Friday, July 29, 2011

Chilean Lamb

Per capita consumption of lamb in Chile is
 exceedingly low.  It’s around a half a kilo per
person per year, even less than horse meat.  
Hardy Avilés, “Cordero todo el Año

I wonder why.  It’s not the geography or climate; Chile produced around 3.4 million sheep in 2005, roughly the same number as pigs.  But Chileans ate around 22.5 kg of pork, and less than a half kilo of lamb.  Chile produces sheep, but exports them. Somebody else eats them.[1] 

Chilean huasos in wool ponchos with sheep, by Claudio Gay

Maybe history can tell us why.

The Spaniards who colonized Chile came from a nation of sheep.  From the 12th to the 16th century wool from Merino sheep was a major source of Spanish wealth, and lamb (or mutton[2]) was the major meat in the diet. Only Christians ate pork, and oxen were work animals, slaughtered mainly when old or sick. (Beef consumption remained low until the mid 20th century and Spaniards eat less beef than anyone else in Europe.[3])  But everyone, Christians, Jews and Muslims, ate lamb.

So it is unsurprising that the sheep, a sturdy breed called churras, came to the Americas early, brought by Columbus in 1493. From their arrival in the Antilles sheep were introduced into the other Spanish colonies, reaching Mexico by 1518, Peru by about 1530[4] and Chile in 1540 with Pedro de Valdivia.[5]   They prospered. In 1614 a remarkable 623,825 sheep (along with 323,956 goats, 39,000 cattle, and 4,278 horses) were reported to be in the district of Santiago.[6]

As in Spain, their meat was central to the diet; sometimes in great quantities:  Pereira Salas notes that one Captain Martín de Ibarra “ate at one sitting a leg of roast leg of lamb, a boiled hen, two one-pound loaves of bread, and for dessert a large plate of fruit.” [7]   Sheep, and lamb consumption, continued to prosper in the 18th century.  Writing in the 1780s, Juan Ignacio Molino found that:
Sheep transported from Spain have lost nothing in respect to size or wool, which remains long, fine and of a singular whiteness. Each sheep annually produces from ten to fifteen pounds.  The meat of castrated lambs is of exquisite flavor and is often preferred to that of calves. [8]
But that view was not universal. Writing of his experiences in the 1820s, British botanist and engineer, John Miers was less enthusiastic[9]:

As usual with topics of 19th century Chilean agriculture, the most complete discussion is from Claudio Gay, the French botanist, naturalist and illustrator who wrote prolifically and authoritatively based on his research in the mid 19th century.  He found Chilean sheep to have diverged significantly from their Spanish ancestors, due to harsh conditions and lack of selective breeding, 
….but nevertheless as a whole they exhibit characteristics that are extremely favorable. Of medium size, closer to small than large, the are lively, nervous, with a slightly long head and a more or less cylindrical body,  covered with short wool, curly, white and sometimes black. (p. 451)

Gay’s discussion and data suggest that lamb was the major meat in rural Chile, and that it was even the original filling for pastel de choclo, (p.162), but that lamb consumption declined through time. 
Lamb consumption in Chile is quite large, but less than in earlier times when mid way through the 18th century the department of Maule with its scarce population slaughtered no less than 150,000 lambs a year.  This consumption was and continues to be the basic animal food for the peasants, but especially for hacienda owners, who eat lamb alternately with jerked beef and poultry.  (p. 462) 
In general the peasants and even the families of medium fortune in the small cities eat little more than beans, peas, etc. and rarely meat, only one day a week at most.  The author of the estadistica de Maule [ca. 1830] calculates that each individual eats 51 lbs of meat a year:  5 lbs of beef, 30 ¼ of mutton and 15 ¾ of pork. (p. 374).
 Urban Chileans ate more meat than their rural counterparts, but here too lamb became less important through time. Based on slaughterhouse data, Santiago consumed approximately 40,000 sheep in 1773; 70,000 in 1842; 90,000 in 1859; and 105,000 in 1876.  In 1773 Santígüenos consumed about equal quantities of lamb and beef, while in 1842 and 1859 they ate approximately three times more beef than lamb; and in 1876 about 3.4 times more beef than lamb. Gay estimates that in 1858 Santiago’s annual meat consumption was about 49 kg (108 lbs.) per person, presumably including about 12 kg. (26 lbs.) of lamb.[10]

