Mendoza: Season of the Kvetch

The timing of my arrival at this particular edge of the Western winemaking world may have been especially unfortunate-- too close to the Holiday Season, which dovetails right into Summer vacation & is celebrated with leisurely, wine-soaked, late night asados-- featuring huge chunks of beef grilled in the backyard or the balcony-- as the sweltering, lingering heat of the evening finally cools down. This lifestyle might account for difficulties in casually setting up meetings--& my growing sense of a general unavailability in people.

I wonder if it's not a stretch of social psychology to look at the way class structure & rural conservatism might intensify the more general Argentino passive-aggressive traits to a particularly frustrating pitch in the Mendocino character--
One might unspool the theory of a provincial tendency-- pressure, even-- to be friendly & welcoming, that, hemmed in & compromised by harsh economic realities, results in inner conflict & dissonance, projected as fictionalizing self-aggrandizement...

It seems nearly everybody I meet has a cousin, an uncle, an ex-fiancé or former classmate in the wine industry. Sommeliers, waiters & waitresses & anybody else having dealings at any level with the business of wine warn me about how clannish & mercenary the big players are.

Everybody thinks my project-- co-branded small batches of minimally interventionist wine, marketed through a protected, streamlined 'supply chain' of emigrated Argentinos, & used to fund a network of cafés dedicated to linking diverse migrant groups' cultures--
is inspirational-- complex, but ultimately doable-- even of possible great social & economic import!
-- so people sign up on the idea emotionally, & generously bring their suggestions & solutions to the conversation-- but nobody calls back, nobody comes by with their friend as promised, nobody sends the introductory email linking me to the recommended key player that could, might, should help put the pieces together...

But maybe it's just me-- maybe my meagre, near-autistic social skills are not up to juggling the subtle negotiating complexities of such a multi-faceted undertaking-- least of all in a place like Mendoza, with its Byzantine, post-colonial socio-economic layering...


Orientado al Sur, Aliento busca Norte

merced al antojo y cólicos de añoranza convulsa
el viajero mide infructuosamente cada paso de su ruta perdida

extrañando cada paraje superado
o meramente anterior
a cada techo que le separó de la noche--

cada lecho que le permitió levantarse aún al día
después de machacarle al esqueleto
largas estaciones de avanzada soledad

buscando reflejar sobre pies al aire
un aliento repite al otro en espejo turbio

bajo el agua corriente que lava la vista
encostrada de ilusiones en polvorosa
un aliento repite al otro


Dusty Foothills of the Andes, the French update!

I woke up in a pool of sweat on the breaking edge of predawn, my heart overwhelmed by a fit of arrhythmic palpitations. Taking deep breaths, the pounding would quiet down, then cycle up again as I was about to sink back into sleep.
The first night in my apartment share did not go too well. I'm not sure I can last the whole month I've committed to paying for, here: Summer's barely getting started & Mendoza finds relief from its dry, desert heat in bouts of sweltering humidity as storm fronts push over the Andes & unload their rain on the way down the slopes before they reach the dusty, smoggy bowl of a valley that cradles this city of open ditches, abandoned railway tracks & wild apricots...

Four days later I'm much better & actually enjoying a gusty, blustery Christmas afternoon, with thunder rumbling around low, swirling stormclouds. I missed meeting up with 'los hermanos Garramuño', Frank & Santiago, yesterday. Santiago & sister Valentina both live in Puerto Rico; Valentina works for Argentina-centric wine importer/distributor Bodegar.
A second cup of espresso meant to kill some waiting time downtown kept me up all night & got me out for a daybreak run after a light Nochebuena dinner (Mesclun salad with an artichoke & pimento vinaigrette, smoked Boar & Ñandu cold cuts & a loaf of grilled garlic bread on the side, washed down with some so-so Sauv Blanc) --shared with Leandro, the flatmate I'd yet to meet as he was gone to Tucumán on work-related travel when I moved in. Now he's off to Perú for his three weeks' vacation: January to Argentinos seems like August to the French...

Speaking of the French, I need to make a red-faced correction to this little write-up:
it seems Restaurant Trois Cent Onze, my home base for fine dining in Old San Juan, has had a website up since 2006!
Christophe-- désolé, je t'en prie de m'excuser...

