Spanish artist Antonio Camba is showing a new series of paintings entitled "Fronteras" at the PHI Espacio de Arte in General Alvear.  The abstract canvases  are polychromatic and white-on-white  compositions that refer to the experience of being a foreigner in a new country.  
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Antonio Camba
The layers of colour in each work vary from clean-edged stripes achieved with masking tape, to blended areas of scumbled colour.  The strata can be read as the individual's borders or limitations in the face of new experiences; the lines defining character pressured into direct contact with an unfamiliar environment, mindset and lifestyle.   There are instances where colours harmonize and other areas where tension is tangible, a dialogue represented by the formal juxtaposition of old and new, warm and cold, flexible and rigid, ragged and exact.  

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The Camba series reminds me of handmade Argentine textiles traditionally patterned with irregular striped sections of colour punctuated with white lines.  We have a rug in our livingroom  from Salta that is made from organically dyed wool, handwoven by a native artisan.  The design is asymmetrical and non-conforming, with the occasional protruding knot of wool adding texture to the piece.  It's as if the maker was playing by ear, improvising as the threads were added and used up.  Weaving requires the binding together of a warp (long vertical threads) and a weft (threads woven horizontally) to make a unified fabric.  As foreigners we sometimes assume that assimilation means a loss of identity or a challenge to totally re-invent one's self.  Perhaps our adaptation to a new place should be more like the process of weaving, where each thread is integrated into the whole cloth, but still retains distinct and meaningful characteristics.  

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After attending the vernissage in General Alvear, we enjoyed a slice of Squash Strata, a dish made from butternut squash layered with cheese and bound together  with an egg and milk wash.  This oven-baked vegetarian casserole paired well with a glass of Castel Semillon-Chardonnay 2008, a white blend that combines the lively citrus notes of Semillon woven into the fig and honey flavours of Chardonnay.  The Semillon provides a long finish with reduced acidity.  This wine agrees with seafood, eggs and subtle rice or vegetable-based meals.  A bottle of Castel costs 13.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.

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Antonio Camba's exhibition continues until May 17th at the PHI Espacio de Arte, at Zamenhof 46 in General Alvear.  Hours for viewing  are Wednesday to Saturday 10:00 am -12 noon and after siesta from 6:00-8:00 pm.    A farming community located about an hour's drive  southeast of San Rafael, General Alvear is home to the descendants of Russian, Polish, Japanese, Italian and Spanish immigrants.  Like the Camba paintings, the town is a fine example of a cultural tapestry woven from varied threads.  

 
 
 Most of the products sold in local stores are labelled  "Industria Argentina" meaning that they were made right here in this country.   Argentina actively protects its own manufacturing enterprises and doesn't allow imported goods to dominate the market. The current trade dispute with China is a case in point; Argentina imposed anti-dumping measures to stop cheap Chinese shoes and textiles from competing with domestic products, a move which prompted China to retaliate by refusing to buy soybean oil from Argentina.  Although the repercussions for the soy producers are serious as the soybean oil sits in storage going rancid, we have to applaud Argentina's Ministry of Industry for banning low cost  Chinese goods that will only end up threatening local jobs.  The Wal-Mart effect is the last thing that Argentina's economy needs.  Instead of seeking low prices and dumbed-down foreign merchandise at the big chain stores, we  try to support the small shops in San Rafael that stock genuine "made in Argentina" products.  Here are three examples of good domestic products that are produced  from natural ingredients and offer health and beauty benefits for the consumer.  
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Union Bio mate is a refreshing natural drink with a difference.  It's the standard mate tea laced with prebiotics that help digestion with a dietary fibre called  inulin, a starchy fructose compound.   Yerba mate is known to contain cholesterol-lowering properties, anti-oxidant polyphenols,  vitamins, minerals and calcium.  It has a stimulating effect on the brain, improving cognition and memory, but unlike coffee, mate does not cause jittery nerves or sleeplessness.   It is used as an anti-diabetic herb, a weight-loss aid and a natural remedy for hypertension.  The Union brand is grown and processed in the province of Corrientes.  A 500 gram bag costs 9.50 pesos.

