Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part IV: Argentina March 2015

By Monty Style

Day 15 – From Salta City to Los Molinos

We drive south to Los Cerillos, then west into some of the most beautiful mountain scenery imaginable from Los Cerillos to Cachi and Molinos.

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We scale the Cuesta del Obispo (Pass of the Bishop), a dramatic feat of engineering but not a worrying, vertigo-inducing road. It climbs gradually up through green farmland somewhat reminiscent of Perthshire until near the peak your mind shifts to the red and gray of the Torridon Hills in Wester Ross. Except of course for the height and overall scale. Highest point on road 3380 m.

1-28-20150321_130224Once you’re heading down towards Cachi in the vast empty expanse of the Calchaquíes Valley Nature Reserve, the road is brand-new asphalt and lay-bys invite photography. In the distance the Nevado de Cachi appears, dark at the base, its snow-covered ridge heading hundreds of kilometers north.

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Approaching Cachi (2200 m) we jam on the brakes so as not to miss a field of red peppers drying in the sun. Shortly thereafter a consensus is quickly reached on the location for our picnic lunch, acquired along with diesel before leaving Legado Mitico.

Make a short stop in peaceful Cachi. Then south on an unpaved road to the remote Hacienda de Molinos where we’re staying two nights in this erstwhile Spanish colonial Governor’s home. Post-sunset drinks in the softly lit courtyard before an excellent dinner near two Argentine families at a long table with a total of 6 beautiful and well behaved children.
Poised to drive up tomorrow to the Colomé winery owned by the Swiss Hess Family, who have wineries all over the world.

Day 16 – Visit to Colomé

1-067-IMG_0843We drive 45 minutes slowly up an unpaved road to Colomé. Semi-desert, the usual dry riverbeds, sand or red earth, rocky mountains on either side. Colomé is south west of Molinos in a side valley off the long Valles Calchaquíes and is a small community built around the winery founded in 1831, now owned by the Hess family.  Donald and Ursula Hess live in Canton Bern in Switzerland and own several wineries including Amalaya (further south, near Cafayate), several in California and a stake in Peter Lehmann, South Australia. Their sons are gradually taking over the business.

There is the bodega (winery), a restaurant, the estancia (visitor accommodation) and the James Turrell Museum. Staff live in the immediate area and the place is self-sufficient food-wise (own fruit, vegetables, sheep, cattle and wine).

Turrell, it turns out is world-famous and specialises here in light and space effects. One is walked thru several rooms and a corridor in which it is hard to keep your balance; in one room what looks like a wall is open space (when you get too close to oblivion a buzzer sounds). There is some beauty in the colours but it hard to engage with this kind of art. A bit of a challenge, keeps the mind open.

1-39-20150322_141406Lunch on the terrace is simple and delicious, we drink a misterioso white, probably Sauvignon from 100 year-old vines. Cool, fragrant, very pale, marvellous. Sad to relate, it’s made in tiny quantities and only available at the Bodega…Malbec, both pure and blended, is also good.

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We spend the afternoon in the vineyards with Andres Trygve Hoy, a humorous young Argentine [of Norwegian stock] who is responsible for the vines. The winery is unofficially biodynamic [i.e. not certified]. Rainfall is 120mm a year! Irrigation is king.

Day 17 – Molinos to Tolombón via the San Pedro de Yacochuya winery

1-088-IMG_0867From the peaceful Hacienda de Molinos we rumble and rattle down another unpaved road southwards accompanied by the Rio Calchaqui thru extraordinary sandstone weather-sculptured rocks.

Stop for a leg-stretch after 2 hours in San Carlos, the first Spanish settlement in the area dating from around 1550. Friendly welcome, as usual, at a town square café. Coffee

Empanadas expertly crimped, San Carlos town square

followed by a malted 8% local beer, then empanadas of beef and cheese arrive, so a delicious low-cost lunch satisfies everyone including Anita, our honorary treasurer.

