Inspiration for food, how we eat and how we cook is all around us. It is often a simple phrase, something in a newspaper, an innocent observation perhaps that will strike a mental chord and turn into a food thought. Writing also shares that space of infinite inspiration in the world around and about us. The news this week has been particularly fruitful for both. The Conclave in Vatican City has been to the fore and the faithful of all creeds, the agnostic and the atheist all looked on together in anticipation of the new head of the Catholic Church, united in a moment of pure theatre and curiosity. Believer and non believer mesmerised by the cloak and dagger, smoke and mirrors ritual the church engages for such elections. The doors close, we watch and wait and then, just like a stage magician, there is a puff of smoke and, ‘boom’, a shiny new pope emerges. He is the first Pope from outside Europe for a long time and the first ever Pope from South America and so immediately his hometown comes into sharp relief. Argentina is of interest and I immediately wonder about their food.
We know that as an area beef is very prominent, but all protein is popular in this Latin American country. They love to grill and big, big barbecues are called asados, (translated as meat feast) where everything is grilled quite slowly. They have a saying that sums up the Argentine attitude to food, “Everything that walks may end up on the grill”. I can also tell you that from a ‘nose to tail’ eating experience, “everything in and on the ‘everything that walks’ may also end up on your plate.” A friend of mine had the opportunity to try out a delicacy in a steak restaurant in Buenos Aires. Wanting a new taste experience he tried some ‘Criadilla’ or Mountain Oysters; bull testes to you and me.
Having had sweetbreads in the past he was expecting something similar in taste, but he discovered that not all testicles taste the same; he felt let down by the “leathery, coppery, mouldy taste. Thankfully aside from bulls’ balls there is plenty more to Argentine food.
Argentina is largely a melting pot of Italian and Spanish populations. Before the European invasion in the 1500s it was Native Indian. So you mix these cultures together along with the lush and yielding landscape and the good weather and you have an exciting mix. There is a wide range of livestock reared and agricultural products are in abundance. They do consume a great deal of beef, but there is diversity also. As a nation the people have a reputation for their love of food. Many social gatherings pivot on a shared meal as the centrepiece and, not too unlike Ireland in the past, the Sunday family dinner is considered the most significant meal of the week. There is also a great deal of fresh food in Argentine cuisine and an emphasis on the homemade including fresh pasta. A homemade dish is considered an honour for the guest and is also seen as a way of showing affection.
Like all big cities Buenos Aires has a huge variety of restaurants and styles including international cuisine, but the little local ‘bodegones’ (traditional taverns) offer great local food. In these little places you will find breaded and fried meats, similar to the Italian Milanese style. Thin strips of meat is breaded and fried and used in warm sandwiches or eaten as snacks. Small pastries filled with savoury meat, cheese and many other fillings are also common snacks and all of this is accompanied by fresh salads of tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Pizza and pasta are very prominent and Italian style ice-cream can be found all over the city. Chorizo sausage, blood sausage and other cured meat, just like you would commonly find in Spain, is sliced razor thin and used in crust less bread sandwiches. And when it comes to sweet treats, Argentina’s treasured national food, dulce de leche, is one of my all time favourites. This smooth, creamy, toffee like paste is used to fill cakes, to pour over pancakes or ice-cream and even, dare I say it, spread over toast for breakfast! It is the type of food that makes diet club leaders break out in a cold sweat and keel over. It has to be tried to be appreciated but only try the finest quality you can get your hands on.
So when it comes to food in Argentina we would be very surprised at how familiar everything would be. The huge European influence has created an indigenous cuisine that is meat rich, often Mediterranean in style, home cooked and full of fresh vegetables. Actually it would be relatively easy to recreate an Argentine meat feast here. However you’ll have to skip the Mountain Oysters, we just don’t stock them at James Whelan Butchers.
Charred Steak with Chimichurri Sauce – Argentinean Style
Steak Argentinean style with a slightly sharp herby sauce
1kg sirloin steaks
2 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp coriander
pinch cayenne pepper
For the sauce
1 garlic clove, crushed
bunch coriander, roughly chopped
bunch parsley, roughly chopped
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
75ml olive oil
Make the sauce by mixing together all the ingredients in a small bowl. Then set aside until ready to eat.
Pat the steaks dry with kitchen paper. Mix together the olive oil, spices and a little salt, then rub or brush over both sides of meat. Heat a griddle pan or barbecue until hot and smoking. Cook the steaks for 3 mins each side for rare, 4 for medium and 5 for well done. Then remove to a board and leave to rest for a couple of mins. Slice the steaks on the diagonal into thin pieces and serve with the chimichurri sauce to spoon over.