A tree full of ripe figs is a testament to the success of mutualism. Without the wasp, the fig tree would not be pollinated, and without the fig tree, the wasp would have no breeding ground. Like the popular song linking love and marriage - you can't have one without the other.
The fig, unlike the apricot and plum trees on our property, does not burst into bloom in the spring, but forms its green globes directly on the ends of the branches. The flower is actually internal, and requires an insect to enter the fruit cavity to pollinate it. There are specific fig wasps that nature has designed to do this task, but they only work as active pollinators for the fig in exchange for a place to lay their eggs. The biological barter system works for the benefit of both parties. The eggs of the wasp hatch as larvae inside the flower, eat one seed from the fruit, emerge as adults and fly off to pollinate other fig trees.
A recent study conducted at Cornell University revealed that if the friendly exchange of services breaks down, there are consequences. When the wasp lay its eggs inside the flower without bothering to collect pollen, the fig tree drops the fruit to the ground and the insect's offspring do not survive. Charlotte Jander, the lead author of the research paper explains the phenomenon as a kind of natural policing. "Sanctions seem to be a necessary force in keeping this and other mutually beneficial relationships on track when being part of a mutualism is costly. In our study we saw less cheating when sanctions were stronger."
Fig compote and cheese
Reading the latest news reports of British indignation as Argentina imposes sanctions on the movement of ships between the mainland and Las Malvinas, I think government leaders should take time to contemplate the fig tree, the wasp and the wisdom of mutual co-operation. Britain has forged ahead with oil drilling off the coast of the islands, while refusing to attend UN meetings aimed at settling the crucial issue of sovereignty. Rights to oil are dependent on a bilateral agreement that benefits both Argentina and Britain. Clearly, you can't have one without the other.
While pondering the world's political problems, I chopped a big bowl of figs and poured in a bottle of Balbo Tempranillo 2008 as a marinade. A diced onion, a bit of sugar and some grated orange peel were added to the figs the next day and the mixture was boiled until thick and jammy. Cristina and Gordon, please take note: Argentine fig compote is best served with a slice of old English Stilton. A bottle of Balbo costs 8.75 pesos at Vea supermarket.
You don't need to own a vineyard or a bodega to experiment with wine-making in Argentina. A visit to the Bombal y Aldao bodega confirmed that it is possible to purchase grapes and an oak barrel and consult with an expert oenologist to produce your very own wine with a private label. Given the rising costs of vineyard labour, farm equipment, anti-hail netting and fertilizer, the personal barrel program may be the most economical and rewarding method of wine-making for small quantity production.
We toured the cellars at Bombal y Aldao and discovered row upon row of oak barrels, each carefully labelled with the name of the individual owner, the grape variety and the vintage year. The barrels offered for purchase are American or French oak and range in price from $550 - $1350 U.S. depending on the make. Each barrel can be used for three years before being replaced. Our host, bodega owner Camilo Aldao, explained that one barrel yields 288 bottles of wine.
Bottles in storage
Camilo is a strong promoter of San Rafael wines, and sells grapes from his own finca for elaboration. His clients receive expert advice on the process from winemaker Mauro Nosenzo, who works to achieve the style of wine desired by each barrel owner, while bringing out the best characteristics of the grape variety. His approach is a blend of art and science, using both natural occurrence and artificial manipulation to produce an excellent product.
The Bombal y Aldao bodega is part of the rich legacy of the Bombal family, descendants of Jean Bombal who arrived in San Rafael in 1794 from Limoges, France. Their lineage includes the Governor of Mendoza province, Domingo Bombal Ugarte, who served 11 terms of office from 1863-1890. He purchased Finca los Alamos, a colonial style building used as a border fortification against the Indians and acquired 10,000 hectares of land for development as vineyard, olive grove and cattle ranch. The finca became a salon for artists and writers during the 1930s, a country retreat where chatelaine Susana Bombal entertained her friends. Among the important visitors at Los Alamos were Jorge Luis Borges, Manuel Majica Lainez and Basalduao Soldi. The house, now used as a bed and breakfast, retains its charming colonial features and examples of original artwork contributed by Susana's illustrious guests.
An extraordinary labrynth on the grounds of Finca los Alamos serves as a memorial to Jorge Luis Borges. Planted in 2003 with 7000 bushes arranged in the shape of an open book, the labrynth spells out Borges' name as if reflected in a mirror and includes the initials MK for Maria Kodama, his wife. We are intrigued to hear from Camilo that buyers of an oak barrel receive an extra bonus: one night's free accommodation at Finca los Alamos. The highlight of their stay is the first tasting of their very own wine.
