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The Mixed Grill

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
May 12, 2011

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The Mixed Grill

Noel Coward famously said, “Sunburn is very becoming, but only when it is even – one must be careful not to look like a mixed grill.” While we can all understand not wanting to look like one, most of us would be happy to look at one, and then chow down. Here in Buenos Aires, the mixed grill, or parrillada, is everywhere. You can take yourself, your significant other, and all your friends out and dig into a platters of innards and cuts of beef, chicken, pork, and perhaps other meats at any of seemingly thousands of parrillas. We set out to find some different options, hot off the grill.

The Mixed Veg

First to come to mind were vegetables. Sometimes, we’re just starved for the things, and the typical offering of an ensalada mixto with tomato, lettuce and onion, or the steakhouse staple of chard or spinach a la crema, just won’t cut it. We want a selection, and we want it grilled. The hands-down winner we found is the still trendy, modern style Miranda, a parrilla where it’s not just about what you’re eating, but who you’re eating with. For just over 50 pesos they serve up a good sized platter with half a grilled onion, slabs of potato and sweet potato, wedges of butternut squash, slices of zucchini, eggplant and red bell peppers. If we have any objection, it was to the unnecessary fluff of lettuce leaves garnishing the center of the plate. It’s pretty to look at, but it wasn’t grilled. Miranda, corner of Fitz Roy & Costa Rica, Palermo, 4771-4255.

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The Seven Seas

Sometimes we want more surf than turf, and our thoughts turn to fish and shellfish. With the recent departure of our favorite river fish grill, Jangada, we had to start searching anew. Turns out there are a slew of great parrilladas del mar sailing the high seas of Buenos Aires and we’ve only begun to call in at port and check them out. So far, our favorite is Fervor, a pricey, special meal out kind of spot in the heart of old Recoleta. Coming in at over the 200 peso mark (with a half portion reaching 185, pictured), when you consider how pricey seafood tends to be in this city, and that the full portion will easily feed four while the half will, well, feed two, it’s not as hard to swallow. And the food certainly isn’t – two options, either del mar which contains two of the chef’s selections from the fish of the day (rotating between over a dozen options), scallops, calamarette, prawns, and octopus, while the de mariscos offers up more of the same shellfish and leaves aside the fillets. Perfectly cooked, well seasoned, and served up with a trio of housemade dipping sauces and wedges of lemon. Fervor: Brasas del Campo y del Mar, Posadas 1519, 4804-4944.

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Rolling in Dough

We know that pizza is nature’s most perfect food, properly encompassing the right balance of whichever set of food groups you choose to subscribe to. Though not as common as it ought to be, one of our favorite porteño contributions to the pizza world are some of the best grilled pizzas we’ve found, anywhere. Hidden away, almost like that slightly “off” aunt that every family has and only trots out at the occasional social gathering, pizza a la parrilla is a gem to behold. And eat. It’s a tough decision as to who offers up the best version, but certainly the easiest to find, and up there in the top couple, would be either branch of Morelia. Cracker thin crust, perfectly charred and delivering up that beautiful smoky grill flavor, and topped with a thin drizzle of olive oil, a whisper of sauce, and your choice of toppings (our favorite is the montecattini with prosciutto, arugula and olives), just barely warmed atop, the pizzas come in 4, 6, or 8 piece sizes (ranging, depending on size and toppings, from roughly 50 to 100 pesos). Morelia, Humboldt 2005 in Palermo, 4772-5979 and Báez 260 in Las Cañitas, 4772-0329, plus one out of town up in La Lucila at Av. Libertador 3499, 4799-7377.

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American Barbecue

Particularly for those of us from the U.S., there are moments when we miss a good old-fashioned backyard barbecue. Asados just aren’t the same thing. We want meat that’s cooked “low and slow” until it’s so tender it falls off the bone – come to think of it, we want that the meat was cooked on the bone in the first place, it adds flavor! And sometimes, we want barbecue sauce. And what better place to find something of that sort than Bar BQ, where an Argentine owner who spent time in the States licking his fingers in front more wood, charcoal and gas fired grills than you can shake a stick at, brings us his version. And no disappointments were had – with multiple visits under our belts and tasters from Michigan, Colorado, Texas and New York, only the last of those had anything less than glowing reviews, and what do New Yorkers know about barbecue? Hibachis on the fire escape? Beautiful pork baby back ribs or equally shining beef short ribs are lacquered in a tangy sweet sauce with what tastes to us like a tinge of coffee, either running about 70 pesos. The smoky pulled pork sandwich brought tears to our eyes though we did have a debate about pickles on the sandwich (Texas and Michigan vote yes, Colorado and New York vote no), coming in just under 50 pesos. Home sweet home. Bar BQ, El Salvador 5800 in Palermo, 4779-9124.