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Ripe Torrontés grapes on the vine

San Pedro de Yacochuya is up above and north west of Cafayate. It overlooks the valley which is several kms wide here and packed with vineyards. Arnaldo Etchart receives us with a cautious smile  which evolves into a delightful twinkle during our visit and reveals a very warm character. San Pedro won a “top 5 bodegas” award from Parkers Wine Advocate in 2012. Michel Rolland, ubiquitous French winemaker/consultant, advises Marco and Arnaldo Etchart, especially on ways to improve the quality of vineyards and wines. Premium range is Yacochuya (YACO); second level San Pedro Yacochuya (SPY), whose 20 ha produce 90,000 bottles. 80% of vines are Malbec, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, a little Tannat and Torrontés (left). Third-level Coquena range is made from grapes from Tolombón vineyards a little further south.

Arnaldo Etchart on his bike in the vineyards

Guevara-like Arnaldo leads us on his motorbike down to a vineyard where we taste Torrontés grapes. We are given 4 excellent bottles of San Pedro Yacochuya wine. A very rewarding visit to a fine small producer.

Day 18 – Tukma winery and route 68 back north to Salta

Our last winery visit, to Tukma whose owners acquired Alta la Luna hotel where we stayed. The latter has a beautiful garden but it was too cool for breakfast outside.

1-78-20150324_104239Down the road at the bodega, the harvest is in full swing and the illustrious Tukma consultant winemaker José Luis Mounier is in the bodega everyday while the grapes are processed and fermentation begins. Top red grapes go straight into new French oak barriques where the wine is barrel-fermented (barrels rolled around 3 times a day for a month so that there is even grape-oak contact). Only then are the barrique contents pressed and the early-stage wine returned to its barrique for malolactic (second) fermentation and maturing.

1-66-20150324_103747We taste several grape juices, all in their first 4 weeks of fermentation. A late-stage Cabernet Sauvignon is deep red and already tastes very promising. Mounier, who has a Michel Rolland background, is consultant winemaker to several wineries and has his own production marketed as Las Nubes. This seems to be a popular model. Wines do not vary much from one year to another, he says, unlike Bordeaux, except for unusually wet years. Logistics are complex and costly: bottles are locally manufactured but oak barrels, mainly from France, cost US$1000 each. The cases of bottled wines are transported over the Andes on the Mendoza-Santiago road and shipped from Valparaiso in Chile for points west, or via Buenos Aires for points east. As in the case of Colomé the business of moving bottled wine from these high-altitude, remote wineries with their steep, unpaved roads and river-fordings, to importers around the globe must be a challenge.
Tukma wines available in Switzerland from Casa de Vinos Argentinos.

Fact file: in the late 1980s Argentina exported US $5 million worth of wine. Today the figure is US $1 billion.

1-74-20150324_153630Final drive 3 hours north to Salta through the magnificent multicoloured Quebrada de las Conchas (ravine of the shells). After some light rain the great dry riverbeds are beginning to ripple with pale brown water. Several optimistic anglers spotted on the banks of the Rio Lerma. Arrived at Finca Valentina in pouring rain. Supper by a comforting log fire.

Day 19 – Back to Buenos Aires and home

1-051-IMG_0825Returned the dependable Renault Duster to Daniel at Salta airport. We covered 1200 kms in 7-8 days in the North West but it was at a very low average speed given the vertiginous hill climbs and descents and the many unpaved roads.

1-003-IMG_0776The scale and colours of the Northwest are utterly un-European. Resembles Northern Territory or Western Australia: red, dusty, dry riverbeds, dramatically coloured rocks but also Andean, i.e. very high altitudes, Atacama-like salt flats, and the indigenous people much better integrated than in Australia.

Northwest Argentina is the region to visit and Salta City is the base camp. We had to be selective and left out much of the country e.g. The Northeast, the Pampas, the Southern wine regions (Neuquen and Rio Negro) and Patagonia.

