Before I left on this trip, I told people that one of the things I would write about is the food and drinks I would encounter along the way. As an avid fan of Zane Lamprey (‘Three Sheets’ & ‘Drinking Made Easy with Zane Lamprey’) and Kevin Brauch (The Thirsty Traveler), I had become educated in much of the world’s beverages, without actually tasting many of them. I thought Brazil would be the start of the great rectification. Sadly, Brazil did not have much that I hadn’t seen before. The cervejas, while delicious on a hot tropical day, didn’t add any new taste that dozens of other beers had to offer. That’s right, I’m staring at you Bintang.
Molly already addressed our acai addiction, so Brazil’s other well known libations would revolve around cachaça, which is basically rum except instead of being distilled from molasses (a byproduct of sugar refinement) like rum, it is instead distilled and fermented from fresh sugarcane. It is also the main ingredient in Brazil’s most famous cocktail, the caipirinha, which I have often described as Brazil’s answer to the mojito. I had never tried straight cachaça before, but it tastes very much like good rum. As for caipirinhas, I had tried on previous occasions at various churrascos in the states and found them to be typical cocktails chock full of sugar and a hangover in waiting if you have more than 3. Nonetheless I did try a “special” caipirinha at the Santa Teresa Hotel to see what was possible :
What sounded initially delicious turned out to be a pulpy & somewhat disgusting mess (think of a smoothie with large chunks of mashed fruit floating in, on & around ice cubes). I am not sure Molly’s red-fruit caipirinha was any better.
Thankfully our host (Lance) at the Casa Cool Beans taught me how to make a traditional and quite “fierce”, as he would call it, caipirinha. Brazil, for all its good parts, was lacking any outstanding alcoholic beverages (or one that I did not encounter). Argentina would fare a little better.
While Brazil seemed to flourish in cervejas and caipirinhas, Argentina has Fernet, yerba mate and red wine. The red wines of which the Mendoza region is famous for Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignons, I had sampled at various wine tastings in the states. My surprise was the cost & quality. We easily found wines less than $40 pesos (~$10 USD) that were exceptionally delicious and smooth. There were definitely much more expensive wines as well, but sadly our budget did not permit that sort of luxury. Perhaps on a return trip.
Fernet Branca I had also sampled before, thanks to Zane Lamprey’s trip to Argentina. Though it is Italian in origin, the Argentinians have embraced it as a national beverage. Ordering it, would be a more complicated matter. It is commonly served here over the rocks in a tall glass; 1 part Fernet to 2-3 parts soda. My first attempt came at a nearby parrilla, as we were attempting to kill some time and waiting for the rain to pass. I had cleverly asked for all the main ingredients in the drink: 1 part fernet to 2 parts soda and some ice. I received Fernet in a tall glass, a 16 ounce bottle of Pepsi and a bowl full of ice and tongs. It took a trip to the tango club and a look at a menu, to realize they refer to the concoction as ‘fernet cola’.
On a trip to Tigre’s Puerto de Frutos (an artisanal market mostly known for furniture, decorations and paper flowers), I found a nice and relative inexpensive bottle of locally made artesanal Fernet (about half the price of the commercially and Italian made Fernet Branca). I wanted to taste the difference and was willing to risk blindness to do it. Thankfully, I can report my sight has not diminished and even our host, Norman, enjoyed a glass of it. I would describe it as smoother and less bitter than the Fernet Branca I had tried before and well worth the price.
Speaking of bitterness, you have probably already seen one of my earlier pictures of the first souvenir of the trip : a guampa (hollowed out gourd), the accompanying bombilla (metal straw) and bag of Rosa Monte yerba mate. These were all needed to prepare the traditional infusion of yerba mate, which you will see on just about any street here in Argentina and was initially described by Molly as smelling like “minty green tea”. It is a drink and a social outing all in one, but do not expect to get the experience in any store or coffee shop. This is a personal experience shared with friends & family unless you have your own guampa, which I now do.
The process is a little different than your run-of-the-mill tea preparation. Instead of creating a device to hold the leaves and yanking that out of the water when done, the traditional yerba mate infusion is done in reverse with the straw being the strainer itself. Since my gourd (some of which are made of wood, metal, stone and now even synthetic) is made out of a plant, it needed to be cured to remove any odd tastes. This was accomplished by filling the gourd with yerba mate and cold water, with the material being sufficiently moist and leaving it for two days. The gourd would be emptied and scrubbed. This process would be repeated twice more. I was happy with the results after day four.
There are variations on the actual preparation (just like any beverage), but I used this site for reference. Stick the bombilla inside the gourd and fill it approximately 3/4 full with yerba mate and then add some water (either cold or lukewarm & never boiling), to moisten the leaves. Wait for the water to be absorbed and then add more water, incrementally increasing the temperature (to a max of 70 degrees Celsius, or ~158 degrees Fahrenheit). Once filled, then start drinking immediately. If one waits too long or the temperature gets too high, the water will infuse with too much yerba mate and it will taste quite bitter. My first attempt, I believe I either used too much material, had the temperature too high or infused the material for too long. It was quite, quite bitter. My second attempt was to give Molly a taste several days later and sadly resulted in much of the same.
I had given up on yerba mate, when I remembered that the housekeeper/cleaning lady/cook here, Roxana, drank yerba mate regularly. Using Google translate, I proceeded to ask her for her assistance in this endeavor. Strangely enough, my procedure was generally correct, except she used boiling water. She also revealed the great rectifier… that some people add sugar and that you can basically go back and add more water and re-infuse almost indefinitely. Armed with that information, I can say I have gone through 70% of the bag of yerba mate and have drank it consecutively for three days in a row.
Next stop Chile. See you soon, gourd- in-hand, somewhere in the Americas.