The total cost for producing a bottle of wine (bottled, corked and labelled) via the barrel purchase program is approximately $9 U.S.
Our grapes are now turning from green to purple, a stage the French call "veraison" and the Spanish refer to as "pintura". Another month of ripening and they will be ready to harvest, but today I'm judiciously plucking a few of the still-tender leaves from the vines to make a batch of dolmades.
I try to select leaves that are bright green and pliable from the lower parts of the vines, so as not to disturb the canopy that provides dappled shade to the grapes. Too much harsh Argentine sun on the clusters can spoil the fruit, and direct exposure also attracts birds who will gladly finish off the grapes before they have had a chance to mature. It seems that Mother Nature designed the blush of the fruit to be a signal to wildlife, an invitation to come and feast at her table.
The leaves are dropped into a pot of boiling water to blanch them. The filling, prepared from ground beef, rice, parsley, mint, and green onions is spooned onto the leaf, which is then folded in on the sides and rolled like a cigar. The trick is to get the bundle to stay neatly wrapped during the next step, which involves simmering in a pan of water flavoured with slices of lemon. I solved this problem by taking a hint from the bales of alfalfa that are rolled and tied with twine in our field. A stem of chive from the garden, secured like a ribbon around the rolled leaf ensures that the dolma will keep its shape during cooking.
The Greeks claim that dolmades were served on Mount Olympus with nectar and ambrosia. We serve them cold, as an appetizer paired with a glass of Etchart Privado Torrontes 2009. This deep golden-coloured wine has aromas of lime, green grapes and flowers, and is nicely balanced with light acidity and fruit flavours in the mouth. The finish lingers with a hint of vanilla. An excellent substitute for nectar and not as harsh as retsina. Bodega Etchart is located in the Valle de Cafayate, where a particular microclimate at an elevation of 1700 meters produces the very best Torrontes grapes. A bottle of Privado costs 10.25 pesos at Vea supermarket.
The small sprig of rosemary that I planted last year has evolved into a shrub that's starting to take over the herb garden. Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind each time I walk past the spiky plant, the line where Ophelia says to Laertes: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray, love, remember..." Funny how memory work from long past school days resides permanently in the brain, though I can't recall where I left my reading glasses last night.
I picked one bunch of rosemary to add to my polenta, and another to add to the brim of my straw hat, as a natural memory aid. The Greeks encouraged students to twine the herb into their hair while studying, to improve learning. The pungent fragrance is enough to clear the head, and the pine oil flavour of rosemary lends grace to a bland staple like cornmeal.
Argentine polenta is made from a sub-tropical variety of corn called "flint" that differs from types grown in North America and Europe. It is harder, but more nutritious, with less starch and more protein content. The sun-dried kernel grinds to a finer grain, which means reduced cooking time, less stirring on the stove and a smoother, creamier end result.
My recipe is a version of the "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten's inspired polenta. The cornmeal is cooked on the stove for a few minutes in milk and chicken stock seasoned with rosemary, garlic and red pepper flakes. Off the stove, I stir in freshly grated parmesan cheese and then spread the thick mixture like cake batter into a pan, allow it to cool, and place it in the refrigerator. About two hours later, the chilled polenta is sliced into triangles which are lightly dusted with flour before being pan-fried in a little olive oil and butter until golden. This twice-cooked polenta is a great side dish for meat or seafood, and can be made ahead for the many potluck asados that take place during the summer.
We found a bottle of Finca Natalina Ugni and Chenin Blanc 2007 on a dusty back shelf at the local mercadito. Ugni Blanc, or Trebbiano as it is called in Italy, is a highly productive, very acidic grape grown in France for making brandy. It blends well with the Chenin to create a wine with citrus aromas, clear tropical fruit flavours and a hint of coconut. Bodega Putruele, located at the foot of the Andes in the Tullum Valley, elaborates the wine and exports it to Russia, China, the U.K, the U.S and Finland. The bodega recently underwent a 1.3 million dollar renovation, with new bottling equipment and stainless steel tanks for fermentation. This bottle was purchased for 8 pesos, and the bag of polenta was 1.57 pesos at Casa Martin in Rama Caida. And before I forget, here's a link to a wonderful poem by Billy Collins entitled "Forgetfulness." The video version is narrated by the poet himself.