Sunday is a devoted family day in Argentina. It is a sacred time when parents, children, and extended family come together to share their stories and experiences of the past week. It is something we have lost in many North American homes due to lack of time, work commitments and a restructured family unit. And where Argentina is heavily dominated by Italian culture, family extends to family friends.
It was on such a Sunday in October that I found myself among Silvia’s family, the Grunbaum’s, in Pilar. Pilar is a town about 45 minutes outside of Buenos Aires and for many city-dwellers, a country escape. It is an area so rich with trees, vegetation and the peaceful sounds of nature that it is easy to forget that you have 9 million neighbors living fairly close by.
Apart from the people that make up the Sunday afternoon gathering, the main attractions are the savory tastes of grass-fed Argentine beef and traditional salads, combined with an endless supply of delicious Mendoza wines. This being my first Argentine asado, Carlos, Silvia’s father and master asador, walks me through this intricate and cultural culinary process. We head into the “asado room” which contains the parrilla (grill) and a long table to accommodate the 12-15 guests.
About an hour or so before the meat even appears, Carlos gets started by lighting the charcoals located to the left of the 6-foot wide parrilla/grill. The trick is to keep the coals glowing red with a light covering of white ash. No open fire here! Also, the heat and distance from the coals are controlled to provide a slow cooking. Once the coals are ready, they are placed under the grill where the meats are to go. It usually takes around 2 hours to cook an asado.
This time allows the guests to greet each other, go for a swim in the pool or laze about the lemon and fig trees. Silvia and I are happy to be lying by the pool with a glass of Malbec wine in one hand and a book in the other. Country living was never so indulgent in Canada!
During all of this activity, Nora, Silvia’s mother, is busily preparing the ensaladas that will round out the feast. Many Argentine farms are organic, or use much less pesticides than they do in Canada. A recent Argentine acquaintance lamented that the farms in Argentina are terribly behind in technology and productivity. If that meant a lack of genetic engineering of the food supply, I for one rejoiced inwardly. This “lack of progress” resulted in the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots that made up the salads we enjoyed taste as nature intended, very fresh and flavorful. They do not need to be smothered in salad dressings, but eaten simply with a dash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The meats come around the table in the order they are put on the grill. First are the chorizo (pork sausage), morcillas (black pudding) and mollejas (sweetbread), a fatty meat from a young calf. Accompanying this first round are discs of grilled provoleta, a yellow cheese dish commonly found at Argentine asados. Then come the costillas or asado de tira (ribs) and the anticipated bife de chorizo (sirloin strip steak), the meat so tender it melts in your mouth. My eyes must have grown wide with the abundance and selection of beef before me and was relieved when Carlos offered: “Please feel free to try anything, but you don’t have to eat it all.”
For the next two to three hours, in between family jokes and anecdotes, we feast on the most deliciously prepared meats and salads that anyone would experience in Argentina. Even the blood sausage, not a personal favorite, is irresistible, stuffed with fruit and nuts. As the dished are savored, several applauses from family and friends ring out in appreciation for the time and effort Nora and Carlos have spent preparing the food we are enjoying. There are robust shouts of “Un Aplausa para el Asador!“ and ““Un Aplausa para la Ensaladera!“.
Over the spring and summer I would often take part in these family Sunday gatherings and would look forward to a call from Silvia saying “we are going to Pilar this Sunday, want to come?” For me, the invitation meant that I had become part of an Argentine tradition.
Note: Argentina has the world's highest consumption rate of beef, at 68 kg a year per person. As of 2006, livestock farmers keep between 50 and 55 million head of cattle, mostly in the fertile pastures of the Pampas and the country is currently the third largest beef exporter in the world. Source: Wikipedia