On the beach, under the shadow of Pablo Neruda’s house at Isla Negra, we are foraging for sea strawberries: carpobrotus aequilaterus.
Inside the house is a collection of all things Chilean. There’s a fireplace engraved with lapis lazuli. There are seashells, ships inside of bottles, Mapuche woodcarvings. There’s a carved Kava Kava from Easter Island and pictures of waterfowl from Andean lakes. It’s an ode to the 2600-mile landscape.
I ask Rodolfo Guzmán, the chef of the Santiago restaurant Boragó, if Neruda ever foraged on this beach.
He’s not sure. Probably not, though I later found some reference of him gathering twigs and pine needles on the beach to roast mussels.
Called frutilla del mar locally, these sea strawberries, which have a sweet and slightly salty flavor, are some of the dozens of native plants that Boragó’s kitchen staff forage for on the beach at Isla Negra on Chile’s central coast. Photo by Nicholas Gill
Called frutilla del mar locally, the strawberries grow out of the black rocks and sand in large patches of a thick, green and red sea grass. They don’t look like traditional strawberries, but more like a crab claw. They are a little bit salty because of their proximity to the sea, but otherwise still taste like a strawberry. They take about 4-5 months to grow, but they are ripe for only about two weeks each year. It’s just about the end of the harvest season and some of the strawberries are already past their prime. Those ones, the mushy ones, are still tasty, but the sugar content is higher so they’re a bit too sweet. Guzmán and his team have already been here a few times this year and have gathered as many as they could.
“The more we pick this year,” he says, “the more that will grow next year.”
There’s not really a culture of eating these types of strawberries on Chile’s central coast. A few communities further south harvest them, though for the most part they are ignored for shiny red supermarket varieties. Guzmán, who works closely with the scientific and academic communities, regularly explores the entire country, plus Easter Island, looking for new products.
“There’s another (strawberry) in Magallenes that looks almost like a raspberry and grows on the ground, but it still tastes like a strawberry too.”
Most of the products are highly seasonal, only available for a few weeks a year and found in extremely remote, isolated locations. They work with rural foraging communities everywhere from the arid altiplano of the Atacama Desert to the wet and wild landscape of southern Patagonia to help supply the restaurant. The kitchen team also goes foraging twice a week to sites within a 150-kilometre radius of Santiago. That range provides them with the ability to collect plants at a variety of microclimates, from the high Andes to the coast.
Today we’re with Tommy de Olarte from Peru, Boragó’s head of research and development, and a young Taiwanese girl who arrived in Chile three days ago to be a stagiaire at the restaurant. Prior she was with Martín Berasategui in Spain and asked him for advice. He told her there’s this guy in Chile that she should really go see.
From the moment we left the car and walked the three minutes or so to the beach, in what is basically an empty lot, Guzmán points out seven or eight different edible plants and on the beach there are dozens more. What’s funny is that I’ve come here a handful of times to visit Neruda’s favorite house, the place where he and his wife Matilda are buried facing the sea, and walked along this very same beach, but I never noticed how alive it was.