When I studied  Cultural Conservation at the University of Victoria many years ago, one of the assignments was to complete an inventory of buildings.  The houses on one city block were recorded, photographed and evaluated using a weighted scoring system.  A building's significance was determined according to criteria such as historic features, style, condition, authenticity and age.   This exercise was a preliminary step in the process of heritage designation and long-term preservation of the city's architectural gems.   The lesson learned was that you have to know  and understand what is out there before you can protect it.
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I read with interest an article in Los Andes newspaper reporting that a team of high school students is creating an inventory of trees in the district of Guaymallen, near Mendoza city.   The students each have a section of the city to work on, and are busy recording location,  identifying species and evaluating the overall condition of individual trees.   What a great project for raising environmental awareness and laying the groundwork for an arboreal preservation plan!

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Trees at the edge of the canal on our finca
Canadian scientist Diane Beresford-Kroeger would applaud this endeavour.  In her 2010 book "The Global Forest" she stresses the importance of trees as "healers" of the planet, while explaining their vital role as hosts for diverse insect and bird life, and as anti-erosion and anti-famine plants.    She states that the Western forest has not been intelligently managed since the Middle Ages, when a seven-year renewable cycle meant continuity, and 64 items of market value were carefully harvested from the sustainable woodlot.   Beresford-Kroeger promotes the idea of creating a bioplan for one's farm that includes the addition of trees at the edges of the cultivated agricultural field.  


"A bioplan will walk organic farming one step further to increase the biodiversity of native species of plants and animals.  Quite often an organic farm, good though it may be, can be a desert, too, if the farm is just composed of mile upon mile of crops in an empty acreage.  The forest must come back to the farm in the form of an orchard, nut orchards and set-asides of select trees. "

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If you want to reintroduce a forest to your property, Beresford-Kroeger has these suggestions: 
  • Choose quality seeds or saplings  of species native to the local area, selected from the oldest, healthiest specimens.  These epicenter trees are the most resistant to drought, climate change, and pestilence.
  • Mix deciduous and coniferous trees.
  • Post bird boxes to encourage wildlife presence, (their manure adds necessary nitrogen and an assortment of plant seeds to the forest floor).
  • Allow wind to pass through, bringing spores for lichens, mosses, ferns and mushrooms.

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Alamos, a windbreak for the vineyards
Beresford-Kroeger would also be pleased to know that I am reading  the Kindle version of "The Global Forest" which was delivered in paperless format.   She points out that the sex hormones in trees called "gibberellins" are bleeding into the large bodies of water where trees are milled for the pulp and paper industry.  This huge  hormonal load is being dumped directly into our drinking water and xenochemicals  can now be found in the bodies of all mammals, including humans.   As she so eloquently says, "The broken forest is in our children's tears."

At her country home near Ottawa, Ontario,  Beresford-Kroeger has planted and cultivated, over a 30 year period, an incredible garden comprised of over 6000 species of trees, shrubs and flowers.  She also maintains a seed bank for the future, and is actively working to educate people about methods for the renewal and preservation of biodiversity.  


"The civilized world has not put a finger on the pulse of nature. It has ignored the pattern in which nature works, as if man himself is an independent species apart from the web of it.  The truth is that man is only one species and he stands on a fragile platform of life that is but a whisper away from death.  There is some time left.  There is time for a different way of thinking in which man can rethread the needle and sew a life for the future."

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Bodegas Los Toneles ( the barrels)  is located in Guaymallen at Bandera de los Andes 1393.  The winery boasts an excellent restaurant and conducts guided tours of their facility with wine-tastings.   Owned by the Millan family, Los Toneles  produced this bottle of  2 Estacas Chardonnay 2008, with its aroma of tropical fruit and toasted bread, a medium body and a pineapple finish.   We paired the wine with a citrus salad that celebrates the fruit of our trees -  grapefruit and orange segments, walnuts and green olives -  tossed with arugula, butter lettuce, endive and thin slices of goat cheese.   A bottle of 2 Estacas sells for 15 pesos.

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Citrus Salad
 
 
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.  

 
 
A small army of trucks filled with work crews travelling down the back roads of Rama Caida first thing in the morning heralds the beginning of  "cosecha" - the  grape harvest.  This is a time of intense activity and concentrated effort, as the ripened grapes must be picked as soon as they reach their peak, while the sugar content is at an optimal level and the weather is dry.   The seasonal workers come from Bolivia and Paraguay to participate in a month of hard labour,  boarding in temporary camps with the entire crew and working one finca after another.   If you're strong and fast, the earnings can be quite good.
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The picker is given a metal bin called a "tacho."  He moves down the vineyard row  collecting grapes and  filling the basket.  A fully loaded tacho weighs 20 kilos.

