Lunch with the locals: Curanto on Chiloé Island

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Editors Note: This is the third article in Patagon Journal’s special series "Travel in Los Lagos" sponsored by Sernatur Los Lagos
Text and photos by Gabriel O’Rorke
“It’s like the devils kitchen,” says María Luisa Maldonado with a laugh as she stirs her milcao in a large pan of oil.
Maria Luisa is quite some lady. Not only is she the pioneer of agrotourism in Chiloé,  a kind of tourism where people visit farms and ranches for a taste of rural life, but she was the inspiration for the main character in Isabel Allende’s latest book, Maya's Notebook..
So, when lunching at Agroturismo San Antonio not only is it likely that you’re sitting in the exact same spot as Isabel (who came to stay for a few weeks), but if you’re big on travel literature you might know Sara Wheeler, author of Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile, who also stayed in the Maldonado family fold. 
Just 15-minutes from Ancud on Isla Grande - the Chiloé archipelago off the coast of Puerto Montt consists of some 40 islands - María Luisa lives with her husband Hardy Dimter. They have two children, but both have flown the nest with one studying natural medicine in Santiago.
We arrived around midday, punctual for lunch but eager to see the full preparation for the curanto. This typical Chilote meal is a ritual as much as a feast. One of its quirks is that it's typically prepared outside - most likely because few kitchens have the necessary cooking conditions: a hole in the ground!
María Luisa and Hardy have a great set up with an outhouse lined with benches so that guests can watch the drama unfold. First the coals are heated in a large tin cylinder then poured into the hole. Shellfish - mainly mussels - are poured in first, followed by smoked pork, chicken legs, sausages and potatoes (with more than 150 types of potato on Chiloé there’s no lack of choice). The whole feast is then covered with turf and nalca leaves and left for a few hours to cook.


This is where the milcao come in. As Hardy pours out pisco sours, María Luisa gives a milcao cooking demonstration. It’s very hands on and you can help out if you like.
First she brings out a large pot of mashed potato, adds a good sprinkling of potato starch and cracks an egg into the mixture. She then scoops out a golf ball sized amount and begins kneading it on the table. When it resembles a thick Scotch pancake it's ready to be dropped into the pan of hot oil. Five minutes later and they're ready to be drizzled in honey and devoured.
One of the wonders of Chiloé is the myths and legends that still play a large part in island life. These stories are a blend of Mapuche tales and Catholicism brought by the Spanish conquistadors, and they're still very much part of island life. 
“The Trauco lives in the woods,” says María Luisa. “He’s short like a troll but some say he can also appear disguised as a priest or rich landowner. Pretty young women cannot resist him. They all end up sleeping with him, often becoming pregnant! And so, if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, the Trauco must be the father.”
Perhaps part of the reason that Isabel Allende chose her muse was for her storytelling - if you speak Spanish, make sure to ask María Luisa about the Trauco (and phantom ships and witches). And even if you don't understand, her roaring laugh and animated delivery is still engrossing.
Hardy signals it's time to eat and we head to the outhouse to watch lunch be unwrapped. First the turf comes off, then the rhubarb leaves and suddenly steam escapes from the fold releasing a delicious smell.
Herding us through to the dining room, María Luisa takes her place at the head of the table and Hardy hands round enormous plates piled high with smoked pork, chicken legs and sausages. Next comes the potato, then the shellfish.
For the next hour wine pours and more food keeps appearing. Despite speaking very little English, María Luisa is a gifted mimic and she laughs along with English-speakers as much as Spanish. It’s clear the couple invites people into their home because they enjoy the company and like giving people a real Chilote experience. This is no tourist imitation, but a chance to eat like a local with locals.


Details: Contact María Luisa Maldonado Soto at Agroturismo San Antonio via email  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  or telephone: +56 9 643 7046 / +56 9 397 2822. Prices are $9,000 CLP per person, including food and wine. You can also stay over and there are simple rooms with space for up to 20 people.
Directions: Take Route 5 towards Ancud and Castro until kilometer 14 where you will see the turning for Mechaico. Take the road toward the right up a gravel road and after 5 km (3 miles) take the road on the right sign posted Agroturismo San Antonio.
More information
Chiloé Turismo Rural (Spanish only),
BirdsChile arranges visits from Puero Varas,  
Gabriel O’Rorke is a British travel writer based in Santiago, Chile. She has worked as a TV producer for the BBC, reporter for ABC, and has written for publications such as Forbes Travel Guide, National Geographic Traveller, and Conde Nast Traveller. She is the author of the new digital app Santiago City Guide.