I was working outside in the yard when the men came to our gate and started clapping. The applause was not a gesture of appreciation for my skills as a gardener; this is the customary way to get a person's attention in rural parts of Argentina. It's not acceptable to enter a property and knock on the door if you want to communicate with someone, but it's okay to stand in the driveway and clap your hands until they come to you. The trio, an old grandfather, son and grandson, asked politely if they could pick the rest of our quinces. Of course, I let them in.
I recall my son Nick (now executive chef at Wickaninnish Inn
on Vancouver Island) making a terrific quince tart for dessert one Christmas, but I hadn't had much direct experience with quinces until we moved to Argentina. In Canada only rarely do they appear in the produce section of supermarkets, but in this country they grow with wild abandon along the canals, roadsides and back lanes. I've learned some interesting things about this lumpy, rock- hard fruit that is so bitter in its raw state that it's inedible. Full of pectin, quinces can be used to make a tasty jam that never fails to set and has the side benefit of maintaining a healthy liver. Quince seeds can be boiled to make a gooey substance that does double duty as both a hair gel and a cough syrup. Whether used for grooming aid, medicine, or food, the quince has an enchanting fragrance that suggests rose petals, ripe pears and narcissus.
We offered a ladder to the men, but it soon became obvious that they really didn't need one, as the common Argentine method for harvesting quinces involves whacking the tree branches with a heavy stick. This technique may look heavy-handed, but neither fruit nor tree is damaged if it's done correctly. Grandfather picked up quinces from the ground, filling several potato sacks.
Grandson was assigned the task of wading into the canal to collect the fallen quinces as they came floating downstream. He scooped them up quickly and tossed the fruit into a pile by the side of the road. For a ten-year-old boy, this is a satisfying, fun job. He tells me that his mother makes jam with the quinces and sells it at the market.
Another good product made from quinces is dulce de membrillo, a
fruit paste that is often served with a slice of cheese for dessert or on a piece of toast for breakfast. With a lot of time and effort (peeling, chopping, cooking, baking) you can make this yourself
or you can buy it ready-to-eat at Vea supermarket for about 5 pesos.
We pair the dulce de membrillo with a slice of goat cheese and San Felipe Tardio Roble 2007
, a smooth, sweet, white wine blended from Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Semillon grapes. Elaborated by Bodega La Rural
in Coquimbito, Maipu, San Felipe is aged for five months in French oak and has the honey/vanilla/toast flavours that complement the tang of quince paste on cheese. We add a few almonds to our dessert plates, and the combination is divine. A bottle of San Felipe costs 22.50 pesos at Vea.
The quince can also be a muse, as seen in the 1992 movie" El Sol del Membrillo" directed by Victor Erice. The documentary records the efforts of Spanish artist Antonio Lopez as he works to complete a painting of a quince tree. The pace of the movie is very slow, reflecting the pace of the artist as he struggles to capture the quality of light and essence of the tree. Here is a clip, just a taste of this wonderful film about creativity.
The milk arrived at my door still warm from the cow's udder. That's exactly how it should be for cheese-making; fresh, natural, unpasteurized and non-homogenized, with a pale yellow layer of butterfat floating on the surface. Unlike supermarket milk, the pail of leche provided by my neighbour's cow is full of the good bacteria and enzymes needed for lactose fermentation, the controlled decay that creates a great cheese.
Heating the milk
I am making a French-style Coulommiers, an ancestor of Brie cheese that has three distinct elements: a white bloomy rind, a sweet, creamy interior, and a more solid, tangy coeur. I first sampled it in France during a research trip which led me to many markets, restaurants and farms to try out different varieties of fromage. Coulommiers is my favourite soft cheese because it includes in one mouthful all of the intriguing stages of affinage (ripening). The milk is heated to 32 degrees C, which doesn't take long as the body temperature of the cow is very close to that point. Small amounts of mesophylic bacterial culture and penicillium candidum in powdered form are sprinkled onto the surface and allowed to dissolve for a few minutes. Rennet, the coagulating enzyme derived from a cow's stomach, is added to the milk and stirred in with 20 strong top to bottom strokes.
Filling the moulds
A cheesemaker's most important attribute is patience. The milk must sit undisturbed for an hour or two to form a good curd. It is ready when a knife inserted into the curd makes a clean break and the liquid whey has separated from the milk solids. The curd is ladled in large chunks into cylindrical plastic moulds that are perforated on the sides to allow even drainage. The whey drips into a pan below the cheese rack for several hours until the cheese has reduced to about one quarter of the mould's capacity and has set into a semi-soft round that is firm enough to handle.
The mould is carefully removed and the cheese rounds are salted with coarse natural salt. The salt acts as an anti-bacterial agent and slows down acid development to round off the flavour. The next step, creating a perfect micro-climate for the affinage, is a little tricky. The cheese is quite finicky and wants to be kept moist, but not too moist; cool, but not too cool. The ideal temperature for the ripening of soft cheeses is cellar temperature, 10 - 12 degrees C. but here in Argentina, lacking a basement, I use a small refrigerator set at the lowest level and place a thermometer inside for monitoring. The cheeses are stored during the aging period in plastic boxes with lids closed to achieve the 75-90% humidity that is required for optimal development. Every day the cheese must be tended by wiping out the moisture that has accumulated inside the box and turning the round over on its mat for even ripening.
Ripening in boxes
When my Argentine Coulommiers is ripe and ready to eat, I'll determine which wine works best with it. Each cheese reflects the region in which it was produced, just as each wine is defined by its terroir. The vegetation, climate and breed of dairy cow are different here than in Alberta, Canada, where I used to make cheese from rich Jersey milk. It's an experiment, working with a new herd in a new environment, so we'll just have to wait and see how this batch turns out...
From March 26 to 29 the village of Coulommiers, France (located just 60 kilometers east of Paris) hosts a Wine and Cheese Fair
. The event showcases the marvellous Brie de Coulommiers which is paired with a glass of Cotes-du-Rhone.
Today marks the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere, the day when the sun's position directly over the equator makes the hours of light and darkness equivalent. As fall approaches, the equinox is an occasion for celebrating the harvest and the abundance of good fruits and vegetables we've enjoyed throughout a long, productive summer.
We cleared the last tomatoes, squash and corn from the garden and ploughed the plot in preparation for fertilizing and re-planting next spring. The row of yellow corn (choclo
) grew to an impressive height of three meters (bringing to mind Carl Sandburg's high, majestic "Laughing Corn"
) and yielded several bushel baskets full of fat cobs. We shared the crop with our neighbours and the Catholic nuns who run an orphanage in Rama Caida. With six remaining ears I made humitas
, a traditional Latin American dish which consists of a ground corn filling wrapped and steamed in a husk.
The standard method for making humitas involves grating or grinding the corn by hand, but I like to cut the kernels off with a knife and use a food processor to speed up the work. Basil and onions are added to the corn mash which is then fried with butter until the mixture is creamy and thick. Our South American corn tends to be drier and less sweet than North American varieties, so the addition of a little milk and sugar helps to make the right consistency and improves the flavour. The filling is spooned onto the center of the boiled husk and the edges are folded in at the sides to create an envelope. A thin strip of husk is used to tie the humita securely before placing it in the steamer for 20 minutes.
There are many variations of the humita recipe, some using eggs and cheese or hot peppers. This simple version makes a delicious side dish for lunch or dinner or can be eaten with bread at breakfast. We served our humitas with ham and fresh tomato slices and paired the equinox meal with Cafayate Torrontes 2009.
Produced by Bodega Etchart in the province of Salta, this wine is rich with floral aromas, a mouth full of plum, apple, citrus and pineapple, and a smooth finish. The Torrontes grapes are harvested from 25 year old vines grown on 120 hectares of land near Cafayate. The area has a luxury wine resort, Vinas de Cafayate
which offers comfortable accommodation, a gourmet restaurant and superb views of the surrounding vineyards and mountains. A bottle of Cafayate Torrontes costs 13.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.
The graffiti message scrawled on a wall in San Rafael reads as a definition for our culture's perception of time. The past is memory (behind us), the present is truth (here and now), and the future is hope or wish (ahead of us.) We look back at the past and forward into the future, but this generally accepted model for reality isn't the only one that human beings have constructed as a framework for existence.
I have been listening to the fascinating five part CBC radio podcasts of the 2009 Massey Lectures
presented in Canada by cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. Entitled "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World" the series explores the different ways in which aboriginal people relate to the environment and define their cultures. Davis refers to South American groups that are descendants of the Inca, the 6 million people living in parts of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina who speak a language called "Quechua" as their mother tongue. In Quechua the word "qhipa
" means "behind" and "the future." The word "nawpa
" means "ahead" and "the past."
The speakers of Quechua consider the past as something known and seen, positioned in front of them. They make a gesture with the hand in front of the body
when they discuss the past. The future, unknown and unseen, lies behind them. This concept of time, which is the reverse of our own, makes the present moment a rich experience, imbued with ancestoral knowledge and tradition. The mountains, sky, soil, plants, - all aspects of nature are respected for their history and revered as sacred. To be alive, and to move forward, is to be actively engaged with a legacy from the past.
Wade Davis suggests that the awareness of an ever-present past fosters a connection with nature that favours continuity over change. "A child who is raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being than a youth who is brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock, ready to be mined. The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations; the nature of the metaphors that propel them onward."
