"The wise man bridges the gap by laying out the path by means of which he can get from where he is to where he wants to go." - J. P. Morgan
Today is Gnocchi Day, an event celebrated on the 29th of each month in Argentina. The tradition comes from Italian immigrants who were regularly short of money just prior to payday and needed an inexpensive meal to fill their stomachs. The frugal housewife learned to make gnocchi from potatoes, flour and an egg, and could serve up a tasty meatless meal for the entire household even when the larder was looking quite bare. It became customary to place a peso under your plate when you ate gnocchi, with the hope that your coin would multiply in the month ahead.
Making gnocchi is a hands-on process which becomes easier as you get a feel for the right consistency and texture. Russet potatoes are boiled and mashed, then mixed with a small amount of flour and an egg binder to form a dough. Depending on the moistness of the potatoes, I find the dough more workable with the addition of a tablespoon of water. (A scant tablespoon, as too much water will make the gnocchi hard.) The dough is rolled by hand into cylinders on a floured board, and then cut into bite-sized lengths. Each gnocchi is carefully pressed with a thumb against the tines of a fork to create the classic look; a row of parallel indentations on one side and a petal-shaped curvature on the other. Cooking gnocchi is as easy as dropping them into a pot of boiling water and waiting until they float up to the surface to be scooped out with a slotted spoon.
Fresh basil from the garden
Gnocchi can be served with tomato or cream-based sauces, but the best accompaniment for the dumplings is growing right in the front yard, in my herb garden. A bouquet of basil, chopped and blended with garlic, parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil makes a fragrant, green pesto sauce. I add ground almonds as a substitute for the standard pine nuts which are, unfortunately, not available in San Rafael.
We selected a bottle of Bianchi DOC Malbec 2007
to pair with the gnocchi. This wine is produced by the most prominent Italian family in San Rafael, third generation descendants of Don Valentin Bianchi and his wife Elsa, who settled in Rama Caida in 1910. Valentin Bianchi worked in railway administration, started a bus line and founded a timber company before being elected to City Council in San Rafael. He opened his own bodega called El Chiche in 1928, and by the time he died in 1968, the re-named Bodegas Valentin Bianchi
had become one of the most successful wineries in Argentina. Today, the Bianchi wines are exported to Australia, the U.S, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Singapore. The family has also enriched San Rafael's cultural life by creating a foundation for the arts which presents fine art exhibitons, dance performances and musical concerts at the bodega. A bottle of Bianchi DOC Malbec costs 17.85 pesos at Vea supermarket.
Baby Aaron was born in San Rafael on Monday, January 18th 2010, the seventh son of Claudia Segura and Omar Carretero. His birth was a major item in Los Andes newspaper, because the seventh consecutive son (or daughter) in an Argentine family is very special. By law, Aaron becomes the godchild of the nation's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and is entitled to financial assistance for education and for meeting the material needs of his family as he grows up.
Apparently, the 7th child was not always regarded as a family favourite. Russian immigrants to Argentina brought with them the belief that the seventh son in a family of seven boys would become a werewolf, and the seventh girl in a line of daughters was destined to be a witch. The myth persisted and spread, becoming strong enough to result in the abandonment, persecution and even murder of children with the unlucky birth order. The Argentine government introduced the presidential "godparent law" in 1907 to transform a curse into a blessing, and effectively put a lid on superstitious thinking that posed a threat to innocent children. Today, the once-dreaded seventh offspring is a cherished child, honoured with a gold medal from the president, no less.
Carne a la masa
To celebrate the most auspicious birth in San Rafael, we served carne a la masa for lunch. This Mendoza dish, like the godparenting program, is part tradition and part transformation - a meat pie that turns cheap cuts of beef into a rich, savoury meal. The secret is the thick flour and water crust used to completely seal the top, while underneath the meat stews and tenderizes slowly in a mix of red wine, garlic, peppers and onions. The dough is as hard as a ceramic tile when the pie comes out of the oven, but once removed, the filling inside is the succulent surprise.
We toasted the new arrival (and his renowned godmother) with a glass of Clos-de-los-Siete 2007
. The seven-pointed star on the label represents the seven original investors in a consortium of bodegas
located in the valley of Tunuyan, 50 miles south of Mendoza city. Composed of 48% Malbec, 28% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Syrah, and crafted by the world-famous consultant Michel Rolland, this wine is a superior blend. Ripe fruit and floral nose followed by raspberry and chocolate flavours, grainy tannins and good acidity, ending up with an elegant sour cherry finish. Clos-de-los-Siete sells for 38 pesos at Winery
, an upscale wine store in Mendoza. Buy a case of six, plus one (for good luck.)
With an abundance of tomatoes, zucchini and peppers ripening in the garden and temperatures soaring above 35 degrees Celsius, the season for gazpacho has definitely arrived. The Spanish version of this cold vegetable soup has a rich history that can be traced back to the Moors who occupied Andalusia from the 8th to the 12th century.
The original ancient recipe for ajo blanco - gazpacho's pale cousin - included garlic, olive oil, vinegar and bread. Centuries later, the Spaniards amplified the piquant flavour with peppers, onions and parsley, and changed the colour of the dish from white to red by adding tomatoes. (Tomatoes did not arrive in Europe until the early 16th century when the Spanish brought seeds back from their conquest of the Aztecs.) Sometimes avocados and cucumbers were added too, with each vegetable chopped finely and soaked for several hours in the thick tomato broth. The chilled soup has evolved into a liquid salad; a nutritious and refreshing dish, especially on a scorching hot day. The word "gazpacho" is derived from the Mozarab word "caspa" which means fragments.