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You don't need to use heaping spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten the mate, as the company Dulri provides  a natural alternative sweetener made from the herb stevia. A native plant of Paraguay, stevia is related to lettuce, marigold and chicory.  It has zero calories and no chemical taste, and can be added to food or drink as a replacement for the toxic white stuff.  This product has not yet been approved by Health Canada, or the U.S. F.D.A., but has been used safely for over 1000 years by Guarani natives in South America.  The manufacturers of Nutrasweet (aspartame) have effectively lobbied government agencies to prevent the approval of stevia in North America.    I find that 10 drops of liquid stevia  is about equivalent in sweetness to a teaspoon of white sugar. A 120 ml bottle costs 16.95 pesos.  

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This is absolutely the most effective skin cleanser I've ever used, a product that is not only economical but eco-friendly too.   Uvas is made in San Rafael from the marc left over from the wine industry, the grape skins and seeds that are skimmed off after fermentation.  A rich, creamy lotion that effortlessly removes even the toughest make-up, leche de limpieza is a non-irritating cleanser full of anti-oxidants for soothing and rejuvenating the skin.   The Uvas line also includes a hand and body lotion, a night moisturizing cream and a toner.  Note the modest, no-frills packaging, in contrast to big name cosmetics that are dressed up to seduce the consumer, and end up costing more for a fancy image.  The cleanser sells for 11 pesos.  

 
 
Last week I found a source for fresh rabbit meat in San Rafael, a small gem of a store called Legitimo that sells artisanal regional products.  It's been a while since we enjoyed a rabbit meal in Maastricht, Holland where it is a traditional fall/winter item on restaurant menus.  My anticipation of the cooked dish outweighed squeamishness as I faced the grim task of chopping the carcass into manageable pieces with a cleaver.  It's hard not to think of Bugs Bunny, the Easter rabbit and Watership Down when the small head with its milky pink eyes and long white teeth lies lifeless on the cutting board.   The leftover animal parts provide a special treat for our dog Frida, who, despite boundless enthusiasm for the chase,  is just not fast enough to catch a hare.  She is quick to take the rabbit head off my hands and withdraw to a remote corner of the yard to savour a delicacy that must taste to her like a canine dream come true.  
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Rabbit is one of the healthiest meats available, with fat and cholesterol counts lower than chicken, turkey, beef or pork.  It's also a sustainable farm product, as one doe rabbit weighing 10 pounds can produce 320 pounds of meat per year - more than a cow!  When one considers that it takes two acres of prime land to maintain one cow, rabbit farming seems like a  more sensible, eco-friendly alternative.

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The rabbit dish that I remember from a brisk fall evening in Maastricht was "Limburgse Knien," served at the Wiekse Witte restaurant, cooked in a sweet and sour sauce based on prunes.  This is slow food, as the meat is marinated overnight in vinegar with chopped onion, thyme, rosemary and bay leaves, while the prunes soak in apple juice.  The next day,  the rabbit pieces are removed from the liquid, dredged  in flour and fried in butter until golden.  The marinade is heated separately in the frying pan until boiling, then with the seared rabbit added, allowed to simmer on low for about an hour until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.   The sauce is thickened with a few tablespoons of flour stirred into a half cup of beer.   I add the softened prunes along with  some brown sugar and cook the dish for another 15 minutes before serving. 

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The conejo is paired with a red wine purchased from the same store,  Legitimo, a Cab recommended by the shopkeeper who proudly tells us that this is his son's vino tinto, produced right here in San Rafael.  Famiglia Mortarotti Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 is a full-bodied, aged in oak red with a nose of mocha cream and cherries, mouth of plum, ginger, black pepper, followed by a firm astringent finish.   This wine is not found in any of the large  supermarkets, but is well worth seeking out at Legitimo, where it sells for 19.64 pesos.   The fresh rabbit costs 30 pesos and must be ordered at the beginning of the week for Friday pick-up.  