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Family Style

We can’t totally ignore Argentina’s meat laden famed asado, and there’s no reason we should. One of the things that many of us wish we could do is attend a few more of those backyard family versions, with all the social interactions attendant. And when friends come to visit, it’d be great to not just take them to the same old neighborhood steakhouse or tourist trap version they read about in every guidebook out there. Brand spanking new to the scene is an option to create your own family for the night at the shared table of Adentro Dinner Club. Here, hosts Gabriel and Kelly, respectively Argentine and norteamericana, welcome you to their home in one of the latest of the burgeoning puertas cerradas movement. From mom’s empanada recipe to platters of achurras, the “parts is parts” round, plump prawns, amazing vegetables, and thick, juicy, perfectly cooked slabs of meat, accompanied by wine and followed by exquisite desserts, you get to join a table of strangers, who, by the end of the night will be fast friends. Coming in at 220 pesos a person it seems a bit steep, but it’s all you can eat, and a social experience that can’t be beat. Adentro Dinner Club, in Palermo (address provided with reservation).

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Special WUBA guest Dan Perlman opens his home to visitors in one of Buenos Aires’ premier puertas cerradas, Casa Saltshaker.

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Street Food Buenos Aires

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
May 8, 2008

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Street Food Buenos Aires

One of the first things that gastro-tourists notice about Buenos Aires, after they’re done rushing in for their requisite platters of massive steaks, is the lack of street food. Most major cities have vendors who wander the streets with small carts, or park their wagons in strategic locales, selling everything from local specialties to a cornucopia of ethnic imports.

When I first arrived in BA, I came to the conclusion that locals simply don’t like to eat standing up, nor grab something quick to take back to the office. And it is true that lunch is a more leisurely affair here than in many world capitals, with business back-burnered or perhaps discussed over a bottle or two of wine. But, there is fast food, and its not just eaten by adolescents, and there are spots where standing to eat is commonplace.

One of the issues, I suppose, is the narrowness of the streets in the central business district. There’s simply nowhere for a cart to be that would be safe for anyone involved. But parks are a good bet, and there is more green space in Buenos Aires than almost any other major city in the world. Often, admittedly, these offer a very limited selection of items – hotdogs or hamburgers, perhaps a milanesa (breaded cutlet) sandwich. Caramelized nuts are popular snacks. But that’s not lunch.

There are spots in the more working class neighborhoods, and the one that most visitors see is San Telmo, where, while not cart-based, there are little hole-in-the-wall parrillas, or grills, dotted throughout the zone. These spots are little more than a standup lunch counter, where workers on a quick break cram in to grab a choripan (sausage sandwich), a vacipan (flank steak sandwich) at any of a dozen spots, or huge slice of pizza and BA’s classic fainá (chickpea bread) layered atop at a traditional joint like Pirilo, along Defensa Street.

sf2But the best spots for street food are the two Costaneras, or boardwalks. It’s a misnomer, as there are no boards, these are wide concrete walkways that border two stretches of the city limits. The Costanera Norte, at least the portion with street food, runs alongside the domestic airport, looking out on the river. Here, a dozen or more relatively permanent wagons offer up a range of parrilla options – from sandwiches to small plates, and covering different types of sausages – chorizo, morcilla, salchicha parrillera, as well as various cuts of meat, both beef and pork. Some few even offer up classic achurros, or innards, though generally seem to be momentarily out of them when you ask.

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sf5Join in with the cabbies, cops and service workers munching away for a quick lunch along the river. You could do a lot worse than simply starting at the eastern end with Parrilla Oriente and having yourself a bondiola con limón, or start at the other end, by the airport entrance, with a churrasquito, a thin cut of grilled beef, at El Tano Criollo. Each spot offers up its own array of condiments, from classic chimichurri and salsa criolla to interesting spicy combinations like onions and chilies.

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sf7The true hotspot for street food, however, is the Costanera Sur, located on the far side of Puerto Madero Este, running its entire length along the canal and ecological reserve. On weekdays the selection is much the same as that of its northern counterpart, though with a few more options (the occasional lamb or chicken offering) – but on weekends is when it really shines. Then, the ubiquitous parrilla wagons are joined by smaller temporary carts that serve up a variety of food from the northern regions of the country – everything from locro (corn, squash, beef, and sausage stew) to fried breads impregnated with bits of chicharron (pork cracklings). Too, in fitting with the porteño sweet tooth, there is sudden influx of dessert stands, many of them overflowing with dozens of different varieties of tarts, tortes, and other sweets, a full range of coffee options, and lines that extend down the walkway. This is a place where families come to enjoy the open air, eat a little, watch one or another street performer, and maybe take a walk through the reserve. But for the dedicated street food fanatic, it’s just one long banquet table.

