I’ve been trying to make red wine jelly for quite some time now, and I am happy to say that after three failed attempts, I’ve finally reached success. After several batches of viscous wine syrup that was sometimes filled with crystallized sugar or had a weird, lumpy texture, I’ve made a real, sweet but still acidic red wine jelly that is indeed gelatinous. It feels good to finally be able to enjoy the fruits of that labor and not throw yet another bottle’s worth of ungodly syrup down the drain.
I’m not sure why wine jelly has become such an obsession. Maybe it started when I saw goat cheese toasts topped with a dollop of fig jam? While fig jam is now pretty trendy (and, when you think about, not all that exotic) I hadn’t ever really seen it before, and I loved the idea of serving something sweet with something classically savory. Add on the idea of moving to Mendoza, South America’s “International Wine Capital,” for Spring 2013 study abroad and you’ve got yourself a full-fledged obsession with wine under its unconventional forms.
Now that I’ve tasted the successful version of red wine jelly on top of a blue-cheese toast, I realize that the struggle in making it was all worth the effort. The flavor is pretty subtle, but with a proper cheese-to-jelly ratio, this red wine jelly makes for a delicious and elegant appetizer. And it isn’t that bad spread onto a buttered blueberry or herb biscuit or simple slice of baguette either.
Red Wine Jelly
1 bottle red wine (I used a Malbec, but I think a Merlot would be good too)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons agar-agar
In a large pot, bring the wine and sugar to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Five minutes before the jelly is ready, add the agar-agar and stir. Pour into clean jars and close lids tightly. Flip each jar upside down to sterilize, and about 5 minutes later flip them right side up. Allow to cool completely before serving.
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.
Empanadas are by far the best thing that’s happened to me since arriving in Mendoza. Actually, scratch that: empanadas are one of the many awesome things that I’ve gotten to experience in Argentina. I’ve been known to exaggerate, but my enthusiasm and enamor for this most delicious, stuffed finger food is more than sincere. Whether picking them up from a cheap eatery in town to enjoy in one of the city’s plazas, heating up my host mom’s in our kitchen’s little toaster oven when she isn’t home to prepare lunch, or coming home from a long day of classes to see my host mom (she’s the best) stuffing and pinching their edges closed, I’m a happy girl when it’s empanadas on the menu.
The picadillo (filling), dough, and baking procedures are numerous and vary according to region. Nevertheless, here’s the basic idea: the filling is made from a mixture of meat (beef or chicken), onions, and spices, then stuffed into a wheat-based dough, and then either oven-baked or fried. The type of meat (ground or cubed), proportion of meat to onions, combination of spices, addition of extra ingredients (hard-boiled eggs, raisins, olives, etc.) and the way the empanada dough is sealed, all depends on the region in which they are prepared (and, of course, on the cook’s personal taste). There are even empanadas de choclo that are filled with corn and cheese, and empanadas de atún, filled with tuna or another type of fish. My host mom’s atún version even has a bit of sugar dusted onto the outside of the dough, which is super delicious because the sugar caramelizes a little while baking.
As you might imagine, my host mom makes the best empanadas in Argentina. Her empanadas de carne are adapted from the classic mendocinian version: 1 part ground beef to 2 parts chopped onion cooked with chili, cumin, salt and pepper, and a bit of white wine (that last ingredient isn’t a classic one, but it sure is a good addition). When filling the dough, she adds either green olive or hard-boiled egg slices. Eaten fresh out of the oven, these empanadas are juicy and flavorful. The acidity of the olives complements the sweetness of the filling, and the egg whites and yolks add texture. Overall the best argentine comfort food to rid away any morsel of homesickness.