Southern Lamb

From the Rio Bio Bio River, some 300 miles south of Santiago, to Chiloé Island, lamb was more important than beef.  On the mainland, controlled by the Mapuche until the 1880s, abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that lamb was the major meat eaten.  German visitor Paul Truetler, who traveled among the Mapuche in the 1850s, speaks of the ”inevitable sheep” killed upon the arrival of visitors [11] and Edmund Reuel Smith, of the US Naval Astronomical Expedition, who visited Mapuche-controlled southern Chile in 1853  spoke very favorably of the mutton he ate there, usually boiled with a rich broth. [12]

Sheep arrived in Chiloé in 1568, but the wet forested landscape was far from ideal for their propagation.  Never the less, by 1783, 86,683 sheep and 2,160 rams, along with 17,307 goats, 3,780 cows, 1024 bulls and 8,426 pigs were reported in the statistical survey (although in the text the author said pigs were the most abundant animal.) [13]  Beef was clearly a distant third.

Further south sheep production became a major industry in the late 19th century, but it had little influence on the meat on Chilean tables. Starting in the 1890s with importation of sheep from the Falkland Islands, the Magallanes, Chile’s far southern province, became one of the world’s major centers of sheep production and by 1930 was exporting 600 to 800,000 head, canned and frozen.  But little if any of this Patagonian lamb came north to central Chile where local production and consumption was a half million head per year[14] in a population of 4.3 million—under 10 lbs. per person.
Tierra del Fuego Sheep, 1908
Eating Chilean lamb

Most Chilean lamb seems to have been boiled in soups and stews:  carbonada, pucheros and cazuelas, as was the case with the 1903 “working class family” whose diet was reported to consist largely of cazuelas of beef on weekdays (5 kg beef a week at 70 centavos a kg.) and of lamb on Sundays (.8 kg of lamb a week at 80 centavos a kg.).[15]  Middle and upper class diet was probably more varied; the 1887 New Kitchen Manual included 30 recipes for lamb along with 73 for beef, 46 for poultry and 18 for pork. Lamb recipes included mainly braised or stewed dishes, but also breaded and grilled lamb chops and numerous recipes for organ meats. 

This interesting recipe for muton stew with piñones is among them:

Carnero Guisado 
Fry a little bacon cut into cubes with a little minced onion; cut the meat, which should be from the leg, into pieces and place all in a pot with salt and pepper; fry lightly over a low fire and then add warm water; and when it is cooked add parsley, a leaf of mint [yerba buena], a heart of lettuce, soaked piñones [seeds of Araucaria araucana] and spices, all cut into small pieces, and  when served, a little sour lemon [agrio de lemon].[16]
 The late 19th and early 20th century increasingly brought foreign fashions to Chile, and French influence came to dominate the kitchens of the elite while heavily spiced Chilean Creole dishes fell from favor (see Do Chileans eat Chili?”).  It is tempting to believe that the spreading fashion for French food was accompanied by rejection Chilean dishes; especially those related to rural life—like lamb.  But I found no evidence to support this, and in fact the classic 1911 Chilean French influenced cookbook, La Negrita Doddy, includes numerous lamb recipes, both French (lamb chops a la Soubise; lamb chops a la Schiltilgheim) and Creole (lamb tomatican a la Chilena; lamb arvejado a la Clarita).  There are even instructions for roasting a 5 lb. leg of lamb for only 45 minutes, which would result in a decidedly rare roast in the French fashion.  And the very French Famous Recipes from the Hotel Crillón published in Santiago in 1951 continues to have lamb recipes: Gigot de sept heures (Seven hour leg of lamb), Saddle of lamb a la francesa, etc.  It looks like lamb continued to be popular among the elite, at last enough be served in their restaurants.

So if it was not a change in fashion or taste that took lamb off the tables of Chile’s middle and working class, what was it?

The Chilean ministry of agriculture places the blame on: 
…the myth that this meat has a high concentration of fat and is bad for the health because of its high level of cholesterol.  This idea may have been reinforced by a lack of education and information for consumers, and by the lack of transparency in the supply of lamb; in many cases what is actually being offered is the meat of sheep or rams which is more frivolous, tougher, and fatter. [17] 
But I suspect that this perception came after the fact:  the decline in lamb consumption began long before health concerns about fat and cholesterol.  Stories of experiences with strong mutton and unfounded fat and cholesterol concerns may be keeping lamb of the table of potential new buyers, but can hardly explain 150 years of decline.

