January 21, 2008
Bowen is where the dust has settled. Bowen is a dirt road, goats grazing in an empty lot. It’s the sharp tang of grapes being crushed into wine all night long during the harvest season, and the dusky burnt-sweet smell of the quince paste factory. It’s the sound of dogs barking as they roam free in the streets, looking for scraps; the sound of roosters crowing before dawn breaks. It’s the smell of diesel, its accompanist a roaring mufflerless truck overloaded with cargo headed to Buenos Aires. It’s fresh starlit nights and blazing hot afternoons. Bowen is the feel of cool tile and stucco walls, and the smell of oiled wood. It’s the delicate fragility of the blooms on the almond trees in the springtime, and the robust Malbec grapes harvested in the fall. It’s the smoke from a cigarette drifting off the man driving a donkey cart, it’s old men in wool caps playing Bocce ball on a Friday night. But mostly, Bowen is flavors –tomatoes canned in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, wild asparagus cut out of muddy fields, peaches eaten from branches heavy with ripe fruit, and strong homemade wine that makes you look at the moon and fall just a little bit more in love.
Argentina is a country of contrasts. Long and vast, it still has pockets of untamed land roamed by gauchos on horseback, dogs faithfully following behind. There is the tropical heat of the north, and then there are the penguins on the Antarctic coasts of the south. It’s boundaries are defined by the Andes mountain range on the west and the Atlantic coast in the east. Despite its extremes, Argentina is held together by a common fabric of culture—a weave of family and a weft of cuisine.
Argentina’s cuisine has been shaped by regional differences; for indeed an empanada in Tucumán is different from one in Buenos Aires. The country’s tumultuous political history, too, has had a hand in forming the way the country eats. It’s a story of conquest, invasion, dictatorship, immigration, instability, and revolt. If Americans are boundlessly optimistic about the future, Argentineans live in the present, for tomorrow’s potential adversity is best left unknown. As a people, they are often skeptical, especially of political pledges, hardened by lives of unfulfilled promises. One only needs to read the famed comic strip Mafalda to understand the Argentinean mentality-the fact that a child delivers such wry observations with a bleak optimism softens the blow only slightly. Pessimism is a national pastime.
For this reason, the family table is the constant in the Argentinean home. Home cooking offers a stability not found in the outside world. Simple ingredients offer comfort, a buffer from the hostility of the daily grind.
Understanding Argentina’s history is like biting into a pastelito de dulce–one of the country’s iconic national desserts-complex layer upon layer of brittle pastry with a sticky center. Each conquest has brought with it gastronomic transformation, mixed until the alchemy of a national cuisine was formed. Food is history. Food is memory. The Spanish conquest brought its cuisine, while the native foods of the New World-tomatoes, squash, corn, beans-were incorporated into new recipes. Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Italians, Germans, Poles-all have brought their distinct culinary traditions with them to Argentina. It’s cuisine is a slowly simmering stew-a true melting pot.
Much of Argentina’s food is straightforward, fresh, and homemade. In Bowen, it is home-grown, and within my husband’s immediate family we have plums, peaches, tomatoes, greens, pigs, lemons, olives, quince, apples, pomegranate, goat cheese, and honey, and I’m probably forgetting something. The key to the most delicious recipes is the quality of the ingredients-those so fresh and singular that they support the plate without it being overly complicated. Most recipes are dependent on the availability of a few fresh, basic ingredients. Unpretentious and simple, it’s luxurious in the way it is eaten-with great pleasure, family-style, everyone around talking and drinking wine, and followed by a delicious nap. Their food culture is more about the tradition of family and communion.
Argentineans take pride in making their own, and everyone’s home cooking is a little different. Like any home cooking, there are many variations on the same theme and no hard and fast rules. Most of the recipes on this site will be my mother-in-law’s, and I welcome any and all suggestions and/or variations that come my way. That being said, I realize that my particular experience, that of rural Argentina, will be just that—my experience in rural Argentina. I know that those who live in Buenos Aires or any other place will have a totally different take on Argentina and it’s people. I hope you enjoy.