I honoured one of my ancestors today by preparing a recipe from my maternal grandmother's kitchen. Simple to make and delicious to eat, "Cloud Biscuits" are light, fluffy reminders of her excellent baking - the cookies and pies and cakes that never failed to delight Gladys Nichol's family and friends. Made from flour, butter, baking powder, egg and milk, these good old-fashioned biscuits can be sweet (with sugar added) or savoury (with the addition of herbs, spices or grated cheese.) I rolled the dough on a floured surface to about a 3/4 inch thickness - not too thin, Grandma would say - and cut the biscuits out with the rim of a drinking glass. That's how she used to do it, and her mother before her.
As we enjoyed tea and biscuits on the terrace, clouds drifted in from the Sierra Pintada mountains, gathered and formed a solid bank of thunderheads along the horizon. It seemed as if the past had just arrived at my table.
"The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." - Albert Einstein
A small army of trucks filled with work crews travelling down the back roads of Rama Caida first thing in the morning heralds the beginning of "cosecha" - the grape harvest. This is a time of intense activity and concentrated effort, as the ripened grapes must be picked as soon as they reach their peak, while the sugar content is at an optimal level and the weather is dry. The seasonal workers come from Bolivia and Paraguay to participate in a month of hard labour, boarding in temporary camps with the entire crew and working one finca after another. If you're strong and fast, the earnings can be quite good.
The picker is given a metal bin called a "tacho." He moves down the vineyard row collecting grapes and filling the basket. A fully loaded tacho weighs 20 kilos.
The worker hoists the tacho to his shoulder and runs with it to the truck.
A wooden plank leads up to the back of the truck. Balance is important, as the ramp has a tendency to bounce under the combined weight of body and fruit.
The picker dumps the grapes into the back of the truck. Another crew member shovels the growing Malbec mountain to distribute the load evenly.
The foreman tosses a "ficha" or token into the picker's empty tacho. Payment is made to the worker according to the number of fichas he has collected during the day.
At high noon it's time to break for lunch. The crew washes up while sausages are cooked on a portable asado grill. They sit in the shade of a eucalyptus tree and enjoy chorizo on a bun with vino casero.
A little Bolivian girl plays quietly in the vineyard while her mother and father relax during lunch break. She takes a fat cluster of grapes from her mother's basket, carefully wraps it up in her pink blanket, and rocks Baby Malbec to sleep.
Work continues throughout the afternoon until all of the grapes have been picked from every row.
At the end of the day, the truck leaves for the winery with a full load. At Bodega Bianchi, it will join a long lineup of trucks, all waiting their turn to be weighed before dumping the grapes into a crusher. The vineyard, now empty of people and stripped of fruit, looks totally exhausted in the low evening light. The vines will be heavily irrigated within the next few days, as the harvesting process sends the plants into shock. They've done their job for this year, providing the key ingredient for another great vintage wine.
A lot of my time in Argentina is spent preserving the harvest, preparing jars that can be put away for future meals. What about working to preserve the environment?
The two girls just ahead of me in the grocery store line-up were a little shy about having their photo taken, and curious as to why I wanted their picture. They didn't know it, but the green re-usable shopping bags slung over their shoulders are Canadian ones, purchased by me and donated to the mercadito in our neighbourhood. I am pleased to see the young people in Rama Caida using the bags every day, developing a lifelong habit that respects the environment. By reducing the use of plastic bags, the "white trash" that ends up as toxic waste in canals, along the roadside and in landfill, they are doing their bit to preserve this area's natural beauty and protect its ecosystem from contamination.
Garbage along the roadside
The introduction of green bags at the local level has become an ongoing project for us in co-operation with Casa Martin, a small family-run grocery store that serves the native population as well as ex-pats living in Rama Caida. The owner's son, Jose Luis Guardia, a bright young lawyer who spends weekends helping out at the cash register, took to the idea immediately. He could see that reducing the need for plastic bags would mean savings for his family's business and that the highly visible fabric bags, printed with the store logo, would serve as an excellent advertising/public relations initiative. The first 50 bags were handed out to loyal customers free of charge, with an explanation of the environmental benefits. It has become a bit of a status symbol to own a green Casa Martin bag in Rama Caida and not a day goes by that we don't spot one being proudly used.
We hope that the trend continues. The next step will be to set up a local manufacturer to produce and distribute the bags. This could become a cottage industry, employing women who are stay-at-home mothers living on the fincas. In the meantime, we are donating the bags on a regular basis to keep the momentum going.
Autoservicio Casa Martin is located on Ruta 143 between Calle Perdiguez and Ejercito de los Andes. The store is open 365 days of the year. Phone: 441162 and ask for English-speaking Jose.