When I think of Argentine cuisine one thing comes to mind: steak. Back home, there is no doubt over Argentina’s reputation as the king of beef, but equally, you need the wealth of a king to afford it. I was a very happy boy to discover that here a piece of rump doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (assuming you brought your mate Benjamin Franklin to dinner).
“Cambio, cambio,” despite the various warnings online about the dollar ‘blue market’, I shuffled nervously towards a bloke on Buenos Aries’ Florida Street. After a little small talk about the holy trinity —the Father (Maradona), the Son (Messi) and the Holy Spirit (Pope Francis) – I ventured into a back room to conduct our business. In the space of minutes I walked out of the shop 40% wealthier than when I arrived. And that meant one thing – 40% more meat. That night I headed to the nearest hole-in-the wall parrilla, and feasted on various cuts of steak, with vats of chips and several bottles of Malbec. Much to the disgust of my fellow dinners, I even managed to squeeze in some morcilla (blood sausage) and a few mollejas (sweetbreads). All for less than a tenner.
But while I ate like a Gaucho in my spare time, I was determined to explore the other side of Argentine cuisine and experience some regional recipes. Step forward to San Telmo’s small but charming El Baqueano – a restaurant serving ‘native meats’ such as chinchilla (looks like half rat, half rabbit), llama and alligator. Their 7 course taster menu was a culinary safari.
Head chef Fernando Rivarola and wife Gabi, greeted me with smiles, hugs and kisses (yes English chaps you better get used to a lot of man love in Argentina). The happy couple introduced me to their “little South America” kitchen with chefs Dani from Peru, Anys from Columbia and Juan from Mexico. This sparked many passionate debates about whose country had the best cuisine. Despite my best rhetoric England never fared well. The kitchen felt more like a family of cooks following their passions. There were no strict roles, allowing for all chefs, me included, to experience every aspects of the culinary process. And any chefs reading this – brace yourself … they had no dishwasher! We shared every task. There was no space for egos. Che would have been a very proud man.
But back to the food. El Baqueano’s signature dish comprises five beautiful circles of raw Llama fillet, served with parsley oil, agar agar gherkin and caper purée, and cheese from Coyote. Very much an Argentine take on the classic Italian carpaccio. Fernando chuckled at my attempts to plate up this course but on a positive note that plate ended up in my stomach and not the customers’!
The safari continued with the next course of yacare caiman, a type of South American alligator, served with textures of native seaweed. Caiman is a strange meat to describe but imagine a half way house between pork loin and monkfish tails and you’re just about there. Another devilish play on surf and turf was the false ‘bife de chorizo’ – a fish disguised as steak. Fernando cures fish in beetroot and salt, fries it and then rests it on a charcoal paste. A block of charcoal is then dropped into boiling hot oil, to produce a blast of smoke to flavour the fish with. No matter how fancy a restaurant, when anything is set on fire, dinners always turn into big kids. I was no exception.
With such emphasis given to the meats, it’s easy to overlook that El Baqueano excels in textures. Two courses of the menu focus on the textures of one ingredient. The corn course pays homage to the maize of North Argentina, with cornflake powder, popcorn powder, a caramel corn ‘snap’, corn purée and a slab of false foie gras (liver pureed and shaped for an ethical take on the bad boy ingredient of the culinary world). The sweetness of the corn compliments the rich ‘foie gras’ beautifully. Then there are the textures of apples. Baked apple husk, dried apple, candied apple, cider apple jelly, and fresh apple ice cream. By letting your mouth focus on one flavour you begin to notice the textures more, and how each aspect varies and fits on the scale of sweet (candied apple) to sour (cider jelly). A real joy to eat.
Throughout my travels I have always enjoyed the restaurants that most inspire me to create my own dishes. Judging by my notepad of ideas, and doodles, El Baqueano was one of these places. Although I have six months to go on this incredible adventure, my desire to return home and transfer the techniques and skills learned to local produce is steadily becoming overwhelming. Maybe one day a part of El Baqueano will appear in one of my post trip recipes. One thing is for sure though, there’ll also be a place in my heart for my little South American kitchen crew. Thanks guys for everything.
Ever enjoyed ‘exotic’ meat? Share your experiences below…