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(Please use your best telenovela voice when you read that title.)

Tango is incredibly popular in Buenos Aires. And it appears that it’s not just for the tourists. There are a number of locals that go to the tango clubs – evidentially often. Nellu and I observed this when we went over to La Virtura Tango, a small club in the basement of what looked like a cultural center in our neighbor of Palermo. We went for one of their nightly lessons.

That’s video Nellu caught of the club’s teachers giving us a little pre-lesson demo.

The lesson was in Spanish but thanks to Sesame Street, which taught me how to count to ten in Spanish, I could keep up at least a little. We now mostly have the basic step down. But, let me tell you, the locals there make us look like robots. Robots without any passion.

After all the night’s lesson ended, they brought in a band in and opened the floor for practice. That’s when dancing with the stars begins! Everyone was so intense…and actually pretty good at the tango.

I captured some of these couples on my flip cam but apparently it was too dark (read: dark and dramatic) to register on the sensor. So, I’ll just tell you about some of our favorite characters.

– Dorothy and Johnny Depp: We call her Dorothy because she had sparkling ruby slippers but her heels were higher and ready to tango. We called him Johnny Depp because he kinda looked like Johnny Depp and as an added bonus it looked like he had a single tear mark tattooed to his face.

– The Brooders: An early 30sish couple who danced a very intense and dramatic tango, moving around the room with their faces pressed together and eyes always closed.

– The Real Housewife of Buenos Aires: Fake tan, long blonde hair, shorts that were way too short for her 50+ years of age, and a shirt with sequins adorning her greatest assets. She really sparkled as she swayed to that music.

– Lolita, or rather many Lolitas: Many dramatically younger looking women dancing cheek to cheek with dramatically older looking men. How European of them!

It may be strictly ballroom but people watching is the real sport.

~ Molly

Nellu Mazilu

Photo: Nellu Mazilu

My dubious relationship with beef started when I was really little. (We were in our old house in Pennsylvania so I had to be four-years old or younger.) I tried to smuggle chunks of stew meat to the bathroom in a napkin so I could toss it and wouldn’t have to eat it. I think I successfully did it once or twice when I got caught and my parents asked me to show them what I had in my napkin. (My big sister remembers this moment clearly as the first time I got in trouble.)

Over the years, I ate beef when my mom made it for dinner. Although, I used to try to trade my beef for one of my sibling’s vegetables.

But when I went to college, I decided enough was enough. I wasn’t going to eat steak unless my life depended upon it.

Then we arrived in Buenos Aires, a place known for its beef and its parrilla (grills). So I decided to give up on my decade long strike against steak and go for it. I mean, it smells good. How bad could it be?

With the help of our guesthouse host, we carefully chose the parrilla La Dorita, a restaurant frequented by locals (for that authentic Argentinian meat). After sitting down at our table at about 10pm, I ordered a half a sirloin cooked bien cocido or well done. (Sorry guys, undercooked meat is a whole other step in my eating evolution…baby steps).

When it came, I dug right in. Here’s the video proof:

And you’ll be proud of me. I could only finish about half the steak but we took the rest home and we both ate it for leftovers.

Oh and La Dorita also served wine straight from the barrel into these ceramic penguins, which didn’t hurt my steak eating bravery.

Why penguins? We didn’t get the full back story on that one, but the wine was wonderfully aerated.

~ Molly

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 :

A strawberry & chocolate mess (Photo by Jack Zalium)

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.

Lance makes a caipirinha while recounting stories of stray dogs. (Photo by Jack Zalium)

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’.

Fernet Cola: a refreshing mix of bitter and sweet. (Photo by Jack Zalium)

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.

Delicioso! (Photo by Jack Zalium)

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.

My guampa and me (Photo by Jack Zalium)

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.

Argentinian Preparation

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.

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