A lone cowboy walks into a bar in New York City. The bartender, taken aback, remarks, "Partner, you're a long way from Patagonia."
"That's amazing," the cowboy answers. "How did you know I was from Patagonia before I even opened my mouth?"
"Oh, that's easy," the bartender says. "You've got a big clump of sheep wool sticking out of your zipper."
Across the barren landscapes at the southern tip of South America, for hundreds of kilometers there is little more than grass, rocks, scrub trees permanently bent over from incessant wind, and endless herds of sheep. The wooly livestock form a staple of Patagonian diets, and you can find mutton in any form: on pizzas, in empanadas, and in perfectly spiced burgers. The classic preparation, however, is cordero al palo, which is lamb roasted directly above a wood fire, the carcass stretched across an iron cross like the House Bolton flayed man sigil.
Although the relationship between men and sheep in Patagonia is intimately tied to the history and culture of the land, the seemingly timeless bond only dates back about 150 years. Harsh weather and poor agricultural conditions initially offered little incentive to Europeans to settle the area, and for three and a half centuries after Ferdinand Magellan first sailed through the strait that now bears his name, the region was largely ignored by conquerors and colonialists.
Not until the late 19th century did settlers realize that the expansive tracts of grasslands made perfect grazing grounds for sheep, and Patagonia has never been the same. When new arrivals from Europe and other parts of Chile annexed the indigenous people's traditional hunting lands to raise their livestock, the natives quickly adapted to hunt the sheep instead. In response, the ranchers thoughtfully attempted to work out a compromise that was acceptable for everyone. (Just kidding: They launched a campaign of slaughter, coming very close to wiping out the entire indigenous population.)
Ever since, sheep have been ubiquitous. Cordero al palo is offered in restaurants all over Chilean Patagonia, but one steakhouse in Puerto Natales is particularly ostentatious about it. Restaurante-Parilla Don Jorge, across from the city's small central plaza, displays the macabre barbecue in its front window, with juicy fat dripping down from the lamb flesh onto the fire. The view from the sidewalk leaves nothing about the meat preparation to the imagination, beckoning tourists to come in and taste the famous dish.
"This is tradition here," says Jorge Pérez Magdalena, 45, owner and head chef of the restaurant, using both hands to heft a lamb carcass away from a cutting board. As he talks, he works constantly, chopping beef steaks to throw on an indoor grill to fulfill orders for a busy lunch crowd.
"I learned when I was 12 from my dad," he says, recalling family lamb barbecues out in the countryside. "In 2005, I opened the restaurant and realized my dream." He steps out into his barbecue display window to toss a log on the fire and twist a carcass around, exposing the back side to the heat.
"We don't use charcoal, only wood," Don Jorge says. "It gives a different flavor." In anticipation of a large dinner demand, he grabs another raw carcass from a pile on the counter and crucifies it, spearing the iron bar through the feet and using a thin metal rod to secure the midsection. He wires the back to the bar in a few additional places and then affixes the installation in place over the fire. Next, he splashes the meat with white wine from a box and slathers it with salt. The only other ingredient is a dousing of , a local hot sauce. From there, the meat roasts for about four hours, with an occasional turning.
At Parilla Don Jorge, the cordero dish is served artfully, with a rib and a piece of backbone delicately balanced on top of a large chunk of thigh—surely a more refined presentation than the ranchers bothered with when they feasted out in the countryside. The meat is slightly gamey and just a bit chewy, though it comes off the bone with very little effort.
Some customers stop to chat with the chef after their meal. "Everyone asks how I prepare the lamb, because they're from Santiago, and the lamb there isn't fresh," he laughs. "It all comes from Patagonia."
The price for living near the bottom of Chile and enjoying the freshest lamb on the continent is enduring long periods of cold, wind, snow, and rain—which perhaps explains the rumors of lonely shepherds turning to their livestock for company on dark winter nights. Even the sun at the bottom of the world can be harsh, all the more so due to the man-made hole in the ozone. In the 1990s, there were rumors that exposure to excessive ultraviolet light was causing sheep in Chile to go blind, and those claims still persist today. However, researchers subsequently decided that the cause of the outbreak was pinkeye.
After generations of docilely submitting to slaughter and consumption by humans, not to mention the amorous aspirations of their herders, one sheep almost got posthumous revenge in 2014 when a tourist began to choke on a chunk of mutton in Don Jorge's restaurant. After the man's wife tried unsuccessfully to administer the Heimlich maneuver, Don Jorge ran over and was able to dislodge the piece of meat.
"Fortunately, I was able to save him," the restaurateur says. "You have to be careful. For me, the most important thing is to chew well."