Mention Argentina and, thanks to the eponymous brand sold in this country, corned beef is the first thing Filipinos think of.
Still, Argentina’s affinity with beef remains strong. Per capita consumption of beef is an astounding 70 kilos a year. That translates to about 200 grams of meat a day for each person, or roughly ¼ kilo.
Beyond beef, Argentina is synonymous with Malbec wines. While the Malbec grape was originally from France, this South American country has embraced the grape for its flagship wine.
Argentina’s Malbec wine production has surpassed France’s, with 76,720 acres of vineyards in 2009 dwarfing the latter’s declining 15,000 acres estimated in 2000.
Last year, Argentina established April 17 as World Malbec Day, a celebration of its beloved grape.
On this Day’s second year, I traveled to Argentina to celebrate its much-loved wines, delicious cuisine and distinctive culture.
While the trip meant enduring 28 hours of flying time between Manila and Buenos Aires, it is definitely worth it. Argentina generously gifts its visitors with one decadent experience after another.
I begin my food and wine trip by sharing posts and photos of my finds, but realized after eight days how insensitive I had been in putting my friends through massive food and wine envy. Then again, when you discover the magnitude of this culinary gold mine, you cannot help but share.
Please forgive me as I share seven of my golden delicious moments in Argentina, and invite you to do the same some time in the future:
1. Soak up Buenos Aires’ sophistication
It is easy to fall in love at first sight with this city. Buenos Aires is often described as a European city found in South America. It has tangible elegance and flair which unfolds layer by layer. Spend time to explore the posh neighborhoods.
San Telmo is peppered with authentic tango clubs and antiques markets. Retiro and Recoleta have upscale shops and museums. You can also stroll through the hip boutiques of Palermo.
If you’re feeling famished, take a bite of iconic Argentinean cuisine. Empanadas (local meat pies) are sold everywhere. Traditionally stuffed with minced beef, it is eaten as a snack or appetizer. Individual cooks have their own take on what to put inside the pastry crust. But the three-cheese empanada and the corn-stuffed empanada were most memorable for me.
Portenos, the gorgeous residents of Buenos Aires, often sneak out to parillas for lunch. Here, you will find men in suits indulging in hefty steak sandwiches drizzled with chimichurri sauce. Did I mention that the Portenos are attractive men and women in chic clothing? Good-looking men and women are in abundance in this country, naturally dressed to the nines.
There’s no shortage of them in elegant hotels like the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt, a former palace right at the heart of the city; the Faena, luxuriously designed by Philippe Starke; the Algodon Mansion, a posh boutique hotel, and the Sofitel located amidst the city’s best art galleries, which is preferred by elite businessmen.
You can also visit Cementerio de la Recoleta to visit Eva Peron’s grave and the crypts of the city’s elite.
2. Uncork Cuyo
Majority of Argentina’s wines are produced in the Cuyo Region comprised of Mendoza and San Juan. With over 300 wineries in the region, there are countless opportunities for wine tasting. Mendoza is Argentina’s best-known wine region and a great place to hone your wine education on Malbec. While you may come for the wine, you’re bound to stay for the stunning setting of the vineyards and wineries.
In San Juan, Bodega Graffigna has a spectacular wine museum that showcases antique artifacts used to make wine many years back and an astounding 200,000-liter fermentation tank. The museum also tells the charming story of an Italian immigrant, his tight-knit family and how his business grew to become a valued export to 50 countries.
In Mendoza, have a leisurely lunch at Bodega Vistalba’s La Bourgogne restaurant. The gorgeous setting at Lujan de Cuyo is the perfect setting to sample Vistalba’s Malbec, Bonarda and Cabernet Sauvignon signature blends with their chef’s skillful use of local ingredients. Cheval Des Andes, made by the Cheval Blanc group, is probably the most stunning of the wineries we visited with French winemaker Nicolas Audebert. The handsome winemaker fits right in the polo field within the vineyards and its guesthouse worthy to be featured in top architectural magazines.
If you have the luxury of time, sample the multi-awarded wines at the extremely modern O. Fournier boutique winery, or marvel at the grandeur of the Salentien Winery with the Andes in the background. You can also hit the greens at the Tupungato Winelands’ golf course. All eyes are on these wineries, as well as on other new wineries sprouting out in Valley de Uco, a region southwest of Mendoza deemed to have the best conditions for growing grapes in Argentina.
