"Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver,
Mon jardin, ce n'est pas un jardin, c'est la plaine,
Mon chemin ce n'est pas un chemin, c'est la neige,
Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver."
As Canadians, we are no strangers to winter. Our acreage in Alberta looked like this for six months of the year:
It was a frosty -42 degrees Celsius one January morning in 2005. The CBC radio announcer warned that exposed skin would freeze instantly at that temperature, a pleasant thought to start the day with. Confronting severe cold meant a careful layering of thermal underwear, sweater, jeans, parka, boots, hat, scarf and gloves before stepping outside. It was hard to hear our muffled voices under all that protective gear, but as we walked with our dog through the frigid forest, we sang Gilles Vigneaults' Canadian anthem.
"Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver,
Mon jardin, ce n'est pas un jardin, c'est la plaine,
Mon chemin ce n'est pas un chemin, c'est la neige,
Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver."
Despite the past two weeks of unusually cold weather across South America, our winter experience here in Argentina has been a welcome change from the harsh Alberta climate. Cold means -3 degrees C at night and 17 degrees C at noon. We had one snowfall this month, but the insignificant dusting of white stuff disappeared by midday. The hardy greens that we planted in the vegetable garden late in the fall continue to thrive through the winter months and look like this:
We do have winter jackets, but like our electric heating units, we only need them on for part of the day. It's not unusual to wear a heavy wool coat in the morning and a t-shirt at lunch. Today we sat outside on the terrace and enjoyed French onion soup, a shish kebab of grilled beef and a green salad combining arugula, spinach and lettuce from the garden.
We paired our meal with Clos du Moulin Cabernet/Pinot Noir 2008, a fine blend elaborated by the French connection - Bodegas Chandon - in Lujan de Cuyo. Aromas of ripe fruit, prunes and jam are followed by a smooth, silky mouth texture that finishes with tobacco and spice flavours. A bottle of Clos du Moulin costs 25 pesos at Vea supermarket.
"In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer." - Albert Camus
Slick digital images are the norm in advertising today, but many San Rafael storefronts display hand-painted signs that are whimsical, attractive and one-of-a-kind. I toured the city with my camera to photograph some of the retro signs that liven up the streetscape.
The anthropomorphic key is featured in several of the cerrajerias in town. This one looks like a legless distant cousin of Mr. Peanut circa 1920, with characteristic gloved hands and stick limbs.
The scale of the faucet and bathroom fixtures makes these graphics stand out, even from a drive-by perspective. The images cover the exterior walls of the store and are signed by the artist, Mauro, in the lower righthand corner.
Mauro also created this smiling octopus whose legs surround the doorway of the pescaderia like brackets. When the door is shut, it actually looks as if one tentacle is stuck inside!
The giant sparky battery at Mario Stilo's has genuine 50s kitsch style. It covers the garage door while overhead the catchy slogan reads "The battery of the future."
A rather naive rendering of fruit fills in for the real thing during siesta time and after hours. The produce has been painted directly on the surface of the security gate that covers the shop facade when the store is closed.
Sometimes the design of the hand-lettering is enough, without additional illustration. This hardware store has a fine logo, with a bold typeface and a powerful uppercase "M". It's just missing an "h" after the "c".
We went to the Tower Hotel for lunch, ordered veal cutlet and laughed out loud when the meat arrived with a cheesy happy face on it!
Only the wine pairing presented a serious dining decision. We sobered up and chose Infinitus Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2008, an excellent blend from Patagonia. This wine announces its arrival with a strong aroma of cassis, raspberries and cranberries and offers medium body and smooth tannins. The Domaine Vista Alba, owned by Frenchman Herve Joyaux Fabre, produces grapes in Alto Valley, Rio Negro, a cooler zone than Mendoza province's fruit-growing region. A bottle of Infinitus Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot costs 19.50 pesos.
In need of a cultural break, we visited Buenos Aires for a few days to enjoy some music, dance, fine art, film and theatre. There is a daily flight with Aerolineas Argentina from teeny tiny San Rafael airport to the big city. It takes only an hour and a half to travel from quiet campo to bustling metropolis for a weekend of entertainment.
The most exciting event of our recent trip was the arteBA '10 contemporary art fair held at La Rural exhibition space. Over the years we have attended art fairs in Frankfurt, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Toronto, so we have several models for comparison when it comes to rating the Buenos Aires event. This fair was first class all the way - from curatorship to lighting to visual presentation. The artworks, drawn from commercial galleries all over South America, ranged from representational to abstract and included photography, installation pieces and video, as well as more traditional paintings and sculptures.
