When an artist friend mentioned a few years ago that he regularly got up at 4:00 am to watch European soccer on television, I was more than a little surprised.  I just didn't think of David - a serious painter and professor of fine art - as an avid sports fan.   Soccer?  What would he find so fascinating about soccer?  The answer came with a little probing.  "I like to watch soccer because each field is a different shade of green, depending on the location, the time of day, and the weather.  I make notes on colour," he explained.  Proof positive that there's something for everyone in the beautiful game!
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As  the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament takes place  in South Africa, passion for soccer seems to have taken over Argentina.  National pride,  Latino machismo and a genuine appreciation for the speed and accuracy required in the game, are factors that heighten the excitement for Argentine fans.   The colourful personalities and star status of forward Lionel Messi and coach Diego Maradona are an added draw for many viewers.  Television sets have been mounted at the end of each aisle in Vea supermarket, so customers can stay tuned even while grocery shopping.   San Rafael has become a city of spectators, all keeping their eyes on the ball while eagerly awaiting Argentina's next  important match.

Robert, who played soccer as a schoolboy in Holland,  gets excited over the fast-paced technical aspects of the game and delights in moments when precise placement of the ball resembles clockwork.    The geometry of passing and the split-second timing of shots on goal appeal to him.   His perception of the game fits the rhythm of this video:

At the opposite end of the couch, I enjoy  slow motion re-plays, where camera work and tight editing make the  players' movements sustained and graceful.  Colliding bodies appear to hover in mid-air, the ball floats like a helium balloon off the top of a players' head, and each miniscule expression of frustration, anger, joy or triumph becomes a monumental close-up.   In these elongated frames, soccer becomes a sport as visually engaging as a ballet performance.   I am reminded of the video work of U.S. artist Bill Viola, whose slow motion interpretation of a painting by Pontormo entitled "The Greeting" employs the same effect.  I saw the full-length version several years ago  in a gallery in Cologne, and it left an indelible impression on me.   Here's a short clip.
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The perfect meal to pair with soccer viewing is osso buco (veal shank), which takes 90 minutes in the oven, the same amount of time as the game itself.  During the pre-game warm-up, I sear the meat in a frying pan with pancetta, which adds a rich bacon flavour to the shanks.  Onions, carrots and celery are combined with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, a cup of white wine and some chicken stock to simmer in the pan for a few minutes.  As the opening kick-off begins, the shanks, vegetables and sauce are placed in a covered casserole dish and put into a low oven to braise for the remainder of the match.  At halftime, I make gremolata, the traditional herb topping for osso buco, which consists of chopped Italian parsley, garlic and grated lemon rind mixed with a tablespoon of lemon juice.  I cook some large potatoes in the microwave, peel and mash them.  By the time the match has been decided and  the final whistle blows, the tender veal is falling off the bone and a delicious dinner is ready to be served.  

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We pair the soccer feast with Novecento Syrah 2009 from Bodega Dante Robino in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza.  This wine needs to be opened early in the game to breathe and unfold its unique coffee and spice flavours.   A bottle of Novecento costs 17.09 pesos at Vea.  


Here's another good  reason for  viewing the World Cup games.  The grass planted on the South African soccer fields was supplied by Pickseed, a Canadian seed company and is a hardy combination of perennial rye grasses, Zoom (an appropriate name) and SR4600.
Manitoba farmer Brad Rasmussen was never a soccer fan until the seed grown on his farm was sent to the stadiums in South Africa.  He's watching the tournament to see how that bright green turf holds up!

 
 
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.  
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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.

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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.  

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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.)

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There's a very fine restaurant near our farm that offers the best cuisine and the most serene, scenic environment to be found anywhere in the province of Mendoza.  Located in the midst of Algodon Wine Estates,  an 825 hectare land development  with a golf course, vineyard, bodega, championship tennis courts,  and lodge, the restaurant is one of the area's gems.  
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During the winter, there's a cozy spot by the fire indoors, and in the summer, a terrace with cushioned couches overlooking the olive grove and manicured golf greens.  The staff at Algodon is always welcoming and eager to make our dining experience  a pleasure.  

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The menu features regional foods, cooked on the grill and in a traditional clay oven.  The ingredients such as olives and tomatoes are grown right on the estate, and we notice the chef slipping out from the kitchen to pick herbs fresh from the garden.  We choose "Puro Campo" which is a beef filet grilled to perfection, roasted vegetables, fried potatoes and green salad.  

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Dessert is nothing less than "Todo Chocolate," a sublime combination of white chocolate sauce, fudge brownie, a dark chocolate cylinder filled with creamy mousse, and a scoop of orange sorbet.  The presentation suggests architecture, or perhaps a sculpture installation.  

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The wine is, of course, Algodon's own label - a Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.   The grassy herbal notes of this fruity wine are a pleasant surprise, along with the finishing hints of toast and t0bacco.  The estate bodega offers wine-tasting events and tours of their facilities. The American consortium that owns Algodon development has just opened a luxury hotel in a restored mansion in Buenos Aires.  The complete story of their land development project  in San Rafael is given on their website


The bill for lunch for two at Algodon was 146 pesos.

 
 
The eggplant has a history of being a culinary ambassador, having travelled from its native India to almost every country around the world.   It arrived in South America in 1650 with the Spanish explorers and ever since,  the "apple of love" has been a mainstay in Argentine cuisine.  
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This adaptable fruit (which we tend to think of as a vegetable) is now being offered back to India with genetic modifications designed to make it more pest-resistant.  Monsanto, in collaboration with Cornell University, has created the Bt eggplant with the idea of improving crop yields in Asia and other countries (such as Argentina) where the plant is grown.  Recent news articles  show that there is opposition to the introduction of the genetically modified eggplant, as little is known about its long-term safety for humans, animals and the environment.   The lovely glossy-skinned aubergine that left India on an extended global journey has come full circle, and  arrived back home in a sadly altered state.   It has become a test case for other genetically engineered foods that are being proposed for human consumption.  

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I know  that the eggplant used for last night's dinner was not the product of a genetically modified seed, (Bt seed is just being introduced this season by Monsanto)  but in future, how will I know for sure?   The eggplant was sliced in half and baked for 30 minutes in the oven before removing the flesh.  Ground beef, saffron rice, oregano, chili pepper and onions went into the filling, along with the diced eggplant.  Served in its boat-shaped skin, this dish makes an impressive presentation at the table.  

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We paired the stuffed eggplant with Colon Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Valle de Tulum in San Juan province. This wine has an agreeable cherry and black pepper flavour, with just a hint of coffee and toast in the finish.    It sells for 12.50 pesos at the local autoservicio Casa Martin.  

 
 
We enjoy dining out once in a while and San Rafael has some fine restaurants offering regional menus with very affordable prices.   The Tower Hotel's Sud Restaurante is an excellent place to dine, with daily "Chef's Suggestion" - a 3 course meal priced at 55 pesos, which includes a bottle of wine.  
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We chose Sopa Verde for the first course, a vegetable soup blended from asparagus, broccoli and green peas.  It was served drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese,  and accompanied by crusty rolls.   Delicious!

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The entree featured two Filet Mignon served with sherry sauce, sun-dried tomatoes and rounds of butternut squash.   We ordered the meat rare,   (Argentines tend to grill beef medium to very well-done)  and it arrived at the table perfectly cooked.  

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For dessert we opted for Almendrado,  a creamy almond mousse coated with toasted nuts and topped with strawberry coulis.  This lovely combination of nuts and fruit ended the meal with just enough sweetness, without being overwhelmingly rich.   We enjoyed it with a "chico" - a small cup of espresso coffee.  

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Umbro Tempranillo 2006 accompanied this menu.  The Umbro winery, located in San Rafael,  is owned by the same family that owns the Tower hotel, restaurant, spa and casino.   The tempranillo we sampled had definite notes of plum and blackberries, with a soft finish and very little astringency.  

 
 
I have been reading a fascinating travel book entitled "Rough Notes taken during some rapid journeys across the Pampas and among the Andes" written by Captain F.B. Head. Working as an engineer for  a British mining company, in 1826 he travelled on horseback from Buenos Aires to Mendoza province and into the Andes Mountains.  Captain Head became familiar with  the Gaucho lifestyle during these long trips, and his observations are full of respect for the tough Argentine cowboy.   
 "As his constant food is beef and water, his constitution is so strong that he is able to endure great fatigue; and the distances he will ride, and the numbers of hours that he will remain on horseback would hardly be credited. ...  It is true that the Gaucho has no luxuries; but the great feature of his character is, that he is a person without wants."
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Sunday gauchos
Though the modern Argentine diet has expanded to include items from other food groups, beef is still a staple element and is undoubtedly  the most favoured meat.   Lean beef from range-fed cattle is available at every butcher store and is served up in large quantities in every household.  We are continually amazed at the huge bags of beef that are hauled out of the grocery stores.   (Bear in mind that the ultra-conservative Canadian food guide indicates that one meat portion should be about the size of a deck of cards.)  

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It took a while to become familiar with the Argentine cuts of beef and we're still not sure what all of them are like, but we regularly order filet and ask the butcher to trim off the fat.   We like small, thick portions that can be grilled easily in a few minutes on the barbecue - browned well  on the exterior, but  rare at the center.    Water might have been enough to satisfy the no-frills Gaucho, but we prefer to add a green salad and a potato to the menu and  drink a glass of red wine.   A good Malbec is the best companion for Argentine beef.  

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We paired Bournett Malbec Numerado 2007 with our steak dinner.  This strong, clean wine has definite plum notes with a finishing hint of eucalyptus and cassis.  It is the product of a small, well-managed vineyard- 37 hectares near San Rafael- owned by a family of French vintners who settled in Argentina in the early 1900s.  Like buying a limited edition hand-pulled print, each bottle is individually numbered in a series of only 7000.  The technical notes for this wine describe a traditional technique for fining using egg whites instead of filtration.  This is a gentle way of clarifying and stabilizing the wine while removing bitter,  astringent tannins, a method  some wine-makers claim adds a silky texture.  Bournett Numerado exhibits the full fruity command of the Malbec grape, without the addition of oak.  This bottle was purchased for 30 pesos at Vinoteca Luciano Segundo at Balloffet 928. 

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