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Legitimo means authentic, and that quality of genuineness is a key element in the non-fiction book "The Rabbit House" by Laura Alcoba.  A personal account of life in Argentina during the "Dirty War" years of dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, this book is narrated from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl whose parents are members of the Montoneros, a left-wing Peronist militant group opposed to the repressive regime. They live in a house full of hidden weapons and banned books, using rabbit-raising as a screen for their illicit activities.    The childhood recorded in this book is one of imposed secrecy, vigilance and restraint, a constant duty that requires all of the youngster's willpower and stamina.  In a 2008 interview with writer Angelique Chrisafis from the Guardian newspaper, the writer described her experience.     "It might seem strange, but for a little girl in that situation being in hiding just becomes part of everyday life, " says Alcoba. "She learns very quickly that in winter it's cold, fire burns and we could be killed at any moment. But it's overwhelming for a little girl because of the seriousness of any little gaffe she might make that could put the group in danger.  She doesn't always manage what she is supposed to say and not say.  It's as if she's in a costume that's too difficult to wear." 
This is the first published memoir from a child survivor of Argentina's "Dirty War" era, and the book resonates with a courage that recalls Anne Frank's diary written during World War II in The Netherlands.  Alcoba did survive her ordeal, managed to escape to Paris and now teaches Spanish literature at a French university.    Read an excerpt from this remarkable book. 

 
 
Autumn brings cooler temperatures, shorter days and a hint of gold to the poplar trees that grow along Calle La Vilina.  It's the season for pears and this year's crop includes lovely examples of Williams, D'Anjou, Red, Bartlett, Packham and Bosc.  Looking at the range and quality of varieties grown here, it's not surprising that about half the pears imported to North America originated in Argentina.  
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Williams pears are excellent eaten fresh, and ideal for poaching in spiced wine to make an elegant dessert.  They have to be still firm but ripe to retain their shape and texture during cooking, just a little soft at the shoulders when pressed with a fingertip.  The pears are peeled and cored with a thin slice cut off the bottom to allow them to stand upright in the pot.  A bottle of wine, sugar, lemon zest, herbs and spices are boiled in a stock pot to create the poaching liquid.  I use a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and a vanilla bean to add flavour to the mixture.  The pears are simmered over low heat for 20 minutes and removed from the burner to simply soak in the sauce for 15 minutes before placing them aside on a platter.  The remaining liquid is then reduced to half its volume to make a thick syrup for drizzling over the poached fruit.  By the time the pears are ready to serve, the whole house is filled with most appetizing, spicy scent.   

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The only rule of thumb for choosing a wine to cook with is that it be of a quality suitable for drinking on its own.  I chose Canciller Merlot 2008 for the poaching wine, as its soft, fruity flavour would not overwhelm the delicacy of pears.   One might also use a good quality white such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc which would not change the fruit's colour.   I was pleased with the rich burgundy that the poached pears acquired;  like a crimson silk scarf draped over a grey suit, it added a certain amount of drama to dessert.  We paired our pears with the same Merlot that was used for poaching. 

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A bottle of Canciller Merlot costs 12.99 pesos at Atomo supermarket.  The Williams pears sell for 5.99 pesos per kg. 

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One of the most interesting works of fiction  I've read recently is "The Portrait" by Iain Pears an Oxford educated author, journalist and art historian.  The book charts stages of friendship, betrayal, bitterness and malevolence in a relationship between an erudite art critic and a talented painter who lives in self-imposed exile on an island off the coast of France.  Set in the early 1900s, the backdrop for the novel is the vibrant and competitive art world of London, a milieu dominated by critics who could make or break a career with their reviews.  Written in the difficult and restrictive second person, the novel unfolds exclusively from the point of view of the artist at his easel engaged in the task of painting a portrait of the critic. There is no narration of dialogue from the man sitting passively in front of him, but through artist Henry MacAlpine's personal recollections, confessions and  accusations,  the character of the art critic, William Nasmyth, is gradually revealed.  The book's prose reads like a long, explanatory letter written to settle a score.  Pears' rigorous  style parallels the scrutiny of an artist as he concentrates on the subject at hand;  the intense gaze that attempts to capture both physical appearance and psyche.  As the work of art draws closer to completion it becomes clear that the painting is used as a conceit in a sinister plot.  "The Portrait" is a superbly crafted novel full of  insight into the ways in which power can seduce, corrupt and ultimately destroy.  Read an excerpt of the text - it's as delicious and satisfying as the fruit described above. 