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The worker hoists the tacho to his shoulder and runs with it to the truck.  

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A wooden plank leads up to the back of the truck.  Balance is important, as the ramp has a tendency to bounce under the combined weight of body and fruit.

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The picker dumps the grapes into the back of the truck.  Another crew member shovels the growing Malbec mountain to distribute the load evenly.

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The foreman tosses a "ficha" or token into the picker's empty tacho.  Payment is made to the worker according to the number of fichas he has collected during the day.  

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At high noon  it's time  to break for lunch.  The crew washes up while  sausages are cooked on a portable asado grill.   They sit in the shade of a eucalyptus tree and enjoy chorizo on a bun with vino casero.  

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A little Bolivian girl plays quietly in the vineyard while her mother  and father relax during lunch break.  She takes a fat cluster of grapes from her mother's basket, carefully wraps it up in her pink blanket, and rocks Baby Malbec to sleep.  

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Work continues throughout the afternoon until all of the grapes have been picked from every row.  

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At the end of the day, the truck leaves for the winery with a full load.  At Bodega Bianchi, it  will join a long lineup of trucks,  all waiting their turn to be weighed  before dumping the grapes into a crusher.  The vineyard, now empty of people and stripped of fruit, looks totally exhausted in the low evening light.   The vines will be heavily irrigated within the next few days, as the harvesting process sends the plants into shock.   They've done their job for this year, providing the key ingredient for another great vintage wine.  

 
 
Our grapes are now turning from green to purple,  a stage the French call "veraison" and the Spanish refer to as "pintura".   Another month of ripening and they will be ready to harvest, but today I'm judiciously plucking a few of the still-tender leaves from the vines to make a batch of dolmades.   
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Malbec grapes
I try to select leaves that are bright green and pliable from the lower parts of the vines, so as not to disturb the canopy that provides dappled  shade to the grapes.  Too much harsh Argentine sun on the clusters can spoil the fruit, and direct exposure also attracts birds who will gladly finish off the grapes before they have had a chance to mature. It seems that Mother Nature designed the blush of the fruit to be a signal to wildlife, an invitation to come and feast at her table. 

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Blanched leaves
The leaves are dropped into a pot of boiling water to blanch them.  The filling, prepared from ground beef, rice, parsley, mint, and green onions is spooned onto the leaf, which is then folded in on the sides and rolled like a cigar.  The trick is to get the bundle to stay neatly wrapped during the next step, which involves simmering  in a pan of water flavoured with slices of lemon.  I solved this problem by taking a hint from the bales of alfalfa that are rolled and tied with twine in our field.  A stem of chive from the garden, secured like a ribbon around the rolled leaf ensures that the dolma will  keep its shape during cooking.  

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Dolmades
The Greeks claim that dolmades were served on Mount Olympus with nectar and ambrosia.  We serve them cold, as an appetizer paired with a glass of Etchart Privado Torrontes 2009.  This deep golden-coloured wine has aromas of lime, green grapes and flowers, and is nicely balanced with light acidity and fruit flavours in the mouth.  The finish lingers with a hint of vanilla.   An excellent substitute for nectar and not as harsh as retsina.   Bodega  Etchart is located in the Valle de Cafayate, where a particular microclimate at an elevation of 1700 meters produces the very best Torrontes grapes.  A bottle of Privado costs 10.25 pesos at Vea supermarket. 

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 When we visited Buenos Aires recently, the city was celebrating an international festival of tango.  The former Harrod's department store directly across from our hotel was full of dancers, musicians and vendors selling traditional shoes, stockings, dresses, hats and suspenders to tango enthusiasts.   The mood was festive and the action spilled out to the street, with throngs of people gathering to watch couples young and old, professional and amateur, perform the classic dance of Argentina.  Tango was born on the streets of Buenos Aires, in the port district of La Boca, where immigrants developed the dance in the late 19th century.   Derived from a blend of  Spanish, African,  Slavic and Cuban dance forms, the tango is a stylized portrayal of seduction, with male and female engaged in a game of stealth, enticement, teasing, rejection, acceptance and embrace.   While the passionate sensuality of the tango is obvious to any spectator, there is also a darker undercurrent that propels the dance.  Contrasting the smooth, almost feline walking movements are the adornos that involve sharp, staccato thrusts of the feet that mimic a knife blade.   The famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges noted the presence  of opposing forces in the dance and explained its uniquely beautiful combination of violence and grace.   "The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have often tried to state in words:  the belief that a fight may be a celebration."

