Monthly Archives: October 2012

2012
10/28

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Thanksgiving Dinner Perfected: Keens Steakhouse Gobbles a New Peak of Holiday Genius

By JR Rosenthal

Kings Cut Prime Rib of Beef

In this fifth annual rundown of the holiday menu at Keens Steakhouse in New York City (73 West 36th Street), I am pleased as punch to tell you that this is the best Thanksgiving dinner served at any restaurant in the USA.

The distinction of being the best of the best on Turkey Day once belonged to the legendary Blue Boar Restaurant on Lombard Street in San Francisco, where in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge you could enjoy a locally-raised Sonoma County boar chop cooked in a stock made from the reduction of the boar jus.

After the Blue Boar burned to a crisp in the late ‘80s, Keens took over as the go-to place for gourmet dining on Thanksgiving. Bill Rodgers, executive chef at Keens, has devised a menu that’s both eclectic and creative in its ability to convey dishes that pack the punch of deep, rich flavors sourced from seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients.

The Annotated Turkey Day Planner

As per usual, Natural Traveler offers a blow-by-blow analysis of Keens Thanksgiving offerings—this year slated for November 22. Rodgers, with his best impression of the late, great James Beard, provides a deft commentary on this splendid feast.

 

 

COURSE NUMBER 1: APPETIZER CHOICES (Pick 1)

Roasted Kebocha Squash

Bill Rodgers:

 “I peel and slice the squash, and roast them with cinnamon, nutmeg and honey. When tender, a serving of the Kebocha squash is plated with a beautiful arugula salad that’s tossed in our homemade vinaigrette, and served with an herb whipped cream cheese filled with soft herbs like tarragon, parsley, chive and chervil.”

Grilled Thick-Cut Berkshire Bacon

Rodgers:

 “Berkshire pigs, originally raised in England, are quite delicious, and the bacon that is sourced from those pigs is extraordinary. Right now on the regular menu we serve double-smoked Vermont bacon, but I wanted to go with Berkshire bacon for Thanksgiving because it’s the kind of treat you want to enjoy on a special occasion. The two thick-cut slices of bacon will be served with a side cart of gorgeous cherry tomatoes for some color and acidity to complement the smoky flavor of the bacon.”

Maryland Lump Crab Cakes

Crisp Potato Pancakes with Tuna and Creme Fraiche

Rodgers:

 “The crab cakes are made from the finest Maryland lump crab meat. My goal is to showcase the flavor of the crab, and so I keep the cakes simple by adding a few nuances from fresh dill, cracked pepper, fried and crushed corn tortillas, onion and celery.”

Crisp Potato Pancake with Tuna and Crème Fraiche

Rodgers:

 “This is one of the new creations for this year’s menu. The potato pancake is adorned with sashimi-grade tuna and served with caviar and crème fraiche.”

 

 

 

 

 

Iced Shrimp Cocktail

Iced Shrimp Cocktail

Rodgers:

 “I am serving wild, white shrimp caught off the Pacific Coast of Mexico. They are delicious and classic! We serve them with our house-made cocktail sauce—the key ingredient is the horseradish that we prepare in-house.”

COURSE NUMBER 2: SOUP OR SALAD (Pick 1)

Granny Smith Apple Soup

Rodgers:

 “I make this seasonal delight with chicken stock, heavy cream, curry, coconut flakes, lemongrass, Kafir orange, shallots, leeks, bananas, pineapple, parsley and white vermouth. All of these ingredients are pureed and simmered until the flavors combine. I garnish with sliced apples and some chili powder along the rim of the bowl.”

 

Chopped 12 Ingredient Salad with Candied Walnuts

Chopped Twelve Ingredient Salad with Candied Walnuts

Rodgers:

 “This is the ultimate chopped salad and I serve it with a creamy, blue Balsamic vinaigrette. The chopped ingredients include mixed greens, apricots, candied walnuts, Asian pear, Stilton cheese, basil and fennel.”

 

COURSE NUMBER 3: ENTRÉE CHOICES (Pick 1)

Quattro Farms (New York State) Organic Free-Range Turkey with Traditional Dressing

Rodgers:

 “The preparation begins several days in advance once I take out my 55-gallon drum filled with a brining solution of water, sugar, herbs, juniper and black peppercorns. The advantage of brining is that it gets the natural sugars and salts into the meat for maximum flavor and a soft, moist texture. I wash the birds thoroughly and put them in barrels and keep them in the dry-aging room for 24 hours. I then roast the turkeys, beginning at 4:30 a.m. on November 22, to perfection.”

Quattro Farms Organic Free-Range Turkeys

> 

Legendary Double Lamb Chops

Rodgers:

 “Our restaurant is known for its classic mutton chop and–although it is not on the menu, we will make it available to anyone who wants to enjoy its rich, delicious flavor on Thanksgiving Day. But this year we are serving the just-as-legendary Keens lamb chops, which are two broiled Colorado lamb chops (6-8 ounces each) with mint-infused lamb jus.”

