The quickest way to peg yourself as a tourist is to do things that locals wouldn't be caught doing in their right mind. And nowhere is this more obvious than when you're sitting face to face enjoying a meal with someone.
Here is a list of food related crimes in Argentina according to our Argentinian guides Luciano and Francisco from Cultura Cercana. Not punishable by law but perhaps by social ostracism ;)
It is a crime to mix mozzarella with provoleta (the cheese that we had yesterday).
It is a crime to use gas on your parilla (grill). Coals (carbon) or wood is the only thing you should use.
It is a crime not to share your yerba tea or to touch or play with the straw.
It is a crime to serve your meat with sauce. Salt is the only thing that should garnish steak.
It is considered disrespectful for anyone but a close friend at a home gathering to insult or comment on the cooking method of a parilla chef. You must also clap for the parilla chef.
The drive to Los Platitos from the Sofitel in the upmarket Recoleta district is punctuated on the right by parilla stands (pronounced as pa-risha, the ll sound turns to a shh but only in Argentina). The River de la Plata meaning silver river sits just past this and the water is an uninviting brown due to the sediment. Fishermen line the way with their fishing rods and incongruously, to the left is a plane taxiing down a runway and a train speeds by in the distance. Families unpack picnic baskets and sit alongside the domestic airport and eat lunch while watching the planes take off the distinct rumbling a comforting soundtrack to many families that live in BA.
I've lucked out with my taxi driver. Not only is he friendly but he points out several items of interest along the way. I arrive at Los Platitos about 20 minutes away and about $75ARS/$14.50AUD in fare. Facing the river, it is a local's favourite where couples sit by the counter watching the parilla masters cook their grass fed steaks to perfection while families and larger groups take up space on the main restaurant area. Fat sausages cook on the grill and steaks of every cut are cooked slowly and simply with just salt as a garnish.
At the restaurant I meet the rest of our travel writer's group and our two guides for the day, fifth generation Argentinian Luciano and his guide Francisco. Luciano's company La Cultura Cercana, holds tours for English speakers and for lunch he has taken us to his favourite local place "This is a place where only locals would go, not tourists." Gaynor notices a distinct lack of female waitresses-our waiter Alejandro is a long time staff member for 43 years. "Perhaps it sounds strange but to local, a woman bringing a big piece of meat would be strange" Luciano explains which raises some eyebrows among our female only group.
Provoleta al oreganato $40ARS / $8.84AUD
We start with provoleta, a cheese that comes as a disc and is grilled on the parilla. It is soft on the inside and somewhat like a halloumi without the squeak and a tasty cheese melted.
Hand cut chips
Francisco and Luciano explain that as the steak is cooked slowly to keep it tender, side dishes like the provoleta, salad and hand cut chips are brought out. The hand cut chips are hot to the touch and we salt these and eat these crunchy batons eagerly all while puffing on each bite.
Mixta Chica $21ARS/$4.64AUD
The salad is one of those salads you used to see in Australia during the 70s. Iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion-needed
because the steak is rich.
Bife de chorizo $95ARS/$21AUD and bife de lomo $110ARS/$24.33AUD
The beef comes out after resting time. We have two cuts of beef, the bife de chorizo or sirloin which is slow cooked and comes ringed with fat for extra flavour and the bife de lomo or the tenderloin. The bife de chorizo, not to be confused with the Spanish sausage chorizo is so named apparently because it resembles a chorizo sausage when it is removed. The two cuts taste quite different, the sirloin having more flavour from that ring of fat whilst the tenderloin, as the name suggests has a milder flavour but a superb tenderness.
Panqueque de dulce leche $28ARS/$6.19AUD
Dulce de leche (pronounced dool-say deh leh-chay) which literally means sweet of milk is the favourite spread and this condensed milk caramel comes in a range of brands. The best we are told is "Poncho Negro" which is the creme de la creme of dulce de leche and "La Serenisima" is a regular supermarket brand that is said to be very good too according to Luciano and Francisco. Here is it served on a yellow pancake, sightly thick and spongey which soaks up the sweet and oozing thick dulce de leche caramel nicely. And every intention to eat just one bite should come with a warning: it is virtually impossible to do!
