Chile's Produce Pleases US Palates

South America trip reveals origin of wintertime fruits on supermarket shelves up North

IT'S winter in the United States and Canada, with a wind chill below zero at times, but supermarkets burst with fresh peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, blueberries, raspberries, and fresh, juicy grapes.

Today nearly all the seedless red and green grapes for the US and Canada during winter - when California and other orchards are dormant - come from Chile, where it is summertime.

Chile grows almost all of our winter nectarines, peaches, and plums, and it is a major source of apples, pears, and berries as well.

When orchards in the Northern Hemisphere are being put to bed for the winter, farmers in Chile are starting their late summer harvest. It seems only natural to benefit from the reverse of seasons, but Chile's export fruit industry is a recent phenomenon. Grapes have been grown in the north-central area of the country since the early days of the Spanish conquest, and in 1931 growers' cooperatives began to produce high-quality fruit.

Today fruit is grown on the fringe of the arid Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Food editors touring the country traveled 300 miles by plane from Santiago. Here the sky is intensely blue and the sun in the clear air is so brilliant we were urged to bring sunglasses.

With 300 cloudless days a year, high luminosity, and a clear atmosphere, the region is home to the largest astronomical observatory in the Southern Hemisphere, located at Toledo on a 7,000-foot peak overlooking the Elqui River Valley.

But the grapes are what we came to see, and the green patches of fruit against the backdrop of barren surrounding mountains is a spectacular sight. In the town of La Serena, we visited the farm of Guillermo Prohens, one of the early pioneers of irrigation techniques.

Several family members work in the vineyards and his son Rafael, one of four brothers, showed us the vineyards. There, grapes hung from the vines like clusters of jewels, and he explained the unconventional irrigation techniques that make it possible to grow these famous grapes in the desert.

"We export Thompson seedless, Flame seedless, Ribier, and Muscatel Rosada grapes," Rafael Prohens says. "Computers control the flow of irrigation through miles of subsurface canals. The farm is actually above a lake - about 30 feet below," he says. "Here there are also pimento trees that have stood untouched for centuries, and in the high valleys of the farm much of the land is untouched by time."

Prohens says that although in the United States, seedless grapes are favorites, other countries prefer those with seeds. He talks about the aroma of grapes and says that "in Italy, you close your eyes every time you eat a grape." US consumers prefer an even color in green grapes, while other cultures prize a green grape that has a tinge of rose-amber. @BODYTEXT =

T a luncheon at the Hernan Prohans country home, there are delicious river crayfish and avocado appetizers, followed by a favorite traditional Chilean dish, Pastel de choclo, a corn-and-meat casserole with hard-boiled eggs, olives, raisins, and a topping of corn that is slightly sweet. Dessert is a justly praised tropical fruit, the cherimoya.

While the country's Mediterranean climate is ideal for fruit growing, its icy, fresh streams and unpolluted lakes and bays are the source of another agricultural product: Atlantic salmon.

Launched in 1981 as a small, experimental venture, Chile's salmon-farming business has become a big business, providing jobs and prosperity to people in the southern or lakes region, although salmon is not a native fish of the country. The new industry also provides fresh Chilean salmon to markets worldwide.

High-running tides, fresh streams, and thousands of miles of bays, fjords, and inlets have made this South American country an aquaculture-farmer's paradise for salmon.

"We have the purest and cleanest cold-water environment for seafood production in the world," says Rodrigo Infante, marketing manager of the Association of Chilean Salmon Farmers. "Our natural landscape is most important to the salmon farming industry. It is one of the main reasons we have gone from an unknown source of farmed salmon to a world competitor in about 10 years," Infante said to food writers during a tour of Chile's aquaculture sites.

Salmon is farmed mainly in southern Chile, with the largest growing area on the eastern shore of Chiloe Island, an unspoiled, rugged, rolling farmland with thickets of bamboo, wild fuchsia, and other wildflowers.

Unlike any other region of Chile, it is reached by a pleasant ferry ride from Puerto Montt, a town with German architecture surrounded by mountain scenery and the snow-capped volcano, Osorno.

Chiloe island was isolated from commerce routes until 1853, when Puerto Montt was founded nearby. Along with the inhabitants' reliance on the sea, isolation greatly influenced the development of the Chiloe culture. Today the Chilotes still farm and fish to support their families, although many left to find jobs in more developed areas.

The salmon farming industry has helped to stem migration from the island by establishing a stable industry in this rural area. With the coming of aquaculture, many Chilotes found a natural source for applying their skills in new jobs.

T is said that there is no Chilote who does not own a boat. In this part of the world, tides can be extreme: 9 to 21 feet between ebb and high tide. This is an ideal condition for salmon farming and aquaculture, as the tides continuously oxygenate the seawater.

Salmoamerica, an international company with Latin American and US ownership, operates freshwater salmon trout hatcheries in Lake Chapo, near Puerto Montt, as well as the saltwater sea-farm site at Linao Bay in the northern part of Chiloe Island.

Thomas Kehler, director and general manager, greeted us with a guide to the boats to take us out to see salmon in huge pens. Mrs. Lia Kehler told us about the salmon dishes they planned for our luncheon. It began with a delicious Salmon Mousse, followed by Boneless Atlantic Salmon Fillets marinated in dill and prepared en papillote with fresh vegetables. There was a tossed green salad and buttered Chiloe potatoes.

Dessert was a Fruit Kuchen, which Lia Kehler explained is a traditional German dessert in southern Chile, where many dishes show the influence of German immigrants.

Once known only for its production of coho and chinook salmon, Chile is now known as a leader in the production of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). The harvest season is year-round for Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout.

From November through April, there is harvesting of Coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and salmon trout.

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