 

King’s Cut Prime Rib of Beef

Rodgers:

 “This massive prime rib is 32 ounces of USDA prime beef, which we serve with our horseradish au jus made with beef stock. You won’t leave hungry!”

 

 

Steamed Whole Maine Lobster

Steamed Maine Lobster

Rodgers:

 “We serve 2 pounds of fresh-caught Maine lobster steamed and adorned with the usual garnishes.”

       

SIDE DISHES (Served Family Style)  

Glazed Carrots, Smashed Candied Yams, Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes, Fine String Beans, Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Rodgers:

 “You get a sampling of all the iconic, traditional Thanksgiving sides. You can order double portions of your favorites, skip what you don’t like, or we will serve samplings of all 5 dishes.”

 

 

DESSERTS (Pick 1 of the 5 options)

Pumpkin Pie with Ginger Cream

Pecan Pie with Bourbon Cream

Rodgers:

 “These two classics are our most popular Thanksgiving desserts.”

Our Family Carrot Cake

Rodgers:

 “A huge success last year and so it’s back by popular demand.”

Lady M Chocolate

Rodgers:

 “A very light chocolate dessert made with an exquisite chocolate Ganache filling.”

Sorbets and Ice Creams are also available.

Keens Full-Roast Fresh-Brewed Coffee and/or an assortment of Black and Herbal teas are included with your meal. All alcoholic beverages are additional.

The Keens Thanksgiving Dinner costs $98 for adults and $49 for children 12 and under (tax and gratuities are not included in the price.)

Reservations are required.

IF YOU GO

Phone: 212-947-3636

Address: 73 West 36th Street (near 6th Avenue)

New York City, New York 10018

www.keens.com

 

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2012
10/27

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Of Time and Tide: In and Around Parrsboro, Nova Scotia

Canada Day at Ottawa House (Courtesy Ottawa House)

By Bill Scheller

Photos by the author and Kay Scheller except as noted

 

Things like this don’t happen in the United States.  You don’t visit the small-town summer home of a president and founding father and wind up sitting on the porch, shooting the breeze with the little town’s present-day chief elder.

 

Things like this happen in Canada, though.  My wife Kay and I were meandering through just about the only part of Nova Scotia that we weren’t already familiar with — the part at the head of the Bay of Fundy, where the  hammerhead bulk of the peninsula connects with the mainland — and we had arrived at Parrsboro.  Parrsboro is an old shipbuilding and port-of-entry town on an estuary that flows into the Minas Basin, a Fundy arm where the bay’s famously variable tides reach preposterous extremes.

 

I’ve never cared for the term “sleepy” as applied to towns; in most such places, people get out of bed and put in as much of a day, or more, as in supposedly livelier burgs.  But Parrsboro on a summer day, if not somnolent, is as far from lively as a village can get.  If there was ever any bustle around the three-block downtown’s big brick custom house, now a town activity center, it has long ebbed out with the Fundy tides.  A short walk from anywhere in Parrsboro will take you past estuarial marshes to beaches broad or narrow, depending on those tides and their time of day.

 

View from Ottawa House (Courtesy Ottawa House)

We headed a bit further from town, and found Ottawa House By-the-Sea, a rambling eighteenth-century structure, now a museum, that was the longtime summer home of Sir Charles Tupper, one of the architects of Canadian confederation and the shortest-serving prime minister in the nation’s history (45 days, in 1896).  Ottawa House is one of those town attic kinds of museums, commemorating not only the life and times of Tupper, but of Parrsboro as well.   We wandered through room after room of Victoriana and early twentieth-century artifacts, themed around the local shipbuilding and fishing industries, and the mementos of daily life in a town that has traded seafaring for a satisfyingly low-key brand of tourism.  (Well, there was a digression into a different industry: In its post-Tupper years, Ottawa House was run as a hotel by a Prohibition rumrunner who stored his hooch in the basement.)

 

But it was after we finished the house tour and walked out onto the broad, flower-bedecked verandah that we met a deceptively eightyish fellow in a broad-brimmed straw hat, who introduced himself as William Wheaton.  The name struck a chord, since one of the last things I’d noticed in one of Ottawa House’s warren of display rooms was a bill of fare, circa 1950s, from a local confectionery and ice cream shop named Wheaton’s, as vanished from the downtown Parrsboro scene as its dime-and-quarter offerings.  Wheaton’s was vanished, that is.  Not Wheaton, who it turned out had run the place, making countless tons of candy during the first two-thirds of his more than ninety years.  It might have been his Old Fashioned Peppermint Lumps (“Net. Wt. 7 oz. or over, Price 29¢,” according to the replica labels he hands to Ottawa House visitors during his daily visits, and which museum docents refer to as his “calling cards,” or it may be the nine holes of golf he plays every day on the Parrsboro course he co-founded.  Mr. Wheaton is ninety, and the nonagenarian we’d all like to become.  He is also as hearty a booster of his hometown as any chamber of commerce could wish for.

