Alone they came (or down and out in New York and London)

Alone, they came. Old women lugging torn shopping bags, filled with… clothes, newspapers, rancid food, discarded dreams? Most people didn't notice as they furtively made their way, leaving little more than fairy dust on the streets of New York. Forgotten souls, so close, it seemed, to the ends of their days.

...a meal whose price could have fed a family for months

Several years later in London, 1979, after an expense-account dinner at The Connaught – Bélon oysters bathed in brackish liquor; rare roast rib of beef, its fat crunchy, succulent, properly charred, accompanied by Yorkshire pudding and thick green asparagus smothered in Hollandaise; a crisp Pouilly-Fuissée and plump juicy strawberries with clotted cream (a meal whose price could have fed a family for months), I saw, almost with excitement, another one, creeping silently along Carlos Place, Mayfair.

I pointed her out to my parents. Don’t look.

Back in New York, the Shopping Bag Ladies soon vanished with about as much fanfare as had heralded their arrival. They were rapidly replaced by a younger, scragglier multitude of men. The Homeless.

Everyone saw now.

Rosh HaShanah Eve 1987, entering the Great Hall of Cooper Union (where Abraham Lincoln had railed against the spread of slavery), I spotted sixteen unfamiliar mounds clustered outside. Afterwards, it was late and it was cold. The mounds were covered now with fresh-fallen snow, lending a magical air to the East Village. Curious, I approached as one of the lumps shifted. Cardboard box panels, tattered blankets, rags, and underneath people slept.

Later, I spoke to the rabbi. “Why weren’t we doing anything?” The churches were. I suggested a soup kitchen to follow Shabbat morning services. For weeks I pressed; he prevaricated, found reasons not to. A temple member and prominent family and divorce lawyer joined me. Finally, an opening date was set.

...after 30 minutes, we ran out of food

We had no food and no money. The rabbi refused to contribute from his discretionary fund. A friend and activist neighbour wrote a check for $125. We asked each synagogue member for $5; some gave nothing, others gave more. We planned to distribute paper bags of sandwiches, fresh fruit, cookies and take-out coffee. A supplier offered paper goods, our largest expense, at a discount. We distributed flyers to homeless people on the street. That first Saturday, after 30 minutes, we ran out of food. The following week, we promised we’d be better prepared.

Greenwich Village, even then, was essentially a middle to upper-class community. Two of the best gourmet markets in New York at the time, Balducci’s and The Jefferson Market were there, as was Porto Rico Coffee with its dozens of fresh-ground blends; there were family-owned bakeries, Italian food shops, specialty stores and the famed outdoor Union Square Greenmarket with over 100 farmers trucking in their goods to sell. The old 14th Street Meat Market was also still operating. We asked for contributions on a regular sustaining basis and no one refused.

We had too many volunteers. Relationships were being formed with our guests. My co-chair and I pushed to invite them inside for a sit-down meal. The rabbi said no; ultimately he and the temple board relented. The same activist neighbour who’d provided our seed money volunteered to make soup every Saturday, soup for over 100 people. Once a month we served hot dogs and beans, the hands-down favourite; lasagna, meat loaf or spaghetti with homemade sauce and meatballs. Our guests gave us tips, made requests: Please no green peppers in the spaghetti sauce; peppers caused gas and made them fart. The Sisterhood ladies enthusiastically cooked, they baked; they served; they were Jewish mothers. Eat!

Every week, I went to Balducci’s, where I was allowed to pick anything I wanted from the stockroom of food they couldn’t sell because a label on a can was torn, or a box had a dent. Tinned wild salmon, organic nut butters, Tiptree jams, pâté, Spanish tuna and anchovies packed in oil, dried fruits from the Middle East – the assortment was dazzling. While I selected, five elderly Italian men sat nearby in a tiny room, spending their days making mozzarella from an enormous vat. Balducci’s gave day-old artisanal bread of every variety imaginable, baby artichokes, Japanese eggplants, mesclun lettuce, haricots verts, wild mushrooms and hothouse fruits. From the Greenmarket, farmers donated apples, pears, strawberries, New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, fresh-picked corn. Our coffee wasn’t any old coffee – we had Moka mint, vanilla almond, Puerto Rican dark, French Roast. One temple member bought kitsch-designed tropical-fruit oilcloth for tablecloths; others arrived with fresh flowers and patterned paper napkins.

