I have always been passionate about food and since moving to Argentina one of my great pleasures has been exploring the different ways of cooking and preserving that are used in our adopted home.
Three years ago we emigrated from Scotland so my husband could follow his farming dream, our son could have a life in the sun and I could develop my painting. Although we are only a few kilometers outside the small city of San Rafael in the Province of Mendoza our neighbourhood is very rural, we are surrounded by fruit orchards and fincas, or small farms.
Our diet here tends to be very seasonal as – with the exception of a few supermarkets in the centre of town – the shops only stock what is available locally. This can sometimes be frustrating if you are accustomed to the western ideal of everything from everywhere being available anytime, and if, for example, you suddenly fancy a bit of sushi for supper!
I remember being totally bewildered shortly after we arrived when I couldn’t find breakfast cereal in the local shops. This is such a staple of most kids’ diets in the UK that I couldn’t believe it was a luxury product here. I soon realised that most Argentines don’t eat breakfast at all and those that do generally only have something very light such as plain toast.
However the seasonality also has definite advantages – the main one being that you really, really appreciate things when you haven’t seen or tasted them for a year. In Spring one of the first vegetables to appear is asparagus. In Scotland this is a luxury vegetable, usually flown in from Peru, but here it grows like a weed. Enterprising young boys pick it and sell it in bunches by the side of the road, and you see it stacked up in pyramids at every greengrocer. We love the stuff and eat it almost every day while it is around, and then just when we might be starting to get bored of it, it vanishes from the shops and we start looking out for the arrival of the cherries – the next treat.
In the UK, fresh food is expensive whereas preserved and processed food is generally cheaper. Here the opposite is true. Within a couple of kilometers of our house we can buy freshly laid eggs and local vegetables and meat for very reasonable prices but I have never seen a ready meal on sale, and tinned or packaged food is relatively costly.
As fruit is the staple crop we are lucky enough to be washed by waves of fruit as it comes into season – after the cherries come the apricots then plums, peaches, nectarines, pears and grapes – all sold by the crate direct from the farms or by the side of the road as well as in the ubiquitous greengrocers.
To cope with all this bounty the local traditions of preserving are still going strong. Before we moved here I had only the haziest notion of what canning and bottling actually were – an impression mostly gleaned from novels set in rural America! However now, implementing these techniques take up a fair proportion of my summer. In case anyone reading this is as ignorant as I was the process involves peeling and chopping fruit , putting it in jars or bottles with sugar syrup and sterilising the sealed jars by submerging them in boiling water for a long, long time.
It is simple enough but time consuming. I have gradually become lazier and lazier about the methods I use. At first I was dutifully following the “hot syrup” method which involves heating up the fruit and separately heating a sugar syrup then combining them in hot jars before submerging them in , yes, HOT water. Remember that all this is taking place in the middle of the summer when temperatures can reach the high thirties… Several scalds and sugar burns later I was delighted when a friend told me that all this was unnecessary – that it works just as well if you add the cold fruit to sterilised jars, top them up with cold water and add a few spoonfuls of sugar, then seal them and into the cold water they go. Okay it then takes longer to bring to the boil but the whole process is so much easier – I just wish my friend had mentioned it earlier!
She does all her preserving on a fire outside which is the traditional method. Sadly we don’t have a suitable space in the garden to build the right kind of fire and I do mine inside so my kitchen can get a bit sauna-like.
Last year my well intentioned husband bought one hundred kilos of peaches thinking they were a bargain. Three days of hot and sticky hard labour later we were barely on speaking terms and I vowed never to peel another peach in my life- but I have to say that we did enjoy them in the middle of winter.
The other way of keeping fruit is to make jam and like most housewives here I have a cupboard stocked with jars – cherry, plum, apricot, peach, strawberry. The only fruit I really miss are raspberries, having grown up on my mother’s home-made raspberry jam which is simply the best in the world! One fruit I barely knew about before coming here is quince. It is a neglected crop now but quince trees grow all along the roads around us and in Autumn they are covered in gold knobbly fruit.
The main thing people make with them is membrillo – literally just quince, or quince cheese. This is made in the same way as jam but boiled for longer. As quince is very high in pectin it eventually sets solidly to make a stiff jelly. This is absolutely delicious served with creamy cheese – a combination which is served as a local dessert – Postre Vigilante.
Many people here have their own vegetable patch. The soil is very fertile but getting things to grow can be tough because this area suffers annually from strong winds in the spring and baking heat in the summer, not to mention various strange viruses and the savage ants that can chew up a delicate seedling in a matter of minutes! Plants need endless watering and a lot of loving care. I have grown salad leaves and tomatoes in pots at our house but I must admit I was a lot more successful at gardening in Scotland when I only had to contend with endless rain and slugs!
The main crop on our finca is alfalfa but last year we also grew vegetables for our own, and our workers’ use. I ended up with many crates of them and of course felt duty bound to preserve those that we didn’t eat immediately. Red peppers are fantastic charred in the oven then peeled and simply bottled with nothing added. A local delicacy is aubergine (or eggplant!) escabeche – thinly sliced aubergines blanched in vinegar then bottled with oil and spices. I also bottled huge batches of tomatoes cooked with aubergines and peppers, ending up with shelves of instant sauce for pasta or the base for stews and curries. The thing I made most of was what we call ketchup though it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the commercial stuff. This is a thick chunky sauce that my son likes to eat with absolutely everything, which I am delighted about as it is packed with antioxidants.
