Even the most creative individuals occasionally find themselves stuck in a rut, or as they say in Spanish "ser esclavo de la rutina."  Working in the same location,  using the same method, approaching the same subject matter, employing the same style, ad nauseum, can be a mind-numbing trap for artistic types.   When art-making loses its lustre and spark, it's time to cut loose, break out of the studio,  seek new experiences and get back into joy mode.  
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Valle Grande
Artist Kate Kirby and her friend Vicky Stuart have organized a get-away program for visual artists that allows painters to practise their craft, while enjoying the scenic environs of San Rafael, Argentina.   "Art in the Andes" includes art instruction, accommodation, all meals, sightseeing, wine-tasting and more, as part of a combined education/travel package.  It's like summer camp designed for grown-ups.

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Finca la Susana
The Stuarts, a Scottish couple whose family has been established in Argentina for three generations, play host to visiting artists in their gracious Victorian country house. Finca la Susana has a lush perennial garden, a swimming pool and a large screened-in porch that's ideal for summer gatherings.  The grounds provide plenty of interesting locations for plein air painting, but if garden subject matter seems too tame, the desert,  Sierra Pintada mountains, Valle Grande and the snow-capped Andes are not far away.  Instruction is offered on a one-to-one basis by Kate Kirby whose background includes 11 years of teaching experience at the Open College of Art in the UK.  Both Vicky and Kate are graduates of the Edinburgh College of Art, where observational drawing was taught as an essential skill, one that serves as a solid foundation for painting.  They encourage the use of sketchbooks,  facilitate group discussions about art-making, and help individuals to discover and develop a personal style.  

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At work outdoors
Kate explains that she adapts her painting and drawing program to meet a variety of objectives.  "If the client is a complete beginner, I can provide a structured teaching approach for however many days are required.  Alternatively, if an established artist wants to spend time here and just wants to be pointed in the direction of interesting landscapes and then have a chat about their work at the end of the day, they are welcome, too. (And of course anyone at any stage in between can participate.)"  
The atmosphere for this art adventure  is informal, relaxed and open-minded because after all, it is intended to be a holiday - a  refreshing  break  from the usual routine.

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In keeping with the Scottish theme and in the spirit of experimentation,  we opened a bottle of thistle and tartan-labelled Caledonia Torrontes/Semillon 2008.  Ronald MacKay, who hails from Coupar Angus, near Dundee, Scotland produces this wine from the grapes grown on his finca in Rama Caida.  He also owns and operates a  nursery which sells quality vinifera rootlings for five varietals.  The Finca Caledonia website offers some fascinating historical tidbits regarding Scottish settlement in Argentina.  This lightly-oaked blend of fruity Torrontes and  dry, citrus Semillon is a pleasant, elegant vino, perfect for summer porch-and-patio days.  

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Scotch eggs
I made Scotch eggs, a simple-to-prepare treat that's ideal  fingerfood  for Sunday brunch, a picnic or a tailgate party.  In the UK, this is pub food, a hearty snack enjoyed with a pint.  The eggs are boiled for 8 minutes, peeled and cooled, then covered evenly with a layer of pork sausage meat.  I spice the meat mwith nutmeg, cinnamon and a little  grated onion.   The meat-covered eggs are then rolled in dry breadcrumbs and deep fried in hot oil for about 1o minutes, until thoroughly browned and crisp on the outside.  These eggs can be eaten warm or cold, and are great with a spoonful of mango chutney.  For an unusual  variation on the Scotch egg recipe that's become a big hit in Manchester, England, have a look at this article from BBC news.
A bottle of Caledonia Torrontes/Semillon sells for 16 pesos at La Cava wine store.
The all-inclusive rate for "Art in the Andes" painting holiday is 400 pesos per day.

Here's an image of a Kate Kirby painting that I purchased at a 2009 exhibition of her work at Casa Burgos in San Rafael.  It's a piece that lifts my heart every time I look at it. 

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'Once More' mixed media, by Kate Kirby
"The Last Knit" an animated film directed by Laura Neuvonen of Finland,  gives a humorous account of creativity that leans toward obsession, the exhausting struggle to relinquish a familiar routine and the exciting discovery of a new source of inspiration.  Sometimes letting go is the hardest part of change.
 
 
Today marks the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere, the day when the sun's position directly over the equator makes the hours of light and darkness equivalent.  As fall approaches,  the equinox is an occasion  for celebrating the harvest and the abundance of good fruits and vegetables we've enjoyed throughout a long, productive summer.  
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We cleared the last tomatoes, squash and corn from the garden and ploughed the plot in preparation for fertilizing and re-planting next spring.   The row of yellow corn (choclo) grew to an impressive height of three meters (bringing to mind Carl Sandburg's high, majestic "Laughing Corn") and yielded  several bushel baskets full of fat cobs.  We shared the crop with our neighbours and the Catholic nuns who run an orphanage in Rama Caida.   With six remaining ears I  made humitas, a traditional Latin American dish which consists of a ground corn filling wrapped and steamed  in a husk.   

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The standard method for making humitas involves grating or grinding the corn by hand,  but I like to cut the kernels off with a knife and use a food processor to speed up the work.  Basil and onions are added to the corn mash which is then fried with butter until the mixture is creamy and thick.  Our South American corn tends to be drier and less sweet than North American varieties, so the addition of a little milk and sugar helps to make the right consistency and improves the flavour.   The filling is spooned onto the center of the boiled husk and the edges are folded in at the sides to create an envelope.  A thin strip of husk is used to tie the humita securely before placing it in the steamer for 20 minutes.