1-5-20150325_223017Our last 24 hours in BA were good: Robert, our host at Cabrera Garden, joined us for a perky glass of Mendoza sparkling, then we had a fun supper at trendy Astor Bistro. Artistic, sensible portions accompanied by more sparkling Chardonnay/Viognier and a Malbec blend. Friendly staff.
1-20150308_130457-1-002Night ended in a milonga, where locals dance tango – we wanted to see this, rather than a show for tourists. It is a formal, theatrical, precise art form. For young and old, short skirts, long dresses, jeans or dark suits. Very close upper body contact, hips and legs free for beautifully coordinated quick steps and motionless pauses, intense concentration, restrained passion. Beguiling.

Our taxi driver to Ezeiza airport, in response to a few well-chosen questions, gave us a fluent 60-minute commentary on the history of Argentina including the Falklands issue and the desaparecidos of the Dirty War. Extraordinary knowledge and dispassionate views.
In three weeks in Argentina we only met friendly, smiling, helpful people. British Airways did a much better job on the return flight.

THE END!!

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Painting by Xul Solar, in the MALBA

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part III: Argentina March 2015

By Monty Style

Day 11 – Lares de Chacras to Salta City

1-27-20150321_123551Scrabble by the pool, simple, good lunch in the garden of Bodega Pulmary a few blocks from the lovely Lares de Chacras, then off to the airport heading for Salta City.
Landed in light rain surrounded by green hills and fields. An exemplary car rental chap called Daniel handed over our Renault Duster which is spacious and serves us well.

 

1-01-20150317_220039Salta City is not as lovely as the Rough Guide (which is generally very good) makes out. But our hotel, Legado Mitico, is elegant and has the best bathroom so far! On their advice we walk a couple of blocks to Andalina and have a very good supper of tamales and humitas (fresh corn) both very reminiscent of Mexico, followed by bife in various forms and a marvellous blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon made by Marco Etchart, whom we are visiting later, near Cafayate. Our waiter was rather a star – noticed we are into wine and solved our dilemma by putting 4 or 5 bottles on the table for a general debate, label examination etc. His local knowledge and sensitive approach led us to a really good decision at a fair price. He also recommended a place to eat in Cafayate!

Day 12 – Salta City to Purmamarca

1-084-IMG_0863Duster-ed comfortably up to Purmamarca on good roads in 90 minutes with a short excursion to San Salvador de Jujuy looking for picnic ingredients. Very busy place and nowhere to park. Drove mainly thru farmland (maize, some cattle) passing many warnings signs: “beware of stray animals, report them to the police on tel. no. xyz”.
1-004-IMG_0777Approaching Purmamarca we enter a new world, green hills morph to ever larger rocky mountains, totally dry riverbeds 100-200 metres across testify to the prevailing arid conditions and to violent spates in the short rainy season. Entering P. we are faced by multicoloured, multistrata mountains of almost bare rock. Giant eroded gullies plunge down to dry riverbeds. Deep-pink rock eroded into hundreds of narrow, vertical, organ pipe-like slits remind us instantly of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.

1-13-20150319_092839-1After check-in at Manantial del Silencio (Spring of Silence) – a white, colonial style ex-monastery with an uncluttered garden, on the edge of Purmamarca – and a quick empanada in the village, we embark on the drive up to Salinas Grandes, rising in 90 minutes from 2200 m to 4200 m.

 

 

1-006-IMG_07791-009-IMG_0782This is a journey of only 70 kms – initially massive mountains overlooking our road winding along beside a dry riverbed, which is soon left behind as the climb begins. Then quite suddenly Simon drops to first gear, we’re on a well-made but unpaved road, we see a wall of mountain reaching for the blue sky, almost hanging over us, the outline of a thousand hairpin bends just visible.

1-05-20150318_152029Once up there at 4000 m or so, all you see are mountain ridges criss-crossing each other to the horizon. To the west is Chile, to the north Bolivia, all around us the massive Andes.