 

Fossil Cliffs at Joggins (Courtesy Joggins Fossil Centre)

We’d known about the Age of Sail Heritage Centre, and the Ship’s Company Theater (an outdoor summer venue actually built around a beached vessel), but what sounded particularly intriguing, in Mr. Wheaton’s telling, was the Fundy Geological Museum.  Even before visiting this part of Nova Scotia, we had heard about the unusually rich provincial deposits of mineral samples – the “rock soup” that makes Nova Scotia one of the few places in the world with all the major rock types from all geological periods.

 

“All geological periods” is a tall order for a relatively small museum to tackle, but the Fundy does a worthy job.  At once kid-friendly and comprehensive enough for adults, the museum centers on a time line that explicates the progression of geological eras and their characteristic rock formations, and the evidence of bygone life forms embedded within them.  The displays of fossil specimens are enhanced by detailed models – the insects are fearsomely large – and a life-size dinosaur skeleton.  Much of the museum’s fossil treasures are from the vast trove discovered at nearby Wasson’s Bluff, which has yielded some100,000 fossilized bones, along with preserved footprints such as those of the smallest dinosaur yet identified, uncovered as recently as 1984.  Wasson’s Bluff is the only place on Earth that reveals the types of creatures that survived the mass extinction at the cusp of the Triassic and Jurassic periods, at the dawn of the age of dinosaurs.

 

Exploring the Fossil Cliffs at Joggins (Courtesy Joggins Fossil Centre)

Bit if the Geological Museum is a good introduction to deep time, the Joggins Fossil Centre is total immersion.  Located atop a ruddy cliff overlooking the bay twenty-five miles north of Parrsboro, the centre stands on the site of a former coal mine, its sleek modern building, a green technology gem, seemingly the physical antithesis of the age of coal.  But the age of coal – not the industrial revolution, but the distant millennia when coal was formed, is what the centre is all about.

 

“There’s no better place to learn about the plants and animals that lived during the Carboniferous Age, 300 million years ago,” we were told by a knowledgeable staff interpreter, Dana Brown, who gave us a tour.  “Essentially, this is where we emerged from the water.  The fossils of the first known reptiles were found here.  They lived in a realm of tall trees – they’re preserved in rock, in their original positions – and giant insects, including ten-inch dragonflies and arthropleura, an ancestral millipede that could reach eight feet in length and was the largest invertebrate ever.”

Low tide at Parrsboro. Later in the day, you’d have to swim to the lighthouse

 

That earliest reptile, we learned, was Hylonamus lyelli, now Nova Scotia’s official provincial fossil.  Discovered here by William Dawson in 1859, it produced the first viable terrestrial egg.  Its egg-laying ability, Dawson explained, was revealed by the bone structure of its hips.  In the same year of Dawson’s discovery, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which Joggins was mentioned twice.

 

The preserved fossils and replicated flora and fauna in the centre’s exhibit room – especially the glassed-over section of floor revealing a re-creation of what the terrain and some of its resident creatures might have looked like in the days of reptilian dawn – would be worth a visit regardless of location.  But the real excitement of a guided or self-guided tour here is the descent to the base of the cliffs themselves, where erosion constantly exposes more fossils of the Carboniferous Age as well as revealing traces of the coal seams that made this part of the province a vital mining district.  It looked as good a place as any for our ancestors to have emerged from the water … and, if posted warnings were not heeded, for heedless visitors to return to it.  “Be in sight of the stairs by 4:40 p.m.,” ordered a sign atop the steps that descended the cliff.  The numbers on the sign were of course changeable, as the warning had to do with the famous Fundy tides.

 

The author alongside a Parrsboro pier at low tide

We didn’t have to be told twice, having been to the beach at Parrsboro at both high and low tides.  At the ebb, it was possible to walk out to a small island and its lighthouse, and to stand at keel level alongside beached fishing boats beneath the towering walls of a pier.  At flood tide, the island was inaccessible (we were told of surf fishermen who had been stranded there for the night by the incoming rush of water), and we could walk the pier at eye level with the lifted vessels.  In sight of the Joggins stairs we remained, though 4:40 p.m. was a good ways off, as we scanned the red cliffs for fossils.

 

We took the longer seaside route back to Parrsboro, turning at lunchtime down a narrow road that led to the shore at Spencer’s Island, an island no more even at high tide.  Here we found the Beach House Café, a weathered snuggery set amidst a sea of lupines with the sea itself barely a few yards beyond.  We ordered bowls of thick fish chowder, which we ate at a picnic table next to Spencer’s Island Lighthouse, a pointy, snow-white three-story pyramid with a walkway on top.

 

They’ll float at high tide

 

The next day was  a Sunday, Band Concert Day on the Town Green.  Parrsboro boasts the oldest town band in Canada, and they were in fine form.  It looked as if the entire local population had turned out, surrounding the big multi-gabled band shell on benches and folding chairs.  We recognized a big straw hat – there on one of the front benches sat Mr. William Wheaton, fresh from nine holes of morning golf.  “I was good,” he told us.  “Good game.  Here, sit down.  Have you eaten yet?  That’s my son Bill over there, running the grill.”