As a complete novice in all this I have been collecting recipes and advice from different sources. Fortunately my neighbours – a stalwart collection of lovely boisterous women – are all proud cooks and happy to tell me the ins and outs of the various traditional methods. Unfortunately my Castellano is not as fluent as I would like it to be and I have a habit of thinking I have understood something when I haven’t. This has lead to unpleasant results such as when I misunderstood our finca worker’s instructions for cooking the hare he had given us after shooting it with a catapult. I was sure he recommended soaking it for twelve hours in vinegar but that definitely didn’t improve the flavour! The next time he gave us one I cooked it straight and it was much nicer. I felt like a real farmer’s wife after that as I had to skin and gut the thing too – not an appetising task for an ex- vegetarian but life here is one long learning curve!
With regard to recipes things are complicated by the fact that everyone has their own particular way of doing things. I was confused for ages about the “correct” way of processing black olives as everyone I asked gave me different advice. We are lucky enough to have two ancient trees in the garden that produce huge succulent olives. After a fair bit of trial and error I discovered the best method is to soak them in brine for several months – that way they stay nice and juicy. The alternative is to layer them in dry salt but then they end up more leathery.
No article about Argentine food is complete without a mention of Dulce de Leche. Literally Milk Jam, this tooth- achingly sweet spread has the consistency of thick cream and is lethal to the waist line. I rarely buy it as it only seems to last a matter of hours in our house. Argentines use it as filler for all sorts of cakes and pastries. I did try making it once – the only recipe I could find said simply: “boil milk for hours, stirring all the time.” Unfortunately there was no guidance on how to tell when it was ready so I duly boiled and boiled it and it ended up setting like stone – we had to chip it out of the jars! It still tasted good but it wasn’t quite the same.
At the time of this experiment we had a dairy cow at the finca so we were getting several litres of fresh milk daily, which I used to make yoghurt and cheese. The cheese was basic – I made it by setting milk in soft curds with lemon juice or vinegar and then hanging it up to drain in a muslin cloth. The result was bland but tasted very fresh. Marinating it in spiced oil jazzed it up a bit.
If you asked most people to name the first thing they think of when Argentine food is mentioned I expect they would say “meat”. It is true that we eat a lot more of it here than we did in Scotland, and it is absolutely, unequivocally, delicious. It is also very easy to cook. An Argentine friend once called steaks fast food and I know what he means. A T-bone or fillet steak costs a fraction of the price it would in the UK or US and it can be cooked in minutes.
In the winter I love to cook my version of Oso Buco which is shin beef on the bone cooked very slowly in red wine and onions. It is the ultimate comfort food. Other Argentine specialities are empanadas and milanesas – small pastries with meat fillings and thin breaded escalopes respectively. I must admit I haven’t been too successful in my attempts to cook these and I tend to leave it to the experts. You often see notices outside houses where entrepreneurial housewives make empanadas to order – they are usually sold by the dozen.
Argentine eating habits could be described as conservative and the Sunday Asado (barbeque) with all the family is still very much enshrined in the culture. A full blown asado is a wondrous thing to behold! As we don’t have family here we often get together with friends on a Sunday. When I first arrived I thought it must be boring to have the same thing over and over again but now I know better and if for any reason we don’t host or attend any asados for a few weeks I start to feel deprived!
Cooking the meat is definitely a male domain and inevitably involves a certain amount of ritual conversation regarding the best kind of wood to create the ideal heat; the particular cuts of meat being cooked that day; and where the chorizos and morcillas were purchased from. These delicacies are prepared to individual recipes by butchers everywhere – even the tiniest shops have a meat counter. Chorizos are large chunky sausages, usually made with a combination of pork and beef. Morcilla is blood sausage, a bit like British black pudding but softer in texture. Juicy chunks of these are usually served with bread while the rest of the meat is cooking. Homemade chutneys and relishes make a good accompaniment to these, as well as chimichuri – a traditional sauce of oregano, parsley, garlic and spices.
Every Argentine man has his preferred cut of meat to put on the parilla (grill)– a full asado might include fillet; ribs; chinchulin or intestine, which may sound a bit dubious but is appetisingly crispy after slow cooking; matambre, or belly meat . An occasional chicken might even make an appearance but beef is definitely the star turn.
Asados are a blissfully easy way of entertaining: you don’t have to worry about serving something original – everyone knows what to expect, all the action takes place outside so you don’t have to spend time tidying the house, ( definitely a big plus in my case!) and guests generally bring a salad or dessert to share. People here tend to have a much more relaxed attitude to time than in the UK and it is not uncommon for an asado that starts at lunchtime to go on until midnight.
Foodie friends have often been curious about the difference in our diet now that we live in Argentina. It certainly hasn’t changed completely – we still eat a lot of pasta, curries and salads. We never did eat much processed food although my son used to have the normal addictions to baked beans, fish fingers and peanut butter – all unavailable here. He has learned to do without them! As we live in a land locked area we don’t have access to much fish and I do miss that. We do have a more restricted diet than we did before but the quality and freshness of what we eat more than makes up for that.
I don’t want to give the impression that I spend my entire life cooking (although it does sometimes feel that way!). I do spend a lot of time in the kitchen but I do so because I love it and find it deeply satisfying to prepare the majority of the things my family eats, and to feel that we are making the most of the lavishly bountiful harvests around us.
About the Author: Kate Kirby is a mother, partner, ardent foodie and artist. Originally from Scotland, she has lived with her family near San Rafael in Argentina for three years. In her former life she worked as a cook, a teacher, a cleaner…anything to keep the wolf from the studio door. For more information on her painting and the art holidays she runs in San Rafael please see her website: www.kate-kirby.com