The Pioneers of Peralillo
The village of Peralillo in Chile’s verdant Valle Central has so few buildings that you might miss it driving past at even moderate speed. Yet on the strength of a novel bonding of Chilean wine with queso fresco (fresh farmer’s cheese), a dozen pioneering women here have put Peralillo dead center on Chile’s map of culinary innovations.
They had inspiration: It was less than 30 years ago that Chilean wines were a rarity on the international market. Today dozens of Chilean vintages with excellent reputations are exported to 90 countries on five continents, and eight out of every ten grapes we consume in the United States were harvested there as well. So why not expect the same daring success with cheese?
More than Four
That, at least, was the thinking of Ms. Gemma Serrano Orellana, originator and legal representative of the women’s cooperative producing Quesos de Peralillo wine cheese. As pragmatic as she is spirited, Orellana is all too aware that cheese is not the first product that comes to mind when people think of Chilean cuisine.
“After all, Chile only has four major kinds of cheese,” she explains during a recent meeting with a group of international journalists, including yours truly. “Apart from the queso fresco, or quesillo, that we use, there’s queso de cabra (goat’s milk cheese); chanco (cow’s milk cheese), mainly produced in south-central Chile; and semisoft Andean panquehue. Oh, and the industrial sliced gauda cheese, but that doesn’t really count, does it?”
Smiling, Orellana adds, “So the odds were against us for making a big splash. But on the other hand, what were the odds that Chile’s first president in 1818 would have a name like Bernardo O’Higgins?”
The village of Peralillo is actually located in Chile’s O’Higgins Region, named for the unlikely independence war hero and later politician who was the illegitimate son of an enterprising Irishman employed in the colonial service of Spain and the elite daughter of a wealthy Spanish colonial family.
More significantly, however, this region overlaps the Colchagua Valley, voted Best Wine Region in the World by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2005 for its ability to consistently provide world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmene`re, Syrah, and Malbec.
“We marinate the cheese in a Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively from the local vineyards of Johana Pereira Bisquertt,” Orellana explains. “It sounds simple to say now, but getting here was quite a process. In early 2010 I met with a group of 12 women in a Peralillo commune to resolve how to use local resources in a sustainable way that might turn a profit. Creating a cheese facility in the center of the popular wine route seemed like it had real potential.”
The determined dozen’s idea was not to blend the cheese with wine but to coat it in a deep purplish “crust” of Cabernet that permeates just below the surface but leaves the interior white. This creates a subtle hint of smoky wine without overwhelming the natural cheese flavor.
Ideas are one thing. Making them real is another. “Yes, we needed external help,” Orellana says, “and luckily the Service of Technical Cooperation [SERCOTEC], a private law corporation working with the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism, took an interest in our plan.”
After visiting district ranches and dairy farms to establish that there were sufficient resources available, SERCOTEC officials decided to assist. They arranged a connection with an Italian company from the Piedmont region that was looking to outsource high-demand fresh cheese exports such as mozzarella and ricotta, which the Peralillo cooperative is now contracted to produce. In return the Piedmont company sent over specialists from Italy to help train the women and ensure quality and reliability. Better still, the Italians provided funding and contributed essential pieces of high-tech machinery.
“We started small, experimenting with just 300 liters of milk, producing little more than 30 cheese rounds,” Orellana says. “We rapidly developed label designs and packaging. Within two years we began averaging around 4,000 liters of milk daily, producing close to a thousand cheese rounds [about 1,200 kilos], with seasonal fluctuations. We began distributing beyond the Region O'Higgins and into metropolitan Santiago, which is located less than a hundred miles north of Peralillo.”
Cowboys & Vintners
Chile stretches over 2,700 miles north to south (roughly the distance from San Francisco to New York) but is never wider than 150 miles. Peralillo is almost exactly at the center of that slender topography, yet there is no hint of urbanism here. While we sat sampling cheese, a cowboy rode up to the shop in ornate head-to-toe leather gear.
“Chilean huasos are skilled horsemen, like the gauchos of Argentina,” Orellana says. “This is Senor Ernesto ‘Conejo’ — ‘the Rabbit,’ he is called. Cowboys are a vital part of Chilean folkloric culture. They are legendary.”
Peralillo’s cheese is quickly becoming legendary itself. “In Chile our products can now compete as equals with the most recognized brands in the market,” Orellana boasts. “We have done so well in such a short time . . . our cheese gives us newfound financial power.”
The dozen female entrepreneurs of Peralillo are not the only ones celebrating Chile’s continuing surge in economic strength, especially when much of the world is in a financial backswing. Winemakers in the Colchagua Valley, now the leading zone for fine wine production in Chile, are riding an international wave of popularity. Still, the volatility of the land itself has been the source of several setbacks. This Central Valley, cradled between the volcano-studded Andes in the east and the Cordillera Range in the west, is sometimes restless.
An 8.8-magnitude earthquake on February 27, 2010, severely damaged Santa Cruz, just 25 kilometers from Peralillo. Closer still, near the village of Apalta, vintner Jaime Rosello thanked his lucky stars that he had installed earthquake-proof supports below the fermenting vats of his Neyen winery before that disaster hit. “The rivers here were running red with wine from toppled vats, bottles, and barrels on other nearby properties,” Rosello tells me. “For us only the old adobe housing suffered a bit.”
His father-in-law had developed the land 40 years earlier for other labels, but the pedigree of Chile’s vineyards dates back to Jesuit missionaries who planted the first vines to create communion wine. Rosello started bottling his own brand—an 80:20 fusion of Carmene`re and Cabernet Sauvignon only a decade ago. Even so, many connoisseurs have been calling his blend, which is aged for 14 months in French oak, the best wine in all of Chile.
In Rosello’s tasting room we found glasses set out, together with Chile’s omnipresent round, flat pan amasado (literally “kneaded bread”), pine nuts, and a wedge of artisanal queso de cabra, a semi-hard goat’s milk cheese with low acidity, smooth texture, and an intensely aromatic flavor.
Rosello limits himself to a single award-winning label: Neyen des Apalta. The name means “Spirit of the Apalta Valley” in the indigenous Mapuche language. Today’s descendants can still be found in pocket communities here, interfacing with modernity while tending to the ancient ways.
Viewing the Volcanos
Farther south, in the Lake District near the resort village of Pucon, the Mapuche have a major presence. At the cozy Hotel Antumalal, nestled in lush gardens within sight of the snow-peaked, smoky-topped Villarrica volcano, owner Rony Pollack tells me, “Our chef, Maria Ignacia Jara, creates dynamic recipes blending local Mapuche ingredients with contemporary world cuisine.”
One of Chef Jara’s popular appetizers is fried cheese empanadas with a melty filling of chanco, also known as queso mantecoso (“buttery cheese”). Originally from the Maule Region above the Lake District, this mild-tasting cheese, soft and sweet with a delicate acidity, is now produced throughout south-central Chile.
From the southern rain forests we flew north and east to Chile’s Atacama Desert, measurably the driest place on earth. The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge, with its spa, swimming pool, and all modern conveniences, serves as a breathtaking contrast to a land where life barely exists. Volcanos again dominate the horizon, but here and there are also high-altitude lagoons inhabited by pink, orange, and red flamingos.
In the kitchen of Alto Atacama’s Restaurant Caur (“mountain” in native Atacameno), Andean quinoa and similar classic ingredients are channeled into wondrous new applications in the culinary arts. Cooked Italian style with butter, cream, and panquehue, a semisoft Chilean cheese produced in the Andean Aconcagua region, the popular gluten-free grain becomes quinoa risotto. (Similar in taste to Swiss Tilsit, panquehue became the first Chilean cheese imported into the United States in 2005 under the free trade agreement).
On our final afternoon Alto Atacama provided us with champagne and crusty bread to accompany a round of Quesos de Peralillo wine cheese we had brought along. Our picnic spot was atop a craggy ledge overlooking the incredible Valley of the Moon, an eye-popping panorama of multihued rock formations. As the wind whispered a soft evening lullaby, we toasted the setting sun’s reflection on the mighty Licancabur volcano, glowing now in magnificent shades of pink, orange, and red. Just like the flamingos.Written and photographed by Joseph Liberman