 

Time, unlike the tides and the slow march of geological eras, was standing still in Parrsboro.

 

 

Parrsboro’s Town Band, the oldest in Canada

IF YOU GO:

 

Parrsboro is 113 miles (182 km) north and west of Halifax.

 

Nova Scotia Tourism (http://www.novascotia.com) publishes the excellent annual Doers and Dreamers guide, with several recommendations for lodgings in the Parrsboro and a list of local attractions.  For further details, log onto www.town.parrsboro.ns.ca.

 

Ottawa House By the Sea Museum: www.ottawahousemuseum.ca.

 

Fundy Geological Museum: www.museum.gov.ns.ca/fgm

 

Joggins Fossil Centre: www.jogginsfossilcliffs.net

 

Dining:  We enjoyed a great meal at owner-chef Glenn Wheaton’s Bare Bones Bistro, 121 Main Street, Parrsboro (902-254-2270; www.barebonesbistro.com). Glenn (no relation to William Wheaton, as far as he is aware) has a deft hand with local seafood and produce from nearby farms.  Seating is indoors and outdoors, and there’s a good selection of Nova Scotia wines.

 

 

 

 

2012
10/27

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Northern Wisconsin’s Tricky Weather Makes Fishing, Cruising an Unexpected Adventure

By Steve Bergsman

Bill, the salty fishing guide, readies for action

Photos by the Author

 

I could see Madeline Island, the largest of Apostle Islands, from my hotel room window – sometimes. Occasionally, the fog would roll in or the squalls would pick up and my view of Lake Superior would disappear into the dampness.

This was beginning to be the journey that almost never was. I had come to the northernmost point of Wisconsin to visit this little-known national park, one of the most solitary in the great American national park system. Called the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, it consists of 21 islands, a sandspit, and 12 miles of coastline — all in all, about a 720-square-mile area in the midst of Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes.

My itinerary looked fabulous.

 

On my first morning, I was scheduled to board a private boat for some fishing in Chequamegon Bay just to the south of Madeline Island, the only island not in the park system. The morning looked gray, the sky tentative. There was an uncomfortable stillness about the small, picturesque town of Bayfield. I stopped into the local coffee shop for a quick breakfast. As I’m chomping into my bagel, a short, squat man in rumpled clothes comes in. From behind the counter, the young girl hands him his regular mug filled with the morning brew. He sits down across from me and opens up the New York Times. Suddenly noticing me and apropos of nothing, he, like a modern day Ishmael, deeply intones, “it’s going to rain.”

I smile, bleakly.

Fishing the Tyler Fork, Northern Wisconsin

As if I didn’t get the message, he adds, “I’m willing to bet on it.”

Thus the curse was laid upon my trip.

The winds were already beginning to whip cold off the lake and when I went to find the fishing boat, the captain headed me off at the parking lot. “We won’t be going out today,” he says. ”There’s a gale warning for the lake and swells will be hitting 10 feet. You wouldn’t enjoy it and we wouldn’t catch anything.”

I thought I heard him say he was heading for Florida the next day.

I looked at the waters, which were choppy with small whitecaps. It was a false read, because these were bay waters protected by Madeline and the other Apostle Islands. But, it gave me hope that the Apostle Islands Cruise Service would still be sailing in and around the islands later that afternoon.

Author and guide fishing the Tyler Fork, Northern Wisconsin

Nope, even the big boat wasn’t going to chance the weather, which by now had begun to fill out the prophecy, big drops sluicing at 45 degrees due to the winds coming over the lake. Bayfield was soaking and gloomy despite it being the first day of summer.

Then hope arrived. A local fellow was willing to take another fisherman named Larry and me into the interior to fish trout on one of the local rivers. We quickly said yes, and set off on a mad scramble to get gear, most importantly waders, because we would both fly and reel fish from shallow waters. I also bought a waterproof parka, not feeling my water-resistant jacket was up to the weather. Our guide, named Bill, was the former president of the local chapter of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

Although Bill drove a Prius, he looked like a wild mountain man, with long unruly hair, a scruffy gray beard, and weather-beaten skin around his eyes.

We headed south from the shores of Lake Superior to the small town of Mellen, then turned east for about eight miles before moving onto a dirt road. We traveled that road until it dead-ended on the shores of a rapidly running stream called Tyler Fork, which fed into the Bad River, which in turn emptied into Lake Superior.

Setting lines on Chequamegon Bay

A lot of water must have been running into the big lake because Tyler Fork was rollicking. Meanwhile, overhead, the sky, which had brightened, turned gloomy again and thunder cracked hard in the distance.