It was price. 

And I blush, materialist anthropologist that I am, not to have considered this first.  The first hint came from the Sunday lamb dinners of the Famila Obrero above, at 80 centavos a pound in contrast to the daily beef at 70 centavos.  From this 15% premium in 1903, lamb increased in relation to beef by from 23 to 36% in Santiago and from 4 to 41% in Valparaiso in 1948-50.[18] And since Chilean beef is almost always sold off the bone while cuts of lamb include bone, the difference per pound of eatable portion was even greater.

Perhaps this is why my wife’s middle class parents, with seven mouths to feed (10+ with nana and family) in the 1950s and 60s didn’t eat lamb, and why her children hadn’t tried it until her recently acquired Gringo husband served it to them.  (They ate it, but haven’t added it to their household menus.)  By mid century lamb became expensive, a luxury food for those who knew it and could afford it.  But for the majority of Santígüenos, buying it simply didn’t and doesn’t occur to them.

Today Chilean lamb consumption is at its lowest point in history at only 200 grams per person per year—equivalent to about one good lamb chop—while production has fallen and exportation has increased.[19]


But there is lamb in Chile, even in Santiago. And now it is often less expensive than beef. Butchers in Santiago’s public market La Vega have lamb, as do specialty store GourMeat, and Jumbo supermarkets (occasionally).  Lider supermarkets seem to have it all the time, with the best selection in stores in working class neighborhoods, and I understand that Unimarc also has lamb.  I buy my lamb at Lider, where it comes in packages of mixed cuts, usually frozen, currently at 3,500 CLP a Kg., $3.50 US a lb.  It’s usually possible to select packages composed mainly of leg, shoulder or rib chops, but you have to do a bit of trimming.  The legs are sawed through the bone and can easily be cut into leg steaks about ¾ ” thick, and the racks are cut through the back bone and can be cooked whole or cut into chops. Shoulder chops are also usually cut through the bone, but other pieces are simply “chunks,” good for the stew pot.

Lider’s lambs are small, as the photo of rib chops with a pork chop shows, but are tasty and appropriately tender; rib chops and leg steaks are good grilled while shoulders are a bit tougher and are better braised.

 A lamb leg steak

                                                                 Rib chops surrounding a pork chop

Assorted shoulder chops.

GourMeat has better or at least more expensive lamb, and lamb is also available from local growers.  “Allegro” posted this comment to Chile Forum where a discussion of lamb was in progress:

I am a bit late to this discussion but I have to chime in because my husband and I have a sheep farm here. For one, if you do need lamb and have the capacity to store a whole one or can share it, you can buy lambs at almost any sheep farm in the central region. They won't advertise that they sell them but if you ask, they will sell them. In regards to the quality in the grocery stores, though... most, if not all, of the processed prime meat produced here gets exported. Our farm, for instance, sells to a particular prime meat broker (who does sell prime meats in Chile) and they export ours because we meet certain health standards required of the international market (my understanding is that most of the meat gets sent to Europe, not the US). None of our meat goes to market here in Chile. The meat that does go to market is that of the farms who do not meet the health standards (and I should add here that this doesn't meat it's *unsafe*, just not as desirable) or the farms in the south, which tend to produce less superior meat because they have lower grade grasses there because of the very short growing season. Ours and any of the lambs in the central region are entirely grass-fed and free-range and absolutely divine, in my opinion. It's better than anything I've had in the US. I've had lamb from other farms besides ours and they are just as good--no gamey flavor at all, lots of meat, absolutely incredible cooked over an open espino fire. If you do decide to venture out into the country a buy a lamb for yourself, keep in mind that Merinos have a milder flavor but Suffolk have more fat. I personally prefer Merino...

Lamb is also available at some restaurants.  I have had good braised lamb shanks at La Copa Feliz and at Casa Bosque, rib chops at Las Vacas Gordas and the Chilean classic, lamb criadillas (AKA lamb fries or testicles) at La Petit FranceRestaurants specializing in Patagonian food are sure to have lamb, and you may find it at parilladas, where the emphasis is on grilled meats.

Chilean Lamb recipes

There are lots, and the older cookbooks include many recipes for innards and less popular cuts, useful if you happen to have a whole lamb.  Here are some of classic Creole/Mapuche lamb dishes.

