Mendoza's irrigation system is unique in all of Argentina.  Water supplied by glacial run-off from the Andes  flows through a system of reservoirs and dams, canals and ditches to convey moisture to fields, orchards and vineyards.  Gravity driven flood irrigation was the brainchild of the Incas,  whose basic engineering concepts still work today to facilitate agriculture in a dry desert zone.
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Steel gates control the flow
Written into  the deed to our property of 7.5 hectares, is a clause that allows us 9.5 hours per week of irrigation time.  We pay an annual fee for water usage and must keep our bill up-to-date, otherwise the water rights can be reallocated to another finca.  A schedule of hours distributed by the Water Co-operative outlines start and finish times for all of the farmers on this  street who access water from the roadside riego.  Sometimes  our turn for irrigation occurs during the middle of the night, and at other times it takes place during the day.  Our worker is responsible for closing off the neighbour's gate and opening our own to allow water to flow onto our alfalfa field.  There is a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation inherent in the whole  system. If your crop needs extra water, you can usually find someone down the road who is not using their turn and will gladly give you additional hours.  If you're not available to irrigate during your specified time, you can work out a trade with another farmer.   The weekly give and take of such a vital resource keeps neighbours on good terms.  

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Winter riego, clean and dry
At the beginning of June the water is completely shut off at the dams.  The imposed dry spell of about 6 weeks is an opportunity for cleaning the system and making any necessary repairs.  Each finca owner is required by law to clean the riego of the immediate upstream neighbour, clearing any weeds and debris that might obstruct the flow of water onto the land.  This is  usually done by burning the vegetation in and around the canal, and working the channel smooth with a hoe.  An inspector of waterworks comes around to each finca to  make sure that the cleaning has been completed.

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Summer riego, flowing


We look forward to July 14th, the day when the water returns.  The babbling of the stream that fills the canal is a welcome sound, a harbinger of spring and renewed growth.  It is a gentle assurance that the cycle of the growing season will soon start all over again, and the land will produce an income.  

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We buy fish during the dry times at Pescaderia Puerto Deseado on Av. Balloffet.   The most economical  fish to buy in this shop is merluza or hake.  Our South African friends tell us that hake is used for bait in their country, but it's the only fresh fish available in San Rafael.   We purchase four milanesas, which are filets covered with a seasoned breadcrumb mixture, ready to be fried.   

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The fish dinner pairs well with Cabrini Chardonnay 2005.  This wine has notes of green apple, mushrooms and damp vegetation,  followed by an acidic finish.  It comes from Perdriel, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, from a bodega established in 1918 and operated today by the fourth generation of the Cabrini family.    A bottle of Cabrini Chardonnay costs  19.90 pesos.  Four milanesas de merluza cost 14.99 pesos.

Here's a link to an excellent seafood cookbook entitled "A Good Catch" by Jill Lambert.   I picked up a copy during a trip to Wolfville, Nova Scotia and was delighted to find my son Nick Nutting listed as a contributing chef, with his recipe for octopus included in the collection.  This book offers sustainable seafood recipes from the top chefs in Canada, while promoting the idea of eating locally harvested,  fresh, nutritious fruits de mer.  

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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!

 
 
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. 

 
 
"The wise man bridges the gap by laying out the path by means of which he can get from where he is to where he wants to go."   - J. P. Morgan


Today is Gnocchi Day, an event celebrated on the 29th of each month in Argentina.  The tradition comes from Italian immigrants who were regularly short of money just prior to payday and needed an inexpensive meal to fill their stomachs.  The frugal housewife learned to make  gnocchi from potatoes, flour and an egg,  and could serve up a tasty meatless meal  for the entire household even when the  larder was looking quite bare.    It  became customary to place a peso under your plate when you ate gnocchi, with the hope that your coin would multiply in the month ahead.
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Making gnocchi is a hands-on process which becomes easier as you get a feel for the right consistency and texture.   Russet potatoes are boiled and mashed, then mixed with a small amount of flour and an egg binder to form a dough.  Depending on the moistness of the potatoes, I find  the dough  more workable with the addition of a tablespoon of water. (A scant tablespoon, as too much water will make the gnocchi hard.)  The dough is rolled by hand into cylinders on a floured board, and then cut into bite-sized lengths.   Each gnocchi is carefully pressed with a thumb against the tines of a fork to create the classic look;  a row of parallel indentations on one side and a petal-shaped curvature on the other.   Cooking gnocchi is as easy as dropping them into a pot of boiling water and waiting until they float up to the surface to be scooped out with a slotted spoon.

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Fresh basil from the garden
Gnocchi can be served with tomato or cream-based sauces, but the best accompaniment for the dumplings is growing right in the front yard, in my herb garden.  A bouquet of basil, chopped and blended with garlic, parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil makes a fragrant, green pesto sauce.  I add ground almonds as a substitute for the standard pine nuts which are, unfortunately,  not available in San Rafael.   

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We selected a bottle of  Bianchi DOC Malbec 2007 to pair with the gnocchi.  This wine is produced by the most prominent Italian family in San Rafael, third generation descendants of Don Valentin Bianchi and his wife Elsa, who settled  in Rama Caida in 1910.    Valentin Bianchi worked in railway administration,  started a bus line and founded a timber company before being elected to City Council in San Rafael.  He opened his own bodega called El Chiche in 1928, and by the time he died in 1968, the re-named Bodegas Valentin Bianchi had become one of the most successful wineries in Argentina.  Today, the Bianchi wines are exported to Australia, the U.S, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Singapore.  The family has also enriched San Rafael's cultural life by creating a foundation for the arts which presents  fine art exhibitons, dance performances and musical concerts at the bodega.   A bottle of Bianchi DOC Malbec costs 17.85 pesos at Vea supermarket.  