We put on our waders. Bill, oddly enough, only brought two rods, one for fly and one for reel. After hiking down through some tall grass, we entered the water, cast, reeled, cast and reeled. We moved around a bit. Bill, who heretofore seemed mild as a mouse, suddenly turned into super-fisherman, aggressive and antsy. After five minutes of no fish we moved. Five minutes more, we moved. He hooked a small brook trout, but it wasn’t enough to keep him interested.  We climbed out of the water and began hiking through the thick forest to find another spot upstream.

Meanwhile, the mosquitoes arrived in waves as thick as a shower curtain. Then the rain started to fall, heavy through the trees. Bill would not be intimidated, but Larry was. He quit the water to hang back by the car. I foolishly trudged after Bill, through the forest, through the mosquitoes, through the rain. Despite our peripatetic efforts, we never caught another fish.

Later, I asked Larry why he dropped out. He answered, “I’m not into extreme fishing.”

Tourists aboard the Island Princess, cruising the Apostle Islands, Lake Superior

The next day, I awoke to weather even more grim than the one before.  Once again I was told the lake was too dangerous, so after biding my time touring around the old city of Ashland, I was told another local fisherman, this one named Craig, was heading out into the bay and would take on some guests. Larry and I, plus another visitor, boarded his small boat about 3:30 in the afternoon.

 

Outside the bay, the swells were still 10 feet, but the wind had died down and the bay was choppy but altogether not too bad. Craig was going to hightail it north, paralleling the shore until he came to a peninsula that seemed to mark the line between calmer waters and turmoil, then slowly meander back, trolling all the way.

Craig jacked out six lines, two of which were for deepwater and weighted down with eight-pound lead weights. The water surface was 59 degrees, but the air much colder. The sky was the color of the lead weights and fog obscured the horizon.

After about 20 minutes, one of the deepwater lines jerked. We had a fish. I took the rod and began reeling. It’s probably walleye, said Craig, and he watched over my shoulder as I reeled that sucker in, only to lose it trying to bring it out of the water. It turned out to be our only strike of the afternoon.

A cold, wet day on the upper deck of the Island Princess, cruising the Apostle Islands, Lake Superior

Within the hour, the fog rolled through the bay, the wind picked up and temperature dropped quickly. We headed home. Although, we didn’t catch a thing, I didn’t care. At least, I finally made it onto Lake Superior. It was the start of something good.

The next day the cruiser took a boatload of guests and me around the Apostles, and by the afternoon I was kayaking through sea caves.

But it all began ominously. The sky above Lake Superior was as gray as the iron-clad barges the ply the Great Lakes carrying ore, timber and weighty commodities of one sort or another.

I looked out the window of my hotel. Except for the ferry, nothing seemed to be moving out of Bayfield, certainly not pleasure craft and private fishing boats. I felt just as immobile.

 

It was still raining, and then the winds died down. The fog came and went at its leisure. The weather was good enough for the cruise boat that plied the waters around The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The Apostle Islands appear in the distance through the fog

From my hotel room overlooking the Bayfield Marina, I should have been able to see from my window Madeline Island, but due to the rain and fog it kept appearing and disappearing in the midst like a ghost from a sunken barge. Well, if I wasn’t going to get any sports in, at least I’d be able to see the Apostle Islands up close. I took the cruise.

Since the weather hadn’t really settled yet, the first thing the captain told us all was, “where we’ll go, I don’t know.” He was going to play it by ear, or by what the lake would tell him, because as almost everyone tells you who lives near Superior, “the lake is the boss.”

The captain continued, “we’ll get close enough to some things, the exact itinerary I don’t know.”

The waters around the Apostles didn’t appear too rough, except nearer to some of the outer islands. I think we got pretty close to the whole tour before it was all done. Life was as big as the lake.

 

One of the many old lighthouses guarding the Apostle Islands, as seen through the shifting fog

 

GETTING THERE:

Northern Wisconsin is surprisingly remote. The closest major airport is Duluth, Minnesota, which was my flight destination. I flew Delta from Phoenix to Detroit and then to Duluth. I returned to Arizona again on Delta out of Duluth, but with a change of planes in Minneapolis. From Duluth, I drove east in a rental car to the town of Bayfield (www.delta.com).

 

WHERE TO STAY

In Bayfield, I stayed at the Bayfront Inn, a great location with a view overlooking the waterfront and Madeline Island in the distance. (www.bayfrontinnbayfield.net).

 

2012
10/27

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Horsemen of the Colchagua Valley: Chile’s Huaso Keeps His Cowboy Cuture Alive

The glistening high-rises of Santiago are home for more than a third of Chile’s 16 million people

By John H. Ostdick

Photos by the author

Santiago looms above the rest of Chile like a gigantic statue. The country’s young are drawn to the capital in droves. As Chile’s cultural and financial center, it sets the tone for this slender thread of a country, perched awkwardly between the Pacific Ocean and Andes.

More than a third of Chile’s 16 million people live in Santiago, with the rest scattered haphazardly north and south. On a map the nation’s 15 different regions, each of which is led by a Chilean presidential appointee, resemble an X-ray of a twisted spine. These regions are divided into provinces, and then again into self-governing entities. The country has a literacy rate of 95 percent, one of Latin America’s highest.