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Dan Perlman is a former New York based chef, sommelier, food and wine writer who now lives in Buenos Aires. For more of his scribblings on food, wine, and restaurants visit his blog at www.saltshaker.net

Thanks to Fall 08 intern Christine for sampling so much yummy street food with us.


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Three Chefs Weigh in on (the Lack of) Buenos Aires Street Food

ComoSur
South American Gastronomy
April 17, 2008

THREE CHEFS WEIGH IN ON (THE LACK OF) BUENOS AIRES STREET FOOD
by Patrick Heiger

[I’ve put the parts of this article written by others in blockquote italics. All the photos are mine.]

Parrilla Costanera Norte

Although we want to believe that the streets of South America are as full of delicious street food treats like Mexico might be with tacos and tortas to go, it’s often the case that government regulations and strong social stigma have made the world of street food rather small, if almost nonexistent. While there are great empanadas to be had at the corner markets and holes in the wall of Buenos Aires, actually eating on the street is a near impossibility. Below, we talked with three of the city’s leading chefs, to get a little more insight, and some strong opinions, about where to go and what to eat if you absolutely must eat on the street. Let’s just say you’ll be craving some choripan by the time you’re done reading.

Dan Perlman | Casa Salt Shaker

I left New York City and moved to Buenos Aires before the food truck scene really took off. There was plenty of street food around – but it was more the smaller carts – early on in my time in the big apple it was hot dogs and wraps, though that gradually expanded into more and more offerings. When I travel the world, the first thing I do is start hitting the street food scene. So a decade ago, when I came to Buenos Aires, it was a surprise to find that it was near non-existent.

I would wander the streets forlornly, wishing for some sort of grilled or charred or even steamed something to nibble on. Something to keep the strength up. But, there was nada. In retrospect, and even today, I understand it. There are a couple of factors at work here. Buenos Aires streets are narrow, oft-times one wonders just how a car makes it down one, particularly if anyone else has parked along the side of the road.

But the biggest factor is, I think, cultural. Locals, porteños, don’t make a habit of standing while eating. Meals are not meant to be consumed while on one’s feet. They’re meant to be enjoyed, leisurely, preferably with a bottle of wine, a beer, a Fernet & Coke, or even just a soft drink. And they’re meant to be enjoyed with friends. The idea of standing, gulping something down and moving on is just not the style here. Even in bars people don’t tend to stand around drinking cocktails, they find a place to sit, to kick back and relax, to enjoy themselves.

BondipanNow, that’s not to say that there’s absolutely no street food scene. Here and there along the streets you’ll find a stand offering garapiñadas, caramelized nuts, or perhaps a pancho, a hot dog. But little else. When it comes to outdoor eating there are two arenas where the scene exists, albeit limited. The first are street festivals, often run by the city’s cultural department in tandem with some local embassy. A section of three or four blocks, or a part of a local park or plaza, is blocked off, tents are raised, and ethnic food of one variety or another is offered up.

But what about local fare itself? Let’s face it, we all know that Argentina is known for grilled meat, and that ought to translate well to the outdoors, no? And it does, in two particular places, the Costanera Sur and the Costanera Norte. Costaneras are, literally, boardwalks, though these have no boards. They are two areas of the city that offer up a walking gastronome’s wet dream of sizzling carne. But we’re not talking food trucks, we’re talking what more or less amount to anchored kiosks.

You see, local ordinances don’t allow for the concept of a mobile kitchen, so to get around the letter, if not the spirit of the law, enterprising locals have taken trailer mounted grills, removed their wheels, and often pegged them in place with chains linked to concrete pylons. And thus, we have the north boardwalk, running along the river just north of the domestic airport, where closing on a couple of dozen parrillas, or grills, offer up local sandwich classics – stuffed with beef, pork, or sausages of one sort or another, and an array of condiments to adorn them.

And in the south, sandwiched itself between the upscale Puerto Madero Este and the Reserva Ecologica, the southern boardwalk. During weekdays, there’s a paucity of offerings – a few scattered grills with the same sort of sandwich fare, but on weekends and holidays, the zone blossoms into a cornucopia of food, with not only sandwiches, but temporary stands offering full meals, ethnic cooking, baked goods, pastries, and more. Families turn out to spend the day, nibbling, imbibing, and getting some sun.

CondimentsThere is a new push for a food truck movement, and a few individuals are pushing hard, and there’s some support from the community and the gastronomy world. But, there’s an equally hard push back from those who don’t want to see their cultural mores with its stop and smell the roses feel, to change. Concerns about how food trucks will change the visual landscape, increased in litter and garbage, lines, problems with vermin, are all valid ones. But, things change, and we shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, I’ve adapted to my new home and know where to head if I need an outdoor food fix – the rest of the time, I’m content to put my feet up and relax, off-street.

