Wednesday, 27 January 2010

When a Steak isn’t a Steak. It’s Buffalo

San Martin offered us more culinary delights than just Patagonian Lamb. On one or two menus we saw deer and buffalo. Yes those water buffalos that the Italians imported from India to make Mozzarella. Well since Argentina is more or less made up of Italian immigrants. It was inevitable that fresh mozzarella would follow. Thankful it has.
How they shipped these beasts from India to Argentina is beyond me, but glad they did. As not only can we sample that moist tasty cheese, but we can also devour huge buffalo steaks. I could have just put Argentine size steaks, but huge was simpler. But you get that drift.
We wandered into Ku restaurant one night. It was packed. A good sign. We were hungry. So all other arguments for not eating here were thrown out of the window.
After a quick browse of the menu, it was very quick. As bambi featured in a steak version or as a stew. Not much competition there, as had too many steaks by this point, so fancied a change.
Lina had a much tougher dilemma. Ox heart or buffalo steak. I so wished she would had ordered both. But hey ho. She’s a little girl, and the meat is damn big. She opted for the buffalo steak.
Mine was actually a normal plate of food. Kinda surprising really, that they got the proportions just right. It was soft, juicy and the gravy was delightful. All served with some lovely pumpkin mash. Yum yum.
Lina’s steak was a huge piece of meat. This piece of sirloin cooked to perfect medium rare oozed subtle flavours and buffalo gameness. It was delish beyond measure. As I said she is only a small girl, and as a dutiful husband we swapped half way through and I devoured this steak. God it was good.
I actually wonder now how the ox heart would have been. Something if I see on a menu I will go straight for.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Patagonian Lamb – Boy had I missed it …..

I love lamb.. It’s the one piece of meat in Colombia I missed so much. For some reason a lot of Colombians have never eaten or/and do not want to try the gaminess and juiciness that is lamb, hogget or mutton. Depending on the age. Why? Maybe because it has a strong taste and most meat in Colombia has none.
You can buy it there. It’s been imported from Chile and it’s heavily wrapped in clingfilm, so you can not actually see what cut you are getting or how it looks like. It’s also stupidly expensive. So expensive that I never brought it. I wanted to, but I could not bring myself to pay those prices. Plus I kinda knew after a while that we were heading South to Argentina and Chile. I could wait.
Wait I did.
Even after a few days in Buenos Aires, I wanted to leave and sample the delights of Patagonian lamb. You can buy it in B.A. But is a sweltering hot summers day the best weather to appreciate something that has been brought up in wind swept rugged Patagonia. Me thinks not.
So from B.A. we headed South as quick as we could to the lovely San Martin de Los Andes. A great lakeside resort town. All wood buildings and quirky little shops that make these places a hit in the holiday season.
The ride down there took 24 hours in a luxury double decker bus. We opted for semi-cama, as the flat bed was double the price. The nearly but oh so close to flat bed was good enough. I slept all night. Which compared to plane travel is the opposite.
We were even given food. Three meals. Nothing to write home about, but it kept us going. But this being Argentina we were also given a half bottle of wine with each meal. Well maybe breakfast but I opted for coffee.
We once did a camping trip to El Chalten many years ago. We were stunned to find out we had a dinning tent which they served us a three course meal every night with wine. Lot’s of it. This was quite normal we were told. Beats the shit out of trying to cook a tin of beans over a small gas cooker in the blustery wind.
The list of places in San Martin that had whole carcasses of lamb gently cooking over a live flame in the window was endless. All places were packed so it was literally just pick one. My belly grumbled in the direction of one restaurant. So in we went and shared a plate of barbecue lamb with some potatoes and the normal mixed salad.
After 6 months of no lamb, it was fantastic. God I missed its gaminess, it’s lovely flavour that has had me hooked since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Yum yum.
The only thing missing apart from the mint sauce, was the fat. I think the chef had trimmed most of it off as fat and fire generally creates havoc in a kitchen. That was all that was missing. Wanted to curse him but I was so happy to be eating lamb again that I forgave him.

So looking forward to my next plateful of lamb. Must remember the mint sauce. 

Sunday, 24 January 2010

La Cupertina – Empanadas Ye Olde Way

If you take two old ladies, a few traditional ways, some old recipes, a shop and decorate it as if it’s your grandma’s kitchen, a lot of care and attention to detail. Mix all these ingredients together and you get Cupertina. A great place that sells empanadas, tamales, stews and other foods from the North of Argentina.
I’ve eaten their literally every time I have visited Buenos Aires. No idea how we originally found it, as it’s on a street in Palermo with nothing really around or close to it.
I’m pretty sure the two old ladies who run it, really do not need to. But they do it for the love of it. The love of doing simple things perfectly and sharing their love of Northern Argentinean food to the local Porteños.
They are quite a funny couple. As they don’t actually seem to talk to each other. It looks to me as if they keep out of each other’s way. Maybe years of working with each other has driven them mad. They each have their own jobs to do and that’s it. It doesn’t create a weird atmosphere, but it is kinda funny to watch.
The star of the show here are the empanadas. They only do a few. Knife cut beef empanadas, cheese and onion and humita. Which is a sweetened maize empanada. It’s an acquired taste. Not my favourite, but hey I just stick to the meat ones.

The knife cut empanadas have knife cut chunks of juicy meat in slightly spicy gravy. They are the bees knees. I can honestly say they are the best empanadas I have ever tasted. But more on that on a later blog.
They also do a stew of beans and chorizo sausage called Locro. The Humitas (tamales) are also really good. Maize based. But still pretty darn good.
Northern Argentina used to belong to Bolivia, but then again so much of Northern Chile, Southern Peru used to belong to Bolivia also. It once had a coastline, till Chile stole it. But that’s enough of politics for one day.

So most of the peoples of Tucuman are of Bolivian decent. Their customs, their foods are all heavily influenced by the high Andean plateau they came from. The foods especially the stews are heavy on the stomach for a Buenos Aires Summers day, but it fits perfectly on a Winters afternoon anywhere.
Cupertina is well worth searching out, and I’m sure when we return to B.A. in a few weeks we will pay another visit for some more of their fabulous empanadas.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Cheese Laden Pizzas

Argentineans are very proud of their pizzas. As so much as to say, that if you even mentioned that the pizzas in Italy are better than theirs, then you are facing a heavy duty argument. Which in simple terms means that they will scream and shout at you for hours on end. Hands waving around, aggressive overtones, faces getting all red. It’s the Italian blood in them. You kinda get the picture.

The pizzas here are pretty good I have to say. But wether they are as good as in the “Home Country” is another matter.

Since we have been here, we have had quite a few of them to sample. I can only eat so much meat in one day. The one thing that Argentineans love is mozzarella, or muzzarella as they call it here. As it’s not the freshly made balls of buffalo cheese that melts like heaven and looks like puddles of snow after it comes out of the oven. As in Colombia they use a processed version, which comes in large blocks. The Argentine version is better than the soulless, tasteless one from Colombia, but it’s still not fresh as in Italy.

No matter what pizza we have ordered they all come with a heavy covering of this processed cheese. Actually every pizza on every menu has muzzarella as one of the main ingredients. They love it.

On a cool San Martin de Los Andes night, it works a treat. Kinda fills you up in a comforting way. On a hot sultry Buenos Aires night in a hot restaurant with a broken air conditioner. It’s hell. The heavy cheese sits on your stomach like a brick. It’s not a good thing. It’s the only time a pizza has made me feel a little ill. Not a good thing.

My favourite tipple with pizza is beer. I can see that some wine would go well with pizza, but beer or Belgium to be precise is my preferred type. But a couple of litres of Quilmes goes down a treat.

I am a finger eating pizza person. I am a big anti knife and fork pizza eating person. I think it is wrong. For me eating pizza with a knife and fork is a crime against food. It’s not right.

There is a chain of pizza restaurants in England that tries and sells itself as a gourmet pizza place. Pizza for the posh folk. Every time I walk past I cringe as I see people cutting up their pizzas and eating small bits. Sometimes I want to scream.

Thankfully in Argentina everyone is in on my side and eats their cheese laden pizzas with their hands. Phew.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Buenos Aires Or Bust....

For a meat eater like myself, going to Argentina is like coming home. The sheer staggering variety and amount of meat on offer in every restaurant is incredible. It really is paradise., in other words it’s a veggies hell.
After 7 months of eating not too good and over cooked thin pieces of beef, our friend and kind sharer of his apartment to us. Gonzi. He took us to La Gran Parrilla del Plata. A small kinda cool parilla joint in the up and coming and less rough than it was San Telmo. You always know you are in for a good night as there is always a queue to the good places.
Gonzi being Gonzi is a less than patient person, but after countless little chats to the guys inside he managed to at least get us a glass of wine as a consolation for the wait. He did this before with us at another parilla in Palermo, but there we all got wine and small pieces of chorizo to munch on. Well Palermo is slightly more posh than San Telmo.
Finally we were shown to our seats, after 30 minutes of watching a guy trying to eat a steak the size of a small cow on his plate. He did a good job of getting our stomachs to rumbling point. As Gonzi is a regular here, and it had been an age since we last had a parilla or anything resembling well cooked meat. We decided to let him order for the three of us. But mainly because we were all quite drunk. The bottle back at his house went down too quickly on empty stomachs.
He was like a little kid in a sweet shop. Unchecked it would have been a stomach busting evening. Well it was anyhows, but much worse. It turned out he hadn’t been out for a while, work, work, work was the excuse. So we were a good excuse.

