The Dutch imagination has always been expansive, looking beyond the borders of its own small territory to acquire perspective and influence of global dimensions.  The Golden Age in Dutch history (17th c.) established The Netherlands as a dominant force in world trade, commerce, science and the arts.  
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Replica of Dutch East Indies merchant ship
Our  three week stay in Amsterdam reveals that the Dutch still regard themselves in a privileged position within the EU and in the global community, with strong ties to foreign places and exotic cultures.   They maintain a fascination for the new and different that is as genuine as the cabinet of curiosities we viewed in the Tropen Museum with its multiple drawers containing labelled samples of minerals, plants, spices, feathers and animal skeletons brought back from voyages to far off shores during the 1600s.  

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Vendor at the market
When Robert, who was born in The Netherlands, speaks his mother tongue, Amsterdammers listen carefully to his accent and intonation.  They clearly understand him, answer his questions politely and then invariably remark, "You speak excellent Dutch, sir, but I can tell that you've been away for a while."   This line, as intended, prompts a brief life history from Robert, an account that traces his emigration to Canada at the age of 18, his career as an art dealer and his path to retirement on a farm in Argentina.  On a day of touring around Amsterdam, the tale gets told many times (and gets better with each repetition. )  Mention Argentina in this city,  and Dutch faces instantly light up.   

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The heir to the Dutch throne,  Prince Willem-Alexander married  Maxima Zorreguieta Cerruti in Amsterdam on February 2, 2002.   Princess Maxima hails from Argentina, from a wealthy Buenos Aires family of Basque/Italian heritage.  She has captured the attention of the popular press and appears in the Dutch newspapers almost every day attending official functions, enjoying family gatherings, opening a new arts centre or christening a new ship in the harbour.  Her inclusion in the Dutch Royal Family has sparked a wave of interest in things Argentine and on this trip we note a string of newly-opened steak grill restaurants in Amsterdam with names like La Pampa,  Gaucho, and El Rancho.  

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Maxima is featured in De Telegraph
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The Argentine connection also has business interests in San Rafael.  Princess Maxima is producing and marketing  a line of wine under the label 1830 which is elaborated by Bombal y Aldao bodega, the winery that offers a buy-your-own-barrel program.  1830 is the year that Finca los Alamos was established, and that's where the grapes for this wine are grown and harvested - a vineyard right in our own backyard.   

The more one travels, the more foreign threads are woven into the fabric of your own personal history.  The traces of other lives and past events become a part of you.   We take a walk along the canals of Amsterdam and end up buying cheese, fish and flowers at the same open-air market where Robert's grandmother used to shop.  

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." -- Mark Twain

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There are two words for "gift" in Castellano, "regalo" and "obsequio".  According to my Argentine friend, "regalo" is a personal gift and the more formal "obsequio" refers to a business gift.  They are synonymous in the Spanish dictionary, but in my own mind, there is a significant distinction between these terms.  
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The gesture of giving a gift is an expression of generosity, appreciation and goodwill.  A genuine gift has no strings attached, and is not encumbered by an expectation of receiving something in return, or gaining  entitlement to favours from the recipient, or buying special status.  It is voluntary and spontaneous and pure of heart.  My experience with gift-giving in Argentina, however,  has been fraught with misunderstandings.  In this country generosity is often treated as a weakness, a serious character flaw or an act tantamount to bribery,  rather than a virtue.  One well-meaning gift can open a Pandora's box of problems in this cultural milieu.

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We gave a gift of nearly new, good quality furniture to an Argentine couple who had helped us in the initial stages of settling in  San Rafael.  I was somewhat surprised when I didn't hear a single "thank you " from our friends (let's call them Los Amigos)  and later wondered if the contemporary style of the dining room set was not to their liking, after all.  Were the leather seats not quite the right colour to match their decor?  On their next visit to our house, Los Amigos asked about the floor lamp and an air-conditioning unit that we had not included in the gift package - would we be keeping those items?  When we left the city to visit Uruguay for three days, they picked all of the peaches from our trees on the finca.  Los Amigos never apologized for helping themselves to the fruit and didn't offer us even one of their many jars of preserves made from the same.   On returning from subsequent out-of-town trips, we were dismayed to find that our vegetable garden had been invaded by a not-too-careful thief who snatched  squash, beets and carrots and left behind trampled rows of lettuce.  Whenever we met with Los Amigos they pleaded with us to provide a character reference for their 26-year-old daughter, who was planning to apply for a job at a local hotel.  They insisted that we personally introduce her to the manager and if she wasn't hired, then it was suggested that we could find her a job through our network of business contacts in Canada.   As the demands increased, our encounters became more strained.  In the end, we had to back off and cool our relationship with Los Amigos. We were at a loss to explain the behaviour of these seemingly decent, church-going, middle class Argentineans of European descent.  What had gone wrong?   I realize  now that our "regalo" had been  mistakenly interpreted as an "obsequio".  