Spit Roasted lamb / Cordero al Palo

1 lamb
1 branch of maqui (Chilean wineberry) 
(or an iron bar of about 1 inch/ 3 Cm. in diameter)
10 Kg. charcoal
Cut the lamb into sections, season only with salt and skewer. The legs should be in the middle, the shoulders on either side, and the ribs on the sides. Roast with very little charcoal so that the lamb cooks slowly. It should roast for about three hours. Add additional charcoal during the last half hour for browning.

Lamb with peas / Arvejada de Cordero 
2 lbs. leg of lamb, in cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups peas
2 carrots, in half rounds
4 potatoes
3 cloves of garlic
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of thyme
Salt and pepper

Fry the whole garlic cloves in oil until very brown and remove. Brown the lamb in the oil, then add the carrots and the onion. Fry until the onion is transparent then add a cup of water and boil slowly until the lamb is tender. Then add the potatoes and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Add the peas and cook until tender. Add additional water if necessary, and adjust the salt and pepper and add thyme if the lamb is “of advanced age.” (also see the Arvejada de Cordero in  “Mapuche Food: Ethno Tourism/Ethno Gastronomy.”   Here’s a photo.) 
The next is a Mapuche dish that includes the luche, seaweed very similar to nori, (Japanese alga used for wrapping sushi) and locro, toasted wheat meal.  If you aren’t in Chile use nori for the luche and make your own locro:  toast wheat berries and grind them coarsely in a blender, spice grinder or sturdy mortar and pestle. For a more sophisticated version from Chilean Chef Miriam Andrea Yunge Rojas, see “Eating Chilean Seaweed:  Cochayuyo  and Luche

Pot-au-fue of Luche and Lamb / Cazuela de luche y cordero[20]

2 lbs potatoes
½ lb. zapallo (winter squash)
1 carrot
3 cloves garlic
1 cup locro (wheat kernels toasted and ground)
¼ loaf of luche (or nori, 5 – 10 sheets crumbled)
2 - 3 shallotsCilantro
1 lb. peas
1 lb. lamb shoulder or backbone
Salt, water and chili (fresh green chili or merken)
Sauté the garlic, shallots, carrots and chili, then add the meat. When slightly browned add water to cover and boil until nearly tender. Then add the peas, potatoes and squash. When these are almost done, add the locro and boil 2 or 3 minutes more. Then add the cilantro and the luche, remove from heat and serve.

And the cridallas? Your local Jumbo or specialty meat market should be able to supply them for this interesting Chilean recipe:

Fricassee of lamb fries / Fricasé de Criadillas de Cordero

6 large or 12 small lamb fries – criadillas
1 medium onion, chopped
2 two cups of fresh bread cubes
3 cups potatoes, peeled & cubed
½ cup carrots, cubed
1 cup peas
1 glass white wine
2 tablespoons of minced parsley
2 cups broth from the criadillas
3 eggs
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter
 salt and pepper

  Photo: Oroyo
Boil 6 large or 12 small criadillas in salted water for 15 minutes and reserve the broth.  Peel the criadillas and cut into small cubes, and sprinkle with pepper. Fry the cubes in the oil mixed with the butter until lightly browned, and reserve.  In the same skillet, fry the onion and carrots in a tablespoon of butter.  Add the reserved criadillas, the parsley and the peas, a cup of the broth and the white wine.  Boil covered for 5 minutes, adjust the seasoning and keep warm. Fry the potatoes abundant oil and when slightly brown, add the bread cubes and continue frying until the bread is well browned. Drain on paper towels and reserve. Beat the eggs, and off the heat, add to the pan with the criadillas so that they form a creamy sauce with the liquid. To serve pour the criadillas and sauce into a large platter, surround with the potatoes and sprinkle the hard boiled eggs and bread cubes on top, taking care that the bread cubes don’t mix with the sauce and loose their crispness.

