Monthly Archives: March 2013

Mate: a friendly drink from Argentina

Argentina is in the clutches of a nation-wide addiction. It seems every other person is carrying various paraphernalia needed to get their next fix. People of all ages indulge freely and openly, consuming throughout the day, usually in the company of other users. There is even speculation that the new Argentinian Pope Francis, the first South American to hold the papacy, will encourage his cardinals to dabble.

I’m not talking about anything dodgy, rather Argentina’s national drink and cultural obsession: mate.

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(Although mate is totally legal, people we have met in Argentina joke about being stopped by customs officials; the dried leaves of yerba mate are herby and green and easily mistaken for marijuana. The traditional vessels and bombilla straws could be taken for exotic pipes and bongs.)

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Many cultures around the world have developed habits and social customs associated with drinking hot beverages, often tea. The mate tradition in Argentina is particularly special.

While the word mate is pronounced “mah-tay”, its similarity to the English word “mate” meaning “pal” is pleasantly appropriate. Mate is prepared to share with friends; drinking it is an ceremonious bonding ritual. Refusing an invitation to share mate is a huge insult.

The sociable, community aspect is considered sacrosanct to many Argentinians and mate is almost never drunk alone. It is rare to find a bar/restaurant selling mate and it is not for ordering “to go” – very different from the way busy Europeans and Americans chug down their caffeine hit quickly and thoughtlessly on the way to work.

Mate is the name for both the drink and the vessel it is served in, which is traditionally a hollowed out gourd but can also be made from wood or other materials. The leaves from the yerba mate shrub are dried and used to brew the drink, which tastes like a strong, bitter, grassy green tea.

The mate drink is prepared by whoever is playing the role of cebador/cebadora (the server or “mother”). The mate vessel is filled three quarters of the way with the dried leaves of yerba mate (even small shops in Argentina stock dozens of different varieties and blends – some are mixed with dried citrus peel and other flavours).

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The server then places their palm over the top of the mate and shakes it upside down to agitate the smaller, dustier pieces and prevent blockages for a smooth drink.

The water used is not boiling, just hot (around 80*C; kettles in Argentina don’t simply bring water to a rolling boil as in England, but have a nifty setting that allows you to control the temperature).

A small area of yerba mate on one side is dampened carefully, and the bombilla (pronounced bombeesha), the metal straw which filters the liquid away from the leaves as you suck, is inserted into the wet leaves.

Then the water level is topped up ready for the first person to drink. Some people don’t like to take the first mate as it is very strong, and prefer to wait for a later round. Often the server will take the first mate to gauge whether the temperature, sweetness and strength are correct before offering it.

We learnt that the first few mates prepared tend to have a lot of small bubbles at the surface, which indicates the cup is “friendly” and good to drink. The server keeps an eye on the bubbles; once they begin to dwindle, it is time to refresh.

Each prepared mate can brew up to 15 drinks before it is considered lavado, meaning washed (i.e. there is no more flavour).

The cebador/cebadora is responsible for preparing the mate, passing it around (everyone in the group uses the same vessel and bombilla), and topping up the water when needed. It’s customary not to thank the server when you pass the empty cup as this indicates you don’t want any more – instead, you should say “very nice” until you have had your fill.

Some people prefer their mate bitter, and others with sugar or sweetener. Often Argentinians keep mate cups for bitter and sweet brews separate so the flavour is purer.

We learned the importance of curing or seasoning your mate vessel before it is used for the first time. This can be done by preparing the mate drink as normal but leaving the mixture to settle for three days and then emptying and repeating a few times. People also cure their mates with ashes from an asado (barbecue) or with sugar.

Argentinians wax lyrical about the health properties of mate; people I have met say it’s healthier than tea or coffee, is good for the heart, fights cancer etc. I can’t find anything online that suggests these claims are totally watertight. However one point made sense to me: the traditional Gaucho diet was solely enormous amounts of red meat and mate, yet Gauchos remained fit, strong and scurvy free despite consuming very little fresh fruit and vegetables. Can’t argue with that!