Our next stop is the garden of roses in Parque Tres de Febrero (February Three Park) which is pretty and picturesque. It is apparent that some people like it very, very much as couples every which way are locked in passionate embraces.
Our last stop that afternoon is the La Recoleta cemetery, famous for the presence of Evita Peron's body. Designed by French engineer Próspero Catelin it is a beautiful site and if you are wondering why you would visit a cemetery, this one is absolutely filled with interesting stories. But do so with a guide because these stories aren't apparent from wandering around the cemetery.
Over Argentina's history hundreds of notable families and former presidents have been buried here with impressive mausoleums, some as large as apartments. And the cost? Well it is like an apartment in an upmarket area of BA. People are no longer buried here unless they had previously purchased a space and yet it still draws crowds thanks to the fact that Eva Peron's body lies in her family's mausoleum. It is somewhere among the maze of mausoleums but if you follow the crowds, the trail will lead to the black marble mausoleum with her family name Duarte.
Cemetery cats that all look alike...
Bouquets of flowers appear every day as arranged by the trade unions of Argentina. Interestingly, when she passed away, beloved and idolised at age 33, her body was the subject of much contention. Francisco tells us that Aramburu, the president that took power after Peron was overthrown and exiled overseas wanted possession of the body. He realised that Eva's body would forever represent Peronism and be a token that would fuel the Peron fire so he had the body stolen while it was being embalmed. He had seventy identical coffins made and these were shipped all over the world. The one coffin that held her body was shipped to Italy where it remained for seventeen years. The location of Eva's body was in a letter that was given to Aramburu's lawyer although apparently Aramburu never read the letter himself.
Where Evita Peron is buried
Aramburu was trialed by urban guerillas as they sought, among other things, the location of Eva's body. Not revealing this as he didn't know the location, he was killed and his body was then stolen. Apparently, an exchange was bartered between the two parties for an even exchange of Eva and Aramburu's body. The lawyer came forward with the location of Eva's body. Both bodies lie within Recoleta cemetery now (both under heavy steel plates to prevent any similar incidents).
Other interesting mausoleums include this statue of a young girl who along with her husband were killed on their honeymoon. Her dog Sabu died on the same day so her father buried her loyal dog alongside the girl Liliana. And the reason why the dog's nose is bronze? Because visitors rub his nose for good luck!
The saddest and spookiest story of all is that of Rufina Camberceras. The beautiful nineteen year old socialite from a wealthy cattle farming family with the sad expression is said to have suffered from catalepsy, a nervous condition where people become like in a catatonic state and their body becomes rigid. She was buried and when they found scratches on the inside of the coffin they supposed that the girl was buried alive.
Whether or not this is true (there is another theory that she was seeing a man that was also seeing her mother and her mother had a hand in her death) is another matter but the story is rich in speculation and urban myth. A documentary has been made about her and her statue showing her hand touching the door is particularly intriguing.
And just to end on an amusing note, this husband and wife couple are famously buried with their backs to each other. Some thirty years before her death, the husband cut off his wife's credit and they never spoke again despite living in the same (albeit large) house. He died before she did and was buried here and it was at her bequest that she be depicted with her back to him!
Before we know it, it's dinner time. We head to dinner at Pura Tierra, said to be one of BA's most well kept secrets. Chef Martin Molteni and his team create modern Latin and South American cuisine. The atmosphere is warm yet sophisticated and service is fantastic. Martin comes out to explain that he gets his inspiration from what is available locally and draws influences from neighbouring Latin American countries.