Narda Lepes | Boca de Lobo
Street food in Buenos Aires isn’t organized. It’s spontaneous, and in many cases borders on the illegal. Laws have changed recently towards grills with gas, but there are those that for moral and historical reasons would rather be fugitives than ever stop cooking over coals.Choripan is the king, by far. A few ingredients and some important variables ultimately make the experience great. It’s worth mentioning to visitors in these parts that one never orders a sandwich of chorizo or bondiola or beef or morcilla. On the street you have to order a chori-pan, bondi-pan, vaci-pan or morci-pan. If you don’t, you’ll be looked down upon.One of my favorites is “Lo Del Tío” that, because of the legal gray area, they took his cart away, but he set up a grill in the same space. It’s at Avenida Dorrego, between Lugones and Figueroa Alcorta.

Feria de MataderosThe Feria de Mataderos is the best place to try all the best in one place. Empanadas, choripan, churros, pastelitos de membrillo and sweet potato, torta frita, tamales, humitas, and obviously meat, meat, and more meat. It’s in Mataderos, so they celebrate on the days when the butchers would close down the area. It’s a one-of-a-kind, real place. It’s a touristic zone set up for those who miss their home in the country’s interior, in the countryside. There’s tradition, folklore, music, horses, maté, and a lot of movement, all brought together with pride.Early some mornings you can see, on some corners, people selling tortas or bread with lard on the grill with really sweet coffee out of a jug. There’s one on the corner of Maria Campos and Santa Fe.And to get a true taste of what it’s like to eat on the street with the most beautiful views and alleyways of the city, go to the Costanera Sur, note South, not North. North is for restaurants. Go South. There, by instinct and feel, you’ll be able to decide which is the best street food stand. They’ve been there for more than 50 years. Obviously, look for the one with the longest line and the most smoke.

Fer Rivarola | El Baqueano

Buenos Aires isn’t a city that’s widely known for it’s street food, but there are a few places that have survived and dish up informal food. These include the parrillas on the Costanera Sur and Norte that have received some government reforms that have transformed them into nice-looking stands that serve up American-style food, but they’ve lose the essence of what they were doing originally. Now, for reasons of functionality, they’ve taken out their coal grills and changed them for gas. Generally speaking, and from what I’ve seen and experienced in other cities throughout Latin America, street food is a true reflection of the basic food from the small towns, closer to what people want and need. This is something that still hasn’t taken off yet in Buenos Aires.

Surely, a list of the top five street foods should be topped by a great empanada filled with meat, something that we can only dream of, because these are difficult things to find in the streets. You can find some vendors in the micro center selling this filled treat, screaming that they’re selling homemade empanadas, but those have a bit of a dodgy reputation, for sure.

I also love going to the Costanera and eating a great “radioactive” choripan, with a cold beer, on the banks of the river, something that even Kamilla Seidler from Gustu succumbed to when she came to participate in our Cocina Sin Fronteras. But, be careful, don’t go crazy with the dressings or extras that the stands offer, as they can be dangerous to your stomach’s health.We also go crazy for a great milanesa sandwich, and lucky for us, there’s a stand in the north of the city that has a great reputation called “Pequeño Demonio” where, without a doubt, you can eat the best bondiola sandwiches in the city, with great bread, great meat, and a shady corner so you can take a break.Another classic in Palermo is “El Puestito del Tío,” he’s been there for years, and you can get great morcipan, vacipan, and other great combinations of grilled meats wrapped in bread.

Lastly, for the more daring, during the early mornings in Retiro you can try chipas, a typical mesopotamian dish, which is a kind of cheesy bread made from mandioca starch, which for years has been the staple of the Guaraní villages.

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Mercado del Progreso

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
October 9, 2007

Mercado del Progreso

Mercado del Progreso

A lot can change in two hundred years. The Plaza de Mayo, then the Plaza Mayor, was a different place – the central gathering point for a small city – surrounded by a customs house, post office, church, and fortress, lined up with rows of merchants from the west, with their covered wagons. Butchers, bakers, well… candlestick makers… all in town, gathering to sell their wares to the local populace. Not far away, in what is now the Plaza del Congreso, gathered the merchants of the north, forming the Mercado Indio, and, no surprise, another locale was set aside for those in town from the south, in what is now Plaza del Constitución. But that was all to change… By the mid-1800s, various decrees ended up banishing the merchants from any plaza designated as public use, and a new system had to be found for offering food, straight from the farms and ranches, to restock the local larders.

Mercado del Progreso
Mercado del Progreso
The first step was the creation of a Mercado authority, which then moved the three principal markets to indoor locations, providing each merchant with a small stand from which to sell his wares – a trio of buildings all near to the Plaza de Mayo, the Mercados “del Centro”, “Lorea”, and “del Plata”. From there, and as the city grew in size, the new system spread outwards, and by the end of the century, there were 21 official indoor markets operating in various parts of the city. A few of those still remain, the one most commonly seen by visitors probably being the Mercado de San Telmo, which still houses a number of food vendors, but has mostly been taken over by antique and junk dealers. Another easy to find, and smaller example, is the Mercado de San Cristobal, just off the corner of Córdoba and Callao.