Our guests became rabid gourmets, connoisseurs of fine food. They’d walk in the door and know from the wafting aromas what was being served right down to the coffee flavours. Any food, including from the garbage, is good when you’re starving, but high-quality cuisine prepared and served with love brings smiles to hardened faces, makes people happy, makes them feel appreciated and respected. A number of our regulars were rough characters, men with long and ongoing criminal careers. Others were people down on their luck who’d lost their jobs, run out of savings due to illness and no medical insurance, people made homeless by fires, the elderly poor and the mentally ill. Everyone was treated as a welcomed guest; consequently we had no problems. This was a policy insisted on by my co-chair and I. If there was one thing I knew in my bones, to the very core of my being, it was how it felt to be unloved and uncared about, to be hungry, alone and hopeless.

The situation was awkward since we both knew the weed smoker was none other than the rabbi.

One of our temple members was a nationally prominent disability lawyer. He joked he’d doubted the soup kitchen “would ever get off the ground,” and then came ’round to volunteer his services every other week. He recruited a friend who was a housing lawyer. The lawyers represented everyone pro-bono or for free. The disability lawyer was so moved by a few of his mentally ill clients, he let them nap on his office couch.

Our first crisis involved a roach, found in the upstairs bathroom. Several board members complained to the synagogue’s superintendent and me that the homeless were smoking pot in the loo. We insisted they weren’t. The situation was awkward since we both knew the weed smoker was none other than the rabbi.

Then there was the ham débacle. Friends owned an upscale meat supply company and offered to donate cooked turkey, roast beef, Swiss cheese, cheddar, beef salami, and, er, what about ham? I didn’t think so, but since the congregation was Reform (and therefore not kosher), my co-chair and I double-checked with the rabbi. Sure, sure, why not? When we weren’t convinced, he insisted—don’t turn down gifts! We were nervous but gave the okay for ham-and-Swiss sandwiches. Several members of the temple board went berserk. I was accused of personally profaning the synagogue, which one woman told me could never ever be pure again. The rabbi claimed ignorance that we had dared to serve pork.

Next we had a committee meeting at the home of an older conservative temple doctor and his wife. A couple who had never volunteered or been active showed up. She was introduced as a “caterer,” but when we asked about leftovers, she claimed to never have them. She and the rabbi, who visibly took out his wallet, needed to meet privately behind closed doors in our hosts’ bedroom. They both emerged mellow and happy, a slight cloud of a certain sickly sweet aroma following them from the boudoir. The meeting began.

A committee member had brought along an elderly friend. We discussed organisational concerns and future plans, including a monthly food pantry and permitting guests seeking jobs and benefits to use the temple’s address as their own. The elderly friend was becoming increasingly agitated and distressed. She interrupted. “I have been a member of this temple for over twenty years and I have NOT given my money to have dirty schvartzes (a derogatory Yiddish term for Blacks) come into my shul !” The rest of us looked at the floor, we looked at the ceiling, we looked sideways, this ways and that. The woman who’d brought her audibly gasped and looked as if she wanted the sofa to swallow her up. The meeting came to an end. From then on, in those days before e-mail, we did business by phone.

That first spring, as Passover approached, we discussed having a homeless Seder. The board said okay, provided we invited only Jews. My co-chair and I weren’t convinced, but we went along and eventually realised it was a sound decision. There were more than 200 homeless, destitute and/or seriously mentally ill Jews frequenting the streets of the East Village and Lower East Side. Around 25 were regulars at our soup kitchen. We invited them to attend a Passover Seder led by the rabbi. One of the better downtown French restaurants in Manhattan, Capsouto Frères, offered to donate the entire Seder dinner, requiring only that we neither name nor give them credit. The three Egyptian-Jewish Capsouto brothers had founded their landmark Tribeca bistro, renowned for its soufflés, in 1980. One of the brothers and his wife were temple members. All we needed to do was prepare the ritual foods for the Seder plates. A few months ahead, I asked the butcher at The Jefferson Market to start putting aside lamb shank bones. On the first night of Passover, on my way to Seder at friends’, I dropped by to pick up what I anticipated to be five or six bones, which I’d intended to broil in my toaster oven. The butcher greeted me warmly and sent two burly men into the meat locker. Each emerged with an enormous shopping bag filled to the brim with frozen shank bones. I stammered and spewed and stumbled to thank him, trying not to panic over what I was going to do with several hundred raw bones.

