Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chiloe’s Giant Garlic/Ajo Chilote

The island of Chiloe, in southern Chile, has never been known as an agricultural paradise.   Writing in the 1890s, Carlos de Beranger explained:

This province is not one of the most fertile and one speculates that the reasons are found in part in the climate and soil, but neither is it cultivated as it should be as they do not know the use of the plow; nor is it easy to introduce it because the ancient customs are held with conviction.  Neglect also contributes to the slight abundance, because the crops are limited to the absolutely necessary, and they never are enough.  … Never the less the potato harvest is numerous and it would be very abundant if they were to apply themselves to work and to plant more. [1]

Nor was Charles Darwin especially enchanted with the island when he visited in 1834-5.

I do not suppose any part of the world is so rainy as the Island of Chiloe.  …In winter the climate is detestable and is summer it is only a little better. I should think that there are few parts of the world, within the temperate regions, where so much rain falls. The winds are very boisterous and the sky almost always clouded:  to have a week of fine weather is something wonderful. [2]

My experiences in Chiloe, a total of about three weeks in the summers of 2005, ‘07 and ’08, were very different: beautiful weather with almost no rain, “something wonderful,” but perhaps I was just lucky. 

At any rate, a little background may be useful.  Chiloe is at the southern end of Chile’s central valley, where it drops below sea level and the uplands become an archipelago reaching south another 1000 miles or so.  Aboriginal Chiloé had a population of mobile, nonagricultural, canoe Indians, the Chono; and also a population of fishers and potato cultivators, the Huilliché—a Mapuche culture.  The Spanish arrived in 1567, the Jesuits set up missions to Christianize the Indians, and the island has developed more or less in isolation from the rest of Chile and the world ever since.  A mestizo culture with an involved mythology, and music reminiscent of the Celts’ developed around potato cultivation, sheep raising, fishing and shellfish gathering. The island is still largely rural and traditional, but tourism is increasingly important as Chiloe’s wooden churches, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its temperate rain forest draw lots of Chilean and international tourists.

 And the garlic?
In spite of its climate and soils, Chiloé produces some of the world’s best potatoes and is the origin of most potato varieties cultivated in Europe and North America.  And it has Ajo chilote, Chiloé  garlic (AKA great headed garlic or elephant garlic). Individual heads may weigh up to a pound. That it is botanically in the leek family (Allium ampeloprasum) rather than being a true garlic Allium sativum) is of little consequence.  It tastes like garlic, though it is milder and is claimed not to give you garlic breath. It can be used where ever you would use regular garlic, but is especially good for dishes that should have a rich sweet garlic taste, with little or no “bite”  like garlic mashed potatoes, roast garlic, garlic chicken, etc.

 Photo: Canal 13

Not much is known about the origins of great headed garlic. Its Chilean promoters say it has been “present in the province of Chiloé since time immemorial, and its cultivation has always been associated with the island.”[3]  True perhaps, if “immemorial” means  “as long as anyone remembers,” but it is not native.  Wild strains of Allium ampeloprasum¸ the ancestor of elephant garlic and leeks, are native to the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East.  In its region of origin it is cultivated in North West India, southern Russia and Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Former Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Romania, France, Portugal, Spain, United Kingdom  and has been introduced in the US, and of course, in Chile.[4] 

In the US:
Giant or elephant garlic was re-discovered in 1941 by an American nurseryman, Jim Nicholls, who found it growing wild in the gardens of an abandoned settlement called Scio in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Scio had been colonized by immigrants from the eastern Balkans in the 1860s. The "herb", as it was regarded locally, was called Scio's Giant Garlic.  Nicholls collected about 12 lbs of it and bred selectively from the larger cloves. Over a period of twelve years he established a large, very hardy, disease free strain which he started selling commercially in 1953, having registered the name 'Elephant Garlic'.[5]

But how and when it got to Chile is unknown.  The earliest mention I found was in a report of Chiloe’s  Intendente (administrator) Hurtado in 1783, 200 or so years after colonization.  He reported production of 160 fanegas (around 19, 500 lbs.) of garlic[6] that year, around ¾ lb. per person for the island’s population of about 26,000.[7]

What happened between 1567 and 1783 that could explain the introduction of this unusual crop?  Could ajo chiloté have come with the Spanish colonists?  The original Spanish encomienderos (conquistadors, given grants of land and Indians to serve them) were mainly from Galicia—a Spanish province known for its great fondness for garlic.  Did giant garlic come to the new world with the Galicians, and take root only in Chiloe?  Seems unlikely …but so do all the other alternatives.

Ajo Chilote recipes

When I asked a market vender in Chiloé what dishes she cooked with garlic, she replied “Everything!”  But there isn’t much garlic in Chiloé restaurant cooking and the classic chilote dishes, curanto (like a clam bake) and roast lamb on a spit include no garlic.  But some traditional Chilote recipes use ajo chilote.  Here are three:

Cocimiento Chilote  by Omega

4 lbs clams
4 lbs mussels
6 chicken thighs
6 lbs pork ribs
2 lbs sausages
2 lbs potatoes
Green and red bell peppers
Chili or Merkén
White wine (inexpensive)
Chiloe garlic to taste
Oregano, Cumin

Sauté onions, garlic and peppers in a large pot and add the pieces of chicken. Brown lightly and then add the pork ribs (in pieces), the sausages, the shellfish (with clean shells) and the potatoes and season with cumin, oregano, merkén, pepper and salt. Add wine a little at a time and simmer for an hour. Serve in of earthenware bowls (greda) to hold the heat.