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Sometimes good things come together in the most fortuitous way.   While browsing through the cooking section of a secondhand bookstore in Montevideo, I came across a 1960s copy of the  Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook.    It's a paperback edition (in English) that served as a gift from New Holland farm equipment dealers to their clients.  The back cover offers a message from the company.  "To the modern farm wife and mother everywhere, this book is dedicated as a tribute to her contribution to the all-important task of feeding the men who feed the nation." Packed with good old-fashioned recipes, this treasure from rural America was an unexpected gem to find in Uruguay, of all places!
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Back home on the finca a few days later,  I was sitting on the terrace reading my new cookbook when our neighbour Felipe arrived at the gate, offering a gift of two giant heads of red cabbage.  He owns a successful market garden which produces the most beautiful fruits and vegetables  in Rama Caida.  I knew exactly how to use his generous gift; Pickled Red Cabbage was featured  in my vintage cookbook.  The method involves shredding the cabbage and salting it in layers in a pail, then weighting the top of the pile with a plate and a brick.  The cabbage has to sit for 30 hours, and is then packed into jars and pickled with a hot, spiced apple cider vinegar and sugar syrup.  The magic of the process occurs when you pour the pickling syrup over the cabbage.  There's an instant transformation from deep purple to bright pink, an event that thrilled me as much as any Pennsylvania Dutch farm kid.   The end result is a preserved coleslaw with  brilliant colour, zesty flavour and plenty of crunchy nutrition.  

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Magic!
We teamed the cabbage with traditional chorizo sausages cooked on the grill.  These are 100% pork sausages spiced with hot pepper and nutmeg.  They are sold at the local mercadito on a string and cost 12 pesos for 6 fat links.  I have tried cooking them on the stove, but found that the grease content is really too high for pan-frying.  Chorizo are designed for the outdoor asado and when pierced during cooking, the fat drains off easily into the fire.

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The meal needed a bold wine to compete with the strident flavours of pork and cabbage. 
We selected Familia Ripa Malbec , which is produced by bodega La Abeja, the oldest winery in San Rafael.  The malbec has juicy plum and blackberry aromas, fleshy volume and rich fruit finish.   The history of the local  boutique bodega is outlined on their website.  Familia Ripa sells for 10.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.


For Christmas, I presented Felipe with a jar of my pickled red cabbage.  It was a modest gift, just a small contribution to the all-important task of feeding the men who feed the nation.  

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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 have one old fig tree on our property which is still producing wonderful fruit. Fresh figs are a delicious treat whether enjoyed  straight from the tree or cooked in foil on the barbecue.   Last February, just prior to leaving for Canada to attend my daughter's wedding,  I spent an afternoon preserving the abundant harvest in heavy syrup.  
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As this year's figs are fattening on the ends of the branches, we are down to our last jar of preserves in the cupboard.  Today I took a few from the final jar and mashed them with onions, a bit of red pepper and capers to make a fig confit for our grilled salmon.   The Greeks used to feed figs to athletes prior to Olympic events, to boost speed and stamina. Since the fig is 50% natural sugar, this would be the equivalent of eating a power bar before a marathon.  

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We paired the salmon menu with Rama Caida Sidra Demi-Sec as an alternative to wine.  Rama Caida cider is made right here in our neighbourhood by the Martinez family, who founded the company in 1949.   Their bodega produces a line of non-alcoholic sparkling fruit drinks as well as artesanal wines and cider.  The demi-sec is made from local apples and pears and is a bubbly, refreshing, citrusy beverage.   

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A bottle of Rama Caida cider can be purchased for 4.73 pesos at Vea supermarket. 

 
 
The herb garden is greening up with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  When weeding and thinning the plot, the pungent aroma of thyme lingers on the hands and just awhiff is enough to stimulate  an appetite for dinner.   The Greeks said a person "smelled of thyme" when they displayed an  elegant, refined style.  Hope some of that finesse rubbed off on me while I worked in the garden!
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Sprigs of thyme in our garden
A handful of thyme, a bunch of parsley, a touch of Dijon mustard,  some olive oil and balsamic vinegar whirled together with the blade of my hand blender to create a smooth Salsa Verde for our trout dinner.  Trout from Patagonia is the most popular variety of fish available  in this part of Argentina, and fly-fishing is a major part of the tourist industry.   This fish  is excellent poached or fried or grilled on the barbecue, but needs delicate cooking to preserve its flavour and  moisture.  We served our filets on a bed of bulgur wheat and garbanzo beans, accompanied by stir-fried zucchini and mushrooms.

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We paired our seafood special with Michel Torino Coleccion Torrontes 2008 from Bodegas La Rosa in the province of Salta.  This wine has a distinctive floral nose, a nice balance of fruit and acidity  and a grapefruit finish.   It is one of the great value, quality wines of Argentina that is exported to Canada,  the U.S. and the U.K.  We purchased it for 10.25 pesos at Vea supermarket.  

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Trucha con Salsa Verde