Chile has a reputation for great surf, not great food. I arrived in Santiago where I met up with Janice and ate my first ¨completo¨ - a hotdog in a bun drizzled with ribbons of mushed avocado, ketsup and mustard - before heading south through the Colchagua Valley for the little coastal town where Marko, my younger brother, has been surfing his brains out since January. Arriving at sunset, the first wave we saw was a beautiful left peeler with nobody on it. On the next wave someone dropped in, sped way out to the shoulder and then wrapped a long arcing cutback to the foam. Marko. Welcome to Chile. I went to bed dreaming of the next day, hardly noticing the patter on the tin roof of the hospedaje.
We came with the first rain of the season, and woke up to what Marko said was the worst surf he had seen in the past four months. For two days we did nothing but drink thermos after thermos of tea. Cabin fever setting in, I started to think about all those beautiful vineyards in the Colchagua Valley we sped past on the way here. The valley is one of Chile´s most prolific winemaking regions and is only a half hour away.
Our first stop was an apple stand. For less than 25 cents a kilo, the farmer was giving away beautiful fujis. The first bite brightened my mood. I haven´t tasted an apple this crispy and sweet in years. The farmer explained that the secret is the Colchagua Valley´s climate. Apples ripen in the hot summer afternoons, but the cold winds from the Andes to the east and the Pacific to the west cool the fruit from dusk till dawn, allowing them to sweeten to the point that anywhere else the fruit would turn to mush. Same with the grapes.
It´s late fall in Chile. Even a month after the last grape harvest, the valley still radiates abundance. Fall sets ablaze the leafy canopy of acre after acre of vines. In every backyard we see a leafless tree drooping with the weight of a hundred ripe persimmons. Gnarled grape vines overhang the entrance of every home. Some of the vines still sag with fat bunches of grapes. Are they for decoration? Or might each house have its own vintage?
Later I ask the woman overseeing a wine tasting and pouring glasses at 1000 pesos ($2 US) a pop. The grapes overhanging every porch are NOT for wine. Most people from the valley don´t even like it. Decoration? She giggles. ¨Es para la Chicha.¨ For the what? ¨La Chicha.¨ The homebrew. The grapes are pressed and fermented for about two weeks. You have to drink Chicha at the just the right time. Too soon, no alcohol. Too late, sour. It´s hard to buy, but she sends us to a little unmarked store up the road where “con suerte” we can sample La Chicha.
After three passes we find the place. ¨Tiene Chicha?¨ we ask. The lady´s eyes light up. She pulls a jug from underneath the counter, pours a glass, and hands it to my brother. The cup is refilled and makes the rounds. No charge. Chica is what the locals get wasted on. Cloudy and pink, sweet but tart and slightly fizzy, it is more like wine´s rowdy younger brother. After two glasses you feel the alcohol. (I had a brief flashback to my first bar-mitzvah - sloshed after a dozen thimbles of Manischevitz.) In Chica there is a whisper of wine, if only because it´s made from the same grapes. I wouldn´t pair Chicha with a rack of lamb, but it beats sangria for any party. Too bad it can’t be bottled. You just have to be here two weeks after they pick the grapes.
We bought the whole jug for three bucks. The weather stormed two more days. With the jug almost empty we decided to head farther south. No surf yet but we scored perfect Colchagua Chicha.