The Art of Cordero al Palo

One of the least appreciated elements by tourists is the local rhythm—that distinct pace of life that sets how things happen indistinct places in the world. In Chilean Patagonia, this takes on a special meaning.

The slow pace of greetings, looks, and conversations that take place within the homes in Coyhaique, cultural facets that I have personally experienced, all symbolize this special way of life, elements that often go by unnoticed to outsiders or tourists.

From the moment one lands at Balmaceda airport located on the border of Chile and Argentina, and heads on the highway towards Coyhaique, Aysen’s capital, one encounters the beautifully monotone landscape of wide, green prairies accompanied by steep mountains. These mountains easily get lost in the clouds, blending in with the rising smoke of cabins that occasionally pop up in the middle of the path, like ingenuous symbols of this distinct rhythm of life —a philosophy that centers around fire, maté, good conversation, and of course, food.

In fact, after being married to a coyhaiquina for many years, I’ve come to think that, with time, I comprehend the importance of the alternate time-frame in which people move and travel in Patagonia. This movement differs greatly from the scattered beat of large cities, most notably in the crucial moments of the day when one eats.

Perhaps the best way to explain this lifestyle is through the preparation of Patagonian stake-roasted lamb, known as cordero al palo in Southern Chile. A task that can last many hours and follows a strict set of rules, this rustic barbecue perfectly exemplifies the Patagonian way of life while also expressing the history and conception of the world of the locals.

It’s important to understand that a large number of coyhaiquinos descended from the so-called pioneers. These settlers from distinct places began to arrive to the area at the start of the century following arduous and deadly journeys through steep mountains and sharp winds of the pampa, all under the promise of opportunities to make a new life for themselves. These famous gauchos are known for their skills with a knife and a determined resilience to conquer one of the most isolated places in the wild. In modern times, the descendants of the gauchos understand the importance of keeping alive such traditions and stories from a heritage that has truly shaped their identity.

Don Pedro is a prime example of this. My wife’s grandfather is a part of the last remnant of the generation of pioneers that knew the bareness of the first years of Aysén, the zone of Chilean Patagonian that is home to impressive places like Cerro Castillo, the lake of General Carrera (whose history is a dazzling conquest unto itself), Caleta Tortel, Laguna San Rafael, and various places that remain anonymous due to lack of proper tourist promotion.

In order to understand more about the culture, I asked him to teach me how to prepare the cordero al palo from scratch. His reply was simple: “Fine. Arrive early tomorrow.”

The next day in the middle of a cold and cloudy morning, I met Don Pedro at his ranch which consists of a large wooden table, a small storage room of short logs, and a large, open oven whose floor remains shiny after years of collecting fat from various asados. With a strong handshake, Don Pedro offered me a cold beer (the first of many) as he pointed out the animal, prepared with authority and ready to be cooked, something that truthfully did not leave me disappointed.

Years prior, I had participated in the process of cutting and cleaning the body during the famous carneado or slaughter, in which I tried to grab the lamb from the pen, lacking much of the elegance and effectiveness that one would hope for. I then proceeded to watch as the chosen animal was placed on top of someone’s knee to cut its neck so that the lamb’s stream of blood flowed towards a plate of cilantro, garlic, lemon, and celery. Later on, the blood mixed with the ingredients to become a typical Mapuche plate called Ñachi, one that surely would startle many people. Afterwards, I watched as the animal was surgically stripped of its interior and wool. It finally was hung on a beam in a nearby shed so that any remaining blood drained so it could be used another day.

With Don Pedro, the first task was lighting the fire. With some medium-sized logs made from Ñirre and  Lenga, two types of native wood that are used throughout the region to heat homes, Don Pedro started a flame that would stay lit during the whole process. While he made sure the fire was strong and cleaned the frame that holds the lamb, Don Pedro talked to me about his childhood. Born in Chiloé, a zone located further North that’s known for its islands and folklore, necessity marked a great part of his childhood.

He told me of his various siblings and how his father had decided that they could feed themselves independently, preferring to leave the animals to die rather than give them to his children. The majority of his brothers and sisters ended up leaving home as soon as they were old enough, set on the need for a different reality.

While his gaze remained lost in the smoke, outside the morning had already given way to a weak sun, whose rays were tangled with the dew. Don Pedro gestured that it was time to put the lamb in the fire.

We started preparing the bones of the shanks so that the arms and legs remained outward, allowing Don Pedro to make cuts on the inside edge to facilitate the opening. To speed up the cooking process, he made cuts to the third ribs on top of both sides, helping thin the more difficult parts of meat to cook. Then, with a azadón, or stake, he pierced the whole body vertically and followed it with a smaller blade to keep the thorax open and distribute the weight of the lamb, which ideally should weigh no more than 12 kgs and should be secured with alambres, or wires, on its legs and arms. Finally, with the tail facing downwards and the back outwards, the stake is buried in the hole of the floor of this particular type of oven. If the asado is done in the open air, the stake should at least be at a distance of a half meter.

And now comes the difficult part.

Two hours have passed since the fire began to take the shape and it should be maintained throughout the whole process. I had already drank various cans of beer and was lightheaded from the altitude when Don Pedro signaled to me: now was the crucial moment to make sure the fire had enough heat and the wood was positioned to uniformly cook the meat, which could only be achieved by paying attention and moving the animal when necessary.

One hour later, we sat observing, adding fuel to the fire, and scattering chimichurri to the smoked meat. We were surrounded by silence except for the wood’s crackle and the trickle of the fat that filled the entire room with smoke.

Don Pedro told me that he left home at sixteen for Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, where his cousin Carlos and other family members had found work. Following in the footsteps of his relatives, he arrived on Comodoro to first work in a pensión and later as a welder for the company Petroquímica, where his cousin also worked. He stayed there for more than a decade, until his unit transferred to a transnational business and he decided to quit. His cousin Carlos stayed there much longer and today, at the age of 90, suffers from respiratory problems due to his work with casting zinc and later with a North American textile company.

While the lamb continues to cook we circle the fire closer to see what parts still need time. I realize the difficulty in narrating this experience of small, minimal movements. The stillness is only interrupted by the sizzle of the fire, the crunch of the wood, the smoke that clouds one’s vision, and the smell of the meat and fat that inundate the nose. I observed the rhythm of Patagonia in these friendly, immobile moments.

Don Pedro’s wife, Señora Irma, a spectacular woman with whom he has been married to for more than 60 years, has a history that also testifies to the tragic and anonymous journey that many women have overcome amid this harsh and desolate landscape. For example, one day when she was young she was forced to make the decision to kill a pregnant sheep with her child hands to feed her younger siblings in the absence of their parents. She continued living a life of sacrifice, a much longer, Patagonian time to be told, before settling with Don Pedro in Coyhaique, the emerging southern city around the year 1978. Together they built a butcher shop, a workshop for metal constructions, and a cattle field with which they could feed all of their daughters so they could have many more stories to tell around the fire.

In the end, the asado was a success. After six and a half hours of cooking, the lamb was ready and the dinner guests opened bottles of wine and continued to give toasts while receiving pieces of meat recently cut by Don Pedro, who smiled before the image of his family and friends enjoying themselves and conversing without any particular rush. I couldn’t help but smile at the glimpse of peace from my time in Patagonia.

Translated by Liz Harter.