My history with Argentina has
more to do with horses than it does with food. As the owner of an equestrian
breeding operation in Middleburg, Virginia, I hired my fair share of über-talented
Argentinian jockeys and trainers, not to mention polo players, and I recall how
special Sundays were to my Argentinian cohorts. The Sunday night festival of
food, drink, dance and intense conversation (which, by the way, started at 10 pm)
went well into Monday morning on more than a few occasions.
My recent trip to Buenos
Aires was all about the food, as I was scouting great locations for a Culinary
Discovery Tour that will be offered later this year.
Buenos Aires is intoxicating,
and the panoply of restaurants and cuisines is dizzying. But my quest was to
find the pulse of emerging culinary trends, which often involves the
preservation of regional or traditional cuisines. Barbecued meats, known as asado, will always be a staple here, but
I also noticed culinary trends that went beyond the Argentinian fascination
with meat and embraced other aspects of this rich culinary culture. With the help
of my delightful guide Eugenia, I was transported into the belly of the
Argentinian culinary scene and discovered a passionate commitment to the
regional cuisines of this diverse country, deference to the cooking methods of
native populations and a celebration of pre-Columbian cooking traditions.
We set out first to explore
local markets, an increasingly rare venue in cosmopolitan cities worldwide. Eugenia
selected Mercado San Telmo built in 1897 by Juan Buschiazzo
as an open, airy, glass-filled arcade, the perfect haven for artists, butchers,
bakers, antique dealers, spice mongers, cheese makers and anyone with a unique
product to sell.
We strolled through the colorful stalls of fruits and
vegetables, and it was clear that we were here in the
middle of summer – the tomatoes were irresistible.
Argentinians do love their
meat, so finding chorizo (pork
sausage), morcilla (blood sausage)
and assorted embutidos (sausages) was
not difficult. Eugenia pointed out the choripan, a beef and pork sausage that is the official street food
of Argentina. It’s typically grilled and placed in a soft bun with chimichurri
As we made our way through
the market, we noticed a line at the stand for quesos artesanales, the local artisan cheeses. You can often
sense the immigrant heritage of a place in its cheese, and Buenos Aires is no
exception. While cheese is integral to Latin cuisine in general, here you
can see the influx of the Spanish and Italian cheeses – esparto-woven manchego and
the peppery Sicilian pepato made from sheep’s milk.
I was determined to find some
spices, so I was thrilled when we stumbled across a treasure trove at a stand
run by a man and his son. I have learned over the years that being genuine
wins over being pretentious, so I confessed that I was a chef interested in
trying some of his best spice mixes.
The truth is, I am a
chimichurri addict, and I was most interested in uncovering any secret
ingredients in this heavenly salsa of the gods. Chimichurri, besides being one of those words I just love to
say, is typically served by the spoonful with grilled meats in Argentina. It is
a blend of herbs, garlic, olive oil and vinegar, with some heat from black
pepper or pepper flakes. Chimichurri is a lot like Indian garam masala in that
it will vary from household to household, each cook having his or her own
secret blend. When I was in Barcelona, I learned that many a Spanish chef has embellished
chimichurri by adding pimenton (Spanish paprika) for a smoky, herbaceous flavor.
I've shared my favorite chimichurri recipe with you below.
Needless to say, I walked
away with not only the owner’s private blend of chimichurri spices – and
instructions on how to bring the dried herbs to life – but also a sampling of both
smoky and sweet pimenton and the house blend of maté. The dried leaves of the
yerba maté plant make a heady tea with a bitter, tobacco-like taste, often
sweetened with large amounts of sugar and a dried citrus peel.
As the granddaughter of a
poultry farmer, I always make a stop at the egg vendor to jog my memory on what
breeds of chicken lay what size and color eggs. On this day there were not only organic eggs but also
double-yolk eggs, which I grew up believing was impossible to tell until
you broke the egg! I have done the research since, and while there are a few
hybrids that are bred to lay double-yolk eggs, it appears that, by and large, this
is still one of nature’s wrapped packages, and the single-versus-double
surprise is left until the shell is cracked open. I will continue to search,
and perhaps in the meantime, Harold McGee can get to the bottom of this mystery!
After an informative and
invigorating stroll through the Mercado San Telmo, we were off to explore potential
sites for a luncheon for our Culinary Discovery Tour guests. Our first stop, La
Ventana, was selected because it personifies the gaucho barbecue and allows
guests to learn about the unique cuts of Argentinian beef as well as taste the country’s
celebrated cherry-rich Malbec wines. La Ventana is also a
popular nightspot for tango dancing, which is one of those experiences I would
encourage anyone to put on their bucket list.
Our next stop was El Maté
Café: The Argentine Experience. We were greeted by the chef and his partner, who not only run a trendy nightspot
but also offer classes on Argentinian cuisine and wine. It’s a hands-on cooking school
where seasonality and authenticity reign supreme. I was impressed! Eugenia had brought
a group here recently, and she raved about the experience.
After a morning of exploring,
we were ready to sit down and enjoy an Argentinian lunch. We chose Aldo’s Vinoteca,
known more for its wines than its food, although the food was outstanding. After a tour of the restaurant, the private dining room and the
wall-to-wall wines, we settled in and chose a wine from the seemingly
endless wine list. As I am known to do, I beckoned the lovely sommelier and
asked her to select wines for us, and she did not disappoint.
We started with a Torrontes
from the northern region of Salta. This searing, brilliantly acidic wine had the
heady floral aromatic of a botrytis dessert wine. It was
paired with our humita, a delicious
pudding of corn and creamy brie wrapped in a cornhusk.
Next was a filet steak grilled
to perfection and served with an arugula salad. The pairing was a 2010 Mundo
Revés Malbec, a smooth and full-bodied companion to our entrée. I was intrigued
by the wine list presented on an iPad, but I guess I have been sailing for too
long, as I hear this is no longer a novelty at shoreside restaurants.
After lunch we said goodbye
to our gracious hosts and returned to our car. (Our driver confessed to me that
he had lunched at McDonald’s. I am not sure if that was meant to impress or
not.) My knowledgeable guide wanted us to stop at one more place: Havanna. This
café is known for its prized dulce de leche cookies. Dulce de leche
is a sweet milk and sugar spread that is an iconic treasure of Argentina. It is
used like Hershey’s syrup on everything from morning toast to cookies (in between
shortbread cookies like an Oreo) to ice cream.
After I filled my market bags with
Havanna cookies (for class tomorrow, I swear!), we made one final quick stop at
the famous Volta ice creamery for a dulce de leche ice cream cone.
To be honest, I am usually not much for sweets, but this was a little piece of
As always, I am indebted to
the generosity of my guides selected by Oceania Cruises’ local tour operators. It
was a day well spent, and as I returned to Marina,
I was convinced that this was yet another essential destination for a Culinary
Discovery Tour. I hope you can join us next December when Marina returns to Argentina and sample some
of the treasures I uncovered on this scouting mission!
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, washed
1 bunch cilantro, washed
6 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup champagne vinegar or white
3/4 cup grapeseed oil or mild extra
virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of smoked paprika (pimenton),
Place all ingredients in a food
processor and blend, adjusting the amount of garlic to taste. If the sauce is
the consistency of a thick paste, thin with more oil. Sauce can be stored in
the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container for up to 2 weeks.