The country is as much a smorgasbord of landscapes and climates as is its population, a mestizo cocktail of European and indigenous lineage. The northern stretches of the Chilean ribbon include a convergence of ranges, including the sparsely populated Atcama Desert, considered the driest in the world. It is in this hardscrabble region that a cave-in occurred at the San José copper-gold mine, near Copiapó, in August 2010. The world watched transfixed as 69 days later, one by one, thirty-three miners climbed into a specially designed steel capsule barely wider than a man’s shoulders and took a 15-minute journey through 2,050 feet of rock to the surface.

The Museo de Colchagua Cardeon in Santa Cruz has a significant huaso section among its exhibits

The land is hard here, virtually sterile, as the Andes mountains and the Chilean Coast Range block it from moisture on both sides. The skin reacts to this absolute dryness upon contact, and the desolation of some the region’s communities is palpable.

The country’s twisted geological base makes it a hotbed for earthquake activity. A Feb. 27, 2010 quake shoved coastal land upward by more than 8 feet and caused some inward lands to sink, according to the findings of an University of Chile research team. The 8.8 quake centered in south-central Chile was the fifth-largest temblor recorded by modern seismology. According to news reports, the quake moved the town of Concepción at least 10 feet to the west and Santiago about 11 inches to the west-southwest.

At this country’s far southern reaches, the sea has broken through the coast range forest, creating a fractured terrain of lakes, volcanoes, and rolling grasses ideal for grazing sheep and cattle. In between, a fertile valley affords the country’s vast agricultural region.

One of these fertile areas, the Colchagua Valley, is about a three-hour bus ride from Santiago. It is home to rich vineyards and a deep cowboy history essential to its cultural fabric but sometimes lost in the lore of its other South American cousins.

Rolando Verdugo, the Professor, commands respect in the Lolol community

Santa Cruz is a quaint town that provides a perfect jumping-off spot for exploring the rich wine and huaso culture  — the culture of the Chilean cowboy — in the Colchagua Valley region.

The central square of old Santa Cruz, the Plaza de Armos, is a long block wide on all sides, with packed dirt and cobblestone sidewalks cutting around a large fountain in its center. Benches are sprinkled under imposing fir and palm trees. A gazebo is located on its eastern side.

Locals are draped — alone or in bunches — over the benches throughout the day, but it is in the late afternoon when the square buzzes with activity. Uniformed students wander through on the way from school, and old men confer from perches in the shade. A young couple nuzzles.

A block down the street, a handful of tourists depart the Colchagua Museum, the country’s largest private museum. The Colchagua, which faithfully tracks Chile’s history, contains an extensive folkloric collection. In a corner of the beautiful colonial-style structure, an extensive collection explores the huaso culture.

Although the Chilean cowboy’s place in history may be murkier than his more celebrated neighbor, the Argentine gaucho, the fierce pride the country’s modern-day huaso feels is evident in the way Rolando Verdugo sits his horse and deliberately explains the life he has chosen.

Verdugo, referred to by other huasos as “El Professor,” is surrounded by six other men and one teenage boy on horseback in a well-worn corral in the small town of Lolol, situated about 19 miles (30 km) into the verdant Santa Cruz Valley in Colchagua Province. Aspiring huasos come from throughout Chile to Lolol — a town of 6,200 declared a national monument in 2003 because of its traditional architecture blending adobe, roofing tile and corridor constructions — to learn riding and rodeo skills from Verdugo and other local huasos. (The town was severely damaged in the 2010 earthquake, and restoration of its church, one of the oldest in the country, and other historic structures continues today.)

Rolando Verdugo, who spent 29 days in a coma after a riding accident, can no longer drive a car but remains in dynamic control atop a horse.

The gray-haired, stocky Verdugo, in his early sixties, began riding at fourteen. He speaks Chilean Spanish softly, a trace of a lisp the after-affect of twenty-seven days he spent in a coma after being thrown by a horse several years ago.

“I was more on the other side for a time,” he explains, smiling. “I can no longer drive a car because I tire quickly, and my attention wanders. But I can still sit a horse. It is my life.”

That life includes at least five hours in the saddle each day, either working or honing skills.

On this day, persistent rain has waterlogged the official town half-moon-shaped rodeo field on the outskirts of town. Nearby, a large tin-roofed structure that provides room for up to 6,000 people for after-rodeo dancing, an important part of the tradition, sits soggily vacant as well.

The modern, strictly regulated Chilean rodeo is different from the events familiar to most North Americans. A two-huaso team (a collera) on horseback rides laps around an arena trying to stop a calf, pinning him against massive cushions. Points are earned for every time the steer is properly driven around the corral, with deductions for faults.