3. Pick olives and make liquid gold
The desert terrain of San Juan and Mendoza make it ideal not just for growing wine, but also olives. Take a break from discovering your favorite Malbec and stop by at Familia Zuccardi’s Casa del Visitante. In the autumn months, there is an opportunity to pick olives and help turn them into the purest, freshest olive oil. We began hand picking the olives, putting our harvest in the white sack dangling from our necks.
Two adorable farm dogs playfully chase the truck where we loaded the olives, which were then chopped by a machine, before they are minced and pressed until the olive oil flows. We bottled the unfiltered olive oil we created, labeled it, and carefully sealed the bottle for its long journey back home. Few people have bragging rights to making their own olive oil, we thought smugly. But the best reward of picking olives is grazing on the different appetizers, salads, breads and sandwiches made with olives at the new Zuccardi family’s Pan & Oliva restaurant.
4. Over the moon at Ischigualasto
Parque Provincial Ischigualasto is known as Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). It’s just five hours from the city of San Juan, but you’d feel like you have landed on the moon when you see its stunning setting. The sight of surreal rock formations, dinosaur remains and fossils dating back some 180 million years to the Triassic period is both stunning and mind-blowing. It is hard to comprehend how a giant mushroom-shaped rock formation or perfectly round balls of rocks were meticulously created by natural elements and not by machines and human intervention.
It was also here, in this archeological setting, that I had what could top my list of dining experiences-a lunch of jamon, local cheeses, olives, the sweetest San Juan tomatoes and glasses of Malbec. The spread of locally produced food was delicious, made even better by the spectacular view.
5. Horsing around
Argentina is known for the best polo horses in the world and the best polo players. Try to catch a match. Or, saddle up and visit the wineries: It’s a great way to soak up the beauty of the Andes. On my visit to Finca las Lechuzas, I met Mailen Obon and her stable of horses. We were lucky to see newborn horses: a day-old filly and a three-day-old colt.
At this winery, each visitor was paired with a horse to match his or her temperament. I was matched with a horse named Gordito, meaning chubby, so I took that as a hint that I should lose some weight. But whether you get Gordito or Ugly Betty, all the horses are statuesque and regal, making the ride a truly unforgettable equestrian experience.
6. Work up an appetite for an authentic asado
The Argentineans love their meat, and how. While there are countless parillas to order a steak from in Buenos Aires, you must experience an authentic asado, a Sunday family tradition here.
Our barbecue included Chivito a las llamas (a young roasted goat), Punta de Espalda and ribs. Argentine butchers have their own way of cutting the beef, and Argentineans prefer their favorite steaks cooked well done.
7. Sample the cuisines of top chefs
Tucked in a residential suburb of Mendoza is Nadia Restaurante. O.F. Nadia is the wife of Spanish wine maker Jose Ortega, the man behind O. Fournier. This cozy restaurant shines with its four-course degustacion menu best paired with wines from O. Fournier.
Nadia’s take on cold yogurt soup with cucumber and mint was sublime. Though I’m not usually a fan of sweetbreads (pancreas of veal or lamb), I was pleasantly surprised with the Warm Sweetbread salad. It was tender and rich in flavor. Naturally, I had to taste the restaurant’s take on beef. The rib eye with crushed potato and mojo rojo gives justice to Argentina’s superior quality meat, which is tender and juicy.
Argentina’s most celebrated chef and TV personality Francis Mallman’s 1884 restaurant gave me a taste of his best dishes. His signature dish Seven Hour Lamb Malbec with Rosemary Lemon is a must. It was extremely tender and swimming in glorious reduction of lamb juices and marinade. •
For more information on these decadent destinations, check out www.argentina.travel. For more golden delicious moments in food and travel, follow the author on Twitter@themaidastouch, read www.themaidastouch.blogspot.com or e-mail her at email@example.com. Maida Pineda is also the author of “Six Degrees of Expatriation: Uncovering Lives of Expats in Singapore” and “Do’s and Don’ts in the Philippines.” Maida has a Master of Arts in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide.