Monday, 24 August 2009

Veni, vidi, bebi

Well, I got back from Mendoza on Friday night, and I must say I had a pretty rad time. The sights were great, the people were great, the steaks were great, and most importantly, the wine was great.

Mendoza is Argentina’s wine capital, and is located almost 2 hours to the west of Buenos Aires by aeroplane. From the city you can see the Andes to one side, and the desert to the other. With my sister having returned to the UK a week ago last Wednesday, it was my mum and I who woke up in the early hours of Monday morning to make the 6am flight from the capital to Mendoza. We arrived at 8 only to find out that we couldn’t check into the hotel until 12. We had no choice but to head out into the streets in search of breakfast, despite the fact that we were absolutely shattered.

The actual city of Mendoza (as opposed to the province) is rather small in size, with a population of only around 250,000 people. However, I discovered when we did the “city tour” that it is actually a lot bigger than I expected – spread out over many low rise blocks interspersed with leafy plazas every so often.

On the second day we had decided to head into the Andes on a tour to visit Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western and Southern Hemispheres. We had to set out at 7am and all looked OK for half an hour until it started to rain. The irony here was that everyone we had so far met in Mendoza had told us adamantly that “It never rains in Mendoza”. As we made our way up the mountain the rain turned to snow, and after a while more, we discovered that the route had been closed due to the blizzard (which it had now most definitely become). Bugger. Despite this, our tour guide decided to take us as far as we could legally go, so we did get some way into the mountains but nowhere near as far as some people on the coach would have liked (the guy next to me blamed the fact we couldn’t get any further on the guide, rather than on the obvious snow and fact that the police had told us we were not permitted to go any further). Oh well.

The following day we decided to play it safe and opted for the winery tour – a brilliant choice, despite the fact that the weather had returned to a bright, sunny and warm state. Thanks to the tour, I can now say that I know a lot about the processes of making wine, and the techniques needed to drink it. Hells. Most of you who know me well will no doubt know that Argentinian wine is amazing, this is the primary reason people come to Mendoza. There are hundreds of “bodegas” (wineries) producing thousands of varieties of wines. The tour we had gone on took us to visit 2 different bodegas, a large industrialised one, and a more traditional family-run one. I should also mention here that we visited an olive oil producing “oilery” (is that a word?), as it turns out wine is not the only thing they make in Mendoza. Each tour ended with the “sampling of the produce”, and it seems the olive oil company was well aware that we were on a wine tour, because the samples they provided us with were of sun-dried tomatoes, aubergines, and various other goods that had been preserved in their olive oil, rather than the olive oil itself. These proved to complement the wine perfectly, and I “pigged-out” to the max. We arrived back at the hotel around 9pm, and quickly rushed out for dinner. Now I had been told that the steak in Mendoza was particularly good, and had therefore been eating it pretty much every day so far, washing it down with a good bottle of wine (which I sampled, savoured, and did all that fancy crap that I had learnt with). However, while all the steaks had been juicy, tender and on the whole, pretty damn good, the one I that day was… perfection. It was so tender I ended up cutting it with my fork, and the flavour was amazing. It would have turned even Taylor into a steak fiend, without a doubt.

In our final two days, we spent a bit more time getting to know the actual city of Mendoza, visiting the museums and walking through the plazas, and we also visited the “nearby” (200 miles away) city of San Rafael to see its surrounding lakes and mountains. In the evening we returned to scene of steak perfection in order to sample it again, but alas, while it was still bloody good, it was not quite what I had eaten the previous night. We caught an 8pm flight back, arriving in Buenos Aires shattered, but very satisfied with our trip.
No doubt many of you are beginning to miss my charming character and dashing good looks, but fear not, as we will be returning to the UK on the 27th. However, you’ll have to get in quick to see me as I’ve got my flights already booked for the second leg of my travels and I leave for Japan on the 5th of September. Apparently term doesn’t start until around the 20th, and I’m not even allowed into the halls until the 9th, but I’ve decided to go a bit earlier to familiarise myself a bit and obviously to see Naoko…

So there you have it. No doubt next time you hear from me, be it in person or online, I’ll no longer be in Argentina. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of Big Ones to come.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Barbecue Big Ones

On the whole, most of the Argentinian men I know don’t really cook. Instead, it tends to be either the wives or maids who prepare incredible Argentinian classics such as empanadas (similar to pasties, but lighter and tastier) and milanesas (thin cuts of steak or chicken fried in breadcrumbs). There is one exception however, and this is the Argentinian barbecue, known as the “asado”. No matter the season, if the weather is good, the smell of asado permeates through the air. Unlike the English barbecue, which tends to be a case of buying whatever looks good at the supermarket and chucking it over some coals, the Argentinian asado is a far more ritualised process of cooking. It involves the "asador" preparing a fire and allowing the coals to form, before lowering a "parilla" (grill) over the fire. Once this is done, the meats are generally cooked in a specific order, starting with Argentinian chorizo, black pudding, and chinchulines (intestines). Once these have started cooking, the beef cuts are added, usually including "costillas" (ribs) and "vacío" (flank steak). These are then served to an awaiting group of hungry guests.