I could barely lift the bags. Once outside, I reasoned the temple was several long blocks away and I could leave the bones in the refrigerator there. I struggled, advancing slowly with one bag, then with the next. The high heels I was wearing did not help. An escalating noise resembling a sounder of swine seemed to be rapidly approaching behind me. I heard gasping and panting and frustrated voices shouting, “slow down, slow down, stop!” I turned around to the sight of a dozen straining dog walkers, their assorted canines hot on the scent. Quickly, I stuck out my hand and hailed a cab.


Today, close to thirty years later... I’ve heard the soup kitchen continues

Everyone we’d invited showed up promptly for the Seder, wearing the best clothes they had. The rabbi welcomed them, gave a speech and began to read from the Haggadah. He then asked for volunteers. Sylvia, a schizophrenic regular who babbled incoherently and always wore two or three pairs of eyeglasses, one on top of the other, raised her hand. She removed her glasses and read, reciting melodiously in flawless Hebrew. When we came to the “Four Questions,” traditionally sung by the youngest child, Isaac, another regular, who was 96, asked to do the Mah Nishtanah. His chanting was exquisite, haunting, from another time and place, perhaps harkening back to the shtetl in Poland, where he’d told us he’d been born.

When the Seder came to an end, after we’d repeated its closing words, “Next year in Jerusalem/Next year may we all be free,” I think everyone, guests and hosts alike, felt lighter, freer, imbued, if just for the moment, with the spirit of redemption. For many of our guests, the Seder was a return to the past, to happier times, when they’d had families, homes, money, health and dreams, dreams for a future that was better.

Today, close to thirty years later, from my home in Provence, I’ve heard the soup kitchen continues. This makes me happy and this makes me sad. Sad the need is still there, happy so many people have continued the work.


Patricia Fieldsteel

Did you eat lunch?

The man in the white apron plates mussels outside the Korean shellfish barbeque restaurant - jogae gui. I’d spot him most mornings, through the narrow gap between the cold noodle take-away and The Seaman’s Club, or in the evenings on my way to Baskin Robbins’ ice-cream parlour.

At twenty-nine, I was a jogae gui virgin.

I filmed the shellfisher one afternoon, his consent given by a cursory nod, cracking and splitting shells: mussels the length of your hand, clams as wide as your palm. His deft knife-work is lascivious: twist, crack, split, twist, crack, split. We exchange smiles on most occasions, sometimes a perfunctory Korean greeting. But too many distractions might send the knife plunging deep into the flesh of his ungloved hand. So I walk quickly on.

It took me a year to go into his restaurant and eat; I needed a dinner date who’d know what to do. Korean barbeque rituals are learned as you grow up. You listen to your parents judging the heat by the colour of the embers; they tell you the grill is not hot enough because the air above it does not wobble. They snatch your hand away if you lean in too close and scold you so you’ll learn. At twenty-nine, I was a jogae gui virgin.


When mussels and other molluscs are condemned to the grill, they reveal their secret weapon, their one and only act of insubordination: self-annihilation.

‘Quick! Take it off before the clam explodes!’ my dining companion commands. I lift the mollusc with the tongs, but am too late and shards of shell shrapnel discharge themselves, narrowly missing my face.

I have burnt the largest mussel on the grill – The Daddy – that the shellfisher had ceremoniously presented at our table. A white plastic bucket sits beneath each round, galvanized barbecue station – a graveyard for the spoiled – into which the blackened shell and its curled, dead remains are thrown. A group of middle-aged men talk loudly and jovially over one another through mouthfuls of shellfish as the air greys with their cigarette smoke. Steadily emptying green bottles of soju – rice wine – clutter their table.

I am still hungry.

At the barbeque station next to us is a well-dressed couple; the red in his check shirt is striking against her livid-green blouse. She is in charge of the grilling and the monitoring. He leans his upper body to the left – still talking – in anticipation of a shellfish-seizure. She whips a clam off the grill with tongs, scoops the torpid contents out with a pair of silver chopsticks, delivers a smudge of red gochujang (hot pepper sauce) and places it, delicately, into her boyfriend’s mouth.

