Forks out in Ar­gentina

Stamina is needed on a 10-day culi­nary tour from Buenos Aires to Men­doza

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - COLIN BAR­R­A­CLOUGH

‘‘OH my, that’s de­li­cious,’’ says Amer­i­can gour­mand Susy David­son as she tucks into a large plate­ful of king crab ravi­oli at Chila, a chic bistro in Buenos Aires’ re­stored dock­lands.

Two years ago, Chila’s res­i­dent chef, Soledad Nardelli, picked up the ‘‘best up­com­ing chef ’’ prize from France’s Academie In­ter­na­tionale de la Gas­tronomie. On any or­di­nary day, her seafood and game dishes — clam risotto, moulard duck ma­gret, quail with mas­car­pone and lemon — at­tract a de­mand­ing clien­tele of lo­cal and vis­it­ing food­ies.

On this par­tic­u­lar night, ex­pec­ta­tions are higher than usual. David­son and fel­low clients of food-ori­ented travel op­er­a­tor Ar­gentina444 have come to Chila for a pri­vate din­ner that will see Nardelli shar­ing kitchen space with Suzanne Tracht, an award­win­ning Amer­i­can chef and owner of Los An­ge­les chop­house Jar.

Seated in a se­cluded space at the restau­rant’s rear, where plate­glass win­dows over­look the city’s docks, guests are treated to a suc­ces­sion of cre­ative plates: wild Patag­o­nian oys­ters pre­sented on tow­ers of leek, cel­ery and black beans; a con­fit of suck­ling pig with pas­sion­fruit and mashed pota­toes; sizzling rib-eye steak with Szechuan pep­per­corns and teriyaki.

As wait­ers serve each dish, the two chefs emerge briefly to de­scribe their cook­ing tech­nique be­fore dash­ing back to the kitchen to fi­nesse the next.

The brain­child of Al­berto Inza, an Ar­gen­tine-born cook now res­i­dent in the US, Ar­gentina444 signs up well-known for­eign chefs who ac­com­pany pay­ing guests on 10-day culi­nary tours of Ar­gentina. Start­ing among Buenos Aires’ myr­iad steak­houses and Ital­ian­in­flu­enced trat­to­ria, the groups jour­ney to the wine-pro­duc­ing prov­ince of Men­doza — a re­gion known for its roasted kid and or­gan­i­cally pro­duced olive oils, herbs and cheeses — and on to Patag­o­nia, where mon­ster-sized trout, crab and hunted game rank among South Amer­ica’s best.

In each re­gion, the vis­it­ing chef pre­pares a col­lab­o­ra­tive din­ner with a noted lo­cal cook, steer­ing guests to farm­ers’ mar­kets, butch­ers and vine­yards along the way. A concierge is also on hand to set up off-the-cuff ex­cur­sions, rang­ing from tango nights in outof-the-way dance halls to for­ays on horse­back through the forests of Patag­o­nia.

This tour com­bines Ro­manesque in­dul­gence with in­ti­mate, be­hind-the-scenes ac­cess to some of Ar­gentina’s lead­ing kitchens.

From Buenos Aires, we fly to Men­doza and set­tle into Finca Adal­gisa, a win­ery guest­house set on a 2ha patch of mal­bec vines. All around, an emer­ald land­scape of trel­lised vines leads the eye to the snow-etched peaks of the An­dean cordillera on the hori­zon.

‘‘My fam­ily has been mak­ing wine here for more than a cen­tury,’’ owner Gabriela Fur­lotti tells us as we stroll among the cherry, apri­cot and hazel­nut trees that shade the vines. ‘‘We con­tinue to work in the tra­di­tional way, with horse-drawn ploughs and with ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter com­ing by stream. The vine­yard is a small but im­por­tant slice of Men­doza’s his­tory.’’

We crack open one of Fur­lotti’s mal­becs in the vine­yard’s sunche­quered tast­ing room and are dip­ping into tasty tapas of cheese, nuts and lo­cally grown olives when Tracht, the vis­it­ing chef, erupts in a cry of sur­prise. ‘‘I have to have those olives,’’ she yells, hom­ing in on one of Men­doza’s most prized prod­ucts. ‘‘They’ll work per­fectly with the an­chovy toast I’m pre­par­ing to­mor­row.’’

I quickly re­alise we’ll be do­ing lit­tle in Men­doza but tot­ter­ing from one over­laden ta­ble to an­other. Wine-tast­ing ses­sions af­ter pri­vate vine­yard vis­its each end with an ar­ray of edible del­i­ca­cies. At Bodega Vistalba, we file through dark­ened tun­nels and stor­age cham­bers be­fore wash­ing down smoked wild boar and crisped sweet pota­toes with the vine­yard’s Corte A mal­bec and caber­net sau­vi­gnon blend, which was awarded 93 points by Wine Spec­ta­tor in 2008.

At Almacen del Sur, a 10ha, 1888-built finca (one of the mid­sized farms com­monly found in Men­doza), sun­light fil­ters through trail­ing fronds of jas­mine on an out­side ter­race as we tuck into a five-course lunch of chori­zostuffed pep­pers, squid salad and a del­i­cate quiche served with blood sausage and green ap­ples.

The hard­est part of the visit is gear­ing up for ban­quet-style din­ners af­ter what seem mere min­utes since ban­quet-style lunches. Thank good­ness for the si­esta.

Inza has worked hard to pro­vide ac­cess to the peo­ple who mat- ter in Ar­gentina’s culi­nary world. In Men­doza, vine­yard own­ers are on hand to chat about soil com­po­si­tion or the ef­fect of tem­per­a­ture os­cil­la­tion on al­co­hol lev­els; lo­cal chefs are trot­ted out to ex­plain how they craft their dishes. Even Jorge, our driver, is steeped in knowl­edge of the wine world, shut­tling us around the prov­ince as he de­bates the finer points of global wine trends. And at ev­ery stage I find Inza and Tracht por­ing over menu plans for the col­lab­o­ra­tive din­ners, adapt­ing pre­planned recipes to the avail­abil­ity of lo­cal prod­ucts. A sup­plier’s phone call leads to a flurry of ad­di­tions and dele­tions; a pile of dis­carded menu drafts lit­ters the floor. I soon grow ac­cus­tomed to their ur­gent shouts.

‘ ‘ What are the parsnips like here?’’ calls Tracht. ‘‘Should we use sweet pota­toes in­stead? Where can we get good goose fat?’’

‘ ‘ We adapt as we go along,’’ In­za­tells me.

‘‘We picked up some wild boar to­day that was raised nearby, bought gar­lic from Almacen del Sur, and found some fan­tas­tic corn on a stall by the road. We use what’s fresh and what works best in the lo­cal con­text.’’

In the end, I spend just two days with the group in Men­doza. The oth­ers will head on, fly­ing first to the Lake District hik­ing hub of Bar­iloche, where Inza has planned a typ­i­cally Ar­gen­tine asado bar­be­cue of beef, lamb and blood sausage, then on to El Calafate, where they will stay at Hosterıa Los Notros, the only es­tan­cia to over­look the 4km-wide Per­ito Moreno glacier.

On our last night to­gether, Tracht teams up with Ma­tias Podesta, res­i­dent chef at his­toric vine­yard Bodega Bene­gas, the last rem­nant of one of Ar­gentina’s great wine dy­nas­ties. It is rarely open to the pub­lic, yet at Inza’s urg­ing the win­ery’s owner, Fed­erico Bene­gas Lynch, agrees to host a ban­quet at a ta­ble he usu­ally re­serves for his fam­ily.

We en­ter the win­ery’s vast hall, its adobe walls hung with an­tique pon­chos and scat­tered with Lynch’s col­lec­tion of hoes, presses and other wine­mak­ing im­ple­ments. Lynch is seated at a ba­ro­nial din­ing ta­ble lit by can­dles and laid im­pec­ca­bly for 14. Be­hind him, sparks and flames leap from a rack of wood-fired grills, smoke from spit­ting steaks al­ready swirling to­wards the ceil­ing about 12m above us.

‘‘Back in the 1880s, be­fore the phyl­lox­era bug hit Europe, my great-grand­fa­ther, Tibur­cio Bene­gas, was the first to bring vines from Bordeaux,’’ Lynch tells us as wait­ers lay out plates of quail with fen­nel and spring onion.

‘‘He built his Trapiche win­ery into the largest in the prov­ince. Later, as gov­er­nor of Men­doza, he con­structed the dams and ir­ri­ga­tion ditches that turned the prov­ince into the coun­try’s big­gest wine re­gion.’’

Lynch’s anec­dotes are fas­ci­nat­ing, but I am dis­tracted by the six de­lec­ta­ble dishes that fol­low the quail: roasted beet­root, ribs of wild boar with pear chut­ney, smoked ten­der­loin with sage but­ter, and more.

Across the ta­ble, be­hind his sated clients, I see Inza break­ing into a broad, sat­is­fied grin. ‘‘You have the his­tory of Ar­gen­tine wine sitting at the ta­ble with you,’’ he says as we sit back among the dis­carded plates with a last bot­tle of Lynch’s 2008 mal­bec. ‘‘You can’t get much bet­ter ac­cess than that.’’

RE­BECCA PELL­MAN

Suzanne Tracht, right, in the kitchen with Soledad Nardelli, res­i­dent chef at chic Buenos Aires bistro Chila

SUSY DAVID­SON

Ar­gentina444 guests visit a farm­ers’ mar­ket

RE­BECCA PELL­MAN

Din­ner at Bodega Bene­gas

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