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Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn is a windswept, semi-arid steppe in Argentine Patagonia. Our first encounter had some surreal echoes of home with the grey and freezing weather, Welsh-speaking people and fish & chips on the coast.

Fish & chips, Argentinian style

Fish & chips, Argentinian style

In the 1860s, Welsh nationalists encouraged around two hundred settlers to relocate to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, to create a cultural colony to preserve their heritage and language. We felt sorry for the first people to arrive from Wales, who had been promised paradise but found a barren landscape, no water and some small caves for their first shelter.

The wildlife seems to like it though. There are sea lions, seals, magellanic penguins, orcas, and in the right season (which of course it wasn’t), southern right whales.

Leila had her first ever scuba dive – and with sea lions! A memorable experience. She was, as expected, a natural. The sea lions were like puppies: inquisitive and playful.

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The penguins were predictably comical. Punta Tombo, just down the coast has an enormous rookery of c.500,000 breeding pairs.

They were in the middle of their moulting period, which lasts around ten days. They can’t return to the water until their fluffy feathers have totally shed, so they have to stuff themselves with fish in preparation.

The combination of bloated bellies and patchy feathers is not the best look.

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This is the “awkward adolescent” phase in the life of a penguin

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If I close my eyes maybe it will all get better

Some of the cooler kids already had dashing new suits…

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Flirt

These hairy armadillos were a pest, continually trying to steal our food.

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Rheas:

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Guanacos:

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Cuis:

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And (trust me here) these two black spots are a pair of Orca. Sadly they weren’t hungry enough so stayed a long way offshore.

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Despite the rocky start (literally – haha) the Welshies stuck about. Several schools continue to teach Welsh, there are music and poetry festivals and a sense of pride about the history. There are also lots of people named “Jones”, “Roberts” and of course “Griffiths”.

We went to a Welsh style tea-house which, whilst not a patch on the Ritz or Dorchester, served up a pretty decent and plentiful afternoon tea. It was lovely to have our first proper cuppa in months!

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Buenos Aires bites

You can find excellent steak around the world but what we ate in Argentina’s capital was on another level.

Obviously, the quality of the meat second to none. Happy grass fed cows roaming free in the pampas make juicy, flavourful beef and the asadors manning the grills in parillas are experts at achieving a perfect charred crust with tender a punto flesh.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the astonishing low prices, abundant portions, and the sheer ubiquity of great steak restaurants, parillas, on virtually every street. When I asked porteños (Buenos Aires natives) we met to name their favourite parilla, they often responded with a chuckle because there are simply so many, it is very difficult even for locals to choose.

It is all a bit overwhelming and the only thing to do is get stuck in!

A recommendation from an Aussie foodie traveller led us to Don Julio in the Palermo neighbourhood for our first BA parilla experience. The restaurant was heaving and we had to wait for a table (we took this as a good sign, particularly when the waitress gave us a couple of glasses of plonk on the house to help pass the time). The prices (we’re talking around £15 for a dictionary thick slab of steak) let us order with impunity: bife de lomo (fillet) and bife de chorizo (rib eye) with a bangin’ bottle of Malbec. Regretfully we were too content gorging to photograph anything on the leather-clad tables or bother remembering the name of the wine, although this image from the web will give you an idea of the place. This was Mark’s overall favourite restaurant we tried in BA.

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Another top find was Gran Parilla del Plata, a former butcher shop in the San Telmo neighbourhood which still has butchers’ hooks and posters of the various cuts of beef around the room. This was my favourite – in part because of the side dishes. Garlic fried potatoes almost stole the show from the bife de chorizo mariposa (butterflied sirloin) we ordered to share: they must have used at least a couple of freshly crushed bulbs. The chimichurri and salsa verde condiments served as standard were fresh and full of flavour.

