When José Luis Calfucura looks back on his childhood travels to the ancestral Mapuche heart of La Araucanía – a lush landscape of emerald lakes and swollen volcanoes in the south-central part of Chile – his memories often involve purple teeth.
The Mapuche have long known that these indigenous foods have special properties.
“The adults told us the children to go and find maqui berries just so they can laugh at the results, “he recalls.” After we ate them, we ended up with our whole face painted purple. “
As a child, the maqui was just a curiosity found near his parents’ hometown – something that native elders said would give you the energy you need to last the day. Now, as the most renowned Mapuche chef in the Chilean capital of Santiago, Calfucura has made maqui and other berries native to the southern cone of South America some of the main protagonists of his restaurant Amaia.
“We have maqui cakes, maqui pisco, we use it as a natural coloring in the bakery and we also make maqui mayonnaise that we put on fried fish or next to native potatoes,” he said. he explained, noting that the berry has a sweet flesh with a slightly bitter seed.
Calfucura is not the only one to appreciate this new endemic berry. It turns out that the reason his teeth turned purple as a child is because maqui is an exceptionally rich source of anthocyanins, a natural pigment and a powerful antioxidant. In fact, maqui berries contain one of the highest ORAC values (the most common method of measuring amounts of antioxidants) of any known fruit – higher than so-called “superfruits” like pomegranate. or açaí.
Of course, the Mapuche have known for a long time that these indigenous foods have special properties. Scientists now understand. The maqui is just one of more than two dozen Patagonian berries that they have started studying – and for good reason. One of the best-known berries, the strawberry, finds its origins here (what we eat today is a cross between the Virginia strawberry and the Chilean strawberry). The hope is that as more people learn about the potent properties of Patagonian berries, they might just find new homes on supermarket shelves outside of the region.
Of all the berries native to Patagonia, the maqui (Aristotelia chilensis), Murta (Ugni molinae) and calafate (Berberis microphylla) have received the most attention both for their distinct flavors and their potential health benefits. The juice of these mighty berries was like an ancient form of Red Bull used to fuel the mighty battles and expeditions of the Mapuche, Tehuelche, Selk’nam, and other indigenous groups.
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Visitors to popular Patagonian parks like Torres del Paine in Chile or Los Glaciares in Argentina, may be more familiar with the calafate, as the little blue bay is found widely along hiking trails. It is also deeply rooted in local folklore: legend has it that anyone who eats the bittersweet calafate berry will in the near future find themselves transported to the rugged landscapes of Patagonia. The story has its origins in a tale by the native Tehuelche, who inhabits the southern tip of the continent and believes that an ancestor turned into a Calafate bush to give the ancients the energy necessary to survive long journeys.
Murta, on the other hand, is a more aromatic and herbaceous fruit that can be found a little further north, mainly on the Chilean side of the Andes. From the same botanical family as the guava, it is actually closer in size and color to a cranberry. It is said that Queen Victoria was so enamored with this South American delicacy that she grew it in Cornwall in the 19th century especially for her table. These days, you’re more likely to find murta outside of South America in New Zealand, where it’s marketed as ‘New Zealand cranberry’, or in Australia, where it’s called. “Tazziberry”.
Murta and maqui are the star ingredients of Maqueo Sabores Étnicos, a wild fruit company based in Lago Maihue, a fjord-like lake embedded in the temperate rainforests of the Andean foothills near Futrono, Chile. This women-led Mapuche initiative is led by the mother-daughter team Gladis Lefin and Claudia Manquepillan.
“I was born here, my mother was born here and her mother was born here,” Manquepillan said. “In each generation, these berries have been a big part of our life.”
Because her ancestors didn’t have refrigerators, she says they would preserve the berries found in the surrounding forests by making jams, dehydrating them in the sun, or steeping them in aguardiente alcohol. Today, Manquepillan and his mother freeze-dry the berries into snacks and powders, squeeze them into juice, cook them into jams and ferment them into syrupy liquor. They offer 17 products in total, but continue to harvest the berries sustainably as a community, just like in generations past.
“We’re doing what we’ve always done for the home, but on a much larger scale,” she said.
Each season they collect 5,000 kg of maqui, as well as 2,000 kg combined of murta and another local berry called arrayán (Luma apiculata), which Manquepillan says is relatively tasteless until you cook it, at which point it turns extremely grassy – “almost like eucalyptus”. The 27 families who help with each harvest then celebrate by drinking hookah, a drink obtained by fermentation of berries.
“Our ancestors also used these berries as a natural dye for textiles and in medicines,” she said. “The fruit can help with stomach ulcers, and you can grind the leaves into a paste to heal wounds or for dental problems.” Berries like maqui have also been used in the past for their antiseptic, antidiarrhoeal and antipyretic (anti-fever) properties. It turns out that native fruits can have even more uses.
Legend has it that anyone who eats the bittersweet calafate berry will find themselves transported to the rugged landscapes of Patagonia.
Researchers Guillermo Schmeda Hirschmann and Cristina Theoduloz, both from the University of Talca in Chile, first looked at regional berries by studying native strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis), which come in red and white grape varieties. These studies turned into news on Chilean raspberries (Rubus geoides) and other wild fruits with more common cousins, including native currants (Ribes magellanicum).
The husband and wife team – she’s a biologist and a chemist – traveled across Patagonia from their home in Talca to the far corners of Tierra del Fuego in search of forgotten berries, many of which disappear alongside forests. native.
Théoduloz has devoted so much of her life to these berries that she describes them as a sommelier might talk about wine. “Calafate is sweet and a bit astringent with a more acidic taste,” she says. “If we’re talking about native raspberry, it’s very similar to commercial raspberry, but it’s more acidic with a stronger aroma, almost like a scent… If you compare that to murta, it’s aroma and flavor. completely different; there is nothing else in South America that tastes like it. “
Hirschmann says that beyond great taste, the substances in many of these native berries are able to inhibit enzymes associated with increased sugars or lipids, making them useful for people with metabolic diseases. like diabetes, high blood pressure or chronic inflammation.
“If you eat these berries, you will reduce the amount of sugar that will be absorbed by your organs,” he said. “The same thing happens with lipids. Some of the compounds in berries reduce the amount of oxidative stress associated with eating red meat.”
Research by Theoduloz and Hirschmann has also shown that some of these berries have anti-inflammatory effects, while other researchers have found that they may help in the management of cardiovascular disease and respiratory disorders, as well as fight against skin aging.
Despite all this recent research, there remains little interest in marketing endemic berries, despite the fact that Chile (which has the largest quantity) is the largest exporter of fruits in the southern hemisphere.
For now, the only berries you’re likely to find outside of the region are maqui, murta, and calafate. Maqui is marketed in teas, powders, dietary supplements, and anti-aging cosmetics. Calafate is also available as powdered supplements, as well as jams. Murta is sold as a fresh fruit in Australia and New Zealand, and is a key botanical (alongside maqui) in the Patagonian spirit of gin Trakal, available in the United States and Canada.
Of course, there are many other wild berries that could be just as valuable.
“The question is, what do we want?” Hirschmann asked. “Do we want to develop our own fruits and offer them to the world, or do we want to produce here for the rest of the world what others are asking for?”
Ancient eats is a BBC Travel series that puts fashionable foods back in their ‘authentic’ context, exploring the cultures and traditions in which they were born.
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