Inca stone wall
Fragments can indeed make a solid and complete statement when skilfully combined. A visit to the architecturally stunning Bodega Septima
in Lujan de Cuyo reinforced this idea for me. The team of Eliana Bormida and Mario Yanzon
(specialists in bodega projects) designed the Septima building using clean minimalist lines and an Inca stonemasonry technique called pirca
. The early inhabitants of Mendoza constructed their buildings using fragments of Andes stone stacked one on top of another. Their method required a true sensitivity for the found material they were working with, as they did not have metal carving tools. Walls were tapered slightly with thicker stones at the bottom, and doorways were trapezoidal in shape, adding stability. Even major earthquakes could not destroy the pirca walls built by the Incas, although many Spanish-built edifices collapsed.
Of course a trip to the bodega was not just an architectural tour, but included wine-tasting. We selected Septima Syrah Tempranillo 2007 to pair with gazpacho. The alcohol content of 14% is a good modifying influence for the spicy ingredients that bind together the fragments of our soup. The syrah adds tannins to the blend, while the tempranillo balances with red fruit and coffee flavours. A bottle of this wine costs 14 pesos.
When we visited Buenos Aires recently, the city was celebrating an international festival of tango. The former Harrod's department store directly across from our hotel was full of dancers, musicians and vendors selling traditional shoes, stockings, dresses, hats and suspenders to tango enthusiasts. The mood was festive and the action spilled out to the street, with throngs of people gathering to watch couples young and old, professional and amateur, perform the classic dance of Argentina. Tango was born on the streets of Buenos Aires, in the port district of La Boca, where immigrants developed the dance in the late 19th century. Derived from a blend of Spanish, African, Slavic and Cuban dance forms, the tango is a stylized portrayal of seduction, with male and female engaged in a game of stealth, enticement, teasing, rejection, acceptance and embrace. While the passionate sensuality of the tango is obvious to any spectator, there is also a darker undercurrent that propels the dance. Contrasting the smooth, almost feline walking movements are the adornos that involve sharp, staccato thrusts of the feet that mimic a knife blade. The famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges noted the presence of opposing forces in the dance and explained its uniquely beautiful combination of violence and grace. "The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have often tried to state in words: the belief that a fight may be a celebration."
A chef could create a career based on that belief. Dishes combining opposite flavours and textures excite the palate. The eater is intrigued as ingredients fight for dominance, play back and forth, tease the tastebuds and finally join forces in a delicious seduction of the senses. A good example is our favourite summer appetizer made from slices of honeydew melon wrapped in jamon crudo. Similar to Italian prosciutto, jamon crudo is made locally by salting a leg of pork, washing it and hanging it on a hook to cure in the open air. It has a dry, chewy texture and a fatty, salty flavour which is the very opposite of the sweet, juicy, melt-in-the-mouth ripe melon. The two foods are perfect partners.
We pair the appetizer with 2 x4 Tango Torrontes
, an excellent summer wine made by Bodega Fantelli
in Santa Rosa, Mendoza. (2x4 refers to the rhythm of the tango, not the specification for lumber which North Americans are familiar with!) This wine intrigues the nose with aromas of pear and flowers, dances in the mouth with citrus and green apple, and finishes with a flourish of herbal potpourri. A bottle sells for 12.50 pesos at Vea supermarket. Honeydew melons, purchased from roadside vendors, are 10 pesos each and jamon crudo, thinly sliced, can be purchased at the delicatessen for about 14 pesos for 200 grams.
The apricot harvest is here and in spite of an early frost, a hailstorm and gale force winds, our trees have produced more fruit than we can handle. We are now at the point of giving away boxes of the fabulous fruit to anyone who visits us or passes by on the road!
I made a batch of apricot jam first thing in the morning, by adding lemon juice and sugar to the crushed fruit and boiling until thick. By noon, I was preparing several crates of the fruit for drying. The apricot doesn't need to be peeled - thank goodness-but has to be cut in half, pitted, dipped in a water and sodium sulphite solution (a preservative which retains the orange colour and the vitamin content) before being laid out to dry on our wire mesh pergola. After three consecutive days of dry, sunny weather, the apricots will be ready to be brought in and stored in plastic containers.
After lunch and a brief siesta, the late afternoon activity was preserving apricot halves with syrup and Hesperidina, a unique aperitif. This liqueur is made from bitter orange peel, sugar, alcohol and herbs, and has been a popular Argentine drink since 1864 when Melville Sewell Bagley
first introduced the product in Buenos Aires. It has been touted as a digestive aid, and it is true that the flavonoids in citrus fruit peel and membrane are soothing to the stomach. Whether medicinal in value or not, Hesperidina adds a special zesty flavour to my apricot preserves, which are best served with a slice of almond pound cake.
The rest of my apricot windfall was used to make a sorbet. Pureed fruit, sweetened and frozen for a few hours, becomes a refreshing dessert or palate-cleanser between courses. We serve this at the end of a lamb chop meal. A bottle of Hesperidina sells for 11.85 pesos at Vea supermarket.