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 sauce.
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 heaven.
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 distilled vinegar
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), optional
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.