Bahía Blanca is not a particularly well known city to foreigners, and with good reason. It takes 9 hours to get there by coach from the capital (even though it is still in the same province) and has very little to see and do for the average Joe tourist. The reason we go practically every time we come to Argentina, is to visit one of my mums friends who own a "block" of land, and always accept us with open arms. This year was no exception, and we arrived at 7am on a Friday after having travelled overnight in a "coche cama", a coach used for overnight journeys with seats that practically turn into beds. Even though the level of comfort is much higher than a standard coach or aeroplane, we still arrived feeling rather sluggish, and I ended up having a nap until 2 in the afternoon (aren't naps brilliant?). That night, Lucy and I were treated by my mums friends kids (not really kids, as they're 22 and 25) and their girlfriends to our first night on the town.

Now I should explain that in Argentina, things are done a little differently to the UK when having "the Big Ones". In the UK, we eat around 8, meet up at 9 either in a pub or at someone's house, and then head out to a club around 11 to return home no later than 4am. When going out here, people meet up to eat "la picada" (buffet style snaking) together at 10 or 11, don't even think about heading to a club until 4am, and stay out dancing well past 8am - meaning the following day is an absolute write-off, regardless of whether you are hungover or not. Generally, the best nights to go out in Argentina are Thursdays and Saturdays, and as it was a Friday, it was decided that we would take it relatively easy that night and go for the real Big Ones on Saturday. Saying that, we still stayed out until 5am dancing in a pretty trendy pub/bar thingamajig, drinking Warsteiner, and generally having a good time.

The following day, we were treated to our first asado, and suffice to say, it was radstock. I'm not much of a fan of morcilla (black pudding), and I tried the chinchulines finding them edible, but slightly intense in flavour. Aside from that, the rest was incredible, and I gorged myself well and truly. So much so, that the rest of the afternoon I did very little until 6pm, when I was invited to play a game of basketball with the guys and a few of their friends. I proved to be pretty crap in comparison to the rest, until I realised that my height gave me a distinct advantage if I stood under the net, as no one was able to reach the ball, giving me enough chances to shoot until I scored. I love being tall. Anyway, at 11pm we started "la picada" and ended up heading put to the club at 2am, but that proved to be too early and the place wasn't even open yet. We then headed to the pub/bar of the previous night and returned to the club at half 3 to find the place pretty banging. The music they played was a bit of a random mix of electronica, soul beats, Reggaetón (some beaty Latin music which all seemed to sound the same) and pop classics in both Spanish and English. I didn't think I was going to last until 7am (when the club closed), but we spent a lot of time chilling, illing and dancing, and before I knew it, they had announced that it would be the last song (lady gaga).

The last day was indeed a write-off, and I didn't leave the house until the eveing when we attended one of the girlfriend's birthday parties. We ended up leaving half way through as we had to get the 10pm coach back to Buenos Aires. Even so, it proved to be a great trip, and I had a rad time.

We got back on Tuesday morning, and since then I've been taking it relatively easy. Lucy and I were invited out to eat by a friend (the sister of the guys in Bahía Blanca who's studying in Buenos Aires)and her boyfriend on Tuesday night. They took us to some pretty swish restaurtant called "Kansas" which served amazing steaks and pastas. The with Thursday being Lucy's last night, some of our cousins decided to take us for a night out and we ended up going to an Irish bar/pub called Kilkenny's which proved to be no more Irish than Diego Maradona, but still ended up being a whale of a time.

Aside from the usual friends and family visits which we tend to do on a daily basis, that's been pretty much it. Yesterday the temperature reached 28 degrees - which is actually a joke even for here. It has since returned to what it should be, and it's only 14 degrees today, a change clearly highlighted by the freak rainstorm we had all of this morning. I also definitely think the vast amounts of food I have been eating are taking their toll on my body, but I figure I can always hit the gym when I get back to the UK and in Japan to work off the gut. The main problem is that aside from all the foods that I've told you about, the Argentinians are also very good at doing Italian dishes (as many Argentinians are descendants of Italian immigrants). This means that particularly the pastas, pizzas and ice creams here are amazing.

