Did you know that as of the 2006 US Census, Argentina is the number 1 consumer of red meat? They consume about 143 pounds per person each year. To give you some perspective the next highest consumer is the United States at 94 pounds. For my friends in the US, take the amount of red meat you eat in a year and add 50% more, then you will have some glimpse of what it's like to eat like an Argentinean. That’s not everything though. Add in a not so healthy dose of red wine, two to three pastries filled with caramel, a chicken fried steak, and top it off with an enormous serving of flan and you will be getting closer to daily eating in BA. Well, far be it from me to not follow suit.
It would be an injustice to not start off this blog talking about the red meat. The best cuts (usually the Bife de Chorizo) are large, succulent and like butter to a knife. It normally has a rim of fat on one side and nothing but the best quality beef on the other. Its taste is indescribable as the only sounds that I can seem to get out are "mmmmm" and “oh god.” Seriously, it is the best beef you will have in your entire life. It also doesn’t hurt that an excellent restaurant cut will cost you less than ten US dollars. Supposedly there are two reasons for the taste; how the cows are raised and the expert chefs. There are no factory feedlots in Argentina, all cows graze the open pampas and live off the grass and the chefs are trained from birth and only cook over open charcoal grills. I don’t really care how it’s done, I just care that it keeps tasting delicious.
The culture here seems to revolve around the cow. One of the biggest festivals each year, the Rural, is a celebration of farm animals and gaucho life. Gaucho is the equivalent of the American Cowboy (more or less). The term is used to describe the residents of the pampas or grasslands in Argentina. Just like American Cowboys they were herders that lived off the land. And similar to American Cowboys there were considered the strong silent bad ass type that you really don’t want to mess with.
Probably the only large difference (outside of language of course) was their dress. At the rural, we had the opportunity to see these expert gauchos in action. The “Paleteada” is a competition where a pair of gauchos work together to sandwich a steer between their horses and practically carry it 60 meters while not stepping out of the path line. It’s amazing to see firsthand. The steer comes out of the pen running full steam and these two men on horseback just come up on either side and crush the steer between them and then maintain that until the end or as long as possible. The really good ones can slow the steer down to practically a walk. It was incredible to watch, although while standing next to the gate I had glimpses of the steer jumping over the barricade when it got loose and trampling everyone in sight, other than that, awesome stuff.
The most significant part of the Rural though was probably the animal judging. Thousands upon thousands of animals were judged ranging from the massive cows to the tiny chinchillas. All were ranked based on age and weight category. My favorite part of the entire show was seeing a parrilla (steak house) located directly next to the cows that would be the future main course. That just seemed a little cruel to me. Anyway, we stayed at the Rural as long as we could stand the crowds. We still haven’t gotten used to the idea of zero personal space yet and people bumping into you every few seconds. It’s just one of those cultural differences you need to get used to and for us every once in a while it can really get under our skin. I mean we are both in line, there is no need to be breathing down my neck.
Every day I have been here, every single day, I have eaten some sort of red meat. Without a doubt the bife de chorizo (specifically from Las Cabras on Fitz Roy) has been my absolute favorite. But the lomo, sweetbread and milanesa are pretty damn good as well. But don’t think that Argentineans discriminate against other types of meat.
Sausages, pork, chicken and all sorts of other animals are included in this country’s love affair. A normal Sunday affair is the backyard barbecue which, if you are a vegetarian will leave you very hungry. You can get a small version of this at just about any parrilla in the country.
If you ask for the asado for two you will normally get enough meat for five people consisting of chorizos, black pudding, chitterlings, sweetbread, costillas (ribs), flank steak, chicken and possibly some more pork/steak/or chicken. It’s served on your own small grill and finishing it becomes a personal challenge about half way through. Did I mention I LOVE THIS COUNTRY!
To make sure I only get the finest cuts of beef while here I decided to pick my own meat guy. His name is Don Queso and his Fiambres Tienda is awesome. For the most part, I went there to buy cuts of bife de chorizo to try and perfect cooking it at home, but we also went there for any other meat or deli needs. The guy is probably 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide and never wears gloves. It takes an entire day to get rid of the stench of meat after you shake his hand. He doesn’t talk much and looks like he could be a mobster. He is everything I’ve ever wanted in a butcher. I nearly started crying when we had to say goodbye to him in Buenos Aires.
I don’t want you to get the wrong picture, it’s not only about the beef here in BA. It’s also about the sweets. Much like America’s love affair with peanut butter, Argentineans are infatuated with Dulce de Leche. Dulce de Leche is the Argentinean name for milk caramel and it is everywhere here. Just about every pastry you can buy, you can buy it filled with dulce de leche. For breakfast, instead of jam there is dulce de leche. For dessert, instead of peanut butter or chocolate, there is dulce de leche. The first time I tried it, while it absolutely was delicious, I asked myself, “how do these people have this for breakfast? it would give me sugar migraines that early in the morning.” Well after a month of having it with just about every breakfast food item you can imagine it’s safe to say that Argentineans are on to something. Well crafted caramel on anything makes it taste better, trust me.
Pastries in general are an art form here.
The most common are the medialunas (croissants). They have two types, one made with butter and the other with animal fat. I’m a butter man personally, the animal fat one is supposed to be a bit more filling while the butter more sweet. Also a big hit are the Alfajores. Dulce de leche sandwiched between two sugar cookies and covered in melted chocolate. They are addicting. Every overnight bus ride we have taken, these are served for breakfast. We have not complained. There are really too many pastries to name. The pastry ladies across the street from our apartment have been extra nice helping me taste test each of them and decide on our favorites. Lindsey’s is the dulce de leche churro while mine is basically a sugared donut filled with dulce de leche. It’s heaven.
So what do we wash all this down with you ask? Well wine would be the expected response, and while we have enjoyed our fair share of wine (we originally were shooting for a bottle a day) I decided to venture into the Argentinean beer scene. Yes I’m being a bit of a snob here and leaving the ridiculously cheap and tasty Malbec wines to try out the unproven beers but to be honest after three weeks of Malbecs I needed a change. In its relatively early stages the Argentinean (especially the Patagonian) micro and artisan breweries are really starting to take off. Quilmes is the unofficial national beer. Its available everywhere and is relatively cheap. They have an excellent bock and red lager option that for such a large mass producing brewery is pretty impressive.
But the real gems are the smaller microbrews you find around town. They aren’t really sold in the large supermarkets like in the states but traveling to a restaurant that serves them or directly to the brewery is well worth it. I’m looking forward to our trip south after Buenos Aires since the Patagonia region is famous for their breweries. I wouldn’t say they’ve hit the Colorado microbrew scene where there are more breweries than schools but I’m pretty sure they are getting close.
Well before I start sounding too much like a food snob I’ll stop this blog here. I could go on for another 5 pages talking about everything you can eat here (baked steak, flan, dulce de leche ice cream, the list goes on) but I think you get the idea. Any worries about coming back to the states looking too skinny have now been put to rest. In November, I will return as my curvy self with maybe a few dulce de leche donuts stuffed in my pockets and Argentinean steaks hidden in my carry-on.