 

Suddenly, some way ahead and below, a shimmering white strip of salt flat catches the eye – this is what we came to see. Around us the recent rain has left behind little brown rivulets, which come together on the road leaving behind gravel which slows down the already slow – moving buses and long trucks heading for Chile.

On the salt flats the sun is shining. We stop half way across the Salinas Grandes, walk on the salt, shield eyes from the glare, marvel at the salt lake to left and right stretching to the horizon.

The height (4200 m at the top) and the drive back down to Purmamarca on the same vertiginous road can[and DID!!] cause acute headache and vertigo, which disappear around 2500 m.
Excellent dinner at the Manantial with local – style dishes, cool fruity Torrontes and a local Chardonnay round off a memorable day.

All the people of Salta we have met in the last 24 hours have been competent, friendly, smiling and helpful, without exception.

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Day 13 – Tilcara and Pulcarà, north of Purmamarca, settlements of indigenous people

1-32-20150319_125455-2A quiet day after the Salinas Grandes excursion. Visit Tilcara, 30 minutes north of Purmamarca. A peaceful little town with a mainly indigenous population. Exquisite handmade boxes et al. Following some backpackers, we walk mistakenly some way up a track into the hills looking for Pulcará, a 14th century Inca settlement. In due course we find it on top of a hill outside Tilcara. Dry stone buildings better than air conditioning inside. Great site for photography. Lunch in cosmos-bedecked garden restaurant. Decide to give Humahuaca (further up the valley) a miss and spend a rainy afternoon at the Manantial spa.

Day 14 – Back to Salta City

1-049-IMG_0823Sad to leave the Alta Montaña and the tranquil Manantial del Silencio. Since they offered 11 pesos to the US $ (cf 8 pesos the official rate) I paid our modest bill for two decent dinners and some spa work in dollars. Rivers running with small volume of red-brown water after the rain. Took the cornisa route 9 thru El Carmen and La Caldera – cattle grazing, thick wooded hills, one or two lakes.

Salta City on revisiting is prettier than we thought. At the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montaña, we see an extraordinary display of the ‘mummified’ bodies of three children aged 7 to 15 from around 1490AD. In an Inca sacrificial ritual, these children of local community or tribal leaders are supposed to have been given the soporific chicha, then were stunned and buried [still alive] at the top of Llullallaico mountain, thus preserved at sub-zero temperature. They were controversially exhumed in the 1990s by archaeologists and put on display in Salta. Visited home of President Ururibu, an early colonist.

1-20150320_214440Outstanding dinner at trendy new tapas bar Bartz Tapas Mundiales. Finest cooking, minimal portions, minimal bife (!), super wines, friendly service, amazing value.

TO BE CONTINUED

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part II: Argentina March 2015

By Monty Style

Day 6 – Martindale to the Uco Valley, Mendoza

Flew 90 minutes from BA’s Jorge Newbery airport to Mendoza in a comfortable Embraer of Aerolineas Argentinas, the state-owned carrier. Their route map shows “Las Malvinas (Arg.)”. On arrival we took possession of a brand new rented Ford Eco Sport. Obliged to sign a statement that we would make a special contribution to repair costs “if we rolled it over”. Supposedly happens quite often.

1-01-20150313_080724-1Drove south on route 40 past Luján de Cuyo and Chacras de Coria through scrubland, then turned west to Tupungato, climbing gently up to 1200m., 90 minutes from Mendoza. We are staying 2 nights at Posada Salentein [guesthouse of eponymous winery], which sits on a wooded crest amid their vineyards looking east down the Uco Valley. A good dinner accompanied of course by Salentein wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec 2013 and a sparkling wine of late harvested grapes. Continue reading

Torrontés and Tango, Malbec and Empanadas Part I: Argentina March 2015

ARGENTINA DIARY, 7th-26th March 2015, by Monty Style

Day 1 – Buenos Aires arrival

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Street view outside MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires

Endless flat grasslands below the 777 which floats motionless down to Ezeiza airport. After 13-and-a-bit hours’ flight we’re perfectly on time. Punctual and comfortable seats, but service- and meal-wise British Airways is not competitive at all. Dishwater coffee reminiscent of the UK 20 years ago.
Elegant all glass airport buildings. Simple immigration then formal-looking scanners gobble up and spew out all items of luggage. Nobody collects the customs declaration I carefully filled in.
Buenos Aires is at first sight an ecologist’s dream: fresh green plane trees line the streets, cedars adorn the many parks which, viewed from our taxi, are clean, cars are compact and traffic is unhectic, the sky is blue and unpolluted. Continue reading

Tapas in Seville

1-bitter oranges  Alcazar gardens CordobaWhether you’re shivering out there in New York, Maine or Ontario, or huddled under a European canopy of endless grey, now’s the time to consider a short break in Seville. You can tank up on tapas and winter sunshine, stroll the street beneath impossibly blue skies and catch a glimpse of those famous oranges, still dripping from the trees in the gardens of the Alcázar. And if you can’t get down there, you can always dream…of tapas, mainly.

Here are five favourite haunts, which I included in a short lineup in FT Weekend a while back. You can’t book. Just go.

Albarama, Plaza de San Francisco 5, 41004 Sevilla
1-Albarama risotto scallopsSevillanos do tapas standing up. Join them at Albarama’s bar, or for a little more comfort you can get seated in the dining room at the back. The decor – white walls, black tables and chairs, some greenery suspended from the ceiling — is functional, cool and minimalist. The fireworks are on the plate: scallops tumbling over a risotto loaded with black mushrooms, mini-‘hamburger’ of squid coiffed with a layer of inky-black jelly or ceps with a quail’s egg perched rakishly on top.

Zelai, Albareda 22, 41001 Sevilla
IMG_5624-1Recent reports of this sleek black space near the Plaza Nueva, one of Seville’s newer tapas places, suggest they’re victims of their – considerable – success and service has got a bit take-it-or-leave-it. Go anyway, if only for the shellfish ‘cappuccino’ with coconut milk foam topped with a skewer of plump mussels, or pearly-white hake wrapped in a black seaweed overcoat with a brick-red romesco sauce. Their ethereal croquetas achieve the comforting illusion that a thick béchamel with chopped ham rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried could ever be light.

Becerrita, Recaredo 9, 41003 Sevilla
1-cordero al meilAn absolute institution, a little out of the centre on a busy avenue that forms the northern ring road. Perch on a stool in the beautifully tiled, ham-festooned space at the front, and go for artichokes with sherry and ham, shrimp ensaladilla or oxtail croquettes, mini-‘hamburgers’ of garlicky prawns, fresh ibérico pork with Idiazabal cheese topping or chunks of melting, slow-cooked, honied lamb (pictured). Final nail in the coffin is the tapapostre (dessert tapa): ice cream showered with chocolate shavings and a splash of sweetly viscous Pedro Ximenez.

Eslava, Eslava 3, 41002 Sevilla
1-Tapa concurso EslavaStill fairly central, close to the Plaza San Lorenzo, this place is always heaving and yet the wait-staff somehow manage to keep abreast of the orders – and keep smiling too. Get here in good time, push past the bar, soon to be knee-deep in happy tapeadores, press through to the tiny room at the back and take a seat for some of the best-value food in town. Classics like salmorejo (think gazpacho but thicker and silkier), ibérico ham splayed out on the plate, and sardines and anchovies share menu space with a prize-winning soft-cooked egg (above) sitting on a heap of ceps with a sweet wine reduction.

