A tree full of ripe figs is a testament to the success of mutualism. Without the wasp, the fig tree would not be pollinated, and without the fig tree, the wasp would have no breeding ground. Like the popular song linking love and marriage - you can't have one without the other.
The fig, unlike the apricot and plum trees on our property, does not burst into bloom in the spring, but forms its green globes directly on the ends of the branches. The flower is actually internal, and requires an insect to enter the fruit cavity to pollinate it. There are specific fig wasps that nature has designed to do this task, but they only work as active pollinators for the fig in exchange for a place to lay their eggs. The biological barter system works for the benefit of both parties. The eggs of the wasp hatch as larvae inside the flower, eat one seed from the fruit, emerge as adults and fly off to pollinate other fig trees.
A recent study conducted at Cornell University revealed that if the friendly exchange of services breaks down, there are consequences. When the wasp lay its eggs inside the flower without bothering to collect pollen, the fig tree drops the fruit to the ground and the insect's offspring do not survive. Charlotte Jander, the lead author of the research paper explains the phenomenon as a kind of natural policing. "Sanctions seem to be a necessary force in keeping this and other mutually beneficial relationships on track when being part of a mutualism is costly. In our study we saw less cheating when sanctions were stronger."
Fig compote and cheese
Reading the latest news reports of British indignation as Argentina imposes sanctions on the movement of ships between the mainland and Las Malvinas, I think government leaders should take time to contemplate the fig tree, the wasp and the wisdom of mutual co-operation. Britain has forged ahead with oil drilling off the coast of the islands, while refusing to attend UN meetings aimed at settling the crucial issue of sovereignty. Rights to oil are dependent on a bilateral agreement that benefits both Argentina and Britain. Clearly, you can't have one without the other.
While pondering the world's political problems, I chopped a big bowl of figs and poured in a bottle of Balbo Tempranillo 2008 as a marinade. A diced onion, a bit of sugar and some grated orange peel were added to the figs the next day and the mixture was boiled until thick and jammy. Cristina and Gordon, please take note: Argentine fig compote is best served with a slice of old English Stilton. A bottle of Balbo costs 8.75 pesos at Vea supermarket.
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 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.