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There are many variations of the humita recipe, some using eggs and cheese or hot peppers.  This simple version makes a delicious side dish for lunch or dinner or can be eaten with bread at breakfast.   We served our humitas with ham and fresh tomato slices and paired the equinox  meal with  Cafayate Torrontes 2009.

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Produced by  Bodega Etchart in the province of Salta, this wine is rich with floral aromas, a mouth full of plum, apple, citrus and pineapple, and a smooth finish.  The Torrontes grapes are harvested  from 25 year old vines grown on 120 hectares of land near Cafayate.  The area has a luxury wine resort, Vinas de Cafayate which offers comfortable accommodation,  a gourmet restaurant and superb views of the surrounding vineyards and mountains.   A bottle of Cafayate Torrontes costs 13.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.

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Our grapes are now turning from green to purple,  a stage the French call "veraison" and the Spanish refer to as "pintura".   Another month of ripening and they will be ready to harvest, but today I'm judiciously plucking a few of the still-tender leaves from the vines to make a batch of dolmades.   
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Malbec grapes
I try to select leaves that are bright green and pliable from the lower parts of the vines, so as not to disturb the canopy that provides dappled  shade to the grapes.  Too much harsh Argentine sun on the clusters can spoil the fruit, and direct exposure also attracts birds who will gladly finish off the grapes before they have had a chance to mature. It seems that Mother Nature designed the blush of the fruit to be a signal to wildlife, an invitation to come and feast at her table. 

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Blanched leaves
The leaves are dropped into a pot of boiling water to blanch them.  The filling, prepared from ground beef, rice, parsley, mint, and green onions is spooned onto the leaf, which is then folded in on the sides and rolled like a cigar.  The trick is to get the bundle to stay neatly wrapped during the next step, which involves simmering  in a pan of water flavoured with slices of lemon.  I solved this problem by taking a hint from the bales of alfalfa that are rolled and tied with twine in our field.  A stem of chive from the garden, secured like a ribbon around the rolled leaf ensures that the dolma will  keep its shape during cooking.  

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Dolmades
The Greeks claim that dolmades were served on Mount Olympus with nectar and ambrosia.  We serve them cold, as an appetizer paired with a glass of Etchart Privado Torrontes 2009.  This deep golden-coloured wine has aromas of lime, green grapes and flowers, and is nicely balanced with light acidity and fruit flavours in the mouth.  The finish lingers with a hint of vanilla.   An excellent substitute for nectar and not as harsh as retsina.   Bodega  Etchart is located in the Valle de Cafayate, where a particular microclimate at an elevation of 1700 meters produces the very best Torrontes grapes.  A bottle of Privado costs 10.25 pesos at Vea supermarket. 

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 When we visited Buenos Aires recently, the city was celebrating an international festival of tango.  The former Harrod's department store directly across from our hotel was full of dancers, musicians and vendors selling traditional shoes, stockings, dresses, hats and suspenders to tango enthusiasts.   The mood was festive and the action spilled out to the street, with throngs of people gathering to watch couples young and old, professional and amateur, perform the classic dance of Argentina.  Tango was born on the streets of Buenos Aires, in the port district of La Boca, where immigrants developed the dance in the late 19th century.   Derived from a blend of  Spanish, African,  Slavic and Cuban dance forms, the tango is a stylized portrayal of seduction, with male and female engaged in a game of stealth, enticement, teasing, rejection, acceptance and embrace.   While the passionate sensuality of the tango is obvious to any spectator, there is also a darker undercurrent that propels the dance.  Contrasting the smooth, almost feline walking movements are the adornos that involve sharp, staccato thrusts of the feet that mimic a knife blade.   The famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges noted the presence  of opposing forces in the dance and explained its uniquely beautiful combination of violence and grace.   "The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have often tried to state in words:  the belief that a fight may be a celebration."

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A chef could create a career  based on that belief.  Dishes combining opposite flavours and textures excite the palate.   The eater is  intrigued as ingredients fight for dominance, play back and forth, tease the tastebuds and finally join forces in  a delicious seduction of the senses.     A good example is our favourite summer appetizer made from slices of  honeydew melon wrapped in  jamon crudo.   Similar to  Italian prosciutto, jamon crudo is made locally by salting a leg of pork, washing it and  hanging it on a hook to cure in the open air.  It has a dry, chewy texture and a fatty, salty flavour which is the very opposite of the sweet, juicy, melt-in-the-mouth ripe melon.   The two foods are perfect partners.

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We pair the appetizer with 2 x4 Tango Torrontes, an excellent summer wine made by Bodega Fantelli in Santa Rosa, Mendoza.  (2x4 refers to the  rhythm of the tango, not the specification for lumber which  North Americans are familiar with!)  This wine intrigues the nose with aromas of pear and flowers, dances in the mouth with citrus and green apple, and finishes with a flourish of herbal potpourri.   A bottle sells for 12.50 pesos at Vea supermarket.  Honeydew melons, purchased from roadside vendors, are 10 pesos each and jamon crudo, thinly sliced,  can be purchased at the delicatessen for about 14 pesos for 200 grams.  

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Jamon crudo
 
 
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