I wore a hairy jumper to dinner and stray fibres keep catching in the heat as I reach across the grill with my tongs. Small, transitory fires on my clothes add to the anxiety of eating  jogae gui.

pickled garlic

Across the road from the jogae gui restaurant, where an evangelical church with shepherds and cartoon lambs on its double-doors faces the street, is the Bonjuk restaurant – a franchise selling healthy Korean cuisine.

I don’t have to prepare my seafood here.

The day after a shard of shark fin-shaped glass went into my hand and I needed twelve stitches, I went into Bonjuk alone for the first time. I was so grateful for good food you could eat one-handed with a spoon. All the dishes came in large, stone bowls: soups, porridge, bibimbap, and gul jul guy – spicy oyster soup with glass noodles.

Bonjuk saw me through those one-handed weeks.

perilla leaves for bulgogi

... little bowls of colourful promise: pickled ribbons of deep green seaweed and hot-pink slices of radish.

Sinpo was my neighbourhood in Incheon – my city by the sea for two years. And you could eat fresh oysters anywhere. Bonjuk restaurants only sell the gul juk gui where oysters are in abundance; the empty shells sound like castanets as they are scraped from the bowl and tumble into the bin.

The first time I ate at Bonjuk the waitress, a woman in her middle years with admirable posture, looked warily at my bandaged hand and asked me if I was meeting someone. ‘I’m on my own,’ I told her. One other lone diner was sat in the middle of the restaurant at a beige Formica table. The waitress laid a place in front of him, took my elbow and guided me into the seat opposite. He looked up, startled by the bandaged foreign woman (Russian? Strips at The Seaman’s Club?). Embarrassed, I insisted I was content to eat alone.

Gul juk gui was a lucky guess; I could read Korean well enough but the nuances of heat, the type of dish it’s served in, and many vegetables were still a mystery. Oyster soup could be anything. A portion could feed two, but I always emptied the bowl. Most of it could be eaten one-handed with a spoon; the noodles with flat chopsticks, ideally with two hands, coiling the noodles into the spoon. Bite down hard on the oysters – they’re more resistant than you think – and their rubbery skins give, releasing a briny piquancy that mingles with the fieriness of the soup and conjures the sea.

The side dishes that come with each Korean meal are little bowls of colourful promise: pickled ribbons of deep green seaweed and hot-pink slices of radish. Along with the oysters, gul juk gui gave me all my iron and zinc. I needed to heal; I’d lost a lot of blood when I cut my hand.

But it would have been nice to share gul juk gui with someone.

Our first date was a traditional Korean meal with all the side dishes carefully displayed in jade ceramics - banchan.

Jae-ik and I met at Culture Complex – the language exchange centre where he was the manager. I liked his thick glasses and sticky-out hair. When I explained the unfortunate name for his language programme, he laughed, and wrote it down in his pocket-notebook under ‘homonyms’.

Our first date was a traditional Korean meal with all the side dishes carefully displayed in jade ceramics – banchan. I asked him lots of questions about the technique, the history and the legends behind everything we were eating: Korean kingdoms adopted Buddhism as its state religion, and court kitchens cultivated elaborate ways to prepare simple, Buddhist dishes. My favourite was the miniature kimchi pancakes.

Jae-ik said that he found my appetite charming.

The bus on the way home was crammed with commuters so we had to stand, swaying unsteadily into one another as it charged around corners. He ran an index finger along the inside of my wrist, and whispered something in my ear.

Jae-ik’s first gift to me was a can of pomegranate juice from the 7/11. ‘It’s good for women—for down there,’ he said, offering it to me with both hands like it was an injured bird.

Jae-ik liked to eat Korean beef barbeque—bulgogi. One evening he sprung it on me that I was to meet his hyun, a respected older male friend, and that we’d all eat bulgogi together. Jae-ik was his dong-saeng, and therefore required approval from his mentor over his choice of girlfriend. His hyun spoke elegant English, better than Jae-ik, but as the soju flowed, the hyun got impatient and before too long both he and Jae- ik were talking in slurred Korean and I couldn’t follow. Not trusted with the barbeque, I sat bored and mute watching the kimchi frying on the hotplate, the edges of each cabbage leaf blackening and spoiling, the hyun’s cigarette ash showering the meat. The men shovelled over-done beef cuts into their mouths and then ordered yook hwe, a raw beef salad mixed with raw egg, and laughed when I made a face.

Jae-ik had red gochujang all over his chin.

On the train back to my flat, after dinner was finally over, I made Jae-ik sit with his head between his knees so he didn’t puke yook-hwe all over the carriage. He looked up through pink eyes, and told me that he was under a lot of pressure at home to get married. ‘I’m the oldest son,’ he told me mournfully, ‘I have to find someone soon. It might as well be you.’ We argued, and then he puked in my bathroom. His final gift to me was an ugly pair of sparkly earrings, an apology that confirmed we didn’t know anything about each other at all.

rice cakes_ddeok

Where British custom discusses the weather... Koreans ask about your last meal

My apartment block straddled Sinpo and China Town, and my bedroom looked out onto the Incheon port in the East China Sea. I found it satisfying watching the sun sink at different points behind the mountains as the seasons changed. December promised the best sunset. A flash of pink and auburn on the surface of the ocean before the sun dips finally, making room for dusk to move in. Neon Hangeul signs blink to life and take over the skyline.

It was Chinese settlers who brought Jjajangmyeon to Korea. They landed at Incheon and set up their shops on a tiny sliver of the city about a kilometre wide. Jjajangmyeon – chewy noodles topped with a glutinous black soybean sauce – even has its own song. Korean kids learn it in kindergarten and needle their parents for the noodles on the weekend.

In China Town, not far from a weary-looking stone Confucius, an enormous fiberglass effigy of a bowl of jjajangmyeon is on display. Visitors make their pilgrimage to China Town for the day, have their picture taken with the noodles, and then eat a bowl of it in one of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants. Outside the Jjajangmyeon museum, a colossal statue of a chef in whites is frozen in mid-run, clutching a take-away box of jjajangmyeon.

It is possible to map the evolution of Korea’s cuisine against the country’s own extraordinary evolution from feudal state, to military dictatorship, to capitalist democracy. Contrary to the stereotypes of an inflexible and rigid culture – it was once referred to as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ – Korea has moved with the times. Jjajangmyeon is a perfect example of this: Koreans have selected the appetizing parts of Chinese influence and turned them into a national dish, complete with its own festival.

American influence has also had its way with Korean cuisine, and this came as a shock – when I found pieces of deep-fried Spam on my tray in the school canteen. Rows of Spam in blue and yellow tins line supermarket shelves, and are a popular gift to take home during the Chuseok holiday. Army Stew – a spicy (and revolting) Spam based noodle soup is sometimes called Johnson’s Stew in honour of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who visited Korea in 1966 and promised economic aid. Spam, an uninviting flabby by-product of a free-market economy, has attained mythical status.

Contrary to the stereotypes of an inflexible and rigid culture... Korea has moved with the times.

Where British custom discusses the weather in meaningless detail before easing into lucid conversation, Koreans ask about your last meal: ‘Did you eat something?’ is the opener for most greetings. If I said ‘no,’ I would be handed a snack dug out of a handbag – usually a rice cake, tteok. And on one occasion, when I said I had not eaten breakfast, I was marched to a nearby restaurant and forced to eat a bowl of bibimbap – rice and bean sprouts – until I was full, pae-bol-oy-yo. I soon learned that the stock answer was always ‘yes,’ in the same way that the British don’t expect anyone to not be ‘fine’.

But I never really got used to this overly personal greeting in the two years I lived in Korea. You could be hurrying past a colleague in a busy corridor, who’d meet your eye and shout, ‘Did you eat lunch?’ and frantically mime spooning food into their mouth, in place of a wave. There’d be no time to stop and answer, so the question was always left hanging, like an awkward expression of unrequited love. I made it my business to email the colleague who’d enquired and finish the exchange: ‘Yes, I ate lunch. Thank you for asking.’

Hannah Garrard. Photographs – courtesy of the author.

Did You Eat Lunch has been selected for the 2015 Words and Women Anthology.

Itata and the roots of Chilean wine

I am indebted to the De Martino family for their research into this fascinating region of Chile. It is fair to say that they rediscovered its potential as part of their quest to identify original terroirs in Chile.

