In 1972 radio host Peter Gzowski of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) held a contest for listeners to come up with an expression that was the equivalent of the saying "As American as apple pie." The winning entry, submitted by a 17-year-old music student named Heather Scott, was "As Canadian as possible under the circumstances." This phrase sums up Canadian restraint, politeness and a self-deprecatory outlook fostered in a nation constrained by its geographic location next door to a political and economic superpower. It doesn't mean that Canadians lack a national identity, we just tend to keep the volume down and be discreetly patriotic.
Aside from true allegiance to Tim Hortons Donuts, Canadians are a nation of pie lovers just like their southern neighbours. I have fond memories of the pie and coffee counter at a livestock auction house near our Ontario home. Monday night was auction night, and the womens' group from a local church baked pies for the weekly event. Their menu included rhubarb, lemon meringue, strawberry, raspberry, plum, peach and of course the classic apple made from the Northern Spy variety that thrives in Ontario orchards. It was fun to sit on a stool at the counter eating apple pie while listening to the lowing of cows and the rhythm of the auctioneer's fast-paced chant. The smell of barnyard competed with cinnamon on warm summer evenings at the sales barn.
To revive that memory and practise my pie-making skills, I bought a bag of fresh apples in San Rafael from a farmer who was selling fruit from the back of his pickup truck. A three kilo bag cost only five pesos, and the fruit was crisp and juicy. The trick to making a superb apple pie lies in the peel, which many cooks toss directly into the garbage without a second thought. The intense flavour of the fruit can be extracted by simmering apple cores and skins with 1/2 cup of water and a tablespoon of sugar while preparing the pastry. The resulting pink liquid is reserved and spooned back into the baked pie through the open latticework of the top crust. Since the juice is full of pectin, you don't need to worry about watering down the filling.
I use a Canadian pastry recipe clipped from the Globe and Mail newspaper many years ago, a recipe that never fails to produce a light, flaky, tender crust. 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of chilled butter, 1/4 cup of lard and one teaspoon of salt are blended together until the mix resembles cornmeal. Ice water mixed with a bit of vinegar or lemon juice is spooned into the mixture, one tablespoon at a time while blending the pastry gently with your hands.
It usually takes about four or five tablespoons to bring the pastry together into a neat ball, but this can vary with the weather, as temperature and humidity affect the behaviour of flour and shortening. Light, quick handling is essential to keep the butter from melting. The pastry is wrapped in waxed paper and placed in the fridge for about an hour before rolling out on a cool marble slab.
The filling consists of sliced apples, sugar, tapioca for thickening, freshly ground nutmeg, cinnamon and a spoonful of cognac or rum. I add a few dabs of butter on top of the filling, then weave the pastry strips over and under. The top crust is brushed with cream before putting the pie into a 450 degree oven. 15 minutes at that high temperature, and then the heat is reduced to 350 degrees for the next 50 minutes or so, until the crust is nicely browned and the filling is bubbling up through the latticework (making a mess of the oven!).
Apple pie is comfort food, no matter what nationality you are, or in which country you happen to reside. As expats we find the occasional reminder of our homeland reassuring. A slice of pie, a podcast from CBC radio, an article from the Globe and Mail or a Skype conversation with a family member can lift the spirits and put stressful things into perspective as we make our way in Argentina. We are as Cangentine as possible, under the circumstances.
Today marks the bicentennial of Argentina's independence. On the 25th of May in 1810, nationalists at the Cabildo Abierto (open town meeting) held in Buenos Aires voted to depose the viceroyalty of Spain. Political chaos followed the decision, and it wasn't until July of 1816 that independence was made official by a national congress in Tucuman. Nevertheless, Argentineans proudly celebrate this day as the beginning of their liberation from European rule.
Flag vendors are stationed at every corner in San Rafael, selling the "Sun of May." The Argentine flag was designed by General Manuel Belgrano in 1812, and features two cerulean blue bands divided by a white stripe bearing the image of a radiant sun with a human face. There are several theories regarding the iconography of the flag; some say that it represents Inti the Incan sun god, while others suggest that the blue bands are waves of Rio de la Plata. I think Belgrano was just captivated by the beauty of the Argentine sky when he came up with this design.
At noon a parade of military groups, mounted police and gauchos makes its way through the city streets.
It seems odd to us, but the policemen ride two to a motorcycle, with one cop driving the bike and the other standing upright, carrying a rifle while balancing on the back of the seat.
The traditional food for the Dia de la Revolucion de Mayo is locro, a hearty, thick stew made from squash, white beans, corn, pork sausage and beef shank. The open-air stands serve locro from large pots heated over wood fires.
Deep-fried empanadas accompany the stew. Locro is an indigenous peoples' dish adopted by Argentine society to commemorate its independence, as this South American recipe features local ingredients cooked in a traditional way. It represents a distinct departure from European cuisine.
To pair with the locro, we enjoy the Edicion Especial Ano Bicentenario red wine produced by Bodega Santa Ana in Guaymallen, Mendoza. This blended vino tinto is a straightforward table wine with a pleasant fruity aroma and cherry taste. A bottle of the Bicentenario sells for 6.69 pesos at Vea supermarket. We paid 35 pesos for two portions of locro and a dozen empanadas purchased from a roadside vendor.
My homemade Coulommiers has matured from tasteless milk curd to strong cheese and is calling for release from the fridge. Sitting out on the kitchen counter prior to tasting, the cheese receives several hours of admiration and by dinner time yields like a soft down pillow under the pressure of my thumb. It has developed a velvety white bloom, a wrinkled rind and an aroma that can only be described as "barnyard."
The first wedge reveals a creamy, pale yellow interior that oozes gradually out onto the plate. The milk and mushroom flavours of the cheese are contrasted with a tart rind. There's a pleasant nutty taste that's a bit unusual and I wonder if the neighbour's cow might have been grazing under the walnut trees that grow on his finca. Walnuts can be poisonous for horses, but what about cows? Maybe Argentine bovines have a taste for nuts, a secret craving that ends up enhancing their milk.
Transforming a pail of fresh milk into a round of mature cheese is a craft gleaned from art and science and for some, the miraculous process is akin to a religious experience. "Cheesemaking has enriched my spiritual life," says Mother Noella Marcellino, the Benedictine nun whose passion for cheese is the subject of the PBS documentary"The Cheese Nun." Her experiences making artisanal cheese at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut led her to pursue a Ph.D in microbiology and a Fulbright scholarship to do scientific research in France. She examined the fungi Geotrichum candidum in the Auvergne region caves and identified 14 strains of the bacteria that grew in the ripening rooms of seven cheesemakers. Mother Noella is a strong advocate for preserving biodiversity in the cheesemaking process. In addition to her ongoing work making Bethlehem cheese at the abbey, she has become a popular lecturer, a consultant to artisan cheesemakers and adviser to the cheese industry in the United States. She believes that cheesemaking is her calling and has devoted her life to the vocation.
Coulommiers can be successfully paired with white or red wine, but on the advice of a Frenchwoman who knows her fromage, we serve our cheese with a glass of champagne-style sparkling wine and a slice of green apple. It doesn't need crackers or bread or anything else on the side. The effervescent, dry Duc de Saint Remy Extra Brut is made in the province of San Juan, using the French methode champenoise for elaboration. A blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, this sparkler comes from the Saint Remy bodega established by Swiss-born brothers Hector and Manuel Maglione who emigrated to Argentina in the 1920s. The contrast between earthy aged cheese and youthful bubbly is delightful, with the champagne's fresh citrus notes offsetting the pungent density of the Coulommiers. A bottle of Duc costs 18.19 pesos at Vea supermarket.