According to a popular saying in Patagonia, "Whoever tastes the wild calafate berry returns" for more. In my case, that’s long been true, but maybe we can invert the saying: “The calafate berry itself may return to whoever tastes it,” as I experienced the other day in Puerto Natales.
Recently, while having lunch in Natales’s outstanding Mesita Grande pizzeria (pictured above), I noticed an unusual item on the chalkboard menu: yerba mate ice cream, which I had seen only a few times in Argentina and never before in Chile. I ordered it with a scoop of chocolate, both of which were excellent – by far the best ice cream in town. It was something that fell into the “pleasant surprise” category.
Returning a few days later, I asked for it again and learned that the manager Laura Rosenberg, with whom I spoke, was an Argentine who formerly worked for the luxury Explora hotel in Torres del Paine. As it happened, she knew Helados Jauja, one of my own favorite Argentine ice creameries, and I mentioned Jauja’s exquisite calafate con leche de oveja (calafate berries with sheep’s milk), a seasonal flavor produced in El Bolsón that occasionally makes it north to Buenos Aires (Jauja has a locale one short block from my Palermo apartment).
I only intended to mention that in passing, but she took me seriously and, the next day, she went in search of sheep’s milk, which she found at the Universidad de Magallanes's experimental creamery, where they also made cheese with basil and the Mapuche spice merquén. She also informed me, though, that it was harder to find fresh calafate berries.
Nevertheless, she sent me an email on Friday that an experimental version of the ice cream (pictured below) would be ready if I cared to taste and review it. That evening I did so, and made the following critique: 1) I liked the taste, but it was a little too sweet, and would be better with less sugar; 2) I prefer a firmer texture like the yerba mate flavor; this one was softer than I like. She attributed the texture issue to the fact that she couldn’t find fresh berries on short notice, and had to settle for a prepared syrup instead.
In the context that this was an experiment not quite ready for prime time, though, I was satisfied, and I look forward to an improved version on my next visit to Natales – where the calafate came to me, rather than my having to go to it.