Puratasca
1-Guadalquivir2Most taxi drivers have never heard of the street where Puratasca lives, far less the restaurant/bar. Consult Google maps, take off across the Guadalquivir (right) to the mildly edgy district of Triana – once home to flamenco dancers and potters – and track down this self-styled ‘gastrobar’ for yourself. The walk will set you up nicely for slivers of moist mojama (air-dried tuna) with a splash of olive oil, prawns and mayo wrapped in a fragile brik pastry cornet, a sweetly creamy rice confection with quail and mushrooms, or vegetable strips in tempura batter.
Numancia 5, 41010 Sevilla

Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain

Patio de las Munecas, Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain

Les Burgers à la française

1-4-20150222_142705“Shock is the reaction of some people…who learn that real French people living in France eat hamburgers” wrote Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961. Not any more. Burgers are big hereabouts – according to a recent article in Business Insider, France is McDonald’s “most profitable country outside the US. Sales were up 4.8% through the first seven months of the year, and CEO Jean-Pierre Petit, who is rounding his 10th year as McDonald’s France’s CEO, has said 2014 will be its greatest absolute sales year ever. In 2013 sales reached 4.46 billion euros.” Continue reading

A Table Chez Marie, Hagenthal-le-Bas

1-20150122_132237As mentioned elsewhere on this site, there are loads of modest eateries in our frontier country of the Sundgau/Alsace and a handful of more ambitious ones farther afield, but all too few that occupy the middle ground – the kind that serve mildly aspirational food at approachable prices.

A Table chez Marie in Hagenthal-le-Bas is out there in that underpopulated middle ground. Though the restaurant’s address is Hagenthal-le-Bas, it’s actually about halfway between the village and Hegenheim. Remember the Hotel Jenny? The hotel no longer runs its own restaurant and has rented out the kitchen and dining rooms to the eponymous Marie, who in another life worked at the Au Violon brasserie in Basel. Continue reading

Unveiling the New Vintage of Vin Jaune

[A shorter version of this article appeared in FT Weekend, 14th February 2015]

The bishop of Saint Claude blesses the new season's vin jauneThe diocesan bishop of Saint-Claude in France’s Jura region stands facing his flock, which is packed sardine-style into the tiny twelfth-century church of Montigny-les-Arsures. Arrayed in a semi-circle behind him are members of the honourable company of Les Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes, resplendent in primrose-yellow robes and floppy fur-edged hats. In front of the altar sits a small wine barrel, awaiting benediction.

1-62-IMG_1385After a spirited sermon in which he draws elegant parallels between the qualities needed to make good wine and those required of a fine upstanding Christian, the bishop blesses the barrel. It is then hoisted onto the shoulders of some strapping young vignerons and carried through the streets to the chateau of Montigny, where beneath fluttering snowflakes a huge crowd huddled under hoods and umbrellas listens – with only occasional heckling – to a series of lengthy speeches. Finally the barrel is ceremonially broached, the wine bursts forth, glasses are waved wildly in the air and the festival is declared open. Continue reading

Carnival is in the Air (again)

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Fasnachtskiechli or merveilles de carnaval

Around here in Basel, Alsace and Baden, Fasnacht or carnaval or Fasching (it all depends which country you’re in) is a big deal. You can tell carnival’s in the air when the houses sprout jolly carnivalesque figures on their roofs, and those gorgeous sugar-dusted, deep-fried wonders called Fasnachtskiechli or merveilles de Carnaval start popping up in the shops. Continue reading

February Bread & Pastry Workshops – Not One but Two

My bread and pastry workshop scheduled for Friday 13th February (my lucky day?) turned out to be such a hit that I’ve scheduled a second session, on Friday 20th February.  Let me know if you’d like to join us. We’ll start at 9.30 and finish at 1.30 on both days, and here’s how we’ll do it:
breadclass3
Bread dough can take any amount of pummelling, but pastry needs a light touch. In this workshop we’ll turn our hand[s] to both. First we’ll make bread dough and leave it to rise. Then we’ll get busy on shortcrust/pie crust and turn it into a range of pies and parcels. Finally we’ll shape and bake our daily bread. Lunch will be pastry-based goodies and there’ll be a home-baked loaf for all to take home.