Not Your Typical Argentinian Food
By Sang Kim
The English literary travel writer Bruce Chatwin seldom mentions food in his classic, In Patagonia, about his meandering trek to “the bottom of the world” and teasingly hovers between fact and fiction. In the ‘70s, there was a dearth of innovative chefs in Patagonia and, despite the relatively high numbers of Welsh, German and Swiss immigrants in its cities, little variation from the traditional spit-roasted meats in Patagonian cuisine.
Patagonia Bistro, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires
Having launched his journey in Buenos Aires, I wonder if Chatwin would have dropped in for a bite had Patagonia Bistro been around in his day. Overlooking the port in the tourist-revived warehouse barrio of Puerto Madero, Patagonia Bistro has not profited from the growing trend toward the new world and fusion cuisines of BA. It continues to fill its seats almost in spite of it, offering simply “authentic Patagonian cuisine”. The interior vaguely suggests the mythic place Patagonia still holds in the imagination for many European tourists- the land of ten feet giants, Butch Cassidy rubbing shoulders with the natives, and where the dinosaurs took their last stand.
The menu is designed for carnivores, with stacks of charred flank steak, lamb, pork and wild boar, reinforcing the stereotype of a people who continue to eat the caveman’s diet. The lamb meat I order is predictably made al asador, the ancient method of splaying an animal carcass on a metal cross and teasing it over a bonfire. Zesty chimichurri dip, the staple Argentinian condiment, and a bowl of arugula salad accompany the main dish. I finish the meal with a bottle of Malbec from the La Pampa wine region of the Patagonian desert. It is all tasty, but today’s cosmopolitan palate hungers for variety.
La Confluencia Wilderness Lodge
My real destination is to a wilderness lodge and farm near El Bolson, in the Rio Negro province of Patagonia, two hours drive south from the nearest airport city, San Carlos de Bariloche. I had heard of a young chef there who was reviving the other, less exotic, culinary tradition of Patagonia, and I was interested in meeting her. Winding its way between the Argentine side of the Andes, I arrive at a hamlet, Wharton, forty minutes on horseback from El Bolson. Here the sheep roam freely up and down the dirt roads and the only access to the remote location is across wide but shallow rivers on a 4×4 pickup truck.
La Confluencia Wilderness Lodge takes its name from the convergence of the Azul and Encanto Blanco rivers. Set in a valley with a view of the Andes in every direction, the lodge proper is perched on a hill of 700 acres of private land on 200,000 acres of protected wilderness area. It was built by an American expatriate couple, Mark and Ellie Jordan, who continue to develop it into a state-of-the-art agro farm and lodge, a stunning example of small scale innovative sustainability practices. All the water needs of the property- for irrigation and drinking- are fed by a mountain stream. The water, which runs through a small turbine also provides all the electricity on the property. Soon, they will be bringing their methane digester on-line. This machine will use organic material and human waste to create the natural gas that they use to fire up the kitchen. The lodge serves as accommodations for individuals, trekkers who move from one refugio to another, and a variety of corporate retreats.
Chef Guillermina Lahitte
She is referred to affectionately as Gina, a twenty-six year old native of Piedritas, a farming village just outside of Buenos Aires. As a toddler, her mother donned her in an apron over the bib and she has never taken it off. She travelled the world and did stints in kitchens of lesser known chefs, but there honed her love of food and nostalgia for the Argentine food she grew up with. She is not a member what people are calling nueva cocina argentina, or New Argentine Cuisine, a posse of innovative chefs who are landing their own cable TV gigs and wowing diners with tasting menus straight out of Trotter or Robuchon; chefs like Gonzalo Aramburu and Soledad Nardelli. Nueva cocina is less about new discoveries as it is about exploiting the full range of readily available ingredients. It is not reinvention, but a reinvigoration of Argentine cuisine. Gina’s holistic approach to gastronomy is virtually the same. She collects what she needs from the farm, butchers the chickens and lamb sent to her from her neighbour, and creates dishes from her Argentine childhood while paying homage to the New chefs, as well as her exhaustive collection of international cook books.
She cooks responsively to her immediate environment and draws comfort food ideas from everywhere else. It is simple, hardy fare, but tastes refreshingly new. During my three nights at La Confluencia, she played on traditional dishes, lending them a “Patagonian twist”. Dishes like Malbec-braised lamb with garden herbs and local Dijon-esque mustard or stuffed summer squash with sautéed garden vegetables and sunflower seed béchamel sauce reflecting her respectful dance with tradition and the available ingredients that is the product of a particular Andean abundance.
Patagonian Mountain Chicken
1 Chicken chopped up into pieces
3 tbs of dijon mustard
3 crushed garlic cloves
1/2 cup of chopped chives
1 tbs of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups of flour and 1 tsp of cumin for coating
1 bunch of Swiss Chard
1 glass of dry white wine
Mix in a small bowl mustard, garlic, olive oil and chives, make a rub out of it and massage the chicken pieces with the rub. Let the flavours set for an hour in the fridge.
Coat the chicken with flour and the dash of cumin. Sear the chicken in butter in a sauce pan. Reserve the chicken.
Sautee 4 onion until transparent, add the Swiss chard cut in Julienne, place your chicken pieces, add the glass of white wine , put a lid on and cook until chicken is ready.
The Swiss chard and onions creates a “steam bed” for the chicken pieces, creating chicken meat that is moist and flavourful. Spiced and baked polenta, carrots and potatoes are great accompaniments.