empanadas and mate and dulce de leche

Elizabeth here, back home and still recovering from a whirlwind adventure in Argentina, my first foray in “traveling for work”.

With this trip complete, Jason and I are now officially both on the work travel circuit. While his travels are driven by environment and scientific application throughout the American West, mine are prompted by education and relationships in Latin America and Europe. [If you know us personally, you’ll understand how those qualifiers fit us so perfectly.]

It’s exhausting work, which inevitably leads to us getting sick upon our return home. But we know it’s worth it, even if it means that Jason has to take a snowmobile to his worksite each morning or I have to stay up until midnight watching tango. [I know, rough life, right?]

alaskaJason’s trek to work while in Alaska

argentine tangoMy late-night tango show in Buenos Aires

I’ll be talking a lot more about my insights into my most recent Argentinian escapades over on the Ker & Downey blog, but I reserved all of my culinary related observations for our personal, food-centric forum here at Fun with the Frels.

Anyone who has traveled with us or heard us recap a recent trip will know that our favorite way to uncover and unlock a new place is through its food. Food speaks to not only the soil of the land, but also to the generations of history behind its preparation. It creates a dialogue with the locals, opens our minds to the new and different, and allows us to experience a culture through all of the senses.

So without further ado, here are my top culinary-meets-culture favorites from the beautiful country that is Argentina:

Steak & Empanadas

I ate empanadas almost every day I was in Chile and Argentina, each one better than the last. Chile’s were gloriously seafood stuffed, while Argentina’s were filled to the brim with steak. It is through these empanadas that I finally understood what the big deal was about Argentina’s meat. It says something when the most “ordinary” empanada I ate boasted better steak than anything I had ever had in the states:

argentina empanadas

That’s because Argentinians know how to treat and eat their cows. Most of their cattle spend their lives outside basking in the sun, exercising, and eating regular ol’ grass, while we Americans have opted for feedlots where pellets and corn provide little in the form of nutrition. Then there’s the cooking process: Argentinians don’t believe in “searing” steak. They believe in old-fashioned asados, derived from Argentine gauchos and European immigrants and refined through hundreds of years of history, which promote cooking meat slowly over wood or in the ground instead of over propane. The result is a flavor that I have been longing for ever since my return home.

argentinian steakargentina empanadas

The best empanadas [and food, in general] I had during my travels was in Mendoza.

Mendoza is what many would consider the breadbasket of the country. It might be known for its sophisticated Malbec wines [which are really as good as you think they are], but the international appreciation for the region’s terroir extends far beyond its vineyards. Its gastronomy is progressive yet perfected and a natural complement to its bold, beautiful wines. Much of the cuisine is genuinely “Argentinian” but elevated in a way to showcase the best of the region’s artistry and forward-thinking aptitude.

mendoza mendoza gastronomyargentina empanadas

The best example of this was without a doubt at Francis Mallmann’s Siete Fuegos at The Vines Resort & Spa, my home away from home during my time in Mendoza. For those who have seen this genius’ Netflix installment on Chef’s Table, they know his propensity for utilizing fire to char and extract the best of the earth. My multi-hour meal here was so good that I forgot to take pictures. So use your imagination and envision the following: the best beef empanadas of my life plucked straight from the clay oven [so good I ordered them twice in two days]; a stunning burrata, prosciutto, and grilled pear salad; baked provolone cheese with sweet cherry tomatoes served gooey in a cast iron skillet; cuts of juicy slow-grilled rib eye with chimichurri sauce; grilled steak with a wholly unique lemon and thyme infused skin; cast-iron baked salt-crusted salmon; and lovely boutique wine pairings to boot. I’m almost glad I didn’t take pictures because it would have detracted from the near religious experience of it all. The following are the only pre-dinner shots I got, and they are mostly of beautiful, scorched bread and spicy cocktails:

siete fuegos siete fuegosFrancis Mallmann magic

Yerba Mate

My Mate education began in Bariloche, a region in stark contrast to Mendoza where the Andes still rise up magnanimously from the earth, but the sophistication and retreat feelings of Mendoza are immediately replaced with the casual, outdoor playground of Patagonia’s Lake District. Here, you are invited to be a part of nature – to hike mountains, sail lakes, kayak channels, and spot condors in their native habitat – all while soaking in the glacial glory of the destination.

bariloche argentinabariloche argentina bariloche argentina

The recreational joy of Bariloche also came through in its food. As with most mountain towns, this was a craft brewer’s paradise where Pilsens and IPAs were served up on almost every roadside establishment. It’s also the land of chocolate: Rapa Nui and Mamuschka being the most divine. Indeed, I think there are entire self-guided tours dedicated to exploring the many chocolate shops of Bariloche.

bariloche beerA local Pilsen brew from Blest in Bariloche

bariloche beerPatagonian beer in Patagonia

It is here in Bariloche where I discovered a love for Mate. Mate is the Argentinian equivalent of coffee and is widely considered the national drink, consumed by almost everyone [especially the gauchos!] in a communal fashion, though it’s also a common study and work accessory for students and nine-to-five desk jobs. Warm, bitter, and packed with antioxidants, it comes with its own social ceremony whereby one person, the cebador, assumes the task of server. It is the cebador’s responsibility to refill the Mate gourd with warm water, check the temperature and infusion strength, and pass each preparation to the next person in a clockwise fashion. Served in natural gourds or gourd-shaped vessels alongside a bombilla straw, Mate has become something of an obsession of mine now, as it represents not only good health but also good conversation and good community.

argentina mate My first Mateargentina mate

My second Mate

My only souvenir I brought back from Argentina, aside from a few bottles of wine and tons of collateral from my trade show, was a Mate gourd, bombilla, and Yerba Mate tea blend so I could introduce the tradition to Jason. Thankfully, that coffee addict of mine loves it just as much as I do.

Mate at homeMate at home

Dulce de Leche

Confession: I ate dulce de leche every single day I was in South America. This sticky, sweet caramelized sauce is found in almost every pantry, breakfast buffet, and dessert menu in Argentina. According to a couple of sources, it was an accidental culinary discovery, created by a housekeeper who forgot the milk cooking on the stove. Given that it is sinfully rich and delightfully spreadable, there was no way that I was going to miss out on any opportunity to stuff my face with this as much as humanly possible.

dulce de leche dulce de leche

Dulce de leche in ice cream form [x 2]

My favorite version, aside from simply spreading it on toast or eating it as ice cream [as seen above], was in the form of alfajores. Popular all over Latin America and in some parts of Spain and the Philippines, alfajores come in many varieties, the most popular of which utilizes delicate, crumbly butter cookies held together by dulce de leche filling. Again, I ate these for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because WHY NOT? Here’s photographic proof of my nonstop consumption:

alfajores alfajores alfajores alfajores

Wine, steak, empanadas, mate, and dulce de leche: Argentina has officially opened our eyes to a whole new wheelhouse of culinary invention that we can’t wait to recreate in our own kitchen… or at least until we make it back there again.

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