Near the middle of town, Verdugo apologizes for the shabbiness of the dingy practice corral he is using before putting his horse through a rigorous warm-up, riding back and forth across the center of the muddy ring, turning and stopping abruptly. That abrupt stop is a Chilean huaso trademark. Huasos train their mounts to stop suddenly, dropping down on their haunches (sentada), without throwing their rider.

A huaso and his trained dog work a pasture southeast of Santa Cruz in Chile’s Colchagua Valley

Soon, two other huasos bring a training calf — “it knows all the tricks,” one of them says  — into the ring, and start it through a series of warm-up drills for the atajada, a spellbinding Chilean rodeo pursuit-and-blocking exhibition in which the riders guide a steer toward the corral fence, which serves as a target.

Another huaso sits his horse in the middle of the corral, observing. His cell phone rings, and he conducts his business as the action swirls around him.

Verdugo then begins working the calf, blocking it and holding it against the fence while riding sideways. During a rodeo, points are awarded for a series of technical skills exhibited, such as what part of the animal’s body is used to block the steer (the degree of difficulty increases the further down the body a steer is blocked).

Verdugo redirects the calf, seemingly at ease, although his jaw is set throughout and his horse is working up a good lather.

Another huaso nearby, Hector Perez, in his 40s, smiles thinly, and explains that Verdugo “makes invisible the work of the rodeo.”

A huaso’s formal rodeo jacket is cut short to allow for full mobility in the saddle

The crescent-shaped arena — the medialuna — offers the perfect modern-day proving ground for the Chilean Cirillo, a breed known for lateral dexterity, even temperament, and courage. In the 18th Century, annual Chilean roundups on large encomiendas (royal land grants) involved pens that could contain 7,000 head of cattle. Sorting the cattle by ownership, designated use, and requirements for castration and branding resulted in herding and pushing cattle down long alleyways into classificatory pens, skills that translate to the half-moon corrals of the modern Chilean rodeo, according to Randall Ray Arms, a Chilean Criollo expert.

The Santa Cruz Valley is fertile agricultural land. Once the exclusive domain of wealthy landowners and the huasos who worked for them, the demand for men on horseback has dwindled.

“Modernization in agricultural practices has lessened the farming dependence on horses, but they remain a rich part of the culture,” explains Pamela Guzman, a Santa Cruz-area guide and translator. “These people are very proud to be a huaso, to live in the country. Some still work cattle, but their rodeo skills are highly prized.”

In towns throughout Chile, but especially in this valley, the national sport (decreed such in 1962) is the culmination of a huaso’s year-round pursuit of highly polished skills. There are twelve rodeo clubs in Lolol, with about thirty members in each.

This 15-year-old huaso-in-training will undergo a year’s worth of instruction and face skill tests before being considered a true huaso

It is an expensive proposition. A good rodeo horse will run between $10,000 and $15,000 (the winning horse in the national rodeo could easily fetch $80,000) in a country where the gross national income is about $5,870 per person (rural incomes may be lower), and then there is the cost of feeding and caring for the animal, and rodeo competition fees.

“To be a huaso and compete in the rodeo, you need money,” says Ernan Gonzales, who is sponsored by the Lolol mayor. “The most important thing is to take proper care of my horse, so he is ready for the rodeo.”

Gonzales, in his 50s, is decked out in formal rodeo garb. He sits a mount he has owned for more than ten years. Its tail is trimmed long, to the crook of the hind legs; its mare is cropped short, with a large tuft.

A huaso generally wears loose-fitting pants, a short bolero jacket, and fringed leather boots. A colorful manta (a poncho-cut blanket also known as chamanta) drapes his jacket, keeps him warm but allows his arms to move freely. He wears a broad, flat-brim hat and carries a corvo, a knife tucked into the back of his red sash similar to the gaucho’s facon. He carries a manea, a lasso used in the rodeo, and uses large spurs and Austrian-style stirrups carved of wood, called estibos.

Gonzales competes in thirteen rodeos each year, and instructs teens interested in becoming huasos. He points out the single charge currently under tutelage, a thin fifteen-year-old two months into his yearlong training, who says he is attracted “to the huaso life.” Gonzales, who began riding at 14, works with several horses at a time (four at this time), as he uses different horses for varying rodeo skills competition categories. It takes up to a year and a half to properly train a horse for the rodeo.

Ernan Gonzales stands before lush Colchagua Valley hillside just outside of Lolol

“You have to learn each horse’s personality and how it will react in the corral, and then train it to move sideways under controlled speeds,” Gonzales explains. “Each one has its own personality.”

Countless rows of vineyards and modest houses trail off from the winding road that cuts through the Lolol Valley. A huaso and his two dogs are moving cattle from one pasture into another. As the huaso whistles, the dogs react with quick sprints, prompting the cows to move in a specific direction.

Outsiders may know this region more from visiting the massive Viña Santa Cruz winery on a rise above the roadway. It is the first Chilean winery designed for tourists, featuring a wine museum and tours, examples of pre-Colombian architecture, and a restaurant. The winery is a venture of Carlos Cardoen, who owns the Santa Cruz Plaza Hotel in the nearby city of Santa Cruz. The tourist attraction represents the future of the region and Lolol (“land of crops”), which also produces a good organic olive oil.

