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.
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.
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.
Learning a foreign language can be a frustrating and humbling experience. When we first arrived in San Rafael, even a trip to the corner fruitstand was a challenge in communication. How to ask for avocados, for instance?
"Tiene aguacates?" I ventured. I had looked up the word in my Spanish/English dictionary, and was quite confident that this would work, but the grocer gave me a blank stare. Remembering that the "v" is pronounced as a "b" in Spanish, I tried again.
"Tiene abogados?" This time the grocer burst out laughing, and so did the other customers in the store. An abogado is a lawyer, not a fruit.
The correct word for avocado in Argentina is "palta" which bears no resemblance to either its English or Spanish equivalent, but does start with the same letter as "pear". The ones we buy at the fruitstand are exceptionally large and delicious , either served raw in a salad or cooked in a soup. Today we made avocado soup for lunch with four paltas, chicken broth, a carrot, some green onions and parsley. The ingredients were simmered for 10 minutes and then pureed with my hand blender to a creamy smooth consistency. I reserved some of the avocado chunks to add back to the soup, for a more interesting texture.
We paired our recipe for Lawyer Soup with Latitud 33 Chardonnay 2008 from Bodegas Chandon. This is the South American branch of Moet & Chandon, the French champagne makers. In the mid-1950s Robert Jean de Voye decided to explore the possibility of expanding the company to the southern hemisphere, and travelled to Rio Negro, Salta and Mendoza, Argentina. He selected Mendoza province, with its desert climate and volcanic ash soil, as the perfect spot for growing grapes for champagne. In 1959 Chandon produced its first bottles of South American champagne. The Chardonnay has a tropical fruit flavour, with suggestions of banana and pineapple, and a crisp, clean finish. It can be purchased at Vea supermarket for 17.90 pesos.