Meanwhile, there's a little French restaurant name of 'Sans Souci' here in Mendoza, on the edge of the goverment office quarter. As I can attest from personal experience, it's not the most welcoming area at night, & their business mainstay is 'executive lunches' (closer to the 'platos combinados' of Spain than to the de rigeur, legally mandated, three-course prix-fixe lunch every restaurant must offer there) catering mostly to personnel from the Provincial & National courts nearby.
The two partners will celebrate their year in business when they get back from vacation on February 5th-- seems everybody working in the judicial system, from judges & lawyers down to the lowliest assistant & dictation taker, gets 45 days paid vacation, and though- of course!- there is some staggering of schedules so the system doesn't completely shut down, the slowdown during January, the peak Summer month, is dramatic enough that it's just not worth the expense of staying open...
Sans-Souci had been attracting attention for holding regular winemaker events last Spring so I look forward to February. The kitchen is young but they've wowed me with a great salad featuring Salmon Tartare, & some fresh & tasty Chicken Liver Mousse. I'll have to cultivate a more carnivorous mood to dive into their hanger steak-- 'onglet' en Français, 'entraña' en Castellano.


New American Port-- Old Mendoza Hand?

I'm catching up in fits & starts with the wine blogosphere, after minimal contact over the last month, & was happily flattered to discover that my suggestion for a name for American fortified wines that did not infringe on Portuguese Port's DO protection was worth public mention in Jim Gordon's blog for the online edition of the Wine Enthusiast, Unreserved. Thank you, Jim: it feels like a nice validation of my meagre talents at this stage in my life & non-existent career in wine & marketing...

For those of you keeping score, I finally sat down to my first Asado de Lomo de Vaca, weighing in at 400 grams-- 14.08 ounces by my calculations, last Tuesday the 18th, to celebrate my first lunar month in Argentina. The location was the lovely patio courtyard of 'La Chancha' (The Sow!) --right next to the swimming pool.
It's a gem of a restaurant, located in Barrio Bombal, a socially diverse suburb just ouside of Mendoza downtown that links up with Godoy Cruz, once upon a time a separate little town that was swallowed up much in the way that Barrio de Gracia, La Salud & Sants were by the growth of Barcelona. 'La Chancha' is not a well-kept secret, as a full young crowd gave evidence last night, when I returned to try the pork version of the dish.
Owner Diego is a recovering adman (--you're not alone, Terry!) just starting a new career as an Architect. I'll try to get some pertinent facts next time I visit. He likes spicy foods, associated in Argentina with the subtropical Northeast of the country, & he got some ginger to douse the pork in a ginger-pineapple sauce after I mentioned a similar preparation as the Christmas dish I had in one of the happier occasions I shared with my ex- & her family.

Mendoza is a highly idiosyncratic place, even for Argentina, & a sweltering town this time of year. Been jotting down impressions all of these last two weeks & will try to weave a semi-coherent narrative out of them soon.


Apuntes Gastronómicos

Hay algún problema con mi blog alterno, 'wanderlustmedia', que planificaba hacer el hogar para postings en castellano de ahora en adelante, y mi posteo de prueba no aparece publicado; por lo tanto y por lo pronto, 'ViNomadic'/Sangre y Pajas en Flor' recupera su original vocación bilingüe...

La primera-- ¿la peor?-- frustración que he encontrado en términos de dieta en Argentina es la omnipresencia de azúcar o edulcorantes en el yogurt y los jugos de fruta. Si quiero yogurt natural, sin endulzar de ninguna manera, parece que lo voy a tener que hacer yo. Y comprar un exprimidor/juicer, si quiero zumito...

Sigo sin probar un bife. Ayer repetí en el '1884' de Francis Mallman, localizado en la bodega Escorihuela Gascón. En la ocasión anterior había cenado chivito, que me dejó un sabor dulceamargo de pena: como ex-vegetariano y activista gastronómico, se me hace difícil disfrutar de lo que me parece el sacrificio prematuro de un animal. Si voy a consumir carne, me tranquiliza un poco que se haya respetado un tanto la vida de la que voy a derivar sustento-- si el animal ha sido cuidado, si ha experimentado un ciclo de vida razonable y si ha sido sacrificado lo más humanitariamente (¿?) posible.

