Saturday, February 19, 2011


Grubsheet has always regarded llamas and their alpaca cousins as gentle creatures to be shorn occasionally for their silky wool and otherwise patted and pampered. So it's somewhat disconcerting at first to find some unfortunate llama turned into wafer thin slivers on the plate in front of us, drizzled with oil and vinegar. Yes, folks, it's llama cappaccio, just one of the signature dishes at one of the hottest of the many hot restaurants in Buenos Aires, the most exciting city in Latin America and perhaps the whole world.

Llama carpaccio and other treats
Food critics flock to El Baqueano and its regulars include film director Francis Ford Coppola, who has a house in BA and regards this modest eatery in raffish San Telmo as a culinary temple. Chef and owner Fernando Riverola spent time at the venerated El Bulli in Spain so his dishes are dotted with the kind of flavoured shaving foam that has earned El Bulli the longest waiting list in the world. The Portenos (residents) of the Argentine capital come here, of course, for meat, though not the usual wood-fired feast of offal, blood sausage and assorted cuts of beef that's the standard offering everywhere else. No, this is a carnivore's paradise of a different kind, the meat that was apparently present in Argentina before the bovine invasion on which the country's economy now depends.

So we begin with yacare wrap, pieces of local alligator in a delicate pastry accompanied by something called txatxiki foam, then the llama cappaccio ( a lot more subtle than beef ), then a seafood deviation of marinated red mullet in basil and lemon followed by grilled ostrich with fondant potato, liquid yoke and onions. Ostrich, of course, is an African native so this is an Argentine interloper. But no matter. It was all delicious, especially washed down with an ocean of chardonnay and bonarda  (an Argentine red varietal) from the celebrated Algodon winery in the foothills of the Andes near Mendoza."Llama!",  people exclaim when I tell them. "How could you?" It's pointless looking sheepish so I try to look, well, llama-ish. But guilt is an emotion that soon passes, subsumed in the raw excitement all around us.

The vibrant street culture of San Telmo
San Telmo is the cradle of the tango, that most sensual of dances, and our apartment is within walking distance of a string of milongas or dance halls where the bandaneons play and black-clad couples glide across the floor with a stop-start shuffle and the odd kick. Tango etiquette is a strange thing, the woman not so much making eyes at potential partners as engaging in long stares, like the mating ritual of some exotic bird. Only when he gets such a stare is it OK for the male to approach. But when he does and scoops the delicate bird into his arms, it's his job to "lead" or call the shots, now cheek to cheek, his arm firmly planted around her waist. This is not for wilting violets with a keen sense of personal space. For it's about as close as one gets to any human short of the act of procreation. Those new to the tango can look as awkward on the dance floor as newly hatched birds. But the experts are truly a sight to behold, the epitome of cool as they move back and forth, to and fro in perfect rhythm to the beat of the intense young musicians pushing their bandaneons (accordions) back and forth with their hands on stage.

Tree-lined boulevards redolent with history
These are places where being a good dancer makes women seem utterly blind to the haphazard topography of even the most unfortunate face. In fact I've never seen so many deeply unprepossessing men dancing with such beautiful woman. Clearly in Buenos Aires, as in Harlem, if you've got rhythm you don't need anything else. Each afternoon at 4.00pm, Madam Grubsheet set off for her personal tango lessons with some spiv called Fabrizio. I didn't ask what else happened but  suspect they'll have discussed Argentine relations and how such relations can be improved. Hmmm.

Fabrizio, of course, has to make a living, not an easy thing in a country with such an appalling economic record. The Argentine middle class was almost wiped out in the economic collapse of 2001, when the banks closed their doors and educated people took to the streets beating pots and pans to complain about the country's general hopelessness. Things have stabilised since but once burnt, twice shy as the saying goes. Most people in a position to do so have their money in Swiss or American bank accounts and still stash dollar bills under their mattresses.

The Kirchners: Inheritors of "Evita's" mantle
Incredible as it may seem, Argentina's current leader, Cristina Kirchner, comes from the Peronist Party, a direct political descendent of the loathsome 1950s dictator Juan Peron and his call-girl missus and erstwhile saint of the masses, the celebrated Evita. Unashamedly populist and economically illiterate, they led Argentina to rack and ruin and a series of brutal military dictatorships, the worst of which made the mistake of invading the British-owned Falkland Islands in 1982 to deflect from its own shortcomings. Of course, the generals hadn't counted on the redoubtable Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who sent a naval task force to seize back the islands the Argentines call Las Malvinas and deliver a humiliating lesson of impotence in their own backyard. A note of caution to would-be travellers. No matter how well you can tango, don't mention the war. Anyway, the glamourous Cristina inherited the current leadership from her husband, Nestor, who then left her to it by promptly dropping dead last year. She's still bursting into tears at the mention of his name, prompting Hilary Clinton to wonder aloud in one of the leaked Wikleaks cables whether Cristina still has her marbles.  Not so much Don't Cry For Me Argentina but Please, No More Tears And Start Running The Country.
Don't mention the war: Protesting Falkland veterans

To be fair to the Kirchners, the Argentine economy is a lot better than it was and the government has begun to repay its vast national debt. But the last 50 years have been a huge blow to the national psyche of a country that was once the richest in the world. Yes, at the turn of the 20th century, Buenos Aires shone brighter than almost anywhere else, an opulence still reflected in its public buildings and splendid tree-lined boulevards. This is a city that oozes romance and style yet with a Latin edge and a hint of potential danger. There are some parts of the city you shouldn't venture into even in daylight and any local not trying to steal your wallet will be happy to mark the "do not cross" lines on your map.
The cult of Carlos Gardel

The upside is that all over BA, the sounds of the tango waft out of shops and bars. Funnily enough, Argentina's biggest ever tango music star - their national Elvis - is a crooner called Carlos Gardel, who rose to international stardom in the 1920s and plunged the whole of Latin America into mourning when he was killed in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935. His most famous song is called Mi Buenos Aires Querido, My Beloved Buenos Aires, which you can catch on YouTube and is ubiquitous, even making it into the classical music repetoire courtesy of a fellow Porteno, the Argentine-born Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Soak up the music and soak up the place. You're bound, like us, to find that Dorothy was wrong. There is a better place than home. It's called Buenos Aires. Querido indeed.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic piece. I can almost feel myself back on the streets of Casa Defensa on market day. Some Argentines will feel mildly uncomfortable about some of the observations here, especially the politics. It's still very sensitive and understandably so when the place you love is so corrupt and eventually collapses. The early 2000s were a nightmare. But having lived through it, I think this is pretty accurate. Argentina is still a country looking for some kind of meaning. In many ways, we've got it all. But we still tend to blame our leaders for our problems when the most basic cause is not taking responsibility for ourselves. You can't say we don't now how to live. Thanks for capturing the spirit of a great city and a great country.