It's not exactly Pieter Cornelius Hooftstraat in Amsterdam, or Oxford  Street in London, or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but the west end of Avenida Hypolito Yrigoyen is gradually evolving as the chic shopping district of San Rafael. It is close to the upscale residential area called "Las Paredes," where many American expats choose to live in  gated communities.   There are a number of new businesses in the area, and the zone has developed a decidedly trendy atmosphere.  This is where affluent shoppers go to find fancy evening wear, fine wines, exquisite baby clothes, expensive pet supplies or a high-end  Johnson kitchen.  It's a world away from the modest auto-servicio stores in Rama Caida and the barrio just across the river with the telling name of  "Pobre Diablo".  
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La Cava wine store

La Cava, located  at the corner of Yrigoyen and Manuel Donega offers a full range of wine and spirits, an assortment of  local gourmet food items and accessories such as bottle openers and crystal decanters.  Their inventory includes some fine vintages from boutique bodegas with limited production, as well as the more familiar wines by Bianchi, Goyenchea and Roca.  

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We purchased a bottle of Lavaque Pinot Noir 2006, a wine elaborated from grapes grown in the district of Canada Seca, near San Rafael.  The Bodega Lavaque is owned and operated by the fifth generation of the founding family.    This wine was a fortunate discovery, with good balance of fruit and tannins, a silky texture and a complex, rich cocoa and herb flavour, characteristics that we rarely find in a Pinot Noir grown in such a warm, dry climate.   This bottle costs 16 pesos at La Cava, and is great value for that price. 

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Celia Parasecoli boutique
For couture clothing and one-of-a-kind fashion accessories, Celia Parasecoli is a boutique that offers great designs and unusually sumptuous fabrics.  The walls of this shop are graced with abstract paintings by artist Antonio Camba,  whose bright canvases succeded in drawing me in the first time I passed by.  I purchased a grey floral print silk blouse with rhinestone buttons on that initial visit and obtained the contact information for the artist, who sells work from his own downtown studio.  (I ended up buying 7 of Camba's paintings, too.)

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Frills, florals and ultra-feminine shapes are fashion-forward elements in Argentine ladies' wear.
This flouncy  little sundress costs 390 pesos at Celia's shop and can be paid for over time,  in quotas. 

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Just a little further down the street one finds the brand new branch of La Delicia Boulevard ice cream and sandwich shop.  The interior is light and open, with natural stone details and off-white modern furnishings.  This is where San Rafael's young people congregate for ice cream treats  and people-watching on hot summer evenings.

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There's a bright mosaic covered counter, with the word for "Welcome" translated in a dozen languages overhead.  The young clerk at the till speaks English with an American accent, as well as Castellano.

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For lunch we order  a sandwich of jamon crudo, arugula and cream cheese  on "pan Arabe" with an espresso coffee.  

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There's a mile-long counter serving ice cream in over 50 flavours,  ready to fill waffle cones or styrofoam tubs, and a host of sundae toppings.  La Delicia also delivers ice cream and pastries by motor scooter to addresses within the city limits of San Rafael. 

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We sampled  Chocolate Bariloche/Chocolate Granizado and Dulce de Leche/Coco.  Rich and refreshing!  The bill for lunch came to 145 pesos, with a tip for our waiter.  

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Delicia interior
 
 
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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My eldest son Aaron Nutting married Julie Lawrence in Halifax, Nova Scotia exactly one week ago.  The happy event was celebrated with friends and family who gathered for four days of intense partying, marked by plenty of socializing, dancing, good food and fine wine.  Even Hurricane Earl's direct hit on the Maritimes did not dampen the hospitality and high spirits of the wedding entourage.  
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Family feast
The rehearsal party was held at the Lawrence family cottage overlooking the Atlantic ocean, with food prepared by Nicholas Nutting, brother of the groom and chef from the Wickaninnish Inn.  Nick  brought seven sockeye salmon in his luggage,  flying the catch fresh from West coast waters to a sizzling hot East coast grill.  He and his skilled assistants Rhonda Rusk and George Wrobel shopped for ingredients at specialty markets and spent a whole day in the kitchen preparing huge platters of zucchini and eggplant,  tomato and basil salad, fresh corn and green beans, barbecued pork tenderloin, watermelon and a blueberry custard dessert.  The menu was a testament to the quality of seasonal produce, lovingly prepared with an East meets West fusion theme. 

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Sockeye Salmon
The extraordinary B.C. sockeye salmon run  this year is a scientific mystery that clearly demonstrates how little is known about fishing in Canada.  A record amount of salmon, topping 30 million,  returned to the Fraser River this year after a 3 year moratorium on commercial harvesting. Last year,  in comparison, yielded only 1.5 million.    Was it the cooler water temperatures, or the reduction in sea lice that breed in fish farms that facilitated this windfall?   No one is sure, but Canadian chefs are now confident about reintroducing this variety to their menus, and serving it up in style.  

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Bride and Groom
The bride and groom were married at Pier 21, the historic entry point for groups of immigrants arriving by boat to Canada.  For many newcomers, this port marked the end of a long voyage and the beginning of a new life in a foreign land.    Safe passage across the Atlantic to Halifax harbour was a transition leading to a host of challenges,  opportunities and rewards that may never have been part of their experience had they decided to stay home.     On September 5th, I watched my son Aaron standing at the front of the hall, waiting out the few moments before his bride appeared.  There was  a tangible sense of anticipation in the air, and Aaron displayed a quiet confidence fostered by the certainty of true love, pride and great expectations.   He was about to step off the boat, take the plunge and begin a new stage in his life.  When the radiant and beautiful Julie glided toward him down the aisle, tears welled up in his eyes (and his mother's.)  The assembled guests and extended family witnessed Aaron's poignant emotional passage to the grown-up, demanding, fulfilling role of "husband."

Like the salmon run, love remains a mystery, and no one knows why some marriages blossom for a lifetime and others wither and die.   I pray that this young couple will be blessed with many years of steadfast devotion, caring and meaningful experiences.   They have so much promise;  so much to offer one another.  

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Quail's Gate, a Canadian Pinot Noir
We toasted the bride and groom with Quail's Gate Pinot Noir 2007 from B.C.   This wine has enough gusto to complement the strong flavours of the West Coast salmon. It has a rich ruby red colour, aroma of cherries, chocolate and crushed flowers, a spicy palate followed by tart fruit and cedar notes.   The estate winery in the Okanagan Valley is owned and operated by the Stewart family, whose ancestors arrived in Canada and settled in B. C. in the year 1908.  A bottle of  Quail's Gate Pinot Noir costs $24.99 (Canadian dollars).

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Sails in the harbour, Halifax, Nova Scotia
 
 
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

 
 
As Canadians, we are no strangers to winter.  Our acreage in Alberta looked like this for six months of the year:
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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."
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Even the dog wore boots
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:
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Salad greens
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.  
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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.
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"In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer." - Albert Camus
 

Signs

07/16/2010

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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.
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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. 

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Another version on Rivadavia
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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.  

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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!

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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."

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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.  

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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".   

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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!  

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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.

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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!

 
 
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.  
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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.  

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At noon a parade of military groups, mounted police and gauchos makes its way through the city streets.   

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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.   

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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.   

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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.  

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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.  

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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. 

 
 
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.