He ordered a whole grilled provolone cheese as a starter. The most famous of Argentina’s Italian cheeses. Crusty on the outside and soft and yummy inside, with that woody smell to it. Nothing beats cheese cooked over wood.
For the main course, we had ojo de bife, vacio and costillar. Or in English, a huge rib eye steak, done to medium rare perfection, a fatty yummy flank steak and a juicy rib of beef, so rare it was about to walk off before we all attacked it. With this came the mixed salad, onion, tomato and lettuce with a bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to lavish over it. The final thing he ordered was a bowl of rosemary potatoes. Heaven.
He did at one point ask the waiter to cancel the costillar but it was too late. We were in for a long session. The bottle of heavy Malbec, something I do not like to drink on it’s own but with half a cow to contend with. It went down like a dream.
Several hours later, all plates wiped clean, wine emptied, coffees sipped and bill paid, we staggered out of the restaurant into the warm Argentinian night. Not sure if it was the wine that made us stagger or the fact that we had just put on at least several kilo’s. Anyhows we were in heaven. Meat heaven. This was going to be a very good six weeks.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Buenos Aires ...

We have finally arrived in Buenos Aires, and it's hot .....

I still have a few blogs to write about Medellin, and one or two on Bogota.

Not sure when they will be posted, maybe as and when they are written or when we are back in Colombia ...

Anyhows from a hot Buenos Aires ..... Adieu ....

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Isla del Rosario – Great Food, but Someone Paid the Price

The beaches in and around Cartagena are to say the least, pretty crap. Dark brown sand, dirty looking water. They are jammed packed with vendors selling their wares. It’s harassment every 5 seconds.
The list of things to buy on the beach are endless, ranging from drinks, sweets, fruits, cooked fish, t-shirts, sunglasses, local curios, massages and you can even get your hair braided.
After walking up the entire length of the beach we decided that it was pretty pants. Plus it was a quiet day, so the amount of harassment was enormous. Too much to handle.
Trying to get away from everyone, we ended up in the so called fancy Hilton hotel. I used an old trick I always used in the Middle East. It’s amazing how by just being a white tourist, how much you can get away with. We spent the afternoon in the pool. Noone battered an eyelid or questioned us. All you have to do is make out you are staying there. I have friend who on stopovers from Singapore, regularly visits 5 star hotels in Dubai and uses their amenities.
There are some nice beaches about an hour or so by boat from Cartagena. The largest is on La Isla Rosario. We booked a couple of nights at a hotel belonging to the Santa Clara. An ex nunnery now transformed into Cartagena’s most stylist hotel.
The hotel has only about 16 rooms. All created to give you that feeling of class and style. Something, since I stopped being a travel agent. I have missed.
The hotel has 2 beaches, they are both small and compact. The sea is nearer to the Caribbean that I know, but not quite. Most of the visitors to the hotel only come for the day. So after 4pm the island is pretty quiet. A great place to relax.
The menu for lunch and dinner is short and sweet and heavy on the fish. Which, staying on an island is pretty good, and makes a lot of sense.
A lot of the food as in most professional kitchens is kinda precooked. Difference in the kitchens I have worked in is that all food is chilled as quickly as possible. Reason being is bacteria thrives at between 8˚C and 64˚C. So you have to get food down below this as soon as possible. We do this with a blast chiller. A super duper freezer type machine that blasts so much cold air, that within less than 90 minutes all food is more or less bacteria free. Well as long as you heat it above 72˚C for a minimum of 2 minutes before service.
From what I can gather speaking to people and looking in kitchens. Not many if any have blast chillers. I heard of a large chain of restaurants here in Colombia that pour their sauces in plastic bags and dunk them in buckets of water to cool them down before sealing them. A hot house for bacteria.
Now there is a theory that us in the West have become more suspectical to bugs and bacteria in our over mollycoddled lives, and peoples in other parts of the world are more resistant to these bouts of food poisoning.
The restaurant on the island served some fantastic food cooked in their kitchens. The whole red snapper had crispy skin and soft juicy flesh. Everything we ate there was perfect. Even la Cazuela del Mar had a fantastic taste and was full of different types of fish.
Now only one of us had that Cazuela del Mar, and only one of us suffered a bout of food poisoning in the worst degree.
A morning of vomiting followed. We were supposed to check out at 12pm, and the boat was not till 4pm. Surprisingly the hotel allowed us to keep the room till the boat was due to leave. Makes sense really, who wants to see a vomiting guest whilst you are eating.
Now I can only think of one reason for this. The soup had been left to cool down all day, more than likely in the pot, rather than in a fridge. Or had been put straight in the fridge after cooling a little. Which means it was full of bacteria. The pieces of fish were cooked in the soup when it was ordered. Or were cooked separately at that time, as they were soft and juicy.
Back home this would have meant a visit from the health inspector, and closure of the kitchen. Something in Colombia that I am sure never happens, as monies always change hands to prevent these things from happening.

