Few things are more distressing or funny than watching a fat man labor up a steep hill. And at the end of February of this year, at the height of the Chilean summer, when temperatures in Santiago were in the mid-90s, I was that fat man.
I was dragging myself up Cerro San Cristobal, the tall hill with the statue of the Virgin Mary on the top, because I had foolishly agreed to accompany two dozen 19 and 20 year olds to Torres del Paine, a trip that would include, I had been told, an 18-mile hike into the mountains of Patagonia. I was thus preparing myself by taking long daily walks–five or more miles–through Santiago, walks punctuated by stops at various picadas and fuentes de soda for nourishment and refreshment, usually in the form of a lomito italiano and a fanschopp or three.
The reason I was flailing up the side of San Cristobal on that particular Saturday, five days before departure, was that I had concluded that long sidewalk strolls in the flatland neighborhoods of Santiago were insufficient preparation for mountain climbing. And so there I was, mid-morning, two-thirds of the way up, out-of-breath, red-faced and sweating like a prize sow. And the worst part was that I was not alone. Cerro San Cristobal was packed with bikers, walkers, picnickers, and tourists, and because of it, I was being repeatedly accosted.
“Sir. Are you okay,” asked a park volunteer in a green vest, “Do you need help? A drink of water?” He held out a plastic bottle.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Two hundred paces up the hill…
“Do you need assistance, Sir,” said a young woman with a clipboard, “there’s a bench right there.”
I waved her off with a grunt.
Another three minutes trudge and a pair of Carabineros in a patrol car slowed to crawl next to me, both of them gawping. Just when I was sure they were going to ask if I needed a ride to the hospital, the one in the passenger seat said something and pointed to the front, and they accelerated away. I suspect they thought I was going to die, and were worried they would have to lift my body into the ambulance.
My biggest mistake was thinking that on the way up Cerro San Cristobal there would be someone selling mote con huesillos, a motero, every few hundred feet. I had not packed along any water. My entire rehydration plan was based on mote con huesillos. I expected that, like everywhere else in Santiago, mote con huesillos would be available for purchase from a cart at frequent intervals.
I was wrong.
Mote con huesillo is one of those things that doesn’t knock you out, so much as sneak up on your blindside and grab you in a bear hug.
When you first encounter mote con huesillos, on your first trip to Chile, you don’t think you will like it, but you order it anyway because everyone around you has one in their hands. And when you try it, you notice the intense sweetness, but not much else. Yet, by the end of the second week, you’ve ordered it several times and can’t stop thinking about it, hoping you’ll have have another one soon.
Mote con huesillo is the most peculiar libation since bubble tea. It’s a sweet syrup of caramelized sugar water, served ice cold, with a pair of rehydrated dried peaches and a fistful of mote, wheat slow-cooked in an alkaline solution, i.e. nixtamalized.
It sounds like something concocted by German naturists as a breakfast food except it’s sweeter than honey, more filling than spatzel, and more refreshing than anything found in Germany that isn’t served in a festive, one-liter stein.
As the advertisement says, mote con huesillo is the “drink of Chile”, a fact that may be disputed by the patrons of the pisco sour, but not by me, and not by hundreds of thousands of Santiagueños who support a motero on every corner. “More Chilean than mote con huesillos,” is a popular saying, the equivalent of “more American than apple pie,” and liking it is the ultimate test of chilenidad, of Chileanness.
The story of how mote con huesillos found its way into the Chilean diet starts, as do so many of these stories, with the Mapuche, the native people who held off the Spanish and remained independent of colonial control for nearly 300 years.
As I said in a previous post, the Mapuche were one of the few New World peoples who readily adopted Old World crops. In 1544, Pedro Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who founded Santiago distributed a large amount of wheat seed to the caciques of the Mapuche as part of the effort to pacify and civilize the natives. The Mapuche planted it and loved it. Wheat grew especially well in the soil and climate of the Mapuche territory, and added a dimension of flavor and food security to the Mapuche diets. It provided enough extra food that it actually enabled the Mapuche to better resist the Spanish. So, it is with some justification that the Chilean historian José Bengoa calls the Mapuche “la gente del trigo“, the “Wheat People”, which as far as it goes is a half-accurate description of a badass people who came very close to defeating the Spanish.
Oddly, although wheat became a major staple in the Mapuche diet, it was not usually served in the form of bread. That seemed to come to them later, in the late-17th century, likely introduced by Spanish and creole women who had been captured by the Mapuche. One famous example of such a captive is Isabel Vivar y Castro who was captured in 1633 and made the wife of the Mapuche cacique Curivilú. Two years later, she gave birth to his son, Alejandro. A few years after that and Isabel and Alejo were rescued by the Spanish and taken back to Concepción, where Isabel was ostracized for having been the wife of an indio, and Alejo for being a mestizo. Her response was to become a nun, and to give the boy to the Franciscans to raise. He grew to adulthood, joined the Spanish army as an arquebuser, was denied promotion because he was a mestizo and deserted, returning home to his father. Once back in Araucanía, Alejo became an important war chief, a toqui, introducing up-to-date Spanish military techniques and leading an army that destroyed Spanish forts and massacred settlements. In 1660 he was killed by his two native wives for getting drunk after a victory and raping a captive white woman.
So, bread arrived late and was mostly enjoyed by the chiefs, who were most likely to have captive white women around the camp. Early European and Chilean visitors, both voluntary and involuntary, rarely mentioned it in their accounts of Mapuche meals until the 18th century. Instead of bread, the Mapuche enjoyed their wheat as mürke, or mulke, toasted wheat ground into a flour, coarse or fine, and then made into a gruel called ulpo, which is mixed with any variety of liquid, from honey to milk to water to jam, and is served hot or cold.
The way the Mapuche prepared wheat was the same way they prepared maize: toasted over a fire and milled on a stone mortar with a stone pestle. And, if you’re toasting wheat the same way you’re toasting corn, why not also slow-cook it in a pot filled with wood ashes? Although, wheat flour, unlike unnixtamalized corn meal, has no problem making a dough, nor is it deficient in niacin or protein. But, if you nixtamalize wheat the result is a plump bit of chewy goodness, not unlike pearled barley or bulgar wheat. It can be added to stews and soups to provide more body and extend the dish cheaply, or mixed with green beans as porotos con mote, or with potatoes in papas con mote.
By the 19th century, moteros, the sellers of mote, were a fixture in Santiago, with a large number of them congregating in the Barrio Mapocho around the Cal y Canto bridge, near the present-day Mercado Central. There, near the river, they had ready access to water, a necessity as the production of mote required a great deal of it. Their technique for processing wheat into mote would have been exactly the same as shown in the video below (except for the plastic buckets), where Señora Herminda Diaz Riquelme of Los Sauces in the Araucanía Region (old Mapuche territory) makes artisanal mote in the old fashioned way, to sell, so as to pay the school fees for her seven children.
At 0:43, you can see Sra. Diaz R. sifting wood ashes, the key ingredient in the alkaline solution that nixtamalizes the wheat. The last half of the video is devoted to the extensive washing of the mote.
Another major agricultural product of colonial Chile was dried peaches, huesillos, which were mentioned in various sources as early as the 17th century, and were one of the items regularly exported to the more opulent colonial city of Lima, Peru.
The real conundrum for food historians of Chile is when mote met huesillos, the Chilean version of who got chocolate in my peanut butter. The best guess is that mote con huesillos was something cooked up in the late 19th century, in Santiago, as a summertime refreshment for city dwellers. If your Spanish is decent, there’s a good consideration of the problem at the blog Urbatorium. If your Spanish isn’t, then go read Eating Chilean written by a retired American professor of anthropology.
However it got together, by the second decade of the 20th century, mote con huesillos was well established, as evidenced by this postcard from 1915:
That gawping look on the faces of the boy and the man on the far right of the photo above, that’s exactly how the Carabineros regarded me as I trudged my way to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, as a curiosity that might at any instant turn into something unpleasant and dangerous.
It was my fault I hadn’t brought any water on my hike up San Cristobal. I thought it likely that there would be moteros all along the way, dispensing their sugary Balm of Gilead to the needy. But also because the best place in the world to have a mote con huesillos when you’re thirsty, or not, is at the top of Cerro San Cristobal.
In my mind, Cerro San Cristobal and mote con huesillos go together like dried peaches and nixtamalized wheat.
At the top of San Cristobal, after you get off the funicular, but before you head up the flight of stairs to the base of the Virgin Mary statue, is a patio with a half dozen stands selling souvenirs, snacks, drinks, and mote con huesillos. Buy a mote con huesillos, go to the edge of the patio, sit on the wall, and gaze at the city spread out beneath you. It’s a view that will reward you many times over, and a mote con huesillos is the best thing to drink while you look at it.
But, whatever else you do, take the funicular up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. Take the funicular!