Mercado del Progreso
Mercado del ProgresoBut the true market aficionado will want to “take the A-train” to its last stop in the barrio of Caballito, where the last remaining fully operational and full sized mercado, the Mercado del Progreso (Av. Rivadavia 5430), opened “at five in the afternoon on the 9th of November, 1889” and other than a revamp in 1894 and a full renovation in 1957 – which included providing every market stand with a running water supply and electricity – has been up and running ever since. True, small encroachments are happening along its sides – what were once integral cafes, meeting spots, and offices have been converted to small shops and restaurants, no longer part of the Mercado itself; and yes, over there is a stand that’s offering up blank CD and DVD discs; but the heart of the market remains true – food. Vegetable stands, fruit stands – all selling produce direct from the farm are dotted throughout the block square edifice. The mainstays are the butchers – each with their own specialty, be it beef, or veal, pork, or chicken and rabbits, even a couple of fishmongers. Here they gather, and here shop the local populace, much as they did nearly 120 years ago – haggling over prices, discussing preparation tips, meeting neighbors to chat – and most importantly, keeping a two century old tradition alive in the heart of Buenos Aires.

Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.


Dan Perlman is a former New York based chef, sommelier, food and wine writer who now lives in Buenos Aires. For more of his scribblings on food, wine, and restaurants visit his blog at www.saltshaker.net

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Porteño Food Heritage: Fact or Fiction? An Investigation…

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
December 19, 2006

Porteño Food Heritage: Fact or Fiction? An Investigation…

porteno food heritage
I’m coming late to the party by posting on this topic, but it’s been simmering in the back of my mind for a week or two. In amazingly typical fashion, the local Heritage Commission has declared a new range of food items that are considered “emblematic” of porteño culture. Those of us who live here in our adopted country have become used to outlandish claims in casual and animated conversation by many a local that one plate or another is Argentine in origin. Often, these dishes are ones that anyone who travels the globe or explores the world of food knows existed elsewhere in the world long before Argentina had anything but a native, indigenous cuisine. This time, however, it’s not random conversation with a new friend over drinks, but the government itself stepping in to stake the porteño claims.

The one that seems to have generated the most controversy is the milanesa a la napolitana, that ubiquitous local version of a weiner schnitzel topped with ham, cheese, and a bit of tomato sauce – most of the controversy coming from the juxtaposition of “milanesa” (from Milan) and “napolitana” (from Naples). The milanesa part is easy, pounded thin, breaded and fried slices of beef or veal are called cotoletta alla milanesa in Italy, or, a Milan style cutlet, since before the first Italian set foot on South American soil. While the name “a la Napolitana” is both claimed locally to come from the idea of Neapolitan pizza or from a restaurant called El Napolitano that existed in the 1940s here over by Luna Park; at best, this is simply a renaming of the classic Neapolitan saltimbocca alla Sorrentina – pounded thin, floured or breaded, fried slices of veal topped with Parma ham, mozzarella, and a fresh tomato sauce. The dish has been around since long before anyone from Sorrento headed to Argentina. One can even look at things like schnitzel “cordon bleu”, a dish dating back to some unknown time in the history of L’Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Esprit, the organization of knights famed for their luxurious banquets since 1578… this dish a breaded cutlet topped with a thin slice of ham and melted cheese – only missing that bit of tomato sauce.

Better to have claimed the matambre a la pizza – while matambre may merely be an adaptation of cima a la genovese from Liguria, the idea of topping it with those same pizza ingredients has got to be uniquely porteño… though, I haven’t researched that one thoroughly.

I might also have to give them pizza a la faina – while both pizza and faina exist in other places and cultures, since before Buenos Aires was founded, the use of the faina, or chickpea bread slice, as a top crust while eating a pizza does seem to be uniquely porteño.

Beyond that, the Commission has added in such things as vermú, or vermouth – not, thankfully, claiming that it was invented by Argentines, but claiming the tradition of drinking it as integral to local custom. I’m not sure how that differs from their Italian forefathers and mothers, but it’s now official.

Of course, this all follows on 2003’s claims by the same Commission to empanadas, asado, y dulce de leche – hmmm… empanadas, beyond existing in one form or another in every culture that produces pastry, are a pretty clear Spanish import, even if they’ve evolved to an art form here; the asado, a big part Spanish influence on the gaucho culture here – but is it anymore elaborate or a part of the culture than, say, the norteamericano weekend barbecue, or the still extent Spanish version of the same? The last, a claim that’s been up for grabs and dispute for a long period of time. Though I couldn’t prove it one way or the other, I’d be hard pressed to accede to a claim that dulce de leche was invented either here or in Uruguay – the idea that no one was caramelizing milk and sugar back in Europe before local colonization is, to my mind, unlikely, though I’d be willing to be proved wrong on that.

