It takes an adventurous spirit to explore the wilds of Patagonia, and for some that can also refer to the food. When it comes to Patagonia food, meat and seafood are on the menu in a big way. And one of the most traditional dishes is Cordero al Palo, also known as Asado al Palo. There are several translations that refer to the method of preparation where the lamb is stretched across an iron cross. It's traditional, it's delicious, and eating it here - prepared this way - will forever change your mind about eating lamb.
Cordero al Palo in Torres del Paine
I giggled remembering that line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding as we sat in Patagonia devouring the lamb in front of us. It was Friday night at Hotel Las Torres, and our last evening at the beautiful ranch in Torres del Paine National Park where we were staying. It was Argentinian Lamb Night even though we were in Chile. We'd been watching the chefs prepare it that afternoon over an open fire pit outside on the lawn. Generally, I'm a pasta/veggie/light meat kinda girl, but here I was in lamb heaven.
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I never ate lamb as a kid. We didn't have a spit on the front lawn or out back, or even an Italian version of Aunt Voula who insisted on making lamb for the family vegetarian. It was just something my family never had for dinner that I remember - and trust me, as a kid you remember dinner, especially if you're having something new. When I was younger and newly married, my husband found I'd never had lamb and offered to make it one night for dinner. I thought sure, why not - how bad could it be? Suffice it to say my first bite was my last. It was awful. Putrid. Distinct. The unusual taste in my mouth couldn't be washed out fast enough and no amount of mint jelly did the trick.
Over the years with our growing consciousness of our food sources, not to mention the greater care taken to cut and prepare the food we eat - thank you Food Network - the taste of lamb has changed considerably. Have you noticed that? Some time around the millennium, lamb lollipops burst onto the food scene as the new party It food. And they were delicious! When did this happen?
So when we traveled to Patagonia for the first time, I knew there would be lamb on the menu, the traditional Argentinian-style preparation on the iron cross that's world-renowned. It's one of the most authentic and traditional foods of Chile every foodie should try, and I was excited to do just that.
Lamb to the Post
In Chilean Patagonia they call it Cordero al Palo, sometimes Asado al Palo - "lamb to the post" - the whole slow-roasted lamb that is splayed open and stretched on an iron cross or rack. The lamb is roasted vertically on a wood fire allowing it to cook evenly and the juices to continually baste the meat as any excess fat drips off.
The meat is usually accompanied with pebre, a local condiment similar to chimichurri - made from a combination of onions, tomatoes, herbs, garlic, olive oil, hot peppers, and red wine - though the recipe seems to be unique to every chef you talk to.
The whole preparation lasts around 5 hours and the lamb is kept moist with its own juices and brushed occasionally with a warm water, salt, and garlic clove mixture called salmuera.
So how was it?
In a word, sublime. The lamb was tender, perfectly seasoned, and very mild with no hint of the odd flavor I'd tasted twenty years earlier. It was much less game-y than you might think, and I savored every juicy bite.
The only thing that may have made this meal any better might be enjoying it right from a fire on the open Patagonian range served up by a rugged and handsome Chilean baqueano, and drinking Yerba mate with friends. But then my homemade mint ice cream - the perfect ending to that meal - most certainly would have melted.
Where to Stay in Torres del Paine National Park
Hotel Las Torres
Hotel Las Torres is a beautiful ranch-style hotel with an ideal location in the middle of the Torres del Paine National Park. This is the place to experience Asado al Palo and the food culture of Patagonia, from the outdoor rack preparation to the plate service right from the indoor open-flame fire. The Hotel Las Torres can help craft a unique stay in the heart of Torres del Paine. Check rates and availability.
Have you tried authentic lamb dishes in Chile or Argentina?