Buenos Aires is called the Paris of the South for it’s style and beauty. After gaining independence from Spain, few colonial Spanish style buildings remain in the city. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the new age, fashionable architectural style was Belle Epoch. When Argentina exported beef to Europe the ships returned with not only European immigrants but with complete construct-a-kits from Paris to build grand homes and buildings in tree lined avenues. Young Italian unskilled male workers arrived with the promise of work and opportunitity. These homesick boys missing their adored Mothers cooking, recreated the traditional recipes for a taste of home and hey presto Italian-Argentine food took root. Buenos Aires culture is one that is elaborately European but with added quirky Latin American flair.
Cafe culture is to sit and slowly savour the coffee, either alone or chatting with friends. It’s not fashionable to walk with ‘on the go’ coffee from Starbucks, only tourists would be seen in the streets with coffee in a paper cup! Argentinians with Italian heritage are very expressive and talk not only with words but with many hand gestures, locals can order coffee across a busy cafe without actually speaking to the waiter. While in Buenos Aires we discovered that there are 5 main types of coffee to order;
Cafe – small black espresso, order this by showing the thumb and finger in a small pinch gesture.
Cafe en Jarrito – a double espresso.
Cortado – order by using two fingers showing a scissor cutting gesture. Cortado means to cut in Spanish, this espresso coffee is ‘cut’ by adding a little hot milky foam.
Lagrima – an espresso size cup of hot milk with just a tiny addition of coffee. Lagrima in spanish means teardrop.
Cafe con leche – coffee with milk -a latte, but only served in a regular size coffee cup.
I love the smell of coffee but hate the taste (coffee flavour Revels – yuck) so to enjoy cafe culture, I have found a drink that perfectly suits my tastes. It’s a Submarino, hot frothy milk served with a small chocolate bar on the side, dip it in, swirl it around and make hot milky chocolate. Perfect!
Argentinian steak is renowned for being of fabulous quality, cooked to perfection on the asado grill. When it’s winter in the north, it’s spring/summer in Argentina. At the beginning of the 20th centurty with exports high in demand, the Estancia owners grew rich and port cities like Buenos Aires flourished into a wealthy city. All over the city there are Parrilla restaurants that flame grill big slabs of meat – this is meat eater’s heaven.
The menus are quite varied in the choices of beef, but we found restaurants have pictures of the cow and detail the cuts of meat that we would want to order. Bife de chorizo – a sirloin, the most popular cut which is thick & juicy. We have seen ginormous slabs of meat expertly cooked delivered to tables. I prefer the smaller bife de lomo, a thin cut tenderloin and Mr E’s favourite was a ribeye – Ojo de bife.
For a juicy cooked steak with tender pink inside you need to ask for Jugoso which is medium rare. Medium cooked is a punto, this was still a bit too pink for me so we tried punto a pasado and if we wanted the chef to sigh in digust, we would have ordered the steak well done, bien cocido.
We found out that on the restaurant bill a cubierto charge is added. This is a cover charge for the table. Bread should be provided with an accompaniment of a relish, tapenade or butter. This charge goes to the restaurant owners, so an additional 10% tip should be left for the waiter. Asking to take home any leftover food is frowned on – Portenos will declare themselves as snobs and this is a definite no, no!
Our favourite dinner was in Palermo at gastro restaurant La Cabrera. We went for happy hour between 7pm a 8.30pm where the entire menu is 40% off. It’s touristy and quick but our waiter Juan decked out in flat cap and leather apron was a dab hand at dealing with visitors, he was friendly and made the experience lots of fun. The steak was big enough for us both to share and is served with tasty mini side samples, the bill is brought out with a lollipop tree. When David Beckham was in Buenos Aires last week he ate here twice. Juan told me he was muy guapo!
On a sunny Sunday we visted the barrio of San Telmo for the antique and craft market. We ate our lunch at El Desnivel. At this traditional noisy locals restaurant we went in for steak, but decided to choose the Sunday special of slow cooked lamb with crisp potatoes and the wine was served in a funky little penguin jug.
It’s a whole different level of pastry goodness in Argentina in comparison to the empanadas we tried in Brazil. I love the style of crimping that determines the content filling. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, empanadas are a cheap tasty snacks.
This is Argentina’s national drink. We have seen people in parks, at the pool and on their apartment balconies drinking mate. They drink the tea from gourd shaped cups, using a silver bombilla straw to sip through after stirring the leaves. We first saw the Argentinian holiday makers in Florianopolis with thermos flasks of hot water carried under their armpits on the beach. This tea drink is made from the yerba mate plant and is a little more bitter and grassy than green tea. It’s almost an obsession and seems to be addictive, mate contains ‘mateine,’ which can stimulate and relax at the same time, no wonder everyone is supping on it. When we visited the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, we viewed a painting by Argentinean Candido Lopez. In the scene at a battle in 1866 against Paraguay, we enjoyed spotting a soldier sipping on his mate!
With the all the Italian influences, helado in Argentina is awesome. Chocolate and Dulce de leche seem to be the favourite flavours. You can even order home delivery where ice cream is whizzed to your door in insulated polystyrene cartons by guys on mopeds.
Malbec is the wine of Argentina, read about our Mendoza trip here.
In the Italian barrio of Palermo there are Italian restaurants on every street corner. The classic thin crispy pizza is a simple one with lots of mozzarella on a garlic tomato sauce base. We saw thick slices of fugazzeta being eaten by taxi drivers on a break. This is a slice of pizza with a cheesy filled crust topped off with caramelised onions.
Dulce de Leche
Oh my life, this sweet gooey delight is surely the elixir of life! Condensed milk and sugar is cooked for hours on a low heat until it takes on a jelly, treacle like texture. For Argentinians it is as hallowed as your grandma’s chicken soup. You grow up eating Dulce de leche slathered on bread, as a biscuit filler, as an ice cream, in many deserts and most decadently fresh from the jar with a teaspoon. It is a caramel, intensely sweet, treacle taste in your mouth – just heavenly.
Bravo Argentina, buen provecho!