 
 
The first day of this month is April Fool's day in many other parts of the world, but not in Argentina.  Although it's not  an officially recognized event,  the concept of deception is certainly familiar to this culture.  In fact, every day is April Fool's day in Argentina, especially if you're a foreigner.  
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Scenario 1 - The Realtor's Trick
We put in a respectable offer to buy a charming Colonial style country house.  The realtor calls us back to say that our offer has been accepted by the owner.  When we ask about signing the purchase agreement, the realtor stalls.  It's Friday morning, but he says that we should come back to the office on Monday to sign the papers .   Over the weekend we discuss our plans for renovating the kitchen and bathroom, and talk about the possibility of adding a swimming pool just beyond the terrace.   We have mentally packed our bags and moved in. 
On Monday the realtor greets us with the news that the owner has changed his mind - he now wants $20,000 U.S. dollars more than the amount we have offered.   Incredulous and crestfallen, we walk away from the deal. 

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Scenario 2 - The Dressmaker's Scheme
My daughter's wedding is coming up and I can't find anything in the stores that would be appropriate  "Mother of the Bride" attire in Canada.  I mention this problem to our finca manager and he suggests that his wife Marisol could help me out.  She knows a dressmaker, Carmen, who sews exquisite clothing for "upper class" women in San Rafael.   Marisol makes an appointment with Carmen, and the three of us meet to discuss the design and visit a sederia to select some fabric.  The women take their time, holding the samples up to see what they look like in different lighting conditions, comparing textures and colours.  Finally we choose a grey and silver combination that is elegant, but not overpowering.  I am eager to get the project underway, and ready to buy the stuff right now, but NO, NO, NO, Marisol and Carmen insist that I sleep on the idea and wait until tomorrow before making a purchase.  
The next day I return to the shop with Carmen and watch as the fabric is measured out by the meter.  It appears to be an excessive amount of fabric for sewing a simple sleeveless shift and coat, but I reason that the dressmaker is being overly-cautious in case she makes a mistake.  Besides, I expect that any fabric remnants will be returned to me when she's finished.   I pay the bill  which shows 4 meters of cloth priced at 60 pesos per meter and Carmen takes the fabric back to her studio to begin cutting.  
A few weeks later, Carmen calls to let me know that the garments are ready for fitting.  While she is busy tucking and pinning my dress, I happen to notice pattern pieces of another sewing project spread out on her cutting table, pieces cut from the same fabric as my own.  
The ensemble turns out well and I attend my daughter's wedding in Canada dressed in style.   On my return to San Rafael,  I visit the fabric store again and discover price labels attached to the ends of the bolts, tags that were not there when I bought the  cloth with Carmen.  The fabrics that went into my outfit are priced at 30 pesos per meter, not 60.  Marisol has since appeared at San Rafael social events proudly wearing a new custom-made grey and silver outfit.  

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Scenario 3 - The Post Office Scam
Mail delivery at the finca is haphazard at best,  with bills stuck between the slats of the gate ending up in the canal on a windy day, so we decide to rent a post office box.    We pay 300 pesos for a year's rental and receive a key to our own private box at the main Post Office downtown.  Everything  seems to be in order until Robert's brother sends some time-sensitive documents from the U.S. which fail to arrive.  Robert checks the box one morning and finds, instead of the anticipated envelope, a large stack of resumes all addressed to our box number.  When he shows them to the desk clerk, he is informed that our box has been sublet to another person.  The important mail he has been waiting for arrives back in the U.S.  with REMITENTE (Return to Sender) written in bold script  across the envelope.  

As a foreigner living in Argentina, one must be prepared to wear a fool's cap every day of the year.  Humility is the hardest lesson.  In his collection of travel stories entitled "Nomad's Hotel" the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom describes exactly what it's like to be a foreigner.  
"It is a constant transaction with others in the course of which you are simultaneously alone.  And therein lies the paradox: you journey alone in a world which is controlled by others.  It is they who own the boarding house where you want a room, they who decide whether there is space for you on the plane that only goes once a week, it is they who are poorer than you and can benefit from you, they who are more powerful because they can refuse you a stamp or document.  They speak in tongues you cannot comprehend, stand next to you on a ferry or sit next to you on the bus, they sell you food at the market and send you in the right or wrong direction, sometimes they are dangerous but usually they are not, and all this has to be learned: what you should do, what you should not do and what you should never do.  You have to learn how to deal with their drunkenness and yours: you have to be able to recognise a gesture and a glance, for no matter how solitary a traveller you are you will always be surrounded by others; by their expressions, their overtures, their disdain, their expectations.  And every place is different, and nowhere does it resemble what you were accustomed to in the country you come from."