Sunday, April 10, 2011

Food in South America

One of the posts I never got around to writing whilst away was on the subject of food. Like anyone doing a significant amount of exercise a day, we needed a large amount of food to keep going. One of the main differences we found between this tour and previous, shorter, journeys was the amount of food we needed. We always joke that we go to work for a rest and recover between holidays, but it is probably more true than we realised. We suffered in the first few weeks for lack of food, but once we started to eat (and sleep) more, things improved. On shorter trips we probably run a food debt, which we recover when we return. We would normally tour during summer when we are in a better fat burning condition too, which would help. We started this tour having done very little cycling for a few weeks due to the Christmas break and bad weather, and combined with the very tough first few days we ran into trouble very quickly.

A significant problem was that we weren't eating enough protein and so weren't recovering from each days cycling. Getting enough protein was one of the biggest challenges we faced in terms of food. While I love cheese, eating it at every meal does become a little tiresome, and in hot weather it can become quite manky after a few days in a pannier bag. Tins of tuna were quite widely available, but as I don't eat fish that wasn't a lot of help. Tins of meat or pulses were only found in some very large supermarkets, and are bulky and heavy. We found dried pulses in supermarkets, but we only used them when we had plenty of time, water and fuel for soaking and cooking them. In future I might take a rigid screw top container which could be used to soak pulses, and used to carry leftovers (if there are any). We rarely had leftovers on this trip, mostly due to the fact that our pans weren't large enough to accommodate them! Something else to change before our next trip.

The availability and range of food available varied hugely on the trip and was dependent on geography as well as population density. Region XII of Chile is effectively cut off from mainland Chile, and all supplies generally arrive on the weekly supply boat. This means that 'fresh' food is anything but! I'm fairly certain that the lettuces I saw in Puerto Natales had been cut for more than a fortnight. Not surprisingly, there weren't many salad options in the restaurants! As all the shops were stocked from the same supply ship, the only real difference between shops was price. We didn't ever get to go into the largest supermarket in town though (it was closed all the time we were there, probably due to the civil disturbances), so it's possible that they had a wider selection of food, although it wouldn't be any fresher. The quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables available in shops didn't really start to improve until we reached the fruit growing region around Chile Chico, and even there it was very variable. When it was good, it was very good though!

We ate a lot of bread on the trip, eating it most days for breakfast and lunch. After the first week, we bought chilli sauce and sachets of mayonnaise to help keep the sandwiches interesting. Having an avocado or tomato handy also helped. Bread is generally sold by weight in both Chile and Argentina. In Chile bread is mostly found in the form of flat, circular baps whereas in Argentina it is more likely to be longer rolls, and generally fresher tasting. Further north, loaves were becoming more popular, especially at campsites. Bread was sold in some shops, but was not available in some smaller supermarkets or shops. If the town/village shop didn't stock bread, they could point out where it could be bought. Often, this was a normal house with a sign outside. Fresh bread was generally not available until about 10am, but rolls from the previous day were generally available before then (if the shop was open) .

In smaller communities it was rare for shops to advertise their opening hours. Early in the day, this could make things feel a little awkward as some shops would keep the door permanently locked, and you had to ring the door bell to be let in. In a country where a significant proportion of the population doesn't seem to get out of bed before 10am (especially at weekends), ringing a doorbell at 9:30am could seem cruel.
The smallest shops would just have biscuits and soft drinks for sale, but it was rare to not to find a shop selling the basic necessities in the main centre of habitation in an area. It did take some finding sometimes though.

Most people we met on the road seemed to look at what was available in a shop and just buy what was necessary to get them to the next shop. I assume they would also carry emergency rations. We found it difficult to plan exact meals days in advance, and so took a different approach, although it did mean carrying more food overall. We effectively used the our dried food store as you would a cupboard at home. This gave us the flexibility to choose what we wanted to eat on a particular day based on what fresh items were available, if any, and vary the quantity according to how hungry we were. Adding in whatever fresh food we could find along the way helped keep our menu interesting.

Two of the serious addictions we returned to the UK with were for soft drinks, and mayonnaise. In both Chile and Argentina small bags of mayonnaise were available in all but the smallest of shops. It was generally used in our savoury sandwiches at breakfast and lunch, and occasionally added to our evening meal. The packets were relatively small compared to a standard jar, but it was quite a challenge to finish the packet before the hot weather got it. The soft drink addiction was mostly formed while we were in Argentina. The tap water was drinkable (and treated) almost everywhere in Chile. In Argentina it was less good, especially as we got further north. At campsites in the south, it was common for the water to be taken directly from rivers or streams, without treatment. We got into the habit of filtering water whenever we were dubious about its origins. Soft fizzy drinks were very widely available, and so we began drinking less water and more coke /fanta/local equivalents. In the UK, the only bottled soft drink I tend to drink is lucosade sport, and only when cycling. I do drink squash too. In the south, where there was plenty of water, we used the south American alternative to squash/cordial - sachets of powder in an enormous variety of fruit flavours to mix with cold water.

One of the things that the locals found odd about our camping habits, was that we didn't always light a fire. All campsites we visited had a fogon (fire ring) for every pitch. In both Chile and Argentina, the assado (BBQ) was very important, and much more than a cooking device. We saw groups lighting fires for breakfast, lunch, onces (tea time), evening meal and for company at night. It seems common for for families and friends to regularly gather around the BBQ. Very sociable, and good fun if you are invited along too!