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On Sunday we took a trip to Malargue, the mountain town where clear air and clear water  create an ideal environment for two activities: observing the heavens and raising trout.  Sky and water combined to make this an exceptionally satisfying day.  

Following Route 40 up and over a ridge of the Sierra Pintadas that borders San Rafael, the landscape levels out on a plateau known as Pampa Amarilla.  There's a salt lake Salinas del Diamante to the south of the highway and dry desert land to the north and straight ahead a view of three majestic Andean snow-capped peaks.  Our driver points out El Sosneado, the site of the airline crash in 1972 that tragically took the lives of many members of a Uruguayan rugby team.   The survivors headed west towards Chile seeking rescue, a rugged journey that took several months.  Had they chosen to walk eastward, they would have arrived on the Argentine pampa and found help within a day or two.  Every year, parents and relatives of the team members make a special pilgrimage to visit the mountain grave. 

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At intervals across the hardscrabble desert ranches where Black Angus cattle graze on sparse vegetation and gauchos can be seen riding their horses, plastic tanks stand out like strange beige mushrooms amidst cacti and sagebrush.  The Pierre Auger Observatory in Malargue has installed 1600 water tanks as part of an international project designed to attract and record cosmic rays.   The inside of each tank is a completely dark environment until cosmic rays enter and electromagnetic shock waves produce light.  Solving the mystery of high energy particles  is the goal for  280 scientists from 70 countries involved in the project.  Where do they come from?  How can  energy be harnessed for use here on earth?  What do cosmic rays tell us about the origin of the universe?   A few questions to ponder on the two hour drive to Malargue....
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Pierre Auger Observatory in Malargue
About 12 km  outside of town, past the Dique Blas-Brisoli and Rio Malargue, a dirt road leads to a trout farm called Cuyam-Co Truchas.  This family business includes a campground, a series of freshwater pools for raising fish and a restaurant where trout is featured on the menu.   A worker catches, kills and cleans the trout that will be served for our lunch. 
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The restaurant overlooks the pools where trout are swimming.
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A worker scoops fish from the pond.
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The trout are cleaned.
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The restaurant fills up with families enjoying Sunday lunch.
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Slices of smoked trout and trout pate are served as appetizers.
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The foil-baked trout is moist and delicious.
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A perfect pairing with the fish.
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Remains of a fine meal
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Ambrosia, a light-textured, lemon-flavoured polenta dessert.
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"We have heard so far the voice of life on one small world only.  But we have at last begun to listen for other voices in the cosmic fugue." 
                                                                                                 - Carl Sagan
 
 
Mendoza's irrigation system is unique in all of Argentina.  Water supplied by glacial run-off from the Andes  flows through a system of reservoirs and dams, canals and ditches to convey moisture to fields, orchards and vineyards.  Gravity driven flood irrigation was the brainchild of the Incas,  whose basic engineering concepts still work today to facilitate agriculture in a dry desert zone.
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Steel gates control the flow
Written into  the deed to our property of 7.5 hectares, is a clause that allows us 9.5 hours per week of irrigation time.  We pay an annual fee for water usage and must keep our bill up-to-date, otherwise the water rights can be reallocated to another finca.  A schedule of hours distributed by the Water Co-operative outlines start and finish times for all of the farmers on this  street who access water from the roadside riego.  Sometimes  our turn for irrigation occurs during the middle of the night, and at other times it takes place during the day.  Our worker is responsible for closing off the neighbour's gate and opening our own to allow water to flow onto our alfalfa field.  There is a spirit of mutual respect and co-operation inherent in the whole  system. If your crop needs extra water, you can usually find someone down the road who is not using their turn and will gladly give you additional hours.  If you're not available to irrigate during your specified time, you can work out a trade with another farmer.   The weekly give and take of such a vital resource keeps neighbours on good terms.  

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Winter riego, clean and dry
At the beginning of June the water is completely shut off at the dams.  The imposed dry spell of about 6 weeks is an opportunity for cleaning the system and making any necessary repairs.  Each finca owner is required by law to clean the riego of the immediate upstream neighbour, clearing any weeds and debris that might obstruct the flow of water onto the land.  This is  usually done by burning the vegetation in and around the canal, and working the channel smooth with a hoe.  An inspector of waterworks comes around to each finca to  make sure that the cleaning has been completed.

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Summer riego, flowing


We look forward to July 14th, the day when the water returns.  The babbling of the stream that fills the canal is a welcome sound, a harbinger of spring and renewed growth.  It is a gentle assurance that the cycle of the growing season will soon start all over again, and the land will produce an income.  

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We buy fish during the dry times at Pescaderia Puerto Deseado on Av. Balloffet.   The most economical  fish to buy in this shop is merluza or hake.  Our South African friends tell us that hake is used for bait in their country, but it's the only fresh fish available in San Rafael.   We purchase four milanesas, which are filets covered with a seasoned breadcrumb mixture, ready to be fried.   

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The fish dinner pairs well with Cabrini Chardonnay 2005.  This wine has notes of green apple, mushrooms and damp vegetation,  followed by an acidic finish.  It comes from Perdriel, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, from a bodega established in 1918 and operated today by the fourth generation of the Cabrini family.    A bottle of Cabrini Chardonnay costs  19.90 pesos.  Four milanesas de merluza cost 14.99 pesos.

Here's a link to an excellent seafood cookbook entitled "A Good Catch" by Jill Lambert.   I picked up a copy during a trip to Wolfville, Nova Scotia and was delighted to find my son Nick Nutting listed as a contributing chef, with his recipe for octopus included in the collection.  This book offers sustainable seafood recipes from the top chefs in Canada, while promoting the idea of eating locally harvested,  fresh, nutritious fruits de mer.  

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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. 

 
 
The herb garden is greening up with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  When weeding and thinning the plot, the pungent aroma of thyme lingers on the hands and just awhiff is enough to stimulate  an appetite for dinner.   The Greeks said a person "smelled of thyme" when they displayed an  elegant, refined style.  Hope some of that finesse rubbed off on me while I worked in the garden!
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Sprigs of thyme in our garden
A handful of thyme, a bunch of parsley, a touch of Dijon mustard,  some olive oil and balsamic vinegar whirled together with the blade of my hand blender to create a smooth Salsa Verde for our trout dinner.  Trout from Patagonia is the most popular variety of fish available  in this part of Argentina, and fly-fishing is a major part of the tourist industry.   This fish  is excellent poached or fried or grilled on the barbecue, but needs delicate cooking to preserve its flavour and  moisture.  We served our filets on a bed of bulgur wheat and garbanzo beans, accompanied by stir-fried zucchini and mushrooms.

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We paired our seafood special with Michel Torino Coleccion Torrontes 2008 from Bodegas La Rosa in the province of Salta.  This wine has a distinctive floral nose, a nice balance of fruit and acidity  and a grapefruit finish.   It is one of the great value, quality wines of Argentina that is exported to Canada,  the U.S. and the U.K.  We purchased it for 10.25 pesos at Vea supermarket.  

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Trucha con Salsa Verde