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Published: January 22nd 2013
My beloved steak
Oh how I enjoyed you
It's official - I'm now a time traveller! I flew from New Zealand on Friday afternoon, was in the air for eleven hours, and arrived in Chile on Friday morning! I effectively landed six hours before I took off, and including flying time I had travelled 17 hours into the past. This wreaked havoc with my body clock, but also meant I got to eat six full meals in the same day, which is an unprecedented level of gluttony. Using this flight route, it would be possible to celebrate New Years Eve twice, once in New Zealand and once in Chile!
Ten days ago I had been in Burma. On my way to South America I meandered through Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. A whirlwind visit in each country to catch up with old friends. A big thank you to everyone for letting me stay and keeping me fed and watered (that's Dave, Jayme. Anna, Martin, Merle, Ella, Dave and Nina)
My time in Santiago was brief. I would be coming back later. Right now, my first priority was to nip over the Andes into Argentina and visit Mendoza for some fine wine, hiking and embarrassing myself at tango.
Twisty Mountain Roads
Passing through the Andes from Chile to Argentina
The bus terminal at Santiago was an absolute nightmare. Each bus company had it's own ticket booth, but there were close to a hundred companies. It was a needle in a haystack trying to find the company for Mendoza amidst all the heaving passengers and baggage chaos. Eventually I bought my ticket and went in search of a pre-journey snack. I took pot luck and bought something called a Lomo Italiano. It turned out to be pork loin served in a bread roll, topped with a ludicrous amount of mayonnaise and guacamole that dripped all over my hands. I'm no expert on Italian food, but mayonnaise and guacamole are not two ingredients that I immediately associate with Italy. So where the name Lomo Italiano comes from is a mystery. Lomo Misterio would be a better name.
Some of the buses in Chile now have WiFi on board, which is very impressive. Mine didn't unfortunately, but if you're travelling closely behind a bus that does, I've discovered you can sometimes pick up their signal!
To reach Mendoza from Chile was an eight hour journey, passing over the Andes. I had to full out the usual customs declaration form, to
confirm I wasn't smuggling squirrels, seeds or biological weapons. But this form had two peculiarities. Firstly, I needed to declare the make and model of my mobile phone. No idea why. Secondly I had to confirm whether I was carrying any semen. Technically I was, being a man. But I thought it wise to tick the NO box.
Mendoza was a charming town surrounded by a mixture of vineyards, desert and mountains. The town was bursting at the seams with opportunities for three of my favourite things: red wine, steak and adventure sports. Let's deal with the steak first. Vegetarians may wish to skip to the next paragraph. It may take me a while to write this part, because the mere thought of all those magnificent steaks has me drooling all over my keyboard (and I have to keep wiping it clean). I have extensive experience of steaks, and during my lifetime I have probably eaten the equivalent of a whole herd of cows. But my love affair with steak reached new heights in Argentina. My first tasting was a cut of meat called "Ojo de Bife", and as the waiter approached with my food, he seemed to be
Mendoza at night
One of the many squares
staggering slightly under the sheer weight of my plate. He placed it down in front of me with great care and ceremony, as if he was handing a Ming Dynasty vase. And then I cast my eyes on it for the first time. It was a gargantuan piece of juicy steak, sitting there quietly in it's full meaty splendour. Silence swept across the table as everyone looked at this impossibly large slab of meat. It was so wide it could have crossed an international time zone. It was so high that I could barely see the person sitting opposite me. If you slapped me around the face with this steak, you would knock me to the ground. OK, so I might be exaggerating a bit. But you get the idea. This was the biggest steak I had ever seen in my life. I wanted to cuddle it, but I thought eating it was more socially acceptable. They hadn't given me a steak knife, which I thought was unusual. I tried using a normal knife and and it cut through the steak with effortless ease, almost like butter, it was that tender. You could have eaten it with a spoon. The
An impressive array of meats
An Argentinian Asado in full effect
moment of truth was when the inside of the steak was revealed. It was cooked to perfection. Succulent, pink and juicy, with a hint of blood juices coming out. I held the first piece up in the air, turning the fork around to admire it from all angles. Finally I put it in my mouth and nearly swooned with pleasure. It was bursting with flavour and the texture was divine. There is a particular word you can use in these situations. I don't think you'll find it in the dictionary, but the beauty of this word is that you can say it whilst eating. It's "mmmmmmmmm!". As well as being the biggest steak I have ever seen, this was also the tastiest steak I have ever had the good fortune to get my hungry chops round. By a large margin.
