As notable international chef's tout the simplicity of the earth oven, diners are being reconnected to a centuries-old food tradition rooted in sense—and scents—of place.
From one side of the globe to another, cultures have been digging pits in the ground, adding wood or hot rocks, animal proteins, seafood, and vegetables to steam, roast, and cook for hours. Feeding the masses with its delicious, smoky goodness, the earth oven has evolved from necessity to a time-honored tradition—allowing discerning travelers to gather, celebrate, and convene over local bounty via the ultimate land- and sea-to-table experience. Here are three culinary adventures I found while journeying both near and far.
Curanto: Chiloé, Chile
I mounted a horse and rode past a patchwork of farms in Chiloé, Chile, during an exploration of the largest island in the country’s archipelago. With stable dogs as my companions, I discovered oxen languishing in the fields as we traversed yellow-flowered hills to the scenic shoreline. The horses entered the water with ease, expertly maneuvering around large rocks blanketed by the incoming tide. We reached a lone dock, dismounted, and traded our reins and saddles for rubber boots and spades. As I entered the mud, I scanned for tiny bubbles beneath the surface and then dug for clams. Sea creatures like mussels, urchin, and clams have fed these communities since man first sailed from the Chilean mainland some 6,000 years ago, and what’s more, they are the main ingredient to the Chiloean dish, curanto. At the luxury hotel Tierra Chiloé, Chef Natalia Canario prepares these ingredients in an earth oven along with local potatoes, beef, lamb, and two types of potato bread: chapaleles and milcaos. To top it off, massive rhubarb leaves called nalca cover the local sea and land delicacies, which are left for several hours to steam. The result is an incredible dish that celebrates both pride and taste.
Clambake: New England
Perhaps the Western world’s best-known adaptation of the pit or earth oven is the New England clambake, for which we can thank Native Americans. They introduced colonial immigrants to this time-honored tradition in its most basic form. As a Rhode Island native, I’m immediately reminded of warm summer nights and cool autumn afternoons on the Atlantic shoreline anytime I enjoy this rustic tradition. After digging a pit on the beach, stones are laid at the bottom, covered by a fire of salvaged driftwood (or wood from home). After the fire dies down, the hot rocks and embers are topped with wet seaweed. Now for the fun! Lobster, quahogs, littlenecks, potatoes, corn, and sausage are placed, then spread with seaweed to be steamed and cooked. Want to enjoy a New England clambake without the work? When in Maine, make a reservation at Cabbage Island Clambakes, which takes guests on a picturesque boat ride from Boothbay Harbor to private Cabbage Island, where they’re treated to a traditional clambake followed by a delicious Maine blueberry cake for dessert.
My destination in Tahiti was a private motu—one among hundreds of tiny, uninhabited islands off the coast of Bora Bora—and once I stepped off the ship, I discovered dozens of Tahitian men and women at work. As they dug a massive pit oven called ahima’a in the sand, I learned we were to experience the tamaaraa, a symbol of Tahitian culture and celebration. They stacked the pit with volcanic basalt stones while others crafted coconut fronds into baskets to cradle different meats, seafoods, and poe (better known as cassava). A special feast specific to the South Pacific, tamaaraa features a combination of chicken, pork, shrimp, bananas, yams, and other vegetables. The food is then topped with massive green banana leaves and palms. Finally, the entire structure is covered with burlap sacks and a thick layer of earth, sealing heat inside as the food cooks for several hours. Once uncovered and served, local tradition calls for a music—guitars and ukuleles accompany a setting sun, all of which turn this tasty fare into an unforgettable culinary journey.