[1] Avilés, Hardy. 2002 Cordero todo el año. Campo Sureño, on line at; and What Chileans Eat: The Chilean National Diet, Eating Chilean.  Chilean lamb consumption is probably a bit higher than this, since much Chilean lamb is eaten locally and does not enter national statistics. See Riquelme Osses, below.
[2] There is no generic English term, equivalent to pork or beef, for the meat of sheep, Mutton is the meat of sheep over 2 years old, yearling lamb is meat of animals between 1 and two years old.  But US usage refers to all sheep meat as lamb, so that’s what I do here unless mutton is referred to specifically.
[3] Spanish Cows and Beef. Iberia Nature: A guide to the natural history of Spain. On line at
[4] Rodero A, Delgado JV, Rodero E 1992.  Primitive Andalusian livestock and their implications in the discovery of America. Arch Zootec 41: 383–400; and Wikipedia Merino
[5] Riquelme Osses, Jose Carlos. 2005. Medición de características  productivas de ovinos raza texel del sector de  Pillanlelbún en la IX región.  Tesis de grado presentada como  parte de los  requisitos para optar al grado de: Licenciado en Medicina Veterinaria. Temuco, Chile. On line at
[6] Villalobos, R. Sergio, et. al. 1974  Historia de Chile, Tomo 2  Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile. p.  174 (Google Books)
[7] Pereira Salas, Eugenio.  1977. Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena. Santiago: Universitaria. p. 30  On line at
[8] Molina, Juan Ignacio. 1987. Ensayo sobre la historia natural de Chile : Bolonia 1810 Santiago : Eds. Maule. On line at
[9] Miers, John. 1826. Travels in Chile and La Plata, Including Accounts Respecting the Geography, Geology, Statistics, Government, Finances, Agriculture, Manners and Customs, and the Mining Operations in Chile. Collected During a Residence of Several Years in these Countries. Vol. 2 London:  Baldwin, Cradock & Joy.  p. 312 (Google Books)
[10] Gay, Claudio. 1862-1865.  Agricultura, Tomo I. París: En casa del autor; Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, p. 376, 451 & 462. On line at ; and Vicuna Mackenna, B. 1877. De Valparaiso a Santiago: datos, impresiones, noticias, episodios de viaje.  Santiago: Imprenta de la librería de El Mecurio. P. 25 On line at

Gay explains that sheep average about 100 lbs live weight and dress out to about 65 lbs. of meat, and since there are corresponding figures for beeves slaughtered and their weights. Here (for the arithmetically inclined) are my calculations:

lbs. meat

lbs. meat

Ratio beef/ lamb

Note that this data is for fresh meat and does not include beef jerky or lambs slaughtered informally.

[11] Treutler, Paul.  Andanzas de un alemán en Chile, 1851-1863. Santiago: Editorial del Pacifico.
[12] Smith, Edmund Reuel. 1855. The Araucanians; or, Notes of a Tour among the Indian tribes of Southern Chile.  New York:  Harper & brothers. p. 269 On line at
[13] Beranger, Carlos de.  1893  Relación jeográfica de la provincia de Chiloé. Santiago de Chile : Impr. Cervantes. p. 41 On line at
[14] Correa Vergara, Luis. 1938. Agricultura Chilena, tomo II. Santiago: Imprenta Nascimenta.  P.197
[15] Eyzaguirre Rouse, Guillermo. 1903. Monografía de una familia obrera de Santiago. Santiago, Chile : Imprenta Barcelona. On line at
[16]Anonymous. 1882.  Nuevo manual de cocina: conteniendo 377 recetas de guisos escojidos de las cocinas francesas, española, chilena, inglesa e italiana: arregladas para el uso de las familias del país. Valparaíso: Libr. del Mercurio de Orestes L. Tornero. p. 50. On line at
[17] Fundación para la innovación agraria. 2003. Calidad en producción de carne de ovina. Boletín de Ovinos. Ministerio de Agricultura. On line at
[18] Almonacid Zapata, Fabián.  La agricultura Chilena discriminada (1910-1960): una mirad de las políticas estatales y el desarrollo sectorial desde el Sur.  Madrid:
S.A. de Fotocomposición. p.347 On line at
[19] Producción y consumo de carne, 2010. Enfoque estadístico. Abril 2011.  On line at  and production and export chart is from
[20] Recipe adapted from  Alcafuz, Antonio. 2003 Kumiyal. Comida mapuche huilliche.  Programa Nacional de Salud para Pueblos Indígenenas, Servico de Salud de Osorno. Osorno, Imprentas America, as quoted in Montecino Aguirre, Sonia. 2006. Identidades, mestizajes y diferencias sociales en Osorno, Chile. Lecturas desde la Antropología de la Alimentación”. Tesis Doctoral,