Tomorrow morning, my mum and I are off on a 2 hour flight to Mendoza, the heart of Argentina's wine country for 5 days. That should be pretty hells, but as its more or less in the Andes, it's supposed to be pretty nippy.

Anyway folks, that's enough for now. Bit of a beasty post, I know, but I hadn't posted for a while, and figured I owed you all a Big One ;).

Sweet drift.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Nothing beats a good juicy steak, and the Argentines certainly know how to do that. The quality in Argentine beef stems from the various strains of cross-bred cattle which feed out on the vast ranges of the pampas and around Buenos Aires, producing some of the finest quality steak in the world. Unlike British steak, there was no BSE contamination, and unlike American steak the quality is much higher. Thus, the result is a highly juicy, thickly cut, perfectly cooked, melt in the mouth steak. Add on to this an extremely favourable exchange rate, and you can be out dining on a very tasty steak, in a nice and fancy restaurant, with a good bottle of Argentine wine, all for under a tenner. Big ones for sure.

Since my last post I’ve been receiving various concerned comments from both friends and family alike, inquiring about the state of my health. As far as I know, on Tuesday evening of last week I came down with a strain of the dreaded H1N1. From where I was contaminated I am not sure, as the rest of my family and friends are all fine, and to the best of my knowledge I have not come into contact with any sick people. The one thing I do recall is that as we were preparing to board the flight from France (we came to Argentina with Air France via Charles de Gaulle) I pointed out to my mum and sister a woman who was coughing and sneezing all over the place, and jokingly said “if she’s on the flight, we’ll all have swine flu by the time we get to Buenos Aires”.

Where I got it from is mostly irrelevant, as it was more important that I got better. We were due to head South on Wednesday on an 11 hour overnight coach trip to visit one or my mum’s friends. Unfortunately, we had to postpone the journey until this Thursday while I got better. So instead, I spent Wednesday evening in a cold sweat, shivering with a 40+ fever. I almost passed out on one of my trips to the toilet, and no matter how often I took the medication, I was throwing it up again within half an hour.

Luckily, as the days progressed, my headache disappeared, my temperature went down, and by yesterday I was pretty much my old self save for an annoying cough. That being the case, it was decided by the adults taking care of me that I was better enough to brave going outside. A trip to a nice neighbourhood was planned and I was invited out for lunch by one of my uncles and his family. Following that we went on to do a bit of light shopping and general touristy things, before heading back to my grandmother’s apartment in time to be picked up and taken out to dinner.
Though it wasn’t initially planned that way, I treated this meal as my “well done on beating swine flu” shin-dig, and treated myself to one of the fanciest looking steaks on the menu. The food was great, the conversation, pleasant, and after having my fill of steak, wine and banter, I was driven home where I proceeded to crash out in a deep slumber.

That has been pretty much it since getting better. Today, I accompanied my mum and sister doing some shopping (which proved to be a big mistake – I forgot how tedious taking women shopping can be) and I have now been invited to another uncles’ house for dinner. Like I said earlier in this post, our journey south has been postponed until tomorrow night, and while it is still in the province of Buenos Aires, there is a definite change in temperature in Bahia Blanca, the “white bay”. Today, though it is the middle of winter, it was 16 degrees with bright sunshine here in the capital – how’s England doing?

Take care folks, and I’ll talk to you soon. Hells.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Oink oink

Well, no doubt many of you have been checking the blog regularly in the hope of finding a new update, only to be constantly dissappointed by a lack of activity. But believe me, this is through no intention of my own.

I arrived in Buenos Aires bright and early a week ago today. The sky was blue and though it's winter here, I would describe the temperature as mild rather than cold. Since then, the weather has remained relatively unchanged (I am yet to have seen rain fall) and this has allowed a flurry of activities revolving around family members that reside here in the capital. On Sunday, we accompanied my cousins and uncles to the out-of-town rowing club, and spent the day basking in the sunshine and rowing down the river. The following day was spent wondering the large shopping streets, eating ice cream, and generally soaking in the "porteño" vibe.

Life was good.

Then calamity struck.

My sister woke up on Tuesday complaining of a sore throat, cough, and a headache, and by Wednesday I also had much the same along with a fever. My uncle who's a doctor took me to the hospital and I was seen to immediately and prescribed tamiflu which I have been taking twice a day since.

Well, that's been pretty much it so far. I have been confined to my grandmothers apartment (where we're all staying), and am made to wear a mask when not in my bedroom. So all in all it's been pretty lame, and not really the Big Ones I had been expecting. Although, on a plus note, I have started feeling much better and should be back to normal within a few more days.

Until then, its tamiflu, ibuprofen, and a lot of rest for me.

Inabit folks.