Itata is not a region which the wine cognoscenti know a great deal about

The wines from here are very particular, deeply embedded in the traditions of the locality. Our knowledge of Chile tends to be based on matching certain grapes to certain regions– Syrah with Choapa & Elqui, Chardonnay with Limari, Sauvignon with Casablanca and the coastal regions, Carmenere & Cabernet with Maipo. You have to journey further south to where the Spanish first colonised to find the original varieties, Pais (ironically known as the Mission grape) for red and Muscat of Alexandria for white. Rather than the huge monocultural estates of the north, the land here is spread across wild rolling hills, a patchwork of small organically-farmed, horse-ploughed vineyard parcels of thick-trunked bush vines still owned by the local huasos.

When the Spanish colonizers landed at the Port of Concepción, they brought with them the Muscat of Alexandria and Pais (Listan Prieto) grapes. As a result, the first grape vines in Itata were planted in 1551. These grapes came from the Canary Islands originally and had been collected en route to Latin America. Due to destruction caused by subsequent earthquakes and the desire to “improve” the quality of the wines, other grape varieties –including Cinsault and some rare whites that are only known by their local names (such as Corinto) – were introduced to the region at the beginning of the 20th century.

From the beginning, Itata wines were highly-regarded as evidenced by the following quotes:

“Vine growing adapts much better to the southern wine provinces, the wine of Concepción is superior in quality to the ones from other areas” – Eduard Poeppeg, German traveller. 1828.

“The French have a singular affinity to the city of Concepción, and they claim the reason is the excellence of their wines”- Miguel de Olivares, priest. 18th century.

As winemaking and grape-growing expanded across the country other wineries began to gain influence. These factors, in addition to Chile’s increasing centralization, caused Itata to slowly lose its prominence and eventually become all but forgotten as a wine region. However, in recent years the valley has recovered its relevance and is now recognized as a treasure of the Chilean countryside. In this way, the Itata Valley has allowed growers to return to their origins, rediscover forgotten varieties and examine the work carried out by the first winemakers in the country.

The gorgeous landscape of the Itata Valley and the surrounding coastal areas where vineyards are located include steep hills planted with vineyards and imposing pine forests. The fast-flowing Itata River complements this stunning panorama, and its crystalline waters make this a truly unique location. In Itata there are a variety of small subsistence farms for whom viticulture is a way of life; they produce artisanal wines using traditional methods and sell their products locally. Thanks to their resilience, it is still possible to find vestiges of history reflected in vineyards that date back over 150 years


Vineyards are worked using horses, and axes are still the pruning tool of choice

The local cuisine is dominated by rabbit, hare, and chicken stews, as well as legumes and local sausages that are famous all across Chile. Wild mushroom foraging, which is carried out during the autumn and spring, is also popular. On the coast, blue crab (jaiba), conger eel (congrio) and corvina, similar to a sea troutare the main attractions. The vibrant and taut Itata wines perfectly complement these traditional dishes.

The climate of coastal Itata experiences high levels of precipitation – up to 1,000 mm per annum – and makes dry-farming (without irrigation) possible. The Pacific Ocean also exerts a cooling influence which tempers the climate and helps to produce fresh and vibrant wines.

The soil is composed of granite deposits from the Coastal Mountain Range formed during the Jurassic period. The mostly loam soil has excellent drainage and close to 20% clay content, which helps retain humidity and fortify the plants during the driest summer months. Quartz is also commonly found in the soils of Itata.

The vineyards are dry-farmed and use a very low goblet training system (known here as “cabeza”) creating an unsupported bush vine. The vines are planted on original rootstock and the oldest vines in the area date back over 150 years. Vineyards are worked using horses and axes are still the pruning tool of choice.



Amphorae in Chile

An amphora is a ceramic vessel whose properties vary according to the characteristics of the soil from which it is derived. Chilean clay comes from a variety of sources, including granite, calcium, volcanic rock, and ochre. The latter is the most common type of clay found in the central coast and the most utilized for making these earthenware containers.

Amphorae arrived in Chile with the Spanish conquistadors, however historian Gonzalo Rojas assures us that, “From an anthropological point of view, the amphorae are a powerful symbol of the mestizaje between the Hispanic world and the pre-Columbian indigenous world. Not only because both indigenous and Spanish artisans — laymen and religious men — participated in their production, but also because of the craftsmanship that’s entailed; this work also had its roots in the ancestral farmer-potter traditions of the America´s indigenous populations.”

