Foraging the Selva Valdiviana

They call the temperate rainforest in the coastal mountains near Valdivia, Chile a jungle, though that’s not exactly right. It’s more like a lost world.

Patches of this forest remained free of ice during the last ice age, so its flora is like a time capsule to another time of the earth. Many of the plants here more closely resembles plants in New Zealand than other parts of Chile, while the fauna includes rare creatures like Darwin’s frog, puma, and pudú. Lush and wet, this region, especially in the vicinity of Parque Oncol, receives as much as 4600 mm of rain each year.

For as long as I have known Rodolfo Guzmán of the Santiago restaurant Boragó, he has been talking excitedly about this ecoregion. Rich in biodiversity, his menu is often dotted with ingredients from this part of Chile.

“Valdivia represents the gateway to Patagonia. You see it in the ingredients you find,” says Guzmán. “Oncol is like a cold, rainy jungle.”

There is a high concentration of ingredients favored by the Mapuche, such as the abundance of wild fruits like murta (Ugni molinae), nicknamed Chilean guava, which matures between March and May. There’s also honey made from the flower nectar and pollen of ulmo trees (Eucryphia cordifolia) and numerous types of mushrooms. Quila (Chusquea quila), the Chilean heart of palm, which is nothing like pupunha or chonta in Brazil or Peru, also grows here. “It’s not about flavor, just about texture,” says Guzmán. “You put in mouth and it disappears.” There is not enough to go around, so foragers in the are experimenting with the sprouts, covering them with fallen leaves to speed growth.

The chupón (Greigia sphacelata) is a small, long fruit that grows like spines out of the trunk of a bromeliad that grows in this region. The indigenous Mapuche, which call the plant niyu and use the leaves for basket making, are known for their love of the fruit, eaten by biting off the tip and sucking out the sweet pulp.

“Every kid in the south of Chile knows how to stick their feet inside these bushes to push up the leaves and pull out the chupones,” Guzmán says as we come upon a bush filled with chupones. Minutes later he’s doing just that, with his feet in the plant and balancing on one hand like some kind of strange Chilean yoga pose.

Nearly 40 years ago, Pascuale Alba decided to work with the forest rather than clearing it. Today he forages for the wild fruits and mushrooms found within a 150-hectare tract of lush, mountainous land that he owns, called Reserva Natural Pilunkura. He sends a considerable of the ingredients he collects to Boragó, work that he considers important. More and more restaurants in Santiago want the wild fruits from the Selva Valdiviana, so he has helped other communities get involved, pooling together their resources.

The Selva Valdiviana is one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hot spots. Here, tiny wild tomatoes contrast with tarantulas the size of hands, while alerce trees (Fitzroya cupressoides) can live upwards of 3,600 years.

On a clearing on one of the highest points of Pilunkura, Don Pascuale runs the restaurant Latué with his son and daughter in law, which uses ingredients almost entirely sourced from the property. They make a type of tea from the bark of the tineo tree (Weinmania trichosperma) tree and tarts made with calafate berries and mushrooms picked the same morning. Outside they roast a lamb over a fire.

Murta, a tiny apple like berry, has just a one month season, though it is often dried and re-hydrated so it can be used year round. Alba and his daughter in law Tania once had dinner at Boragó, which ended with a dessert that had just two murtas in it. That’s all Rodolfo had at the time. They looked at each other and laughed, thinking about how the Santiaguinos were so amazed by this exotic fruit that they eat in abundance (she makes a scooping motion of piles into her mouth as she explains). “My house smells of murta,” says Tania. “It’s everywhere.”

Chile is the only country on Earth that gives fungi the equivalent protection as plants and animals. There are hundreds, if not thousands of species, spread out in every region of the country. The Selva Valdiviana is full of them. Note: these mushrooms turned out to be poisonous and were not eaten.

The coast is also rich in flora and fauna. Blue and humpback whales can occasionally be spotted at sea, while penguins and countless seabirds live on the rocks and islets along and just off shore. Valdivia’s riverfront Mercado Fluvial overflows with mussels, razor clams, and fish that have been caught or collected here.

Cochayuyo (Durvillaea antartica), or bull kelp, grows up to 15 meters in length along the rocky coasts of southern Chile. Typically, it is dried in the sun and sold in bundles in markets throughout the region, then re-hydrated in soups or roasted. Guzmán makes a black, soy sauce-like broth from the roots of the seaweed at Boragó.

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