Anzizar with his painting
"Urban Birdwatching" by Jose Luis Anzizar appealed to me as a joyous and elegant series of canvases created with collaged elements cut out and applied to the surface. The artist's catalogue quotes him as saying that this group of paintings,"rescues the surrounding visual chaos which we usually overlook." The random nature of the squiggled lines suggests a haphazard flight path, or the casual doodles of a wandering mind, intercepted every now and then with an image of a bird or the silhouette of an aircraft. These paintings, presented by Elsi del Rio gallery, seem to capture the buzz of Buenos Aires.
VO4 by Ventoso
A fascinating series of wall-mounted sculptures caught my eye in Renoir Galeria de Arte's booth. These works, created by Abel H.Ventoso combine forms and linear patterns made from chunks of high density foam. The artist's background as an architect clearly informs his refined volumetric compositions. I like the way subtle tonal variations of black and grey affect the spatial relationships in this piece.
Magdalena Murua's black and white
Artist Magdalena Murua's work was presented at the fair by Praxis International Art. Murua cuts and pastes minute pieces of comic books, creating a mosaic effect from the small bits of colour or black and white cartoons. She starts with a grid and then applies the segments intuitively in stripes or waves. These works read as op art abstracts from a distance, and collage at close range, where graphic traces and fragments of text from the comics are visible.
The only questionable aspect of the BA fair was the pricing of the art. When I asked gallery owners for prices, every small work was $3,500 U.S. and every large work was $10,000 U.S. I assume that this was a starting price point, meant to be negotiated. We are used to a North American square inch price formula that's objective and consistent with the size of the canvas. Nevertheless, the values at arteBA appeared to be quite reasonable for both emerging and mid-career artists, and any serious collector could find high quality work here at a good price.
After the show, while waiting for a cab to take us back to our hotel, we couldn't help but notice multiple graffiti stencils decorating the streetscape. This artist's message certainly hits home.
Looking at art does work up an appetite, so we headed for Empire Thai on Tres Sargentos. Owner Kevin Rodriguez, a banker from New Jersey, moved to Buenos Aires in 1996 and established a Thai restaurant as an alternative to what he describes as "the city's three p's - pizza, pasta and parrilla." And what a welcome dining experience it is! The coconut soup served here is absolutely the best we've ever eaten, and accompanied by a dish of Pad Thai with krupuk and a plate of tender beef satay, makes a satisfying meal. Kevin lets me in on the chef's secret - he makes his own coconut milk from scratch.
Just around the corner on San Martin is the luxury shopping mall Galerias Pacifico, which offers a wide range of leather goods, cashmere sweaters, cosmetics, fragrances, jewels, designer purses and electronics. On the upper floor is the Borges Cultural Centre, which houses a small auditorium. We enjoyed a Sunday evening performance of Evolutionarte, a dynamic flamenco show directed by Marcela Rodriquez.
The streets of Buenos Aires reflect all the contrasts of life in Latin America. The well-to-do casually step over the poor souls who sleep on the sidewalk. The city is both charming and harsh, beautiful and ugly, with a veneer of extravagant wealth and an underbelly of desperate poverty. It is an eye-opener.
Buenos Aires' beautiful Teatro Colon offers the ultimate theatre experience: see my article on Hubpages.
Today marks the bicentennial of Argentina's independence. On the 25th of May in 1810, nationalists at the Cabildo Abierto (open town meeting) held in Buenos Aires voted to depose the viceroyalty of Spain. Political chaos followed the decision, and it wasn't until July of 1816 that independence was made official by a national congress in Tucuman. Nevertheless, Argentineans proudly celebrate this day as the beginning of their liberation from European rule.
Flag vendors are stationed at every corner in San Rafael, selling the "Sun of May." The Argentine flag was designed by General Manuel Belgrano in 1812, and features two cerulean blue bands divided by a white stripe bearing the image of a radiant sun with a human face. There are several theories regarding the iconography of the flag; some say that it represents Inti the Incan sun god, while others suggest that the blue bands are waves of Rio de la Plata. I think Belgrano was just captivated by the beauty of the Argentine sky when he came up with this design.
At noon a parade of military groups, mounted police and gauchos makes its way through the city streets.
It seems odd to us, but the policemen ride two to a motorcycle, with one cop driving the bike and the other standing upright, carrying a rifle while balancing on the back of the seat.
The traditional food for the Dia de la Revolucion de Mayo is locro, a hearty, thick stew made from squash, white beans, corn, pork sausage and beef shank. The open-air stands serve locro from large pots heated over wood fires.
Deep-fried empanadas accompany the stew. Locro is an indigenous peoples' dish adopted by Argentine society to commemorate its independence, as this South American recipe features local ingredients cooked in a traditional way. It represents a distinct departure from European cuisine.
To pair with the locro, we enjoy the Edicion Especial Ano Bicentenario red wine produced by Bodega Santa Ana in Guaymallen, Mendoza. This blended vino tinto is a straightforward table wine with a pleasant fruity aroma and cherry taste. A bottle of the Bicentenario sells for 6.69 pesos at Vea supermarket. We paid 35 pesos for two portions of locro and a dozen empanadas purchased from a roadside vendor.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
With an abundance of tomatoes, zucchini and peppers ripening in the garden and temperatures soaring above 35 degrees Celsius, the season for gazpacho has definitely arrived. The Spanish version of this cold vegetable soup has a rich history that can be traced back to the Moors who occupied Andalusia from the 8th to the 12th century.
The original ancient recipe for ajo blanco - gazpacho's pale cousin - included garlic, olive oil, vinegar and bread. Centuries later, the Spaniards amplified the piquant flavour with peppers, onions and parsley, and changed the colour of the dish from white to red by adding tomatoes. (Tomatoes did not arrive in Europe until the early 16th century when the Spanish brought seeds back from their conquest of the Aztecs.) Sometimes avocados and cucumbers were added too, with each vegetable chopped finely and soaked for several hours in the thick tomato broth. The chilled soup has evolved into a liquid salad; a nutritious and refreshing dish, especially on a scorching hot day. The word "gazpacho" is derived from the Mozarab word "caspa" which means fragments.
Inca stone wall
Fragments can indeed make a solid and complete statement when skilfully combined. A visit to the architecturally stunning Bodega Septima in Lujan de Cuyo reinforced this idea for me. The team of Eliana Bormida and Mario Yanzon (specialists in bodega projects) designed the Septima building using clean minimalist lines and an Inca stonemasonry technique called pirca. The early inhabitants of Mendoza constructed their buildings using fragments of Andes stone stacked one on top of another. Their method required a true sensitivity for the found material they were working with, as they did not have metal carving tools. Walls were tapered slightly with thicker stones at the bottom, and doorways were trapezoidal in shape, adding stability. Even major earthquakes could not destroy the pirca walls built by the Incas, although many Spanish-built edifices collapsed.
Of course a trip to the bodega was not just an architectural tour, but included wine-tasting. We selected Septima Syrah Tempranillo 2007 to pair with gazpacho. The alcohol content of 14% is a good modifying influence for the spicy ingredients that bind together the fragments of our soup. The syrah adds tannins to the blend, while the tempranillo balances with red fruit and coffee flavours. A bottle of this wine costs 14 pesos.
Resourcefulness is a matter of pride for the Argentines. An old can and a stick are not thrown out, but transformed with ingenuity and craftsmanship into the most useful tool in the shed - a tacho used for scooping water from the canal. Tachos are often painted in bright colours and patterns, qualifying them as folk art, as well as functional object.
In the city of San Rafael and in the surrounding countryside, the tacho is used daily to fill pails for watering the garden, for scrubbing the sidewalk and to wet the roadside to keep the dust down around the house. Its long handle allows for easy lifting, without the need for a back-breaking bend over the riego. Indispensable and inexpensive, it represents great vernacular design.
Faced with a fridge full of leftovers, I ask, "What would an Argentine make out of this mess?" The answer, gleaned from a conversation with my neighbour Maria, is a tortilla. With some cornmeal, a bit of flour, an egg, soya milk, water and a spoonful of olive oil one can easily whip up a batter to make a simple crepe-like pancake. The stuffing consists of whatever is leftover from other meals: beef, chicken, tomatoes, beans, zucchini, onions, anything and everything fried together. A sprinkle of grated cheese for the tops of the rolled tortillas and listo!
Served with arugula greens from the garden and some hot sauce on the side, the humble tortilla becomes an elegant lunch. It's an adaptable recipe, as clever and economical as a can on a stick. We served the tortillas with beer instead of wine - a large bottle of Andes pilsener costs 3.80 pesos at Vea supermarket.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.