The Parrillas of Buenos Aires

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“There are gods here beside tango and football or soccer as we call it. There is beef….” – Anthony Bourdain

Grass-fed beef sizzles on the grill. Fruity Malbec swirls into glasses. Waiters scurry with plates and bottles. Customers wait in line at the doorway. Aromatic smoke from the grill wafts under their noses and into the street.

The parrilla is an Argentinian institution. They are on almost every block in Buenos Aires. The word means grill and rhymes with Alicia, and not as I thought with Mariaand, no, not with gorilla, either. Argentinian steakhouses elsewhere in the world try to recreate the ambience, but it rarely travels well.

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A parrilla can be bustling and informal like El Desnivel in San Telmo, where the walls are cluttered with old photographs, tango posters and beer adverts, and the chimichurri comes in a plastic bowl and locals jostle for tables with tourists clutching Lonely Planet guides.

But it could just as well be hushed and slick like Al Carbón in the Microcentro with its blonde wood floor, exposed girders and customers negotiating deals over food which is not just put on the plate but presented.

Or it might be as traditional as El Establo in Retiro with shaded gold lettering on the windows and an interior of wood panelling, landscape paintings and hunting trophies.

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But at the heart of them all is the long grill with a firebox at one end where burning wood glows red hot and the smouldering embers are shovelled up and laid beneath the  slats, which are v-shaped and on a slight incline to drain off excess fat, and the parrillero* uses a pulley to raise and lower the grill to regulate the heat.

By tradition, you might start with sweetbreads or chitterlings cooked on the grill. But the more squeamish can choose things like boquerones (marinaded anchovies), grilled Provoleta cheese sprinkled with dried oregano, slices of prosciutto served with palm hearts, or empanadas, as if you will not have eaten several of those already.

Order bife de chorizo for main and you get a slab of sirloin steak the thickness of three fingers. Ojo de bife gets you ribeye, entraña skirt, vacío flank and lomo fillet or filet mignon.

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Surprisingly in a nation passionate about beef, the steaks tend towards overdone. By default, they come a punto, at best, which is medium well. If you want your steak cooked as it ought to be, you have to ask.

Muy jugoso, literally very juicy, is said to mean rare but is more often interpreted as medium rare. Vuelta y vuelta gets you something closer to the European idea of rare. At the other extreme, cocido is how my dad would have liked it: as if it had dropped into the firebox and been forgotten about.

It is often said that the only condiment needed for the meat is the salt with which it is grilled. But at some parrillas it will come with a bowl of chimichurri, made with finely-chopped parsley and garlic, a hint of chilli flakes, an abundance of dried oregano, olive oil and a good slug of red wine vinegar. There may also be salsa criolla, which is red and green peppers, tomatoes and onions diced and mixed with olive oil, wine vinegar, chopped garlic and a shake each of dried oregano and chilli flakes.

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Fries are the classic side dish, usually plain, sometimes a la provenzal with chopped garlic and parsley sprinkled over them when hot. There might also be a token salad of lettuce, tomato and onion.

Steak will not be the only main. Also popular are tiro de asado (short ribs), the Argentinian versions of chorizo and morcilla and – for groups – a parrillada or mixed grill. This might typically include vacío steak, chorizo, morcilla and achuras or organ meat. The ethos in Argentina is to use every bit of the cow, so there might be some surprising bits and pieces. They could serve you criadillas, if they have the balls for it.

Vegetarian options include cheese.

© Richard Senior 2020**

*Grill chef

**Except chorizo image via Pixabay

At a Glacial Pace

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Three miles wide at the snout, nineteen miles long, filling the expanse between the mountains like builders’ foam; the powder blue ice, its hollows and crevices appearing backlit by the water within, juxtaposed with the deep green coniferous trees and the stark grey-black of the mountains, lightly dusted with snow and engulfed in low cloud at the margins; a wall of ice, striped with seams of deeper blue and black, rising an average of 240 foot above the surface of Largo Argentino, carved by nature into tens of thousands of tightly-packed columns ranking into the distance like an ancient army massed for battle.

The Perito Moreno glacier in the far South-West of Argentina feeds from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which straddles the border with Chile and is the last redoubt of an Ice Age which ended 11,000 years ago. It sprawls over an area more than four times bigger than Manhattan or about two and a half times the size of Barcelona.

