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A Culinary Tour of Chile’s Lake District

Day 2: Pucón to Puerto Varas 172 miles

One of the best things about waking up on a lake is that you can swim in it if you're hardy enough to brave the chilly water. Or you can fill up on zucchini bread and fresh watermelon juice at Antumalal, as I did, and plot out the day's eating schedule.

In 1848, some 7,000 German immigrants arrived in the Lake District, part of a campaign by the Chilean government to diminish the influence of the Mapuche. Valdivia, perhaps the area's prettiest town, remains the epicenter of Chile's Teutonic culture. Before lunch, I stopped in at Café Haussmann, a luncheonette with a counter and four small booths, where the house specialty, beef tartare, reminded me of toro sashimi. Then I crossed the Rio Cruces to Kunstmann Cervecería, a working brewery with kitschy souvenirs and genuine German food. After a flight of seven miniature beers, which ranged from soda-pop light to gloriously dense and yeasty, I ate a fillet of red deer with raspberry sauce and ethereal spaetzle. It was rich but not heavy (and, I have to say, a far better lunch than I ever had in Munich). By the time I reached Frutillar, in the late afternoon, I could actually contemplate eating again.

A vacation town with a view of three—on the clearest days, I'm told, even five—volcanoes hovering over Llanquihue Lake, it's filled with Northern European architecture, including a picture-perfect Swedish Lutheran church, but the sunbathers on the dusky beach seemed an international lot. At 697 Avenida Bernardo Philippi, fronting the water, I came across a nameless cottage that stocked 10 varieties of freshly baked cakes, and jars of sticky marmalade made from murta, a native berry that grows wild at the base of the volcanoes. Down the street, off a boardwalk that extends into the lake, is Cappuccini, part art gallery and part coffeehouse, with an impressive collection of Chilean wines. I had apple strudel, a cup of tea, and a glass of Casa Tamaya Reserva 2002, thereby covering all the bases.

Fifteen minutes south, in Puerto Varas, is the Hotel Licarayen. Cheery and clean and perfectly positioned, lakeside in the center of town, it has a Nordic air—exemplified by a Finnish sauna, low-slung Swedish furnishings, and Abba playing in the breakfast room. Most important, it is a short walk from cozy, skylit Merlin, one of Chile's best restaurants. Proprietor Richard Knobloch is German-born, but his food transcends patriotism and ethnicity, and his produce is delivered by bicycle from nearby farms. I ate pig's tongue with bitter greens and grouper with raspberries wrapped in Swiss chard, followed by a taste of exceptional abalone. From the side table covered with bottles that serves as the wine list, I chose Tabali's Chardonnay Reserva Especial 2005 from the Limari Valley. I hadn't tasted the wine before—or anything from that producer, for that matter—but I'm fascinated by Limari. Located in the far north of the country, up near the equator, it somehow manages to turn out reasonable facsimiles of cool-weather whites. This one crackled with flavor, far more lemon and lime than the usual vanilla and butter of a New World Chardonnay. It's as close as Chile will ever get to Chablis.

Day 3: Puerto Varas to Puerto Montt 12 miles

Walking the sleepy streets of Puerto Varas on a Sunday morning, I came across a typical local breakfast at the front counter of Dane's Café-Restaurant. Humitas are cornmeal patties, flecked with peppers and bound in a husk, with the form of a tamale and the taste and consistency of grits. Reemerging into the sunshine, I was tempted to stay in town and enjoy a warm Sunday morning by the lake, but I had another meal to eat. So I drove to Puerto Montt and headed straight for the Angelmó neighborhood, where I knew I'd find a remarkable seafood market. Above the fishmongers' stalls, tiny restaurants (each has four or five tables at most) fill a U-shaped, two-story structure. All sell different versions of the same thing: a traditional surf-and-turf peasant dish called curanto that includes clams, mussels the size of two fists, boiled potatoes, several varieties of chewy dumplings, ham hocks, sausage, and chicken, all ladled from a pot of steaming fish broth.

As a means of comparison—and because so many of the places looked so compelling—I ate two of them. The better version, at Don Raul, was richer, with dumplings as chewy as taffy and boiled chicken my Jewish grandmother would have been proud to serve. I even managed to finagle a taste of the conger eel in margherita (tomato) sauce, under the guise of perhaps ordering it as a starter on my next visit. I drank a half-bottle of Chardonnay, the Casillero del Diablo Reserva 2005 from Concha y Toro. At the end of the meal, for the first time in my life, I actually burped with satisfaction, like Fred Flintstone used to do. I'd covered about six hours of driving from Temuco, and described a culinary arc that astonished me with its breadth. I had to get to the airport for the flight back to Santiago, but first I bought a bag of incandescent fruit jellies at one of the market stalls. Just to, you know, nibble on the plane.

Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L's wine and spirits editor.

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