Saturday, December 4, 2010

And then I went to Patagonia

I boarded a plane in bustling, vibrant, slightly humid, blossoming springtime Buenos Aires, flew south for 3 hours, and debarked at the El Calafate airport in the steppes of Patagonia.  The air was clean, crisp, and the stiff breeze practically swept me off my feet.  Even although the white, rick-rack  Andes Mountains seemed close enough to touch – I was only about 200 hundred feet above sea level – so, I could breathe – breathe deep breaths of the gorgeous, not thin air. I was in heaven – no, on the other side of the moon.  I had arrived.   I checked into the cozy, super-luxe
 Los Sauces Casas PatagonicaFirst thing, I pulled up the shades on the huge picture window in my bedroom which faced west towards those fabled Andes, but quickly lowered my gaze to focus in on the birds – vandurias - the pair in foreground - munching on the bristly grass, definitely united, forever-in-love - who were became part of my every-day view. They reminded me who this quiet, calm land belonged to. 

The next day Los Sauces’ adorable, and talented young chef, Marcelo Raitelli treated the guests to a roast lamb lunch. He cooked the chimichurri-rubbed (massaged, he would say)lamb asador-style; butterflied, and trussed with metal hooks and wires on a metal cross then cooked in front of an pile of flaming wood. He turned it and basted it with more chimichurri until only he knew it was cooked to perfection.

I asked Marcelo for his recipe for chimchurri – Argentina’s emblematic all-purpose sauce. It’s mostly used on meat – but Marcelo used it as a marinade for the vegetables that he grilled to accompany to lamb.

His response to my request was a list of ingredients. I’ve added approximate measurements. Marcelo’s ingredients are in BOLD.

GARLIC              3 or 4 cloves (or more, if you like)

PARSLEY             1 cup fresh, flat leaves, chopped

RED PEPPER          2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

OREGANO             1 cup fresh leaves, chopped or 1 heaping
                    tablespoon dried leaves

ALCOHOL VINEGAR     3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

OLIVE OIL           ½ cup extra virgin

SALT                1 tablespoon

PEPPER              I assume he means black pepper – I suggest 1
                    tablespoon freshly ground – except that I don’t
                    use it in my sauce

Mix all the ingredients together and let rest for at least a day before using. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.

The next morning I awoke at the ungodly hour of 6:45 to get ready for the day's activity - a mini-trek across one of Patagonia's famous glaciers. I was met by my guide , blue-eyed, ever-smiling Pablo - Hielo y Aventura. It seemed that Pablo’s sole job was to keep me entertained – and company, while we drove for one and half hours to  reach the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park. Pablo stayed with me while I took the short ferry ride across the stunning, Lago Argentina (the largest lake in the country) to the Glaciar Perito Moreno. I was left in capable hands of about half a dozen almost distractingly, handsome- mountain guides. We split into groups – I with the English-speakers, the rest were Spanish speakers. I was at least twice the age of everyone else – did I worry that I wouldn’t be able to make it? Only for a half a second. We walked for 15 – 20 minutes across the glacial moraine before we reached the base of glacier. With crampons strapped onto our boots, we set out and walked straight up, in the rain. It was exhilarating – exciting and wondrous. Here I was, clamped onto to 15,000 year old ice.

Every now and then our vista of pearl white – by now the rain had turned to snow – was interrupted by startlingly cerulean, border-line turquoise pools, puddles, and indentations in the pleats of the glacier. It was unreal – where was I? I moved, numbed not by the weather, although it was atrocious, but by what I was seeing and experiencing. If I couldn’t make it across a crevasse, there was always a guide nearby to give me that extra push or give me a hand to pull me across. I couldn’t quit – I wouldn’t stop. I knew what lay ahead at the finish line. When we climbed behind a tall spire of ice we noticed a rustic wooden table sunk into the ice. The table held equally rustic wooden trays- one holding glasses the other a basket of alfajores – Argentina’s emblematic cookie made by sandwiching butter cookies between a layer of dulce de leche. One of the guides took a bowl and an ice pick to the side of a glacier and proceeded fill the bowl with 15,000 year old ice chips, return to the table, put the ice into the empty glasses – and then, BIG SMILE – fill the glasses with Scotch! How civilized! How perfect! I stumbled back down the remaining piece of glacier, removed the crampons and walked back across the moraine to the lodge. I ate a lunch of smoked salmon sandwiches prepared by Marcelo, and waited for the ferry that brought me back to Pablo. Further adventures included walking along the paserela – catwalks where we were able to have front row seats to the glaciers. The lower down on the winding catwalks that we walked the closer we got to ice. We were actually  privileged - and I, overwhelmed, to see a glacier calve – big chunks of the ice broke away from the main body in a loud roar. What a day!

Pisco sours - the reward at the end of the day - oh, sometimes the middle too.  Made with the Peruvian spirit, Pisco, a distillation of grapes -2 ounces, the drink gets its kick with the addition of fresh lemon juice - 1 ounce, simple syrup - 1 ounce,  and 1 egg white(to give it its signature foam)The ingredients are well-shaken with lots of ice then strained into a glass and garnished with a few drops of Angostura bitters. Traditionally, an old-fashion glass is used for the drink - however, the brilliant bartender at Los Sauces, poured his Pisco sours into champagne flutes whose rims had been coated with confectioner's sugar.  We all developed "Pisco noses" from drinking them!

On my last day in El Calafate, Lucho Diaz of 4x4:Miloutdoor took me and another guest for the ride of our lives.  Lucho's fearless way of steering his Land Rover through the estancias - the ranches outside of Calafate - then up the balcones - the plateaus that surround the small town - was take-your-breath-away  exciting, and only slightly scary. On the day of our trip it was mild and muddy as we began our climb and covered with snow we when arrived at the second balcon.  It was as far as we could go.  Even the rugged Land Rover couldn't move further.  At every turn,  and at every stop there were views of the valleys, the plateaus, and the  turquoise lake below that made me blink tears from my eyes - it was just that beautiful.   We were, however able to  make it to Lucho's chuck wagon -made from an old cargo container - where we were treated to some of those famous alfajores cookies and a cup of steamy hot chocolate.

Sadly, I left El Calafate that evening.  I would go back to Patagonia in a heartbeat.  In over four decades of travel I can't remember when I've been so taken with  a place.  It was all about  nature - not necessarily the cuisine - although it was delicious, not necessarily the people, although they were kind, generous, serene and noble - not necessarily the history although there is a rather rogue history attached to that part of Argentina - read, or reread as I did, Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia" .  It was the landscape, the tenacious stiff grass that grows in spite of the wind and birds that do their best to keep it buzz-cut - the pleated glaciers surrounded by moss-green moraine and Paul-Newman-blue-eyed lakes (after all Patagonia was where Butch Cassidy spent his final days) the eagles, the condors, the guanacos (little llamas), the hares, the vandurias, the flamingos and so on.

SUSANSIMONSAYSa calafate is a kind of berry.  It looks exactly like a wild blueberry and tastes something  like one too.  Be sure to check out El Tranquilo on El Calafate's main drag Avenida del Libertador, number 935, for their exceptionally good calafate jam and liqueur.  Their rose hip, rosa moqueta,  jam is velvety smooth and irresistible.

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