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!

 
 
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."  
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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.  

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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.

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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.  

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Nuns in San Rafael
 

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.