Esto es claramente un tema para largo debate, serio y complejo. Lo traigo a colación para poner en contexto la indecisión que me atacó anoche al releer el menú: después del chivito, tan tierno que la carne blanca parecía de ave, se me hacía dificil escoger el bife de cordero que en otro momento me hubiera tentado mucho más.
A partir de esto, decidí complicarme un poco la vida-- y la de el servicio que me atendía-- armando con cuatro primeros platos un menú degustación:
Ensalada de Zapallo (Calabaza) con Pecorino Nacional,
Espárragos Grillados con envoltura de Pancetta y un huevo escalfado/pochado,
Ensalada de láminas de Pera con Mozzarella di Búfala, y
Queso de Cabra planchado sobre Berenjena, Cebolla y Pimiento Morrón.

El último plato era una clara variación sobre 'Ratatouille', un juego muy lindo, que enfatizaba una loncha de queso caprino 'sellado' a la plancha-- según me pareció. No he visto en ningún lado queso de cabra fresco: parece que la tradición de caprino está más enraizada en el norte semitropical, Jujuy y provincias aledañas, y se hace un queso prensado, de pasta dura y ahumado las más veces.

La ensalada de pera con Mozzarella fue un poco decepcionante: la pera necesitaba el contraste de un queso algo más ácido, como ese caprino fresco que me gustaría encontrar. El Mozzarella no lucía su sabrosura tan bien como en contextos más tradicionales.

Debo mencionar que al consultar sobre el orden de los platos, mientras hacía algo de números y se me ocurría que mi estómago y mi bolsillo se habrían de resentir por mi exceso de curiosidad gastronómica, mi servidora regresó con la gentil y apreciada sugerencia de que consumiera medias porciones de las selecciones. 'Y medias copas de vino para acompañarlas', apostillé yo.

Tuve ocasión de arrepentirme casi inmediatamente de mi decidida 'frugalidad': los trozos de calabaza grillada bajo lasquitas de Pecorino de Patagonia que comenzaba a suavizar y derretirse me dejaron con deseos, y los espárragos-- verdes, o 'trigueros', como le dicen en las Españas-- ajustados con un corset crocante de pancetta, también pedían repetir.

En el area de los vinos, no hubo grandes sorpresas: un Chardonnay de Gascón correcto, mantecoso y con fruta y acidez muy domada por maloláctica y roble; con los espárragos, un Sauvignon Blanc de Finca El Portillo tenía su 'pipi de chat' pero poco más. El Viognier de Escorihuela Gascón puede haber sido el vino más sabroso de la noche, aunque su Syrah también estaba muy bien: esta vez el roble--algo dominante para este paladar-- y notas de café encontraban eco y balance con el caprino 'planchado'...

Al final, también me permití media porción de postre: ensalada de frutas pasadas por el fuego. Resistí la tentación de acompañar con vino dulce y la infusión de menta que pedí tuvo que esperar a que se recogiera la hierba fresca del jardín aledaño. Pensé que me vendría bien un digestivo, aunque no quería algo muy fuerte y, a punto de ordenar un Amaro Averna, Matías el sumiller me ofreció una prueba de un Malbec encabezado, tipo Oporto, pero seco, para contrastar con Malamado, creación similar de Zuccardi que es bastante dulce.
Al final, acabé con el mesurado exceso de media porción de aguardiente, también de Malbec, que me sorprendió por su suavidad al comparar con una denominada Grappa de la misma uva y la misma marca (--algo 'de los Andes' --¿'Cumbres'?, no sé por qué no recuerdo la marca completa...)

Me impresiona que en un lugar de gastronomía fina, de apariencia y tono marcados por elegancia muy formal, el servicio es cálido y atento, evitando los extremos opuestos de frialdad o cuasi-servilismo que tristemente surgen tan frecuentemente en este mundo y contexto. Mis felicitaciones y sincero agradecimiento a todo el equipo de '1884', al de los fogones y especialmente al del salón.