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Des Nivel is a bit of an institution apparently – the asador at the front casually tending to huge piles of sausage, ribs, steak and more is certainly an impressive sight. Totally no-frills; some TVs bolted on the walls, tuned in to the latest football match are the main decoration.

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We also savoured the sights and smells of the asados lining the streets of the San Telmo weekend antiques market.

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We first heard about La Cabrera from Mark’s sister Gill, who decided the steak served here would have the honour of breaking her long-term vegetarianism. While any red meat would surely taste sublime to someone deprived of it for years, Gill’s recommendation was bolstered by several other sources, so we were keen to check it out.

Luckily Mark and I were joined by a new pal we met at our hostel – the quantity of food may well have defeated just the two of us. Just look at this beautiful 800g beast!

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It’s like a hunk of dinosaur from Fred Flintstone’s table. La Cabrera definitely served us the most photogenic steak we had in BA, and the nibbles provided by the cover charge were the most plentiful, varied and interesting.

Sarkis in Palermo gave us some respite from all the steak – the popular, low price Armenian joint served lovely salads and mezze. As an afterthought we ordered some lamb to avoid any potential red meat withdrawal symptoms – better safe than sorry.

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We also squeezed in a visit to Cafe Tortini, the oldest cafe in the city, for a quick coffee before the loud American tour groups and their obtrusive camera flashes became too annoying.

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Before we left BA, we signed up to learn how to make empanadas (not unlike small Cornish pasties) at our hostel, along with a dozen or so others. There was a fun contest at the end for the best/most creative empanada – my effort won the prize of a free bar tab, woohoo! I may go into large-scale production back in England with my creation of meat stuffed, giant pretzel shaped empanadas. Definitely a gap in the market.

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It may be a stretch to say Buenos Aires is paved with steak, but I will personally refer to Buenos Aires as “Steak City” from now on.

Buenos Aires sights

Mark has the blogging bug!

Buenos Aires is a sexy, vibrant and wonderful city. We spent the best part of a week there and loved it. Not just because of the steak, nightlife and the long list of things to do and see; it’s the buzz of the place, the can-do attitude that every major metropolis should have. My favourite South American city so far (Leila’s sticking with Rio, but perhaps my choice is impacted by the poor weather we had there).

Given how football mad this place is, we had to go to the Boca Juniors stadium. The price for a match was too much for us (I think Chelsea fans would balk at how much a ticket is here) but we did the museum tour and pretended to be hooligans.

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Boca Juniors is in the port district of La Boca, BA. The Caminito houses are brightly coloured because the cheapest paint available was what was left after painting the ships in port.

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There are three gods in this city. One of them has a capital G, and the worshippers of that particular deity were delighted when the new pope was announced as the Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio whilst we were in town.

The other two go by the names of Maradonna and Evita. The former has a statue in the Boca Juniors museum for Argentinians to bow to, and for English travellers like us to swear at.

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The latter has huge portraits on the sides of prominent buildings. Given I knew little about her besides an occasion where she stood on a balcony singing to Argentina not to cry for her, we thought it best to go to the museum. She sounded like an incredible woman – a cross between Princess Diana, Emeline Pankhurst and Maggie Thatcher.

BA had some great handicraft markets. The San Telmo market was vast, it must have stretched 20 city blocks. Amongst the obligatory tourist tat there were some great bargains. A friend bought a calfskin rug for about 100 dollars, a tenth of the price back home in New York.

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Of course tango was everywhere, as well as other traditional Gaucho dances.

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We had a crack at learning tango. The basic steps are not hard, but I think our posture and control left a lot to desire. Also, tango maestros tend not to wear a yellow t-shirt.

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One of the highlights was the tango show which we saw on our last night. These people are seriously talented.

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Some other photos:

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Recoleta cemetery

Recoleta cemetery

A porky Maradona lookalike

A porky Maradona lookalike

Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero

Iguassu/Iguaçu/Iguazu Falls

Mark posts again!