During the year they will use twenty four types of potatoes and ingredient like llama might feature although this menu is reminiscent of what you might find at a modern Australian or European menu with steak, chicken, pork and salmon choices. Everything is baked in the clay oven. Prices are so reasonable that we wondered if they were in US dollars or Argentinian pesos (they are in pesos).
The breads and dips and several amuse bouches come out including mouthfuls of a refreshingly delicious herb salad with a piquant dressing, spicy potato, and my favourite, a milk foam with white fish, tomato, capsicum and onion salsa and a yellow pepper sauce.
Sweetbreads glazed in cane syrup, fennel seeds, potato cream, onions cooked in broth, sauteed mushroom, rocoto chilli jus $55ARS/$12.16AUD
We start with some amuse bouches and I take the chef's recommendations for dishes. The sweetbreads come out and they're glazed in sugar cane syrup and served with potato cream, broth cooked onions, sauteed mushrooms and a rocota chilli jus. The sweetbreads are firmer than I've had but not tough at all, and the sugar cane glaze is delicious. The purees that accompany it provide a silky sweetness and although this is a dish on the sweet side (a nod to Argentinian's love of sweet things), it never feels out of place.
Bondiola pork, honey-spice "northern route", crispy potatoes, roasted pears, plums Malbec, golden zucchini $90ARS/$21AUD
This was chef's recommendation for a main and it is an enormous piece of pork fillet. It is pink inside and it glistens with a hot honey crust flavoured with coriander seeds and the sweetness of honey. It was heavenly with the crispiest potatoes, dark roasted pears in Malbec and sweet glazed eschallots but make no mistake, the star was that delectable piece of pork. And yes those prices are correct-it is insanely good value.
Pumpkin in syrup, creamy turmeric white chocolate mousse, vanilla ice cream, arrope, pain d'epiece $44ARS/$9.73AUD
Considering how fantastic the recommendations were, we had to ask him for a recommendation for dessert. He talked about this dish that also appears on the eight course degustation which is a very reasonable $280ARS ($64AUD a person). And when it comes out and we try it, we are glad that he did. It is a slice of pumpkin cooked in syrup so that it is sweet and not at all green, a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream, a divine and thick spread of creamy turmeric and white chocolate mousse, arrope or grape syrup and gingerbread crumbs to the side. The dessert worked beautifully together even though each element had its own distinct flavour and texture.
Caramel mousse over a bitter chocolate and hazelnut cream, white chocolate palet, confit lemon, drops of Swedish sea salt, dried apricot, pieces of hazelnut $44ARS/$9.73AUD
This was chosen because a few of us were curious about what this would be like. It is a caramel mousse sliced in half with more of a bavarois texture than a mousse texture. The caramel is at that lovely stage when it is taken quite far but doesn't yet burn. It sit atop some bitter chocolate and hazelnut cream, some colourfully painted white chocolate squares and a lick of dulce de leche on the side that really complemented the mousse and completed the flavour.
KAO chocolates in cows of dulce de leche $44ArS for box of 16 ($10AUD)
The chocolates, adorable as they were in a jersey cow pattern are a bit on the sweet side with the mostly white chocolate outer and the sweet dulce de leche interior and the base of the chocolates has a very thick slab of white chocolate. I think we would have all preferred these in dark chocolate to counter the sweetness of the dulce de leche. But I think I'd have missed the point of the Argentinian palette and love of something sweet.
So tell me Dear Reader, what do you think of the idea that there should only be male waiters serving steak? Would it feel odd to you?
NQN travelled to Buenos Aires as a guest of Accor hotels, Skyteam and Rail Plus
Sofitel Buenos Aires
Arroyo 841, Buenos Aires C1007AAB, Argentina
Tel: + 54 (011) 5547 8050
Rafael Obligado, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +54 (011) 4781 1499
La Recoleta Cemetery
Junin 1790, Buenos Aires 1116, Argentina
Tel: +54 (011) 4804 7040
3 de Febrero 1167 Buenos Aires, Capital Federal, Argentina
Tel: +54 (011) 4899 2007