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"Obsequio" comes from the Latin noun "obsequium" which means "compliance" and the verb "obsequi" which means "to follow".   The term  "ingenui in obsequio" (free men in dependence) was used to describe the vassal/lord relationship within the feudal system.  The vassal was granted a piece of land in exchange for his pledge to provide military service to the lord.  A portion of the harvest from the land was offered to the lord to ensure protection and good standing for the vassal.  

In English, the word "obsequious" means "servilely obedient or attentive, fawning, deferential" and I think our gift made us appear that way to Los Amigos.  Our offering was perceived as an unreasonable  request, and they really didn't know how to deal with it graciously.   We had inadvertently demeaned ourselves and our apparent neediness presented an opportunity.   The receipt of a table and six chairs entitled Los Amigos to "lord over us",  to take freely from our property and demand a multitude of personal favours.   

When I read an article from CNN about American philanthropists who are acquiring and donating large tracts of land to the Argentine government for use as protected nature reserves, I was struck not only by the donors'  largesse, but by the unfortunate  negative reception they received from Argentineans.  The Tompkins (founders of Esprit Clothing and Northface) immediately became suspect foreigners and unsubstantiated,  ulterior motives were pinned to their good deeds.  "Gracias"  would be a more appropriate response to a generous donation that will save endangered species of flora and fauna, protect the forest and preserve vital riparian landscape. 

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As foreigners, we can't take every nuance of cultural difference personally, or we would be full-time walking wounded.   The expression "tener un corazon de roca" translates as "to have a heart of stone."  Sometimes that's essential for survival here, although it doesn't come naturally.   We enjoyed a glass of Alfredo Roca Malbec 2008 with dinner last night.  A blueberry and raspberry aroma, plum flavour and strong tannins from a nine month resting period in oak barrels contribute to a classic wine that pairs well with asado (grilled meats) and pasta dishes.   The Bodega Roca was established in San Rafael in 1905 and the family-run company continues to be a leader in Mendoza's wine industry.  A younger member of the Roca family, Alejandro,  keeps wine enthusiasts  up-to-date with viticulture news on his blog.   A bottle of Roca Malbec costs 35  pesos at La Cava wine store on Hipolito Yrigoyen. 


"We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly and without hesitation, for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers."  
- Seneca, Roman philosopher mid-1st century AD

 
 
"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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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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I have been reading a fascinating travel book entitled "Rough Notes taken during some rapid journeys across the Pampas and among the Andes" written by Captain F.B. Head. Working as an engineer for  a British mining company, in 1826 he travelled on horseback from Buenos Aires to Mendoza province and into the Andes Mountains.  Captain Head became familiar with  the Gaucho lifestyle during these long trips, and his observations are full of respect for the tough Argentine cowboy.   
 "As his constant food is beef and water, his constitution is so strong that he is able to endure great fatigue; and the distances he will ride, and the numbers of hours that he will remain on horseback would hardly be credited. ...  It is true that the Gaucho has no luxuries; but the great feature of his character is, that he is a person without wants."
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Sunday gauchos
Though the modern Argentine diet has expanded to include items from other food groups, beef is still a staple element and is undoubtedly  the most favoured meat.   Lean beef from range-fed cattle is available at every butcher store and is served up in large quantities in every household.  We are continually amazed at the huge bags of beef that are hauled out of the grocery stores.   (Bear in mind that the ultra-conservative Canadian food guide indicates that one meat portion should be about the size of a deck of cards.)  

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It took a while to become familiar with the Argentine cuts of beef and we're still not sure what all of them are like, but we regularly order filet and ask the butcher to trim off the fat.   We like small, thick portions that can be grilled easily in a few minutes on the barbecue - browned well  on the exterior, but  rare at the center.    Water might have been enough to satisfy the no-frills Gaucho, but we prefer to add a green salad and a potato to the menu and  drink a glass of red wine.   A good Malbec is the best companion for Argentine beef.  

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We paired Bournett Malbec Numerado 2007 with our steak dinner.  This strong, clean wine has definite plum notes with a finishing hint of eucalyptus and cassis.  It is the product of a small, well-managed vineyard- 37 hectares near San Rafael- owned by a family of French vintners who settled in Argentina in the early 1900s.  Like buying a limited edition hand-pulled print, each bottle is individually numbered in a series of only 7000.  The technical notes for this wine describe a traditional technique for fining using egg whites instead of filtration.  This is a gentle way of clarifying and stabilizing the wine while removing bitter,  astringent tannins, a method  some wine-makers claim adds a silky texture.  Bournett Numerado exhibits the full fruity command of the Malbec grape, without the addition of oak.  This bottle was purchased for 30 pesos at Vinoteca Luciano Segundo at Balloffet 928. 

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