Bueno, pensaba que este primer 'posteo' iba a consistir de notas más breves-- sobre los pescados de río que probé en Rosario (Surubí, Boga y Pejerrey) almorzando con Claudio, Pinky y Andrés Scola, los amigos más allegados de mi pana Rosarino, el 'Baty' Paz; sobre la cena semi-Caribeña que cociné, sobre los sabrosos zapallitos rellenos que preparó Chiqui, la Cordobesa que trabaja de asistenta ayudando a Luis Paz con la casa y la cocina... o sea, que debo un 'posteo' enfocado sobre Rosario, aún...pues como dicen en los comics,


Wine Patterns: Rustic Industrial vs. Boutique Spoofulates

Apologies & greetings from Mendoza-- 'tomorrow' took a whole week & over a thousand kilometers to arrive at this page.
Even now, as I write courtesy of Azafrán's Wi-Fi linkage, I'm looking at sinking my teeth into a cheese & smoked meat sampler board before I cut to the chase & share a few quick'n'dirty tasting notes...

One day later by now...I tried to backtrack to include some thoughts on some of the more 'International Style' offerings journalist & sommelier Andrés Scola brought to a dinner I cooked at the Rosario home of Luis Paz, my friend 'Bati's Dad, but I took no tasting notes & got stuck reaching back into my faulty sense-memory bank...


I seem to have a hard time 'cutting to the chase'...by now it's Monday the 17th of December & I'm regretting not having stuck to my original plan of writing my drafts by hand & inputting at whatever public Internet access I could find-- no lack of 'Cybers', as they're referrred to in Argentina. Have spent most of last week learning my way around Windows XP. 'Nuff said.

Another big regret was not being able to link up with Andrés Loszowycz, based in Rosario & renting space to make his wines. He has planted-- or replanted or possibly grafted-- some of the family vineyards in San Juan to Petit Verdot & Cabernet Franc, among other varietals.

The first wine opened at the start of the evening alluded to just above was his bottling of Petit Verdot commemorating the 10th aniversary of the founding of 'La Sociedad de Honorables Enófilos': its' medium body lightened in the midpalate, but there were some nice, minimally spoofulated tannins that brought up an unusual aftertaste mix of dark berry & black olive for a lingering, puckery finish.

Other offerings from the Society's wine club were less successful to this palate: for example, a Tempranillo from Salta, better known for its headily perfumed Torrontés whites, was dense, cooked black cherry fruit that fell off like a disoriented hiker in one of the dramatic canyons that Cafayate, the heart of Salta wine production, is also known for.

Right around the corner from Luis Paz's house I found a little shop dedicated to artisanal wine & food products, & we opened my purchase of a Bonarda made by Vittorio Longo in the province of Catamarca. Andrés Scola, with his sommelier training, thought it was atypical of the variety (--but what about allowing for a different expression of the grape related to 'terroir'??) --and detected a bit of sulphurous reduction, musing on the likelihood that there'd been a (bacterial?) problem during the settling & maturing period, traditionally done in epoxy-sealed cement deposits, with extra sulfites added too close to bottling time. I got a good whiff of burnt match myself, but thought the olive-leaf & black olive notes asserting themselves both in nose & mouth above pleasant if vague black fruit character warranted maybe trying a second bottle-- & adding Catamarca to my list of under-the-radar wine production areas to watch.