So why is Argentinian steak so good? This is down to a number of reasons, the first one being the diet of the cattle. Most other countries supplement the diet of their herds with grain, whereas Argentinian cattle have unlimited access to fresh grass all year round. Secondly, Argentinian cattle are allowed to roam the vast country plains, instead
The Finest Wine known to Humanity
An "easy drinking wine" apparently. Aren't they all?
of being confined to warehouses for part of their lives, which affects the leanness and tenderness of the meat. Finally, other countries pump their cows full of growth hormones to bring them to market faster, whereas Argentinian cows grow and develop naturally. I think Argentinian cows are happier too, because they have such fine weather. Unlike English cows who have to suffer cold rain, hail, snow and blustery winds. You never see an English cow with a grin on it's face. They are all a bunch of miserable buggers. Happy cows make tastier meat. Fact. This is principle that is applied in Japan. You may have heard of a type of Japanese beef called Wagyu/Kobe. Their cows are given a small amount of rice wine to drink each day, and are massaged and given acupuncture. The idea is to make your cows as happy and unstressed as possible, because stress releases certain hormones that can affect the flavour of the meat. But the Japanese cattle are still mostly grain-fed, which brings down the quality somewhat. If Argentina adopted the Japanese methods, I wonder if their meat could be even better? I suggest sending a few Gauchos over to Tokyo to
More meat anyone?
Pablo keeps the juicy meat coming and coming until we surrender
learn the art of acupuncture and massage. And instead of providing the cows with a small amount of rice wine each day, why not give them a small glass of red wine? I bet they'd love a nice Malbec. Sadly, the proud history and worldwide fame of Argentinian steak is in danger. And it's all down to the Government. They are providing subsidies to cattle farmers for buying grain! They are also forcing ranchers to keep the price of beef down within the country and imposing huge taxes for exporting. This makes it increasingly difficult for ranchers to make a living. Raising roaming grass-fed cattle had become less profitable, and so more ranchers are turning to the Dark Side of the Ranch: cattle that spend part of their lives inside warehouses, fed on grains and pumped full of growth hormones. And cattle in close proximity spread disease, so they have to be immunised and fed antibiotics. The resulting meat has less flavour and texture, but is cheap and quick to raise. Other ranchers are turning their backs on cattle altogether and converting their land for growing soy beans instead. It's a sad tale, and a certainty that Argentine beef is
Recently arrived from Outer Space. Looks kinda cute and scary at the same time
slowly in decline.
Now for the next subject, Wine! In the arena of New World wines, Argentina is a strong contender who can easily take on the heavyweights of Chile, Australia and New Zealand. It's wine-growing regions are scattered over the country, but the epicentre is the region around Mendoza. In that area alone there are over a thousand wineries! The area is actually an unlikely choice for wine growing, because it's technically a desert. But due to the wonders of irrigation, a rich spread of vines can be grown. Argentina produces a wonderful spread of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but it's signature wine that brings world-wide fame and recognition is Malbec. Argentina is the only country which produces this wine, for the simple reason that no other country has managed to grow the grape. Originally, the Malbec grape came from France, but despite their fertile souls and excellent climate, they failed spectacularly. Someone brought it to Argentina and it grew quickly and easily.
