Overland miles: 8358 Bus hours: 265.25 Empanadar: 28
It might not be as cheap to eat in Patagonia as it is other parts of Latin America, but it sure is hard to go hungry. Everyone is constantly trying to get you to polish off supersized plates loaded with the catch of the day, picadas of deli meats and cheeses, thick cut chips, or spit roast cuts. In this post we size up seafood at the end of the world and take a sideways look at Centolla (King crab). In the next one we hunt down the regional speciality of Patagonian lamb and take on the legendary pork sandwiches of Lomitos.
Staying with Cecilia at Refugio El Padrino (‘The Godfather’s Refuge’, as the townspeople of Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino affectionately referred to her late father), was never going to be a good time for a New Year’s diet. In the best tradition of Chilean hospitality she was constantly trying to feed us up for free. After one long walk we returned home to the cosy lodge – its wood stove burning brightly – ready for a much needed shower, only to find the biggest crab I have ever set eyes on had got there first. “Who’s our new neighbour?” I enquired of a Chilean guest now emigrated to Sweden. “Oh, Cecilia will be over shortly: that’s dinner”, she explained nonchalantly.
The King crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus), also known as the Emperor or Stone crab, and a close relation of the Spider crab, is part of a family of cold sea crustaceans commonly found in Patagonian waters. Red king crabs (centollas) are renowned for the quality and quantity of their meat, which is thicker and sweeter than its smaller relatives. Cecilia prepared it very simply by boiling the meat for 15 minutes, and dressing it with lime, seasoning and Chileanos‘ favourite condiment, mayonnaise. You can also find it in restaurants baked a la gratinada (in a cheese sauce). Either way, those fearsome claws contain a whole lot of juicy white meat, so you have to hone your shell-breaking technique to get the best from these beasts – or of course, get an expert to do it for you.
We decided to find out more about how Centolla is farmed and exported from these remote shores, so we hiked down the coast from town to where we believed Concar S.A., a regional King Crab producer, owned a canning and packing factory. It was only once we had sauntered up to reception to enquire about tours, that we realised the door bell wasn’t operable. This was mainly because they didn’t have a door. Or a reception for that matter. Further research revealed that nearby Punta Arenas, on the mainland, had become a tax haven, to which Concar had scuttled. It wasn’t clear how many islanders had lost valuable jobs in the process.
As we stepped into the eerily deserted ghost factory, it felt as if production had been halted with no warning one moment, and the entire workforce had fled (with us many tins of crab as they could hold) the next. Bundles of rotting cardboard packs had been scattered like a frothing tide across the factory floor. Crab nets and uniforms lay discarded amongst the detritus of the silenced waterside operation. Enterprising residents had ripped as much sheet metal from the roof and walls as would be undetected from the main road.
That cold, bright evening Cecila was already home and rustling up dinner in the tiny Refugio’s kitchen. More ultra-fresh seafood was on the menu: tonight’s dish was Sopa de Lapas, a Spanish style soup of limpets which cling, barnacle-like, to the shores of of Isla Navarino. Cecilia assured us that lapas were impervious to the deadly marea roja (red tide): a poison caused by harmful algal blooms that affect bivalve mollusks in this part of the Patagonian coast.
The limpets were dropped into a hearty, bubbling stew of potatoes, onions, peppers and corn at the last minute, flavoured with spicy aji and lots of chopped fresh herbs. It was served up with rolls of crusty bread to a table of four rugged German hikers, the Chilean-Swedish couple and me (Clare eschewed the dish because she doesn’t believe in eating bottom feeders) and between us we still couldn’t empty the pot. There were so many lapas that Cecilia whipped up an omelette salad with the rest of them. It tasted like a splash of summer sun on a frozen lake, and was easily the best side salad I’ve had in Latin America. Prawns for Breakfast doffs its sombrero to the Godfather: Patagonian home cooking takes some beating.