Cartagena – A Great city

Cartagena seems like a dream now. A wonderful walled city still in pristine condition. Those tranquil streets, the smell of the sea, the slight breeze that cooled my face in an otherwise very humid city. The colourful houses, adorned with flowers and trees. Oh how I wish I could still be there.

Why oh why it took me 10 years to go there is quite unbelievable. I believe that if I’d visited it before. Maybe the last 7 months would have been spent in Cartagena. Oh how my Spanish would have been a lot different. Maybe better, depending on whom you spoke to.

Cartagena as we know it today was founded in 1533, but the area has been inhabited for the last 9000 years. First by the Puerto Hormiga Culture, then later all along the coast by other people like the Tayrona communities.

These communities flourished until about 1500 A.D. when Los Conquistadores came and well we all know what that brutal group of people brought did.

Over the following few hundred years, Cartagena flourished and was one of the richest cities in New Spain.

But with rich cities far away from their lords and masters, they were prone to attacks from pirates or independent businessmen, as I like to call them. But that depends on whom you speak to. A friend of Lina’s in Argentina, does not call me by my name, only el pirata.

One of the first pirates to pillage Cartagena was by a French nobleman Jean-François Roberval, who was a privateer licensed by the king of France. Years later a Basque, Martin Cote would attack the city.

This brought about a programme of defence building. Namely building walls around the city. But Spain being Spain, didn’t rush into this. It took over 200 years to complete the defences of over 11 km’s of wall, with the culmination of the building of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.

This finally put an end to the successful attacks by some pirates like John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who ransomed the city to the equivalent of $200, 000,000 of today’s money. All good for the English crown.

Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811. Since then it has seen good times and bad times, but recently the times have been very good.

Today it is the major tourist destination spot in Colombia, and is on the route of the large cruise ships which call into Cartagena for a couple of days, and the passengers wander around getting ripped off by the local vendors.

The tourists as in other old colonial cities are keeping Cartagena in the pristine condition it is today. Thankfully it’s not only foreign tourists who come to Cartagena. Colombians come in droves during December and January and flock to its beaches. It’s kinda funny all the Colombians head to Boca Grande, a strip of beach several km’s in length jammed packed with high rise hotels. Where as all the foreigners head straight to the old city for its quiet, tranquil streets, it’s good restaurants and serenity.

The Colombians come here for the beach and beach only. Which is kinda odd, as it really is a bad beach. The sand is a dark, dirty colour. The sea is not that turquoise green colour we dream of in the Caribbean. It’s also very rough.

But it’s such a difference from the mountains of the interior, that noone really minds.

You can either just drop a towel or rent a small tent to shade you from the sun. In the busy season you will be called upon every few minutes to buy either fruit, drinks, cigarettes, cooked fish, sunglasses, shorts, t-shirts, towels, curios, even massages are offered on it’s beaches. To say it’s a piece of hell is an understatement.

For me Cartagena is only worth going to for the old city. Not it’s beaches.

The people are also very friendly in a genuine way. I have become all too aware of the non genuine way people are friendly in Medellin, but here it was genuine.

Los Cachacos, this literally means “the people who wear suits”. Which is how los Costeños, people from the coast call the non-Costeños. Los Cachacos all think they are superior and above Los Costeños, who regard Los Cachacos as uptight and too materialistic. Los Cachacos all think Los Costeños are lazy. But if you had to work in the heat of the coast, you’d slow down a lot also.

I found the people from La Costa as very warm, friendly and very chilled. Oh how I envy them. Their lives are spent in the street, as it’s so warm, so why not.

La siesta is a big thing there, which is probably why the mountain people think those rather relaxed folk by the sea do not work much either. But I’ve never seen street cleaners work up to midnight before.

The area we stayed in was Getsemani. No garden here. It’s the cheapest place to stay in Cartagena. A few years ago, rooms in certain hotels were rented by the hour. We saw a few down and out scrubbers peddling their wares outside a few bars. It’s amazing how people find ugliness so attractive..

But in these prosperous times, the area of Getsemani is being dolled up to be the hippiest place to stay outside of the old city. Lot’s of Boutique hotels are springing up along its streets. All of them have small pools for you to relax in and cool down from the afternoon heat.

I loved Cartagena and when or if I return to Colombia. It could possibly be the only place I will visit.