Cancato Chilote (Chiloe stuffed fish)

This dish was traditionally made with sierra, as in the photo, but is now frequently made with salmon. 
        1 Sierra or salmon, 6-8 lbs.
        1 Chorizo or other sausage
        2 Lemons, one sliced, one juiced
        2 Onions, sliced
        2 Tomatoes, sliced
        ½ lb. mild cheese in slices
        ½ cup white wine
        1 clove Chiloe garlic, sliced
         Salt and pepper
         Vegetable oil

Clean fish, remove head, tail and fins and split along the spine without cutting through the back and open like a book. Remove spine and all other bones. Season both sides with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Sauté onion and garlic in vegetable oil until softened. Layer fish with onions and garlic, tomato, cheese, chorizo, and lemon slices.  Tie and place on double thickness of aluminum foil. Pour wine over fish, wrap securely in foil and grill over medium charcoal fire (or in 425° F. oven) for 10 minutes per inch of thickness or until the center reaches 140° F.  

Cazuela de Espinazo de Cordero con Cochayuyo

(Lamb backbone cazuela with alga)

You may have to be in Chile to make this one.  The recipe comes directly from Chiloe, in English.

3 lbs of mutton backbone [or lamb with bones]
Chiloé Garlic
Oregano, chopped parsley
2 carrots
1 bowl of fresh yellow peas
1 bowl of chopped green beans
½ cup of rice
12 potatoes
Small bunch of chopped seaweed [Cochayuyo]

Fry the meat with salt and garlic then add 4 liters of boiling water. Add and boil all the remaining ingredients. Before serving sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Garlic goes Global

Chile’s Institute for Agricultural Development (Instituto de Desarrollo Agropecuario, INDAP) has encouraged and sponsored development of export markets for a number of traditional products of rural Chile, now including garlic paste from Chiloé. It is not marketed in Chile, where the taste for garlic is “moderate” (see “Do Chileans eat chili?”), but in areas such as New York, Barcelona and Toronto “where consumption is great.”[8]  Here is a little of the publicity of one of the producers, Sabor Chilote (Chiloe Taste): 

Chiloe Garlic Pastes

The exotic artisanal products of “Sabor Chilote” originate in the magic and mythic Island of Chiloé. Gateway to Patagonia in the south Pacific, this refuge of native forests delivers to Ajo Chilote all its purity, aroma, and unique soft gingery flavor, with a wide range of uses in cold and hot dishes.


“Chiloe garlic and olive paste,” ideal to serve as a table spreads, in salad dressings and to improve cocktail appetizers.

“Chiloe Pure Garlic Paste,” especially to season all types of meats, fish, salads and soups.

“Spicy Chiloé Garlic Paste – Merkén,” is an exquisite option to give flavor to your stews and home made dishes, to season or accompany with a balanced spiciness that will improve all your recipes.

“Special Recipe Chiloé Garlic Paste - Pebre” ideal to accompany vegetables and grilled meats, add personality to cold sauces and/or accompany cold or hot dishes. It is an indispensible product for the traditional cuisine.

“Chiloé Garlic Paste-Honey”, especially for pork, sauces, vegetables, sweet and sour dishes, and dough.


Chiloé Garlic or “Ajo Blandino” (Allium ampeloprasum), is a garlic known for its positive effects of health, traditionally used to control blood pressure and heart disease, as an antibiotic to improve bronchitis and colds, and accordion to the oldest, it is good for picking up the sexual pace.

[1] Urbina Burgos, Rodolfo.  1983.  La Periferia Meridional Indiana: Chiloé en el Siglo XVIII.  Valparaíso, Chile: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso. P. 39 On line at
[2] Wilson, Mary F. & Juan J. Armesto.  1996. The natural history of Chiloé: on Darwin’s trail. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 69:149-161. on line at
[3] Anonymous. 2006.  “Ajo chilote certificado para todos” Chile Potencia Alimentaria. In line at
[4] Hanet, Peter.  1991.  Some lesser-known culinary alliums.  Herbalist 57:37-51. and TaxonAllium ampeloprasum L. var. ampeloprasum.  Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). on line at
[5] Simpson, Colin.   Garlic and Elephant Garlic.  National Vegtable Society.  On line at
[6] Relacion Jiografica  The account says only “garlic;” I am assuming that it is elephant garlic.
[7] Chiloé y los Chilotes.  Estimates for US annual garlic consumption were 2.6 lbs. per person in 2004, Korea’s consumption is estimated at 22 lbs.


  1. natural vitamin sources is to eat garlic to taste great, even better than the antibiotics he is my miracle swine flu.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Best wishes to you in Istanbul (?).



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