I also enjoyed another couple of interesting examples of the rough & rustic Argentinian wine tradition that survives in industrialized form to supply an economy product aimed strictly at the local consumer. First off, we're talking the equivalent of two to four bucks at current exchange rates! Peculiarly, traditional containers for retail have gone from five-liter demijohns ('damajuanas') which you still find for the really inexpensive stuff, to a very soft-shouldered Burgundy-style bottle with a 700 ml capacity.
I had a red wine labeled 'Carcasonne' which opened up nicely with Grenache-like light rose petal & jasmine tea accents over a couple of days. This wine is one of the traditional economy offerings
of Bodegas Escorihuela Gascón (--actually bottled under the sub-label 'Los Vinos de Escorihuela': you'll notice that particular wine is not listed in the 'export-focused' website's product listing linked to above--) which became part of the burgeoning Catena family wine empire in 1993. I visited the winery & enjoyed the elegant & formal but surprisingly warm, relaxed & attentive service at Francis Mallman's '1884' restaurant on the premises, so I may have to dedicate a separate posting to sundry insights derived from my visits...
The second wine I had was a great deal more surprising. It was a honey-colored white with pinkish, salmon glints, labeled as 'Parnaso', from 'Bodega M71343, Viñas de Alvear, SA'.
I've agonized over the fragile pleasures of iffy white wines before-- here, & more recently & coherently, here.
This particular iteration was definitely oxidized, but in the pleasantest way: sherry-like, with burnt orange peel & some blossom in the nose, green olive acidity & lightly bitter orange on the tongue. Only thing lacking was the bit of nutty oiliness which fattens the midpalate & may be what the solera method brings out...

It'll be a month tomorrow since my flight touched ground outside Buenos Aires & there is so much more to tell & write...I'll just say I expect to be heading just out of town tomorrow to the neighboring hamlet of Maipú to spend a couple of evenings lodged at Bodega Cecchin, pioneering organic producers in the area, who make a lovely Carignane, & just took a chance on making their first sulfite-free Malbec...stay tuned!


Pattern Recognition in Argentina

For four days, Buenos Aires was a blur of 'soul delay', as Cayce (or her Londoner friend) calls jetlag in William Gibson's novel quoted in my post title. After a five-hour information & transportation ordeal between landing & reaching the BAUEN Hotel, I was finally about to sink into a blissful nap, cup of espresso notwithstanding, when we were evacuated from our rooms after a bomb threat was called in. The BAUEN is a self-managed worker's co-op, so I don't doubt they have their share of enemies, but I wonder if there was a particular workshop or event taking place on the premises' conference rooms to trigger this particular disruption.
I had grilled breast of chicken at 'Utopia', the hotel's restaurant, for three straight days.
Walked down Callao street from the front door of the hotel to the park at the southern edge of Palermo & La Plata river, & back, on Thursday.
Saturday the 25th November I decided to take my friend Sebastián 'Bati' Paz up on his recommendation to visit his folks up in Rosario to gather my bearings in a more leisurely & familial setting. My original plan was to visit for three days or so, then board the last passenger train in service after the Menem neo-liberal 'divest & plunder' sell-off up to Tucumán, the heart of Indigenous Argentina ( -& pickpocket paradise, as some have it) on my further way to Cafayate & Salta, where EurOenologists of the stature of Michel Rolland & Donald Hess seem to have found some welcoming turf.
Indecision & contradictory intelligence on the state of said trains-- making the run to Tucumán only Monday & Friday-- have me skirting the edge of hospitality abuse ten days later.
To add insult to injury, Sunday after I arrived I went for a run & was lost for three hours after darkness fell over Funes, a bedroom community where Luis, Bati's dad, is building a little weekend cabin. A friendly neighborhood stranger complicated things by driving me around for another hour before taking me to 911 central, where the cops, who'd been notified of my disappearance, lost their way driving me over.
A locally based oenologist who's doing some interesting stuff after replanting some of the old family vineyards in San Juan to Petit Verdot & Cab Franc has been avoiding me for the week, says he wouldn't mind my riding with him to check the vineyards out--but his travel date, ostensibly sometime this week, won't be pinned down-- so I'm looking at travelling to Mendoza, one way or another, by Wednesday. Or Thursday, at the absolute latest.
Quick food & wine notes: except for some ground beef in one empanada & two stuffed 'zapallitos' (a beautiful, deep green mini-pumpkin, with a milder, slightly sweeter taste than zucchini, which you can also find here) I've avoided red meat. At least as sourced from cows & other usual beasts of burden. But I tried some air-cured 'ham' made from Llama, that temperamental, photogenic, indigenous, archetypical beast of burden. Tasty, not as roughly gamey as I feared it might be.
Un millón de gracias, bella Quara. (Indigenous name for said noble animal.)
Think I'll close up & edit part two on wines, tomorrow...