Other dishes that are apparently up for consideration include sorrentinos – round, plump, large ravioli. True, elsewhere in the world no one calls them sorrentinos, but there’s nothing unique about them other than the name – which apparently also comes from a local restaurant called Sorrento that was located on Av. Corrientes here – though this is also up for dispute, I’ve seen more than one claim that the name comes from a restaurant called Sorrento that was located in Mar del Plata – still here in the province of Buenos Aires.

I’ve seen one proposed idea for a bife a caballo – a steak topped with a fried egg. I’ve even seen discussions in different forums about the whole a caballo “phenomenon”, claiming that it’s extraordinarily common here. Okay, I’ve seen it offered on steaks, I’ve seen it on lomo sandwiches and hamburgers. But it’s not exactly ubiquitous, and it’s certainly not uniquely Argentine. I can get a fried egg atop a piece of beef at any diner in the U.S., and probably throughout most of Europe. Even the a caballo, or “on horseback”, has been called a cheval, with the same meaning, in France for centuries.

On the dessert front – the vigilante – a deceivingly simple plate of queso blanco served accompanied by a thick slice of dulce de batata or dulce de membrillo – sweet potato or quince jelly is a common dessert here. While certainly more common than in many other places, I’m not sure I’d call it unique – I’ve had the same in Mexico, I’ve had the same in France. The name, once again, is as far as I know, unique to Argentina. The tarantela – more or less a classic charlotte with a caramelized coating and an apple and custard filling. The torta rogel or milhojas – interleaved pastry with dulce de leche and/or chocolate. The budín de pan – basically a sweet loaf of bread, or even a steamed bread pudding.

All this is not to take away from Argentine or porteño culture and cuisine. As has been said in many a cooking forum, and by many a chef throughout the world, “there’s nothing really new in the cooking world, it’s all been done by someone, somewhere, before.” What is unique to the culture here is the blending of these various imports, along with what remains of the indigenous cuisine, and imports from other parts of both the country (locro, carbonada…) and Latin America. Rather than picking out individual dishes and claiming them as unique, or even integral to only this culture, especially when such claims are easily disproved, what Argentines could easily celebrate is the amazingly rich melting pot of these varied dishes. There is probably nowhere else on the planet where this particular melding of ideas, techniques, and recipes, both classic and modern, come together in such a seamless blend. That’s something to be truly proud of.

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Uruguay is Still Ready!

Wine Business Online
Daily News Links
October 25, 2006

Uruguay is Still Ready!

Back in July 2001, Wine Business Monthly reported on the budding wine export scene in Uruguay. A new consortium of wine exporters, newly created powers for the quasi-government agency INAVI, and general interest in what was happening in South America all gave Uruguay a shot at being the new niche player on the block.

Then the economic collapse of 2001 hit the southern part of the continent and virtually everything got shoved to the back burner while wineries scrambled just to survive. Smartly, the consortium and INAVI quickly began a marketing push that expanded beyond their former largest markets of Argentina and Brasil – focusing on Europe and the United States. At the same time, outside investors continued to put their faith and capital into the technological development of Uruguayan wineries.

Uruguay can now boast some of the most technologically advanced wineries in South America, with computer controlled fermentation systems. Still, they’re limited in volume of production by the mere size of the country – smaller than the state of Washington – and a domestic demand for inexpensive table wine.

Los Cerros de San Juan

Señor Abbona, the “maestro de las cavas”, or cellar-master checks the Tannat grapes at Cerros de San Juan

When boutique producer Carlos Pizzorno tried to switch his entire production to fine wine production he received threats of boycotts from the surrounding communities if he did not maintain a certain minimal level of jug wine production (stopping by the local winery on the weekend to refill your own jug is part of the local culture), and he chose to keep his fine wine production to no more than 50 percent of his output. Being small has its advantages – most producers, along with the availability of all the technology that’s been put in place, are still able to hand harvest and hand process their grapes.

The quality of the fine wines has steadily improved with time. Good as they were five years ago, of the thirty some producers who are producing export quality wines, there are now half a dozen who are producing wines that could arguably be called “world class.”

Tannat is the dominating factor in that equation – Uruguay will probably never be able to compete against the vast numbers of Cabernets, Merlots, and Chardonnays that are on the market, but Tannat gives them a weapon that borders on unique. The style of Uruguayan Tannat is different from that of the small production of wine in Madiran in France – focused on fruit, spice, and food friendliness rather than structure and long term aging. That very fact led the Madiran producers’ consortium to cancel a “taste-off” last year – the drinkability of Uruguayan Tannat at a much younger age gave rise to concerns about a repeat of the infamous 1976 France versus California battle.

The biggest problem Uruguay faces in the international market remains the same as it was five years ago. No one knows where Uruguay is, let alone anything about it. The wines remain a hand-sell for any importer or distributor willing to take on a line – in general a large distributor won’t take them on for fear of them being lost amongst their other offerings, and a small distributor knows there’s a huge amount of work in relation to the investment of capital. Given that, one of the more exciting developments has been the partnership between Boisset America and the Pisano winery, producing a separately raised, fermented, and bottled line under the Viña Progreso label, backed by the marketing arm of Boisset. At the same time, producers like Juanicó have further developed their partnership with the Bernard Magrez , multimillionaire owner of nearly three dozen wineries in Bordeaux, Priorat, and Napa Valley, including the top flight Château Pape-Clement, and are now in the process of building a separate winery specifically for the production of their garagiste style Tannat, “1er Cru Garage”. Pizzorno is in the process of building a state-of-the-art underground, gravity fed winery. Up-and-comer Bouza has invested in one of the most technologically advanced wineries I’ve seen – giving a feel of being on the set of Star Trek, yet maintaining a complete family involvement, and hands-on winemaking approach. New tasting rooms are being added to virtually every winery that produces quality wine, specifically to entice locals and tourists to sample their new wares.

The Pisano Family

The Pisano Family

It is hard to judge whether there is a stigma attached to wines coming from an unknown region or not. The Association of Exporters of Wines has held Tannat tastings in the United States for the last two years with limited results. Getting top sommeliers and retail buyers to attend a tasting devoted to something obscure is always a challenge, yet those are the very people who will create the demand for something new. Invitations to multiple wine writers for an all expenses paid tour of a dozen Uruguayan wineries this year resulted in interest from only two, and due to time constraints, only one, myself, was able to take advantage of the offer.

Boutique winery Viñedos de los Vientos, the sole producer in the southeastern area near Atlantida, experimented with submitting two bottles of one of their wines to a well known consumer wine magazine – one directly from the winery with its normal label, the other with essentially a mystery label, but presented to the reviewer by an importer as “something he must try.” The two bottles were tasted in the same flight and resulted in completely different descriptions as to profile and quality, and markedly different scores – the Uruguayan labeled one coming in well behind the other.

Still, INAVI, the consortium, and the individual producers have lost neither hope nor enthusiasm. They know they’ve got a product worthy of attention, and they’re not only putting their money where their mouths are, but investing their lives into getting Uruguay onto the maps of the wine cognoscenti. A more ambitious schedule of tastings in the United States is already underway for 2006-2007; nearly non-existent advertising budgets are being expanded to entice consumer and professional magazines to pay more attention; and the quality of wines just keeps getting better and better. With all that in play, Uruguay truly is “ready” to play their part in the global game of wine.

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To Mate or Not to Mate: Is That Even a Question?

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
August 24, 2006

To Mate or Not to Mate: Is That Even a Question?

Mate
I avoided mate for my first couple of months in Argentina. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the tea itself, though one sip of it one time left me with a bitter taste, something like tea left to stand too long. No, it was the communal nature of the experience. Imagine sitting down to your morning coffee, pouring yourself a few spoonfuls, drinking it, then pouring the same amount and passing the cup on to the next person at the breakfast table. With half a dozen folk sitting around your table, getting your morning caffeine buzz on could take hours.

Mate, or more formally, yerba mate, is the dried and chopped leaves of a shrub from the holly family, native to the Rio de la Plata part of South America. The name comes from the Quechua language, the primary ancient language of the Incas, where the herb is called mati. Many claims have been made for the health giving properties of regular ingestion of this herb, the most common of which is weight loss. It may be true, but not for any magical reasons. Yerba mate is packed with caffeine – not as much as coffee, but plenty of it. There are folks who claim that mate doesn’t contain caffeine, but instead mateine – however that’s just folklore – mateine is merely a synonym for caffeine and is chemically identical.

The same name is often used for the cup that it is prepared in, though some prefer to call it a matero. Traditionally, the mate is a hollowed out small gourd that has been dried, and the drinking straw is made from a hollow reed. In the modern day, mates are often ceramic, metal, or glass, and can be highly decorative. The straw, or bombilla, is generally wood or metal, with a fine mesh or tiny holes at the bottom to prevent sucking up pieces of leaves.

Mate is not brewed like tea – there are some serious differences. There is an art to packing the leaves into the matero, and to the placement of the bombilla. This art can sometimes get as complicated as a Japanese green tea ceremony, depending on the cebador, the person brewing it – an historic if rarely used term in casual conversation. The cebador is not always, in truth as best I can tell, not generally, the host. Instead, it’s the person who is first asked if they want to drink mate, or, if you’re too slow on the offering – a time period that extends from the moment you hang up their coats until their backsides touch down on your sofa cushion – the person who asks for it. And they will ask. Because mate, despite one’s ability to drink it alone, is a social experience, much the same as passing a peace pipe or a bottle of bourbon around the campfire. I’ve also noted that within some groups of friends, one person is always the cebador, apparently by group consensus that they pack the best cup.