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Boardwalks on multiple levels connected by stairs take visitors within a few hundred feet of the snout. Pops and cracks echo from around the glacier as if hunters were out on its surface shooting birds. Calved ice litters the waters around it.

Hours could easily be spent just gazing in awe at the glacier and listening to its cracks and creaks and bangs.  But I was not just there to look.

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Three years earlier in New Zealand, I arrived in Franz Josef too late to be able to hike on the glacier, as I had hoped, and had to make do with seeing it from the foot of the mountain on my way to the bus the next morning. Now, on a different continent but back in the Southern Hemisphere, the chance had come round again.

I took a boat across the lake to the shelter on the shore by the South Wall, where I was herded into a group of about 15 and had crampons attached to my boots. Two groups were out on the ice already, one about a third of the way up, the other about a third from the summit.

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In the middle of the briefing, there was a boom as if of a cannon and then a rumbling, shuttering sound like an office block succumbing to the wrecking ball. I turned and watched as a section of ice thirty, forty, fifty feet high detached from the glacier and slid vertically into the lake, rose again as pulverised fragments and caused a tumult in the water.

We started our ascent.  The crampons, impossible on land, were intuitive on the ice. We moved slowly, in file, behind the guide.  The route weaved between cracks and ponds and glacier mills, where surface meltwater spirals into a shaft in the ice. The ice glistened in the sun. We drank the coolest, freshest water straight from the glacier.

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Then, at the summit, the first of the guides produced whisky and glasses; the other harvested ice from the glacier with an axe. ¡Salud! We drank the whisky tempered with chunks of Perito Moreno, packed up and made our way back to the shelter.

© Richard Senior 2019

 

Pop-Up Tango in Buenos Aires

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It was late in the afternoon on a sultry day and there were a handful of people at the tables in Plaza Dorrego. A few craft stalls at the margin gave the palest hint of the bustle of the famous Feria de San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. Bored teenagers sat on the wall, glaring and smoking.

The couple appeared from nowhere, both with Hollywood faces, he in a fedora and waistcoat, she in a thigh-split dress and strappy heels. Someone switched on the music and they took to the floor in the middle of the open-air café.

Think of Buenos Aires and you inevitably think of tango. You might also think of fruity Malbecs and thick-cut steaks, choripanes and empanadas, the harlequin houses of La Boca, Eva Perón and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. But, first, you think of tango.

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It is a sexy, stylish dance with carefully choreographed high kicks, lifts and drops, and a close contact which scandalised conservatives for generations. They were uneasy about women being so intimate with their husbands, let alone strangers. When the far right seized power, they banned it and sent it underground until the early 1980’s.

In the nineteenth century, the Argentine government advertised across Europe for labour, and the ambitious and the adventurous came in number to seek fortunes which few of them actually made. The theory goes that they brought the fashionable dances of their old countries with them and that they morphed into one to become what we now know as tango.

But quite why, how and when, nobody really knows, because – as Christine Denniston put it in her insightful history – it “was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars”.

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It is a popular cliché that tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires where – with an abundance of men and a shortage of women – queues would form and the girls would dance with the men as they waited. But, as Denniston noted, if the women were free to dance, they were free to do what the men had gone there for. She might well be right, though, that it was at brothels that the middle classes discovered tango and that it is when it started to get written about.

It spread from the courtyards of the poor to the drawing rooms of the rich and from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina and, by the early twentieth century, to Paris, Berlin. London and New York.

It is big business now. There are elaborate stage shows for the tourist market at US$100 a ticket and stores-full of tango memorabilia from antique posters to tacky figurines. For locals and the more adventurous tourists, there are milongas, where everyone is expected to take part. The more traditional have a sad, end-of-the-pier quality and are filled with couples in late middle-age trying to re-enact their youth; modern milongas have DJs instead of bands and attract Millennials.

But you don’t really need to go looking for tango. Spend any time around San Telmo or La Boca, and you are likely to see couples dancing for pesos or just for the hell of it. There is no schedule; it is not advertised: you just have to be there at the right time. It seems entirely spontaneous, and it is closer in spirit to tango’s origins than any top dollar stage show.

© Richard Senior 2016

 

Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar