Forks out in Argentina
Stamina is needed on a 10-day culinary tour from Buenos Aires to Mendoza
‘‘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.’’
Suzanne Tracht, right, in the kitchen with Soledad Nardelli, resident chef at chic Buenos Aires bistro Chila
Argentina444 guests visit a farmers’ market
Dinner at Bodega Benegas