The nights are getting colder as winter approaches and in the late afternoon gathering kindling has become an essential ritual for families in our neighbourhood.  Finca houses are modest dwellings, poorly-constructed, devoid of insulation and designed to stay cool.  Fireplaces offer the only source of heat and when evening temperatures hover around the freezing mark, country folk endure a bitter chill that seeps into cement or ceramic-tiled floors and lingers until noon the next day.  
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Keeping warm in Argentina is not like keeping warm in Canada, where  efficient central heating, fibreglass-insulated walls and roofs, and double-glazed windows create an effective barrier between indoors and out.   Our defence system here consists of handmade fabric "snakes" that plug drafty window wells and door cracks, heavy woollen shawls, thick slippers, hot water bottles and a goose down quilt for the bed.  When the sun sets behind the snow-capped Andes, we bundle up and hunker down.

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Kindling
While wood fires and comforters offer low-tech solutions for combatting the cold, I have discovered one high-tech device that is a lifesaver in this season.  Kindle!  The  new e-reader allows me to download books from Amazon.com in seconds at a reasonable cost, without requiring a computer.  My entire library is now stored in a handy, lightweight device that fits into my purse and can travel anywhere.  Kindle allows me to make personal margin notes, add bookmarks, save clippings, search for a word or look up its dictionary definition at the flick of a switch.  When it's time to make dinner,  I  use a text-to-speech feature and listen while the book is read to me.   Reviews of Kindle often wax nostalgic for the texture of print on paper, coffee rings on faded covers and dog-eared pages, but I'm actually not missing any of those bookish attributes.   In a country where English-language books are nearly impossible to find and imported books are taxed at a prohibitive rate of 50% on the cover price, Kindle is truly the answer to my prayers for open access to literature.

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I have some catching up to do with reading material, as I've missed so many of the newly-released North American and European titles.  My Kindle  can hold 1,500 books, so I'm just getting started with "The Pattern in the Carpet"by Margaret Drabble, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes, "Solar" by Ian McEwan and "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill.  While kindling, I can't resist snacking on luscious, chewy coconut and dulce de leche squares from Belen bakery.

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Dulce de Leche liqueur made by Tres Plumas is our preferred fireside drink.  There's an historical connection with Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson which adds intrique to this rich-tasting, caramel dessert liqueur.  A bottle of Dulce de Leche liqueur costs 14.99 pesos and six coconut squares can be purchased from the bakery for 8.50 pesos.

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Los Andes
 
 
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. 
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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.  

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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.  

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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.  

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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.  

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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!). 

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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.  

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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. 

 

Quinces

03/30/2010

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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.
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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.  

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.  

 

Postre

10/30/2009

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It's been hot in San Rafael for the last two days, with temperatures rising well over 30 degrees Celsius.  In the middle of a heat wave, one just doesn't feel a strong urge to turn on the oven and  start baking pastry.  A cool dessert still seems appealing and fortunately it's possible to purchase exquisite  European-style cakes and pastries in the ice cream shops and bakeries in the city.    
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Ripe strawberries combined with chocolate mousse pie from La Delicia to make  a grand finale for our dinner last night.  Heladeria La Delicia (Av. H. Yrigoyen 591) is where the ex-pats congregate to enjoy a cup of espresso coffee and a pastry while checking e-mail and conducting Skype conversations with family members back home.   The restaurant  has a strong Wi-Fi signal, over 40 flavours of ice cream and air-conditioning.

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We served a white dessert wine, La Consulta Cosecha Tardia from Finca la Celia with the chocolate pie and fresh fruit.   The grapes used to produce this wine are harvested late, when reduced water content has concentrated sugars and acids.  The result is a natural sweetness - not syrupy, but refreshing - with notes of pears and honey.  It has a lovely summery floral nose and a brilliant gold colour.   This wine is best served very cold (6 - 8 degrees C.) and benefits from an additional  few minutes  in the freezer before pouring.  It would also be excellent to serve with pate de foie gras or strong cheeses.  The cost for a bottle of Cosecha Tardia is 15.83 pesos at Vea supermarket.  The chocolate mousse pie was purchased for  10.50 pesos at La Delicia.

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Dessert