It commemorates a proclamation made by the first Chilean governmental committee in 1810, and lasts (at the very least) two days.
There are wholesome family events, parties in the countryside and games of the hopscotch-like rayuela, kite-flying, and greased-pole scaling. There are many, many renditions of the cueca, the national dance, a coquettish stalk-and-surrender dance reminiscent of a mating dance between a rooster and hen.
Chile is wine country, though it tends to export much of what it produces, Chilenos consider wine part of the national heritage, and wouldn’t miss a drop during this upcoming celebration. There’s a wine menjunge (mix) for everyone, as well as beer and pisco-based drinks.
On Sept. 18th you won’t see much of the fancy bottled wines for which Chile is rightfully famous. The highly-prized Chilean Merlot and Carménère take a back seat to the affectionately-named Cartonere, the local name for boxed wine (cartón meaning cardboard). Popular brands include Gato Negro, Clos de Pirque and Planella.
In a pinch, though, any tetrapak wine will do. These are drunk by the cup from the box or mixed with coca cola to make the famous jote, a drink whose name also means vulture (particularly in the sense of a man who’s on the prowl). It’s a spring-to-fall drink favored by teenagers.
White wine also appears on the 18th, though most commonly as ponche, a mixture of white wine and in-season fruit, which at Fiestas Patrias usually means canned peaches. The difference between this and the delicate borgoña served at other times of year is that borgoña arrives by the wine glass and ponche comes in a vessel big enough to go dunking for apples in, and is served in glasses.
Green (or young) wine forms the backbone for the unusually-named terremoto (earthquake), which in the coastal town of Valparaíso is also known as a tsunami. It’s a scoop or two of pineapple ice cream with green wine poured over it until it tops off the glass. It’s served with a straw which is churned up and down through the drink until it is mixed. A successive serving of the terremoto is predictably, called a réplica, or aftershock. Attempt this at your own risk, as the terremoto is famous for the resaca (hangover) it leaves in its wake.
Not Really Wine
Chicha is not really wine, though it’s sometimes made from grapes.
It’s a sweetish, cider-like fermented drink favored by cheap drunks and people who don’t much like alcohol, though if you consume enough of this 8 proof drink, you can do some damage.
Traditionally it’s made in earthenware jugs in the country, and is sold topped with something porous, so it doesn’t explode. At Fiestas Patrias chicha de uva (grape chicha) and chicha cocida (cooked chicha) show up in 700 ml. bottles at the supermarket and in the hand of many a reveler. In the South it’s chicha de manzana (apple chicha) that takes center stage.
Chile’s main spirit is pisco, over which it argues with Peru for bragging rights. Pisco sour is the order of the day, a tangy yellow libation with just a touch of froth on top. It’s a mixture of limon de pica (similar to a key lime), sugar and pisco, occasionally with bitters sprinkled on top. On the 18th of September many people will go for cheap over tasty and buy a bottle of Capel or Campanario pisco sour, or any of the newer variations like berry or mango sour, all made with pisco.
The younger set will choose to mix their pisco with Coca Cola, making the famous and overdone piscola. Piscola is a late-teen to twenties drink that would have native English speaking youth in stiches over its name. Toilet humor aside, piscola is prevalently drunk throughout the year, but holds a special spotlight on the 18th as its prime demographic drinks their blood volume in alcohol.
If the younger set chooses to use a mixer to dilute their pisco, there is also a set of people who chooses a more potent mixer, and doses their pisco with vermouth. Pisco, vermouth and a slim slice of lemon complete this punch-packing drink.
The south of Chile has the water and hops-growing regions of Oregon in mirror image where a vibrant set of German-style brewers live, and produces some fine craft beers. But Fiestas Patrias prizes quantity over quality, and because you’ll see it consumed by the metric gallon at this holiday, pesky little crimped bottle caps do not make an appearance.
Liter bottles of watery Cristal and Escudo abound, with multiple people sharing the same bottle, from plastic cups or straight from the source. No one bothers to put a bag on the bottle, and everyone knows what you’re drinking and no one cares anyway.
A nightmare for the beer purist is the mixture of cheap beer (sometimes on tap, sometimes from a bottle) with Fanta. It’s refreshing and very bubbly, and you’ll be surprised to see that this has something of a genteel reputation, a good girly drink suitable even for grandmothers.
Before the holiday is out, you may find yourself awake, somewhere between drunk and hungover and hungry. The traditional hangover foods in Chile, available in Santiago at the Mercado Central from old favorites like Donde Augusto, are caldillo, a clear seafood-based soup or consomme de gallina (chicken soup).
It’s generally accepted that these remedies barely scratch the surface, and it’s common for people to show up to work after Fiestas Patrias with more than a whisper of alcohol wafting from their pores, and sunglasses firmly clamped to their faces.
That Fiestas Patrias is a veritable alcohol bath does not go unnoticed by Chilean authorities, who campaign every year for people to not drink and drive, though alcohol-fueled car accidents claim victims each year.
Other health ramifications include the 3 plus kilos (nearly seven pounds) most Chileans can expect to gain over this holiday. If it’s not the alcohol, it’s the empanadas, the anticuchos (kebabs), chunchules (grilled intestines), ubre (grilled cow’s udder), choripanes (sausage rolls) or asado (barbecued meat) that do their damage during this once-a-year celebration.
Since next year marks Chile’s bicentennial, the government is planning to grant people the entire week off of work to better celebrate the holiday (better make that 5 kilos).