Devotees of wild food will be in seventh heaven here. Southern Chile has an abundance of edible berries, greenery, fungi, eggs and seafood, but of course you should not eat wild food until you have positively identified it. Here are a few of the tastier possibilities.
The barberry (Berberis spp) grows in great profusion in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego – particularly the box-leafed barberry (calafate; B. buxifolia) and holly-leafed barberry (michay; B. ilicifolia) – and the spiney bushes bear fruit similar to the blackcurrant or blueberry. In Patagonia there is a saying ‘Quien come el calafate vuelve por más’ or ‘Whoever eats the calafate berry will come back for more’, showing just how addictive this fruit can be. The berry ripens between January and March, and also happens to be a good laxative.
The wild strawberry or rainberry (frambuesa silvestre or frutilla (de Magallanes); Rubus geoides) grows across southern Chile, most abundantly in Tierra del Fuego. With its tiny lumps, it looks like a small raspberry but is the source of the modern cultivated strawberry. The lahueñe (or frutilla silvestre; Fragaria chiloensis) also produces reddish edible fruit but don’t confuse this with the nasty-tasting false strawberry (frutilla del diablo; Gunnera magellanica).
The Magellanic blackcurrant (parrilla de Magallanes; Ribes magellanicum) grows extensively in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, and is an effective laxative. The European blackberry (mora; Rubus spp) was introduced as hedging, and soon spread throughout the Lakes District, where there are masses of blackberries in March and April. The diddle-dee berry (sepisa; Empetrum rubrum), found across Tierra del Fuego, is rather bland compared with the rainberry. There are two types: the black berries are sweeter than the bright red ones.
The murtillas (Gaultheria caespitosa, G. pumila, Ugni molinae) have small red berries that make delicious jam. If you visit the Lakes District around Easter, you will almost certainly see people selling them from buckets at the roadside. Wild celery and cress grow in damp areas, sorrel in sunny meadows and mint everywhere. In damp areas of the Valdivian forest is the huge rhubarb-like nalca, which can be eaten in a similar way – peel with a knife and then stew the stalks.
The southern climate is ideal for fungi and there’s an amazing variety. The giant puffballs that are common in Torres del Paine National Park are very tasty: fried, mixed with soup, or thinly sliced and dried in the sun, after which they are as crunchy and tasty as crisps. Similar yellow-orange fungi (llao-llao or pan del indio; Cyttaria darwini) are found in Tierra del Fuego. They were a mainstay of the indigenous people, but are pretty tasteless.