apples. This is not an imitation of northern tradition: turkeys are in fact originally from Mexico, from where they spread throughout Latin America. Homes that still respect traditional customs begin to prepare the designated victim a month in advance: the turkey is force-fed with whole walnuts so that its meat, which is usually rather insipid, becomes particularly fragrant. Other traditional dishes are lobster from the Juan Fernandez islands, served cold with mayonnaise; crabs (centollas) from far-off Punta Arenas in the south of Chile; garnished roast chicken; or else asado, an open-air barbecue in the garden or on the balcony, grilling selected pieces of beef, chicken and pork sausages (loganizas and chorizos) which are eaten in rolls, and are a very popular starter. The salads served with the meat or fish may be made from potatoes and mayonnaise, tomatoes and onions, avocados, palm hearts or lettuce and other green vegetables with dressing. Desserts may still include the traditional crema asada, a local version of crème brulé but more commonly consist of meringue-cake stuffed with cream and fresh fruit, or an ice-cream cake with cream. Or more simply, a fresh fruit salad, perhaps with a little liqueur and whipped cream.
Typical drinks include a pisco sour aperitif, or wine in which fruit has been marinating for a few hours (custard apples in white wine and strawberries in red wine); meat dishes are served with a good Chilean wine, and increasingly often, chilled beer; champagne or sparkling wine with the dessert.
After dessert pan de pascua* (Christmas cake) is served, a sort of focaccia with aniseed, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, and filled with raisins, nuts and candied fruit. The cake is served with a traditional drink, cola de mono – see recipe below.

After dinner the children open their presents in happy confusion, tearing off the colored wrapping paper. Because the celebrations take place in summer, all the windows and doors are open, and at this point all the family goes outside to admire the fireworks displays which light up the sky with color. Usually the church bells ring and dance music fills the air until dawn.

Cola de mono
There are countless different versions of cola de mono, and everyone has their own recipe. Below is a standard formula that can be enhanced with endless variations according to personal taste.

Heat one liter of fresh milk and bring to the boil (the milk should be creamy, with at least 30% fat). As soon as it begins to boil, remove from the heat and add a cinnamon stick, about 5cm long, 4 cloves, half a vanilla pod (or one teaspoon of vanilla essence), a little nutmeg and about 125g of sugar. Replace on a low heat and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved. Remove the milk from the heat and cool for a while; then add two beaten egg yolks (the milk must not be too warm otherwise the eggs will curdle). Mix well. Strain in a fine sieve, pressing the spices well and add three teaspoons of coffee powder dissolved in brandy. Beat the mixture for 10 minutes until the milk is cold. Then mix in a cup of brandy (250ml) with an alcohol content no lower than 35°. Pour into a bottle and keep in the refrigerator until chilled. Serve with pan de pascua. The brandy can be replaced with grappa, and the coffee powder with a little very strong coffee (the drink must be flavored but not diluted)…however, practice makes perfect!

*Translator’s note
In Spanish Pascua is used like Navidad and means “Christmas” or a feast of some sort. Easter is called Pascua de Resurrección.

Ruperto de Nola is a well-known food journalist, he lives in the Chilean city of Santiago, and he writes for Revista Gourmand and El Mercurio.

Photo: a “centolla” crab
http://www.redargentina.com/fotos/tierradelfuego/

Traduzione di Ailsa Wood

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