Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate
Most Chilean coffee is a disappointment for caffeine addicts—powdered Nescafé is the norm, and espresso is rare except in the capital and some tourist spots. Café negro is Nescafé mixed with hot water; café con leche (coffee with milk) is usually Nescafé dissolved in warm milk.
Té negro (black tea), usually in bags, is insipid by most standards. Those wanting tea with milk in the British manner should ask for tea first and milk later; for most Chileans, té con leche is a tea bag steeped in hot water with leche en polvo (powdered milk). Herbal teas, from the nearly universal té de manzanilla (chamomile) and rosa mosqueta (rose hips) to native specialties such as llantén (plantain), cedrón (lemon verbena), paico (saltwort), and boldo, are often better alternatives. In the far south, some Chileans follow the Argentine custom of sipping yerba mate, the so-called “Paraguayan tea.”
It’s possible to get a good cup of chocolate (hot chocolate) in Santiago and much of the southern lake district, where Swiss-German influence is most significant. Elsewhere, it will be powdered chocolate mixed with hot water.
Water, Juices, and Soft Drinks
Agua de la llave (tap water) is almost always potable; for ice, request it con hielo. Visitors on brief vacations where stomach upset can be disastrous might consider bottled water. Ask for agua pura or agua mineral; for carbonated water, add con gas. Sometimes these are known by brand names such as Cachantún.
Gaseosas (in the plural) are sweetened, bottled soft drinks. Only Mexicans consume more of these than Chileans, who average more than 90 liters per person in a market estimated at US$1 billion per annum.
Licuados are fruit-based drinks mixed with water or blended with leche (milk). Unless your sweet tooth is insatiable, have them prepared without sugar (sin azúcar, por favor). Fresh-squeezed jugos (fruit juices) are exceptional but, again, watch the sugar. This is usually not a problem with orange juice, but it is with others.
While Chile is famous for its wines, Chileans themselves are leaning more toward beer. The most widely available are Cristal, Becker, and similar lagers, which are palatable but unexceptional. They taste best as chopp, direct from the tap, rather than from bottles or cans.
Chile is a major wine producer, and exports have boomed since the end of the dictatorship, during which many people boycotted Chilean products. In 2001, though, the industry’s prestige received a blow when New York Times writer Frank J. Prial trashed Chilean wines in general as “second rate,” the majority of cabernets “insipid,” and chardonnays as “flabby and lacking in tannin.”
More recently, though, specialists such as James Molesworth and Jancis Robinson have acknowledged improvements, even though Molesworth compared the Chilean industry to a young baseball player “hitting the occasional home run, sometimes striking out.” Half of Chile’s total production (roughly a billion liters) is exported, but much of that as bulk rather than bottled wine.
Chilean wine lists rarely indicate the source region or the vintage, so diners may have to ask to see the bottle itself. Only the best restaurants have a wide selection, usually in full bottles though sometimes it’s possible to get a media botella (half bottle) or, increasingly frequently, wine by the glass. It’s often possible to order a botellín or vino individual, a small bottle holding slightly more than a single glass, but these are rarely premium wines.
Wine tourism is developing rapidly, though less spontaneously than in locales such as California’s Napa Valley. While it’s better to call ahead for reservations or book a tour, drop-ins are not unheard of. There are fast-developing “Rutas del Vino” (Wine Routes) in the Aconcagua, Casablanca, Colchagua, and Maule valleys.
Chile is also, along with Peru, a major producer of the potent grape brandy known as pisco, the base of the legendary pisco sour. The Norte Chico valleys of Copiapó, Huasco, and Elqui are the major producing areas, and pisco has also spawned a small tourist industry.
Another popular aperitif is the vaina, a concoction of port, cognac, cocoa, and egg white that some Chileans consider a “woman’s drink.”
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition