The north of Argentina boasts some of the most magnificent natural beauty of the country. One minute you are driving through lush green mountains, and then you find yourself surrounded by arid rock formations, salt flats, and gigantic mountain ranges. Hiking in this region is a must, but what is perhaps even more important than the hike, is the meal of champions you treat yourself to at the end of the hike. In the province of Jujuy, we stopped in a small town called Tilcara, right by the Hill of Seven Colors.
Today is officially my last day in Argentina. I’ve said almost all of my good-byes. My bags are packed (somehow I got everything to fit into the exact same bags that I came with; I have no idea how that’s possible, but I’m not going to question it for fear of them bursting right open). My flight leaves in just a few hours, and then tomorrow, after God-knows how many hours of travelling, I’ll land in California, get picked up at the airport by my parents, and start this American life once again. Hello family, old friends, Mexican food, sushi, and English spoken everywhere.
There are a lot of things from home that I’ve missed while abroad, but there’s also so much that I’m sad to leave here. Argentina may be full of economic problems, political corruption, and a frustratingly unreliable bus system (never again will I complain about having to wait eight minutes for the 1 train to arrive at the platform), but it’s also here that I’ve met the nicest, most generous, warm people. I already miss the friends I’ve made here, and I don’t even want to think about how the improvements I’ve made in Spanish are going to plummet into the abyss of invisibility when I stop speaking and hearing the language during most of the day, or how I have no idea when I’ll be having another one of those amazingly flavorful asados. Oh Argentina, what will I do without you?
There are a few things (i.e. food) that I will be able to take along with me. One of my carry-ons, for example, is filled with the different types of cookies that my host mom would serve me for breakfast (no fruit of yogurt here in the morning as you will be called a monkey if you’re caught eating a banana for breakfast). Among those many cookie boxes are six of the Manón brand; they carry my name, so I was basically obligated to take a few with me, right? I’ve also got copies of several of my host mom’s recipes and the address of an Argentine grocery store in NYC. So aside from those asados, I’m basically set.
There are also a few of us in the program who might have decided to be one of those pretentious study abroad return-students who show in the most obvious way possible that they’ve lived outside the country. So if you ever see a few people drinking mate on Low Steps, it might be us.
Mate is one of the greatest Argentine customs, and travelling to Argentina without tasting this famous infusion is like going to Italy without eating pizza or to France without enjoying a croissant. Mate is to Argentina as the hamburgers are to the US, and aside from the horrendous Fernet con Coca (which apparently is an acquired taste, but to me just tastes like something you’d take for a bad cough) it’s basically the national drink and its people’s pride and joy. While many Argentines drink it in the morning as Americans would coffee (mateina has a similar energizing effect as caffeine), mate is generally enjoyed in social settings. The tea is passed around to all participants and everyone sips from the same bombilla (metal straw), all the while respecting the protocol that surrounds this friendship ritual. There are a lot of different claims to the correct way to cure the mate cup, how to prepare the tea, which brand of yerba to use, and more, so five months in Argentina and many mates later, I still feel as though I’ve only acquired a very basic understanding of the complex ritual that surrounds this tea. Evidently, it’s much more than just a simple plant infusion.
The first time that a friend and I were offered to share mate with an Argentine that we’d just met, we were sitting in film class listening to the professor’s lecture and were thus unable to communicate our excitement to each other about having just been initiated into the most Argentine tradition that there could be. We passed notes to each other that read, “make an Argentine friend…CHECK!” and “drink mate in class…CHECK!” and did our best to control our exhilaration. I later found out that by taking just a few sips without finishing the whole cup I had totally butchered the protocol, but oh well… A couple weeks later, a few of us from the program went to the park to drink mate, and if only we hadn’t been taking a ton of pictures of ourselves we would have looked totally local. Good thing we’ve gone back since, complete with snacks and a guitar (and without the camera).
Most of all, I’m going to miss the daily mate and charla (chatting) that I’d enjoy with my host mom after waking up from the siesta. She’d set up a beautiful table of toast, homemade jams, cookies, and cake, and then we’d sit down and talk about whatever was on our minds at that moment: class, politics, friends, the repairs that needed to be made in the apartment upstairs, food, the neighbors, family, or life. Over these past five months in Argentina, I’ve gotten to be pretty close to my host mom—she’s made me feel at home in a foreign country, she’s taken me into her family even though we’d never known each other before my arrival, and she’s taught me so many valuable lessons, whether about the Spanish language, cooking, or life. My host mom is one of the most generous and genuinely good people that I’ve ever met in my life, and she will be the hardest person to say good-bye to when I leave. I’m really going to miss her, as well as our daily mate and charla, when I’m gone.
Mate is something very special, and it is a custom that I will dearly miss when I go back home. More than just a tea, it’s about friendship and the people it’s shared with. While my time in Argentina is now coming to a close, the national traditions I’ve learned about, the people I’ve met, and the people who have taken me into the their hearts will stay with me forever. There are many reasons to come back, so I hope it won’t be too long before the next time I set foot in this country once again. Un beso grande, Argentina.
In case I haven’t mentioned so already, Mendoza’s slogan is “the land of sun and of good wine.” We’ve had so few days of rain or clouds that I can total them up on just one hand, and even though we’re already less than two weeks away from the shortest day of the year and are entering what are supposed to be Argentina’s coldest months (Southern hemisphere here), we’re still hanging out after class in café patios and walking around town wearing nothing more than fall jackets. Either winter isn’t coming, or we’re reaping the benefits of Mendoza’s abnormal microclimate. Whichever it might be, I’m thinking it’s just that Mendoza has perfect weather: moderate temperatures without the annoyance of humidity taking over my hair.
As for the good wine, Mendoza is South America’s biggest wine producer. The province’s most important holiday of the year (featuring fireworks, parades, and more) celebrates the annual grape harvest, and it’s usually less expensive to share a bottle of malbec than to order a glass of mineral water in the average restaurant or café. There are lots of opportunities for free and fancy wine tastings, gourmet dinners with wine pairings, and tours of nearby vineyards. Música y vino en las alturas (Music and wine in the heights), for example, is an open-air concert on the rooftop of a municipal building where a free glass of wine if offered to enjoy while admiring the amazing view of the city in front of the Andes cordillera. A few months ago, there was also the inaugural Semana del vino (Week of wine), which celebrated Mendoza’s recognition as the International wine capital with plein air wine tastings, concerts, and lectures. If you don’t already like wine before coming, you’re pretty much obligated to love it by the time you leave.
So last Friday, a couple of friends and I decided to go on a bodega bici tour (vineyard tour by bike) in nearby Maipú, a popular destination for wannabe samplers of Mendoza’s famous malbec. The bikes had semi-functional breaks (I’m pretty sure I developed a significant amount of hand-muscle by the end of the day after having had to exert so much force to avoid crashing into my friends), but aside from that, riding from bodega to bodega was an awesome way to visit the wineries, even for someone who’s not a huge fan of biking.
We stared the day at Laur Olivícula, a small olive oil production (I know I just said that we went on a wine tour, but olive oil production is a big thing here too). After a guided tour of the grove and of the production center, we were offered to taste the different olive oils and pastes, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Let’s just say that we did a little more than just a sampling of their products—by the time we left, the huge pile of bread that accompanied the tasting had completely disappeared. We ate so many samples that we never got hungry enough to stop for lunch.
Next up we visited two small boutique wineries, Familia Di Tommaso, and Tempus Alba. The guided tasting of four different wines (white, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and a sweet desert wine) at Familia Di Tommaso was a perfect introduction to the proper method of wine degustation: first examine the color, then analyze the viscosity of the liquid and smell its aromas, and finally taste the wine, looking for the particular flavors that it might have. We then set out for Tempus Alba where we enjoyed an unaccompanied tasting of six different wines: rosé, merlot, tempranillo, syrah, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon. Having the six varieties available to taste at our leisure was incredibly helpful in learning to differentiate between each type, and our impromptu blind tasting proved that even as novice wine-connoisseurs we were beginning to get a feel for particularities between each variety. To accompany the tasting we ordered a delicious apple and chocolate tart with a malbec coulis and a beautiful, layered chocolate and candied orange peel cookie, jelly, and ganache cake—a perfect indulgence before saddling up for the last leg of the trip.
At Productores y Sabores, an artisanal liquor, jam, and olive-product producer, we tasted a few chocolate and spiced liquors, an olive and bell pepper spread, a hot pepper paste, and malbec jam. I was particularly intrigued by the malbec jam, because after many of my own failed attempts at making red wine jelly, I had the experience the successful version of what I’d been hoping to make. I bought a jar from Productores y Sabores and am now anxiously awaiting to enjoy it drizzled onto broiled goat cheese or Brie croustades as a sweet-and-savory appetizer. Delicious.
While the Maipú bike tour had to come to an end, there are still plenty of opportunities for wine tastings in Mendoza, including something I am incredibly excited about: a two-hour long wine tasting class where I’ll be sampling 5 different wines from within the Mendoza region and learning more precisely the proper way to taste and enjoy them. Looks like I’m going to have to find a way to keep up this wine rhythm when I get back to New York.
My Spanish teacher Ángel is the most entertaining teacher I have abroad. He always comes to class wearing one of his many Yves Saint Laurent sweaters with appropriately paired slacks and leather loafers. Most of the class time is spent talking about what we did over the weekend or what we have planned for the one coming up, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, he has us sing Shakira. More often than not, he finds himself on a tangent talking about Argentine politics or some amazing food we must absolutely try before going back home, so to tell you the truth, we spend very little time doing actual class work.
I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how many times he’s mentioned it, but we’ve spent a significant portion of class talking about the havannets from the Havanna coffee shop downtown: a rich and sweet cone-shaped dessert covered in chocolate and filled with a shortbread-esque cookie and the ultra popular milk-jam called dulce de leche. When I finally went to try it upon Ángel’s persistent recommendation, I realized that they are actually his elegant excuse to feast on a bunch of dulce de leche. Since they mostly consist of the rich, caramel-tasting filling, dessert doesn’t get much better than this indulgence for someone with a sweet tooth.
I’ve since taken a rather dangerous liking for the more popular and quintessentially Argentine alfajor, which has the same components as the havannets but with a far less scandalous proportion of dulce de leche to cookie: they are basically a chocolate-covered sandwich made with the same cookie and dulce de leche as the havannets. Countless variations are possible by altering the fillings (coffee, walnut, jam, etc.), cookie types, and exterior coating (white or dark chocolate, meringue, etc.). While the Havanna alfajores are sold exclusively in that café, there are many other brands that sell similar versions. So while they might not always be as good as the original, the temptation at kiosks and grocery check out lines is sometimes too much to master…
Alfajores are the most wonderful snack, and just thinking of the fact that my time to enjoy them is limited to the remaining length of my stay in Mendoza makes me nostalgic for the study abroad experience I still haven’t left from. The immigration office better not have a problem accepting them into the States, because I am so packing a half-dozen boxes to extend the wonder of the Havanna alfajor into my life back home (and of course to share them with friends and family, don’t worry).
These first weeks in Argentina have provided confirmation of two things: the Argentines like their sweets sweet, and they love their famous dulce de leche. Essentially a milk jam, dulce de leche is made by heating sweetened milk until it caramelizes and turns a brown color. The result is a soft, caramel-like spread that is incredibly rich and sweet, and it is so popular here that any excuse to serve or incorporate it into a dish is reason enough to eat it: it’ll be served on toast for breakfast, in a cookie-sandwich for an afternoon snack, within a chocolate mousse or cake, as a flan or ice cream flavor, as candy, etc. The list goes on…
I was thus anxious to try this famed national treat upon arrival in Buenos Aires, and on a hot sunny day (sorry New Yorkers, it’s summer here!), ice cream made for a perfect afternoon snack. I opted for the Volta heladería (ice cream shop). Its beautiful, zen-like terrace with bamboo-lined walls, pale wooden floors, and cast-iron patio furniture lent itself perfectly to a peaceful escape from the busy streets outside. The dulce de leche ice cream itself was served as elegantly as the establishment’s decor: two scoops in a waffle cup cone. There’s no better summer snack than that.
For those with a sweet tooth, dulce de leche ice cream is just about the most perfect summer snack or dessert. Volta’s in particular was smooth, creamy, and also had a rich, sharp caramel flavor. This combination balanced out the extreme sweetness of the caramel taste which would have otherwise been overwhelming. As my first initiation into the culinary world of Argentina, this dulce de leche helado proved itself a most excellent beginning.
With the introduction of the Aspiring Beer Enthusiast, the Oenophile would like to counter the Chokolat with a bottle of Can Blau from Spain. With several flavor profiles, this wine introduces a bit of complexity. Luxurious, as a wine should be, it has more going on than simply chocolate.
Coming back from Argentina is such an unfortunate thing. It’s not because I’m going to miss the weather, or the location, or the vacation full of free time. No, I’m going to miss the drinking age. In Argentina, the legal drinking age is 18. However, this age limit is rarely enforced. My 16 year-old sister had no problem getting into the bars in Buenos Aires (but this may be due to the fact that she looks as old as me if not older). It’s so nice not to have to worry about being carded at liquor stores, ordering wine at a restaurant, purchasing liqueurs for cooking. I realized one thing though–once I reach the legal age of 21, I’m going to need to start budgeting for alcohol. Otherwise, my money will be slipping through my fingers. It’s not that I’m an alcoholic, not even close… It’s just that there are so many different types to try and so many different combinations.
All good things must come to an end. I returned to the States, and I returned to being underage. Luckily, I still have my friend over at Vino Fino. He happily welcomed me back, offering me two delicious samples for the day.
In Argentina, I finally began to cultivate a better appreciation for good red wines. At every meal, we were served mineral water and Malbec, the Argentine standard from Mendoza. I told my friend that I was interested in developing my new-found appreciation. I wanted a full-bodied, complicated red with lots of flavors. He pointed me to a bottle of Can Blau 2008 from the Montsant region of Spain. He likes to take credit for teaching me to appreciate reds. Why is it that reds are a sign of maturity when it comes to wine?
Anyways, I headed back to East Campus to share the bottle of red with my friends. Taking the bottle out of the bag, I realized that perhaps it wasn’t a growing wine maturity that informed my decision. The Can Blau bottle is truly stunning, an intricate cross pattern with metallic accents and a royal blue background. Pouring it into the glasses, light danced on the bottle. (I suppose just as I often judge books by their covers, I sometimes judge wines by their bottles.) The first striking feature of the wine is the color. It is a deep purple color, much less red than most red wines. Swirling the liquid in our glasses, the aroma was reminiscent of a forest after a morning rain. (Wow, that sounded pretentious… but it’s really true!) It was a thoroughly enjoyable smell, and it accompanied the cold winter day well.
The wine is composed of Mazuelo, Syrah, and Garnacha. Taking the first sip, flavors of blueberries, blackberries, and plums dominate the palate, flavors that can almost be described as thoroughly “purple.” The spicy cinnamon notes are then introduced by the Syrah. This gives way to accents of vanilla and a hint of cocoa. However, this sweetness is fleeting and the wine finishes with a mineral aftertaste, which is perfect for cleansing the palate for the subsequent sip. It is the perfect cycle with several layers of flavor interacting and forming a truly complex and delicious wine.
Vino Fino sells this bottle for $20 a bottle, well worth it for such a rich and elegant wine.
Tomorrow night (11/12) at 8-9 pm in Lerner 569, the Rotaract Club is offering Super Tacos (by the Super Taco truck) at only $4 a plate (with a drink) or $5 a plate (which includes a drink AND chips!). The Rotaract Club is hoping to promote its International Service Trip and build awareness for La Hogar Antonia Astengo of Argentina, a children’s home for those who have suffered domestic abuse.
To learn more about the event, visit their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=168911616460142&index=1.
Walking into Vino Fino on a rainy Thursday night, I was exhausted and cold… and I still had tons of work to do. The perfect consolation? Wine, as always.
The owner greeted me at the door–he’s starting to recognize me, since I’ve been visiting every Thursday night. Immediately upon my arrival, he gave me a sample of his latest wines, but I told him that I was looking for something very specific: Argentinian Wines.
Why Argentina? Well, I have always heard that wines from this country are excellent–however, the real reason is that I will be traveling with family and friends down to Buenos Aires for Christmas. I don’t want to show up and know nothing of their wines! Plus, my friends are proud wine connoisseurs, while I, on the other hand, know next to nothing about wines.
Upon further explanation of my predicament to the owner, he led me to the wall of red wines (a side of the store that I have always avoided). He knows that I don’t really like red wines too much, but he told me that I wouldn’t be able to understand Argentinian wines until I had a proper red wine. I gave in and bought his first recommendation: Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir 2009. The bottle read “Mendoza.” Mendoza is several miles west of my winter destination, but I figured it was close enough to start my education. I took my purchase home, excited to try my first Argentinian wine.
The opportunity didn’t come until 2 days later. On Thursday and Friday, I was much too busy to uncork a bottle of wine. Plus, it didn’t seem right to enjoy a pinot noir by myself. Pinot noir is often described as the “most romantic” of wines, even as “sex in a glass.” How could I possibly drink this alone? Since I didn’t want to open the glass without the company of at least a couple friends, it wasn’t until the evening of the Harry and the Potters concert that I finally got to try the pinot noir. After 7 pm, most of the work for the catering event was finished, and everyone who had volunteered to cater was exhausted. I invited everyone to crash at my place for 2 hours before we came back to clean at 9 pm. Once we arrived in EC, I brought out the bottle of red, much to everyone’s delight. There is no better way to bond with new members than sharing a bottle of wine.
Discussing the wine, we agreed that it had hints of stone fruits: cherry, plum. It was very light, not heavy at all. It also did not have the typical acidity of most red wines. (Apparently the owner at Vino Fino knew me well enough to start me off with a relatively weak red wine.) However, the wine was perfect for taking the edge off of the catering crew. We returned to the kitchen relaxed (but not at all drunk).
At $12 dollars, the Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir is a perfect introduction to the world of red wines and a great way to unwind with friends. It would pair well with many of our upcoming holiday foods such as turkey and roast chicken.