(The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA), recognized in 1981, was the first AVA in the nation to be defined by its mountain topography. The wineries that flourish in these mountains are for the most part small, family-owned, boutique operations — many don’t have tasting rooms and are rarely open to the public.)

El Professor and his fellow huasos have a foot planted firmly in both the past and future in this strangely situated country, which Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda once wrote “was invented by a poet.”

Most Chileans trace their ancestry to European or mixed European-indigenous origins, and only about 5 percent are wholly indigenous (mostly Mapuche). About 40 percent of Chileans live in the Santiago area.  For many reasons, the huaso culture is not universally celebrated in Chilean story or song, as has its neighboring Argentine gaucho culture or the North American cowboy. Generally, Chilean writers seldom championed a huaso mythology, as had many Argentine authors, according to Richard W. Slatta, author of Cowboys of the Americas (Yale University Press, 1990). Yet, the huaso is indelibly etched into the Chilean national identity and folkloric culture, particularly outside its urban center in Santiago.

Ernan Gonzales, known in the historic town of Lolol as “the teacher,” wears his formal rodeo attire perched on his show horse

“The character of cowboys of the Americas — even the definition of who they were — has aroused great extended controversies,” Slatta writes. “One view held that cowboys were the paragon of national virtue — patriotic, honest, principled. An opposing image represented cowboys as lazy, immoral, backward, low-class drifters. As often the case, reality lay somewhere in between these two caricatures.”

“Of the many cowboys in the America, none remains as shrouded in mystery and contradiction as Chile’s huaso,” he concludes.

In the Lolol Valley, such semantics are part of a different universe

Beginning each September, local rodeos take place across the rural landscape here, culminating months later in the Campeonato Nacional de Rodeo (late March to early April), a National Rodeo Championship in Rancagua.  Regional huaso champions compete against each other, displaying their impressive horsemanship.

After each rodeo, everyone in attendance — virtually the whole town — feasts on meats, beans, and an abundance of red wine, followed by accordion music and dancing.

Dressed in work attire, Ernan Gonzales puts his work horse — el torque — through the paces in a practice rodeo pen in Lolol

The huaso and his china (partner) display their best clothes and dancing abilities during the cueca, the Chilean national dance.

Although the dance is performed throughout the country with many choreographic variations — popular themes include reenactment of a cock’s courting of a hen, the amorous mating rituals of a young couple, or even the attempt of a young huaso to lasso a young mare — the basic movements remain the same. A man and woman, each brandishing a handkerchief, dance around each other in time to music supplied by guitar, harp, or accordian as a singer provides a story.

A formal cueca calls for a huaso dressed in black pants and shirt, short poncho that drapes halfway down his chest, a wide faja (sash) with fringed ends that usually contain the red, white, and blue of Chile’s flag, and black boots with spurs attached. He taps his boots in almost a flamenco rhythm (zapateo). As he moves across the floor with his partner, the singer relates a story and the audience emits a high-pitched sound that resembles the Spanish trilled R.

A huaso warms up his horse in a Lolol practice pen

The modern-day huaso is engaged in another kind of dance, however, one of both pride and, perhaps, fading cultural significance. For those such as the venerable Verdugo and his disciples, however, little of that matters when they are ensconced in the saddle. That is their life, the huaso life.

 

A young girl waits for her mother after school in the Santa Cruz plaza while her older sister spoons with her boyfriend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Chilean Gaucho

 

In the southern reaches of Chilean Patagonia, the cowboy culture associates more clearly with the gaucho than the huaso, probably because many Argentine gauchos fled persecution (or prosecution) in their country into Chilean Patagonia, and many never returned.

 

In 1998, writer Nick Reding spent 10 sometimes savage months in Middle Cisnes, Patagonia, chronicling in Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia (Crown Publishers, 2001) what might be the last fading remnants of the Chilean gaucho as the national road and modern yearnings invaded the last patch of their fading domain.

 

“People have disputed everything from the gauchos’ ethnic or historical origin to what they do to what language they speak,” Nick Reding writes. “Some people even deny they exist.”

 

Exist they did, however, often in almost complete isolation.

 

Patagonia, which covers 250,000 square miles over the two countries, averages less than one inhabitant per square mile. Many Chileans go their entire lives without coming across a gaucho.

 

“In Coahaique, though, they’d call me huaso, too, because I look from the country — whether or not I know what a bank is,” one of his hosts tells Reding. “In Argentina and down here, a gaucho is a cowboy. Huaso is also what they call cowboys in the Central Valley, up around Santiago. You ask someone up there what a Chilean cowboy is, and they’ll say huaso; ask them what an Argentine cowboys is, they say gaucho.”

 

“Difference is that a huaso up there is more a landowning gentleman than what a cowboy is here, which is basically a peasant with horses ….”