Land of Empanadas and Vino Tinto
Salvador Allende, up to the day he lost his country and his life, extoled his socialist revolution in Chile as having “sabor de empanadas y vino tinto”, a home made form of socialism flavored with the taste of the ubiquitous Chilean meat turnovers and renowned red wine.
Allende was but one individual, maybe the most famous, to use this Nerudaesque metaphor to describe the simple pleasures of life in Chile, and his dream to some day peacefully transform that country into a worker’s paradise. The movement was cutshort in 1973, but the broader spirit of the empanada and vino tinto perseveres.
Every year during the month of September, Chileans pause to remember the 11th either as the day the socialist experiment was fortunately curtailed before it could morph into a fatal civil war, or as the day Chilean society was tragically bombed into a dark period of brutal dictatorship and lost democracy. These opposing points of view still cleave Chilean families and society as a whole, even though a quarter century has passed since the military government was peacefully replaced by constitutional civilian authority. September 11 provides an annual flight back to that day when the revolution with sabor de empanadas y vino tinto was dashed.
September is also the month when Chileans, just a week later, celebrate their national independence on the 18th. And here again the empanadas and the vino tinto perform as mainstays of traditional Chilean cuisine, especially on Independence Day. Of course there are other emblematic foods in the Chilean diet and overconsumed on the 18th, like spit-roasted lamb, charcoal grilled shish kabobs called anticuchos skewered with different meats and vegetables, and of course longaniza, a well condimented reddish brown pork sausage traditionally made in the agricultural town of Chillán and throughout central Chile. Or you may celebrate with a cazuela, the steamy, thick soup built around a chunk of beef, chicken or lamb. Maybe you’ll savor a pastel de choclo although, since corn is not in season this time of year, if you are served this dish on the 18th of September it is probably made with frozen or canned ingredients.
Ever since my fortuitous arrival in Santiago almost a half century ago, the empanada has been a dietary mainstay, in the Chilean diet and in mine. The first one I tasted was a classical empanada de pino, baked with a filling of minced beef, onion, black olive, hard boiled egg, a few raisins and infused with a hint of cumin. There are other types of tasty empanadas served in Chile, both baked and fried, large and small, filled with chicken, cheese, or mixtures of seafood, but the empanada de pino was then, and still is, the most common empanada. According to Jim Stewart, a most knowledgeable blogger on the history and habits of the Chilean diet, the empanada probably originated in central Asia, travelling to Chile via the middle east and then from Spain with the conquistadors. The tag “pino” for the minced meat mixture in this empanada was first confusing to me. As a recently arrived Peace Corps volunteer forester with an excruciatingly limited Spanish vocabulary, I had at least learned that the word “pino” meant “pine tree”; after all, we had been brought to Chile to assist with a reforestation program based on creating tree plantations of pino insigne (radiata pine) and pino oregón (douglas fir). After failing to reconcile the meaty flavor of this empanada with its evergreen name, I learned that in this case “pino” has nothing to do with pine. I have read somewhere that it comes from the Mapudungun word “pinu“, which may mean pieces of cooked meat. I have more recently been told that the name of this empanada meat filling actually derives from another Mapudungun word, pirru. If this is accurate, then it follows that the empanada de pino, as it is today, may have it’s origin as a Mapuche food. (On this issue, I could use some more expert advice.)
It’s been almost half a century since I enjoyed my first empanada, but I can remember and taste just about every one I have had since. Every event worth remembering includes an empanada. Early memories begin with the empanadas served in the Peña de los Parra on Calle Carmen, around the corner from where I lived in Santiago. On damp winter nights nothing could compare to a warm empanada accompanied by a glass of warm red wine while Angel Parra, his sister Isabel and guitarrón-playing Victor Jara revolutionized us with their musical screams for change. The taste of those empanadas and garrafa-sourced vino tinto is an embedded memory.
In the late 1970s, my Instituto Forestal colleagues and I spent days tramping through the southern forested areas of Chile, but each night we would gather around a fireplace or wood stove in a modest pensión in one of the small towns, maybe Panguipulli, Río Negro, or Curanilahue, to enjoy an empanada, some vino tinto, and each other’s company. It’s hard to erase from the mind the images left of these good times with old friends.
There were times as a Peace Corps Volunteer when my scarce monthly subsistence allowance ($US 95, as I recall) would only afford an empanada. As time went on I realized that’s what the empanada is for; it fills the voids, it nourishes the needy, and it does it with dignity.
After I met Ximena, however, my meager living allowance was subsidized by meals at her family’s home; Sunday dinner was most memorable, because the whole family was there, a typically enigmatic extended family that has taken me years to figure out. There was often an empanada to start the meal, regardless of what dish or dishes would follow. I watched cautiously at first to see how everyone attacked the empanada, because when I had been at the Peña, by the fireplace at the pensión, or out in the country standing around a campfire or sitting at a picnic table, I had simply followed what my colleagues did, which was to wrap a napkin around the bottom end of a vertically held empanada, and eat it from the top, down. But at Ximena’s family dinner table, comportment was somewhat more formal. I watched closely as her father would leave the empanada resting horizontally on the plate, remove the top layer of crust, eat the filling with a fork, and then eat a portion of the crust. This approach was time consuming, but it allowed the hot pino filling to cool. It also ran interference for several swallows of wine; this may have been the real reason for this tedious approach. Others at the table would attack with fork and knife, while the younger folks would cut the empanada in half and eat one half at a time by hand, a semi-manual approach. I tried all different ways of eating an empanada, but I must admit, picking the whole thing up with a napkin, and eating down from the top is how I think you avoid losing any of the juicy innards and also pay the most respect for all the work that has gone into making this beautifully crafted food in the first place.
By the time I left Chile to return to the US, I had become modestly expert with empanadas; I carefully ate small ones at wedding receptions, large ones at meals, seafood ones at the beach, fried ones and baked ones. I had even eaten several one-kilo (that’s 2.2 pounds) empanadas, a feature in the quaint artisan village of Pomaire just a short bus ride from Santiago.
But more importantly, although I did not realize how important this was at the time, I was returning to the US with one of the best Chilean cooks ever, empanadas being one of her well honed skills. She is so nimble working the uncooperative raw dough into the ultimate empanada package that a few years later, when we were visiting a Sikh Temple in downtown New Delhi, she joined in with the volunteer Indian women who were making their empanada-like chapattis to be distributed in the free feeding center. To everyone’s surprise (except mine, and hers) she soon was surpassing many of the local women in terms of presentation and efficiency. Chapattis….empanadas…..no problem.
Over the years, Ximena’s empanadas have become not only highly appreciated, but actually required fare at important events in our lives. Our children expect them not only when they visit us, but also when we visit them.
Our grandkids insert a “making empanadas with grandma” event into the agenda of family visits. My Peace Corps colleagues are disappointed when it isn’t possible for Ximena’s empanadas to appear at our frequent reunions, and in this case the obligatory partner, vino tinto, is assumed.
The 18th of September each year now usually finds us in the US rather than in Chile. Empanadas de pino reliably appear, and each time they do, it represents a two to three day operation. Ximena’s empanadas de pino are not made with ground beef; small cubes are hand cut from a cut of meat called top round. I suppose it could be one of several other cuts of beef, but this is what she uses. The small cubes rather than ground beef is inviolable. The pino is made a day or two before the event, so it can congeal in the refrigerator prior to the construction of the empanada itself. This small detail ensures that the tasty juices inherent in the pino translate into each and every empanada. The rest of Ximena’s empanada de pino recipe will remain under lock and key.
The 18th of September celebration, featuring empanadas and vino tinto, is a celebration for us and for most Chileans that must also feature good friends. This year, our celebration was enriched by the presence of the Bascur family, Chilean friends we have known since our paths crossed years ago in Rome, Italy. We travelled together throughout Sicily and the area surrounding Rome, then subsequently in northern Chile’s La Serena and the Elqui Valley, and in southern Chile “from Rio Calle Calle to Lago Pirihueco.”
On this occasion we began the festivities by building together our ramada, an essential venue for a legitimate “18” celebration.
A dozen additional friends joined us late in the afternoon; a group that included a Bolivian, a Colombian, real Chileans, some converted Chileans (ex Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Chile), all one way or another enriched by the culture of the empanada and vino tinto.
We drank the first pisco sour, and another. We were served Ximena’s finest empanadas. We enthusiastically joined together to sing the Chilean National Anthem; by the way, the Bolivian sang louder and seemed to know the words as well, maybe better, than several of the others. In this rendition, we had the help of a recording of the Chilean Carabinero band and were not limited in time like the Chilean soccer team in the Copa America. The neighbors loved it as much as we enjoyed singing…”….o el asilo contra la opresión…”
Finished with the opening formalities, and having rendered due respect to Ximena’s super empanadas, the grill was uncovered and the vino tinto appeared. For a “18” celebration to be worthy, it’s important to follow the empanadas and pisco with a respectable array of grilled meats and red wine to match.
So, we proceeded to enjoy spicy sausages, lean lamb chops, and perfectly browned beef flank steak, partnered with typical Chilean salads: tomato and onion, potato laced with peas and carrot cubes, and mixed greens. Eventually, of course, creamy caramely flan.
Oh yes, the wine. Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere with the empanadas, Cousiño Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet sauvignon for the sausages, Anakena Syrah for the lamb, and eventually a round of Concha y Toro Don Melchor with the beef. On a day like this, nothing’s too good for friends, especially in a celebration of the land of empanadas y vino tinto.
So, to cap off another perfect 18th of September, there’s nothing more to say than:
Salúd, and long live Chile, her people……. and Ximena’s empanadas!!
Posted on September 25, 2016, in Leesburg, Virginia.