Like the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China, pictures of the Iguacu falls just don’t do it justice. So you might as well just ignore the photos below. You have to go yourself I’m afraid in order to get the slightest idea how impressive they are. The falls stretch for 3.5 km of roaring, frothing foam, and they are set in a beautiful national park with toucans, butterflies of all colours and fresh water turtles.

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We spent a couple of days in the area. The Brazilian side gives the grand vista, but it’s the Argentinian side where you really get up close and personal by strolling the walkways that take you over, under and around the falls (getting thoroughly soaked in the process). The highlight was the boat ride that takes you virtually underneath the falls themselves. Sorry, no pictures of that.

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Coatís, or Brazilian aardvarks, are everywhere.

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There is a fantastic bird park on the Brazilian side, that contains vast cages with macaws, parakeets, hummingbirds, toucans, flamingos and many others besides.

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This is not a bird

This is not a bird

Some of the toucans were really quite friendly!

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Certainly one of the highlights of the trip so far.

São Paulo – highlights (mainly food, obviously)

Everyone says São Paulo is a massive, sprawling metropolis.

“Big deal,” we thought, “so is London.” It was only until we took in the views from the top of Edifício Itália on our first morning that we realised this urban beast was MUCH larger than the comparatively twee Big Smoke.

Innumerable skyscrapers and tall buildings literally as far as the eye can see – and 42 storeys up, we could see for miles!

São Paulo view

We didn’t find São Paulo to be as beautiful and glamorous as Rio – in fact parts of the city are downright ugly. The main attraction of the city of “Sampa” for us was the many opportunities to eat very well.

After the dizzying trip up the tower we needed something to steady our nerves and restore blood sugar to normal levels. We headed straight for the Mercado Municipal, which was one of the highlights of the trip so far.

The fruit in the Mercado was a revelation – perfect specimens of hundreds of different varieties displayed artfully by the stall holders, who deftly sliced and thrust samples of this and that at you. We tasted the most perfect orange imaginable – superlatively large, sweet and juicy – and almost bought the lot until we realised they were 15 R$ (£5 sterling) EACH. We have looked in vain in more modest markets for something similar ever since but with no luck.

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Of more considerable substance than the odd scrap of fruit was this epic mortadela sandwich which made us very happy!

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The mortadela sandwich, consisting of generous piles of thinly sliced Italian mortadela between crusty bread with optional extras (e.g. cheese, sundried tomatoes, mustard, chilli) is a classic offering at the Mercado and many stalls sell them. We opted for the historic Hocca Bar on the top level, which has proper seating with views of the bustling market below as you get your chops around the juicy, meaty goodness.

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Other places on the ground floor are cheaper but you have to negotiate your sloppy sanger standing up at a bar – not advisable for amateurs!

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The next day we thought it might be good to cleanse the last of the meat sweats out of our system, so headed for Liberdade, the city’s Japanese neighbourhood.

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London was in the midst of a ramen “moment” when I left to go travelling, with excellent places like Bone Daddies, Shoryu and Tonkotsu getting the city’s foodies excited (my fave of the three is Bone Daddies, for what it’s worth). I was keen to try out the Sampa version of ramen (also known as “lamen” in Brazil) at Aska.

The no bookings policy and 45 minute wait made me feel right at home; we could have been waiting on a Soho street for our bowls of noodles and broth. As soon as we got a table it was easy to see why Aska is so popular – the chefs bustled around calmly but efficiently in the open kitchen while patrons of all ages and ethnicities slurped at the surrounding bar and separate tables, creating a pleasant and buzzy atmosphere.

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My tonkotsu ramen was decent with a tasty broth, though not a patch on Bone Daddies. Aska’s noodles were thin and soon went a bit soggy, and they were a bit stingy with the other goodies I like to root around for in a bowl of ramen. Still, it was one of the best value meals we had in Brazil, let alone São Paulo and did the trick of making us feel sated yet healthy and refreshed.

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After a few hours of sightseeing on foot we were sure we had burned off the last of the mortadela, just as we happened to stumble upon an ice cream parlour and a huge queue of people winding down the street. Like typical Brits we dutifully joined the queue and were rewarded with some knockout ice cream or “sorvette”: chilli chocolate, maracuja (passionfruit) and house bacio di latte were all excellent.

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Afterwards I remembered that I had read somewhere that many consider Bacio di Latte to serve Sampa’s best ice cream. So maybe what seemed like serendipitous discovery was actually my greedy unconscious leading me to the next treat…?

Another Sampa food highlight was dinner at A Figueira Rubaiyat, which is as famous for its food as the magnificent 200 year old, 5 metre wide fig tree growing smack in the middle of the restaurant.

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My “picanha sumus” (premium top sirloin), a specialty from the Rubaiyat family farm, was delicious and cooked “a punto” accurately. Mark said his ribeye was one of the best he could remember.

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Minas Gerais

We spent around a week in Minas Gerais, an inland region of south east Brazil. The area has many historic colonial towns built during the rush after gold was discovered in the 1690s. We visited three of them: Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto and Tiradentes.

First stop was Belo Horizonte, aka BH, pronounced Beagá (still struggling to grasp Portuguese sounds!)

We arrived just as the famous Mercado Central was opening – the perfect place for breakfast. We also stocked up on picnic supplies: an enormous, ripe avocado large enough to feed a family, local cheese similar to feta and fresh bread made a memorable feast “to go”.

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We decided to leave the caged live animals for sale behind (everything from mice, rabbits, chinchillas to geese and ducks – I’ve never seen or heard anything like it!)

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BH is the bar and cachaça capital of the whole of Brazil. We remained sober as we were only there for one morning and afternoon, keen to continue on to the photogenic Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto couldn’t have been more different from the sprawling concrete jungle of BH: hugged by verdant mountains, the town itself is all steep cobbled streets, multicoloured buildings, broad piazzas and stunning baroque churches.

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Many of the façades were carved by Aleijadinho, known as Brazil’s Michelangelo. (Mark keeps calling him Ahmadinejad…)

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After a couple of days exploring, our legs and knees were almost as shattered as after the “bootcamp” trekking experience in Chapada Diamantina. Ouro Preto’s streets are so steep and the cobbles so ragged and uneven, walking around is like an extreme sport!

Luckily there were many opportunities to recuperate with some of the region’s renowned food and drink. “Comida mineira”, or cuisine from Minas, is very hearty and flavourful, designed to keep hard working miners going strong.

One of the best rodizios we’ve experienced in Brazil was at Cháfariz in Ouro Preto, where we sampled classic regional dishes including tutu de feijão (raw beans mashed to a paste with manioc flour and then cooked), frango com quiabo (a yummy chicken and okra casserole), pork ribs and sausage, corn, traditional cheeses and much more. All washed down with cachaça of course!

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We had heard that Tiradentes was a charming, peaceful place that also happened to be a foodie hotspot. What better place to head for my birthday…

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We had a lovely couple of days strolling around the small, quaint village. Conversely, many of the shops must cater for people who own enormous mansions – we saw all sorts of blingy, ostentatious “objets” such as a carved wooden lion bigger than our whole flat in London.

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As a birthday treat we booked a table at Tragaluz, which had been billed as the best restaurant in town. We had a really enjoyable evening; the food was decent but not quite the extravaganza we had hoped for. The one course worth writing about was dessert: dried guava rolled in cashews, fried in butter and served with creamy catupiry cheese and guava ice cream. In fairness I would return just to eat that again.

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From Minas Gerais it was a relatively short bus to our next destination, São Paulo: just 8 hours. The sheer scale of South America has quickly altered our dainty English views about what constitutes a long journey!