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A chef could create a career  based on that belief.  Dishes combining opposite flavours and textures excite the palate.   The eater is  intrigued as ingredients fight for dominance, play back and forth, tease the tastebuds and finally join forces in  a delicious seduction of the senses.     A good example is our favourite summer appetizer made from slices of  honeydew melon wrapped in  jamon crudo.   Similar to  Italian prosciutto, jamon crudo is made locally by salting a leg of pork, washing it and  hanging it on a hook to cure in the open air.  It has a dry, chewy texture and a fatty, salty flavour which is the very opposite of the sweet, juicy, melt-in-the-mouth ripe melon.   The two foods are perfect partners.

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We pair the appetizer with 2 x4 Tango Torrontes, an excellent summer wine made by Bodega Fantelli in Santa Rosa, Mendoza.  (2x4 refers to the  rhythm of the tango, not the specification for lumber which  North Americans are familiar with!)  This wine intrigues the nose with aromas of pear and flowers, dances in the mouth with citrus and green apple, and finishes with a flourish of herbal potpourri.   A bottle sells for 12.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.  Honeydew melons, purchased from roadside vendors, are 10 pesos each and jamon crudo, thinly sliced,  can be purchased at the delicatessen for about 14 pesos for 200 grams.  

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Jamon crudo
 
 
The apricot harvest is here and in spite of an early frost, a hailstorm and gale force winds, our trees have produced more fruit than we can handle.  We are now at the point of giving away boxes of the fabulous fruit to anyone who visits us or passes by on the road! 
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Jam
I made a batch of apricot jam first thing  in the morning, by adding lemon juice and sugar to the crushed fruit and boiling until thick.  By noon, I was  preparing several crates of the fruit for drying.  The apricot doesn't need to be peeled - thank goodness-but has to be cut in half, pitted, dipped in a water and sodium sulphite solution (a preservative which retains the orange colour and the vitamin content) before being  laid out to dry on our wire  mesh pergola.  After three consecutive days of dry, sunny weather, the apricots will be ready to be brought in and stored in plastic containers.  

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After lunch and a brief siesta, the late afternoon activity was preserving apricot halves with syrup and Hesperidina, a unique aperitif.   This liqueur is made from bitter orange peel, sugar, alcohol and herbs, and has been a popular Argentine drink since 1864 when Melville Sewell Bagley first introduced the product in Buenos Aires.  It has been touted as a digestive aid, and it is true that the flavonoids in citrus fruit peel and membrane are soothing to the stomach.  Whether medicinal in value or not, Hesperidina adds a special zesty flavour to my apricot preserves, which are best  served with a slice of almond pound cake. 
The rest of my apricot windfall was used to make a sorbet.  Pureed fruit,  sweetened and frozen for a few hours, becomes a refreshing dessert or palate-cleanser between courses.  We serve this at the end of a  lamb chop meal.   A bottle of Hesperidina sells for 11.85 pesos at Vea supermarket.

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Sorbet
 
 
We came out of the bank yesterday and there on the corner, much to our delight,  was the first sign of summer - the cherry man!  Every year at the beginning of December he sets up shop on the sidewalk  with nothing more than a wooden cart, a scale hung on a tree, and some plastic bags.   He piles the fruit into a red mountain that is sure to catch the eye of every passerby and that's it; open for business in San Rafael.  
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Cherries bring back memories of another summer, of  meals eaten in a small Hungarian restaurant in Toronto, where cold cherry soup was served as an appetizer.  The flavour was sour and sweet, and the cherries were unpitted, creating a tasty, slow introduction to dinner.   I re-created the soup today, with half a kilo of cherries, rose wine, creme fraiche, sugar and some lemon juice to add a bit of tartness.   The cherries,(which I took the time to pit) wine and sugar were boiled and then blended with the cream to a smooth consistency, with a few cherry halves reserved intact and added back to float in the broth.   A few hours in the fridge to chill, and that unforgettable summer of '74 soup was served right here, al fresco, in Argentina.  

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We paired the cold cherry soup with Los Haroldos  Malbec Rose 2008, a light summery wine with hints of raspberry, melon and citrus.   (This wine also went into the making of the soup.)  The bodega's website gives an overview of a large operation that cultivates grapes on 3,000 hectares of land in Mendoza.   Haroldos Malbec Rose sells for 13.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.  Cherries cost 13 pesos per kilo, but it's still early in the season and  this price will definitely go down once the cherry man is faced with competition on other street corners.  




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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.