Local pre-Columbian cultures are thought to have used their amphorae as vessels for making alcohol around 1500 AD; however these vessels were of a different shape and design than those brought by the conquistadors. Chilean amphorae developed as a result of the blending of both cultures and styles. In this way, the amphora became a uniquely significant cultural artefact for the country. Production peaked during the La Colonia period (1598-1810), when they were primarily used for fermenting and storing wine, an activity which was carried out across the country, from the Atacama region all the way to the BíoBío River. On a smaller scale, amphorae were also used to store grains, olive oil, and other liquids, as well as transporting goods.

With the arrival of barrel-making in the 19th century, amphorae were replaced by containers made from other materials. The wine industry preferred wood as it requires less care when being moved, was relatively light-weight and easy to repair. In this way the raulí  barrels (known as “pipas”) became the container of choice for wine fermentation and ageing throughout the country, relegating 200 years of tradition to the resilience of a few committed artisanal producers immersed in the depths of the countryside.


They are wines that will make you smile

De Martino and the amphorae

The idea of producing wine using traditional terracotta amphorae emerged in 2010, as a result of De Martino’s decision to craft wines with strong, unique personalities, while maintaining a fresh and gastronomic winemaking style. This project inspired them immediately as it tied in with their mission to recover ancestral winemaking techniques.

The Viejas Tinajas wine range began as an experimental programme with only 14 amphorae, which collectively produced their 2011 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault. The following vintage they incorporated new vessels and added the Muscat grape variety, thereby completing the range’s white and red duo. They currently have 172 amphorae of all different shapes and sizes, ranging between 200 and 1,800 litre capacity. Many of these are over 200 years old. Wines fermented and aged in amphorae have a unique textural signature and stand out for their varietal purity, freshness, and delicate nature.

Q & A with Sebastian De Martino

What attracted you to Itata initially – had you ever tasted wines from this region?

What attracted us was its history (quite unknown and mysterious even), the southern location (high rainfall and dry farming), the varieties not found in the northern regions, the maritime influence, the landscape dominated by rolling hills, plus the granite soils. Even in Chile it was difficult to find wines from Itata as in the past either they were sold locally or wine companies from the north would buy the grapes at low prices and blend them into their basic wines.

We therefore decided to organize a scouting trip where we discovered several new wines. Unfortunately, at the time although you could find great fruit behind the wines you would also see various “commercial” practices that militated against the expression of terroir. This was no doubt due to these local producers selling wines for blending or being advised by oenologists with different philosophies.

How different is Itata to the north (I mean the area around Santiago) in terms of the people and the culture?

The area is where Chile’s first vineyards were planted and the original vignerons are still found. Properties are smaller and more fragmented (no fencing, for example). In the north the wine culture followed the “Bordeaux” model since the wealthy families travelled in the 19th century to France to learn from the examples there. The south, however, is wild with a long standing history that we are just starting to rediscover ourselves.

Why did Itata lose its fame as a wine region (considering this region was important in the origin of vine planting and culture in Chile)?

Good question – we are still trying to understand what happened! Most likely since the arrival of the French practices in the 19th century, and the planting of vines in the northern regions of Chile, everyone thought that the wines of Itata were in the “past” and no longer relevant.

How many wineries other than De Martino are producing wines from Itata region alone (ie not blends between two or more regions)?

Besides the local producers, some of whom are making surprisingly good wines, there are about 8 companies which have come down from the “north” to produce wines in the area. The style of these wines spans a broad spectrum and tends to reflect the philosophy of each of the wineries behind them. We are proud though to be the first who committed to the region by acquiring a small plot containing historical old vines and field blends of varieties that we are just starting to understand .

What do you see as the future of this region?

Itata, in our opinion, has a very bright future. As I have mentioned there are few places where you can find such old vines, dry farmed, granite soils and unique grape varieties. The history of the place is just beginning to be rediscovered and the style of the wines – or the possibility which Itata offers to produce wines – are not found in in the northern regions of the country and, in our experience, in few places of the New World.  We feel we are still just scratching the surface, and learning about the potential of the area; there will be more to come.

Are there any other regions in the world that you think have the same feel as Itata?

Parts of the region resemble Galicia in Spain, whilst the fruity style of wines tend to remind one more of Beaujolais (the natural producers who work there) or perhaps even the new Languedoc. The wines are defined by their vibrant character and nerve.

They are wines that will make you smile.

Doug Wregg. Photographs courtesy of the author.