Once offered, and the cebador selected, and the water put on to boil, the artist packs and then brews and drinks the first cup, ensuring that the fine particulate matter is cleared. This is also the moment when the cebador assesses your ability to select a good mate, and believe me, they’re different. I’m not quite sure what would happen if my mate didn’t pass the test. My guess is, given the social mores of porteño society, trashing the quality would be perfectly acceptable. It would no doubt become the subject of a solid ten minutes of embarrassing conversation designed to ensure that I never again repeat such a stupid mistake.

Assuming that the mate passes muster, and thankfully for my yanqui self, it always has, the cebador refills the cup and passes it to the first person, who drinks and hands it back. After that, the mate continues around in a circle, one cup at a time, each poured by the cebador, and then handed to the next person in the circle. This is a communal affair, and extraordinarily important to the bonding of not only close friends, but of host and guest. One can merely hope that no one in the circle has a communicable disease. To not partake of at least one round of the mate cup, unless one is ill, is considered poor manners. When you’ve had your fill, you hand the cup back to the host and say “gracias”, perhaps with a simple wave of the hand. The thank you is the cebador’s indication that you wish to be left out of the following rounds.

A decision is generally made by consensus whether or not to drink the mate bitter or sweet. If the former, nothing more is added, just a topping off of hot water; if the latter, a small spoonful of sugar is added each, or every few rounds of pouring. If the group has a mixed decision, the sugar drinkers generally win, and those who prefer their mate unadulterated generally wait to drink until one or two cups have been poured since the last addition of sugar.

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Pizza in BA: An absolute must, have to, don’t miss, to die for

What’s Up Buenos Aires
NEWS
June 18, 2006

Pizza in BA: An absolute must, have to, don’t miss, to die for

pizzas
Pizza is one of those things that is easy to carry on about. We all have our likes and dislikes. Thin crust, thick crust, red sauce, white, cheese or no, and toppings from simple herbs to tuna and pineapple. Properly constructed, a pizza could be the illustration for the USDA’s food pyramid, with it’s grain-based crust, vegetable, meat, and dairy toppings.

Buenos Aires in particular, with its strong Italian-rooted population, and Argentina in general, offers up its own takes on Nature’s most perfect food. Locals can wax poetic and argue for hours over not only which pizzeria serves up the best pie, but whether pizza porteña tops New York, Chicago, or even Naples for quality. That’s not a debate I care to weigh in on, I prefer to think that everyone brings their own contribution to the table. Why limit yourself?

Pizza in Buenos Aires tends to show up in one of four guises. There are variations on the theme, with coal, wood, or gas fired ovens that produce differing results, and further variations on the former two with various types of charcoal and wood being used – for example, quebracha wood, a type of evergreen, being unique to many of the country’s ovens and grills. The most common of the four types is the pizza a la piedra, or pizza cooked on a stone. Generally a thin to medium thickness crust, this is probably the most familiar to folks from other places. Arguably the finest spot in Buenos Aires for this style is Güerrin, right by the Obelisk.

Pizza al molde, or pan pizza, is a favorite for many folk. A thicker crust, sometimes showing up a bit like just a thicker version of the piedra and sometimes a true deep-dish style – this can range from something similar to what we think of as “Sicilian” to classic “Chicago”. Though there are folks who would disagree, I think it would be near impossible here to beat Las Cuartetas, also near to the Obelisk.

Although not some new invention, as some folks here like to boast, pizza a la parrilla, or grilled pizza, is a relatively new introduction to the Capital. Cracker thin crusts, and given that most of the places serving it are sort of trendy new hotspots, often far more creative toppings than the norm, are the hallmarks of this style. There aren’t many places offering it yet, and the contenders to the throne don’t have a clear winner – Minna, in Puerto Madero Este; Morelia in Palermo Viejo; and Mamina in Liniers are clearly the top of the heap.

Buenos Aires’ unique contribution to the pizza world is the faina, a pizza, or focaccia, made of chickpea flour, the crust baked and usually served unadorned or with a simple herb or onion topping, as an accompaniment to a standard pizza. Though faina clearly comes from Liguria, where it is sometimes called farinata, (and there are versions throughout the Mediterranean – Gibralter’s “national dish” of calentita or Nice’s socca come to mind) – what makes it unusual is that here it is served as an adjunct to pizza – a “classic” porteño lunch is a a slice or two of pizza and a slice of faina – which is often laid atop of a slice of pizza as a sort of top-crust, or eaten in alternating bites – and a glass of cheap Moscato.

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