I took a wine tour one afternoon, in Spanish. This seemed like a great idea at the time, but was actually a disaster of epic proportions. My pitiful Spanish was woefully inadequate, and
A nice horse ride into the hills
I didn't know any of the wine vocabulary. For example, what is the Spanish for fermented, oaked, barrel, sterilise, vintage etc? Adding to my difficulties, the guide spoke like a machine-gun and I could only catch every fifth word. I may as well been on a tour done in Hungarian. Oh well. At least I got to try some tasty wines at the end. I also enrolled at a Spanish School for a few days to refresh my Spanish. But all it did was confuse me. You see, Argentina has certain differences to the rest of the Spanish speaking world. They use an archaic verb form from the 17th century when speaking to YOU informally. Certain pronunciations are different. For example, Pollo is pronoucned "posho". And loads of words are different! I usually use Camerero for waiter, but here it's Mozo. Butter is not Mantequilla but Manteca. You get the idea.
My home in Mendoza was Hostal Indepencia, an excellent place which had all the facilities and comforts that a traveller needed. Everyone who worked there was lovely. There was the owner, Manuella, was a friendly hostess who provided every amenity that a traveller could want. And Katie, the
Me and my well-behaved horse
chatty and charming night-shift girl. It was here that I experienced my first "Asado". Technically, an Asado is a barbecue. But in practice it's so much more. The average English barbecue generally involves throwing sausages and burgers onto the heat and leaving them there until they burn (and then eating them in the rain). An Argentinian Asado is anepic experience involving impeccable timing and great skill. The food is cooked above embers which have reached the perfect heat. Meanwhile, more wood is burning on the side to create fresh embers for using later. The meat will be a variety of delicious cuts of the highest quality, and each one will be cooked to perfection. Each course of meat is served in turn, and it becomes a relentless onslaught of meaty goodness. Rump, flank, sirloin, ribs, chorizo.... Just when you think you can't eat any more, another platter of succulent beef is waved under your nose. You take a deep breath, wipe the juices off your chin, take a sip of wine and soldier on. Asados will often feature lamb, pork and chicken too, just to add to the temptation and the waistline. Apparently the average Argentinian eats 65kg of meat
The horses stir up a dust storm at dusk
per year. I can see why! And vegetarians are often well catered for, with a selection of perfectly cooked non- meaty options. Over the coming weeks I had many Asados, but I've gotta say that the ones at Hostel Indepencia remain the most impressive and delicious. Oh, and the other thing I loved about this hostel was FREE WINE every night between 7pm and 8pm. I stayed there for 8 days, which was the longest I have stayed anywhere.
The final ingredient which made me fall in love with Argentina and Mendoza was the prolific number of adventure sports on offer. My first excursion was white water rafting. The river was partially ice-melt from the mountains, and therefore was bloody freezing. This gave us an extra incentive not to tip the raft over! And one evening I signed up to a sunset horse riding trip. I'm eager and fearless when it comes to most adventure activities, but horses make me nervous. I don't trust them, and I don't feel entirely safe. On a mountain bike flying down a steep slope I am in control of my own destiny. I have precise brakes and steering, and rely on my own
Diego gives us a few songs
skill to navigate unknown terrain without flying over the handlebars. But a horse is another matter. In theory a horse has brakes and steering. But it can also be an unpredictable creature in the hands of a novice. I'm sure they can sense my lack of horsy experience and take advantage of it. So I climbed aboard my horse, and our guide, Dimitri, taught us some basics of Gaucho horsemanship. My horse was actually very responsive and well-behaved. Little did I know he was also under remote control. We headed up dusty trails into the mountains, and Dimitri had a riding whip which he would raise in the air and make a noise simultaneously. This would trigger our whole pack of horses into either a canter, a trot or a gallop, depending on his signal. Very clever. The difference between a trot, a canter and a gallop is defined by how hard I had to hold on and how loud I shouted. It was like an out-of-control fairground ride without any safety bar. By the end of the evening, my gentleman's bits were feeling battered and bruised, and I could see where the phrase "walking like John Wayne" came from.
At the hostel "wine bar" with Manuella and one of her lovely staff
But I learnt some valuable horsy skills, rode through stunning mountains and finished off the night with an Asado and red wine at his ranch. A happy ending ;-)
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