We have stolen the "C.O." expression you and Sandra use, and integrated it in our vocabulary. It is a handy term because there are lots of COs (and other, decent eating experiences) flying by in quick succession. The part of South America we have seen now is just like Wonderland. Especially for carnivores like you and me.
In Chile, but especially in Argentinean Patagonia, cattle is kept in an extensive style: the animals graze all season long on an immense terrain. The muscles of these beasts are definitely used - to collect the daily ration of 30 liter water and something to eat.
I think a European cow has little to do in comparison. The normal slaughter stock just has to walk from power food trough to the fields - hardly a strenuous chore. The meat of half-wild South American cattle doesn't need color additives to look great in the butcher's display. Half-wild, because there is no insemination but real bulls instead, there is no veterinarian when a birth is difficult because the farmer doesn't even know where his cattle is, except that they should be somewhere inside the few hundred kilometers of fence. So it's red meat, somewhere between the color of deer steak and fillet of beef.
We have traveled for two months, and only visited four contries. Argentina is the second largest country of this continent, after Brazil. 'Everybody' lives in the middle of it - Patagonia seems almost uninhabited. So there is lots of space for cattle - lots of cattle. There are millions of sheep, and in places with more water are lots of cows. With such a supply of quality meat the consumer doesn't have to think twice: beef is cheapest. If you want to spend money you eat pork; there are hardly any dirty oink beasts. Sheep meat is somewhere in the middle, except in the south, sheep meat is almost for free there.
The wine area is just a small part of Argentina and Chile, but the wine they make there is of excellent quality. Grapes grow around the 33rd latitude degree. In Chile in front of the Andes, in Argentina behind it, seen from the direction of the rains. Especially in this last country it is way too dry for grapes, but fortunately they irrigate the land on a large scale. That occupation has been made into a science - here too grape growth is regulated by water to achieve the right qualities.
And that's not all. Free of French traditions and laws they make wine with targets set on quality (or ability for sales). You know I hate the elite stance of some French houses: wine either tastes good or it doesn't. Of course I'm prepared to wait a few years, but I want to be able to check on the results. I don't like wine with so much tanine I only want to brush my teeth afterwards, and 'promises to be a great one in about ten years'. I go for a modern version from the New World which you can drink right away any time.
These South Americans have traditions which would appeal to you. When you are in the Great Outdoors you start with making a fire. You keep shoving coles under the grid you brought with you (or is already there), and continually feed the fire. Everything is geared towards killing off a huge amount of meat per person before the siesta, even if grilling the food takes three whole hours. In essence you BBQ as if your life depended on it, and then you take a nap.
You know it is a sport of me to acquire the customs of the country I'm in. It brings me into contact with the people and adds to the experience of the country. And there are lots of customs to acquire!
It took quite some practice, but now I can build a reasonable fire with lena hardwood. Like the concession stands in Europe sell mayonaise, here butchers sell bags with 4 kilogram hardwood. Without these add-ons sales would drop - lena can be bought everywhere. It is difficult to get the fire starting, but then it burns very clean. And I have to say I agree with the Argentineans, the results taste better than it would when using coals of the same type of wood.
We are well fed here. Every day we have a decent meal - in a culinairy sense we hardly have bad luck. We can't complain in between the highlights. Let me describe a handful of peaks:
CO 1. The very first bike day was an immediate hit. From the Pacific Ocean to Pirque, home of the winery 'Concha y Tora'. A short trip - an easy start. When we looked for a place to sleep I spotted a grill restaurant.
"We'll try a bit of everything please", we said. Translating a menu with one of those handbooks is not easy. "Ah! A parillada", the owner said, and we agreed. We got a small stove with glowing coals, topped with a mountain of meat enough for three days.
By now we have had more parilladas. Now we know there is at least asada in it. Asada is a piece of rib meat (with ribs) not unlike spare ribs, but here it is beef. Asada is grilled slowly, so it retains its tenderness, and most of the fat is simmered out. The meat is very well done, and tastes slightly of the now removed fat.
There is also a piece of lamb meat. A bit like asada, but these are whole ribs. Not as nice as rack-of-lamb, but very tasty. A strong flavour of lamb, but not that much meat.
Chorizo sausages are present as well. In Pirque we got two - a 'normal' and a spicy one. I already ordered a 'Casillero del Diablo' Cabernet Sauvignon of Concha y Tora, so I left the spicy one so it would not spoil the wine sensation.
Another standard part of the parillada is entrecote or T-bone. Nice, but underneath that one in Pirque I discovered a fillet of beef. Some 10 centimeters long - enough for a CO by itself, especially with the CabSav. First strike lucky.
CO 2: After traveling and observing a while it was time to light my own fire beneath a piece of meat. In Entre Lagos, the last stop in Chile before we entered Argentina I arranged a grill for the fire site next to our tent. The first trip to the only butcher in town was not very succesful, but the second visit went like this:
"Hay lomo?" - "Si, en 10 minutos." I didn't understand at all. Either you have beef, or you don't. But OK, I agreed in waiting 10 minutes. The butcher called something through the shop into the street, and a man arrived. The two of them entered the storage room, and emerged carrying a quart of a cow! They maneuvered the beast onto a table, and the butcher prepared the fillet for me. I took two pieces, each an inch thick, and bought a couple of chorizos for Mirjam.
I quickly organized a CabSav, and left the fillet a bit more rare than in Pirque (the stove not only kept the meat warm, alas). Even Mirjam now likes lomo. A self-induced CO gives a different sensation, especially when you are in a foreign country, mucking about in the open all day, and then eating something fantastic as this.
CO 3: After the rained-out travel day and a stop we finally reached Bariloche, Argentina. Officially this is the start of Patagonia, and the weather gods have graced us with a strong wind and cold temperatures, although this is not uncommon for this region. Chilled to the bone we decided it was time for a pre-siesta lunch in a (heated) restaurant. By coincidence we stumbled upon a brand new company with a creative cook. Away from the fire place next to the tent - back in the 'civilized' culinairy world of starched table cloth and the thoughtful attention of servants.
The meal was 'just OK' (stewed sheep meat and a nice steak): actually not worth the label, but the entourage, the waitering, even the music lifted it to a CO.
CO 4: In El Calefate, near the glaciers in the southern-most tip, I figured out the difference between coals and lena. Coals burn easily, but lena adds something. A smoky sensation, without a really smoky taste. It sounds strange, but it is like the difference between a gas BBQ and coals. Oh - there will be a fire place in our Belgian garden South-America-style when we return. The fate of our gas-Weber? I don't know yet.
Because the only thing you worry about when riding in this area is evading the sheep and lambs (there is no other cattle), the ultimate piece of sheep meat is cheap. The Argentineans grill their rack-of-lamb in one piece, but the first time I stuck to what I knew. We bought a complete string, and cut it into pieces ourselves. The flat pieces are grilled in a short time (like in Turkey) on our self-made wooden fire - a quantitative CO.
CO 5: We have spent four days traveling to the falls in Iguacu. After the first two days we got stranded in a village near Parana, near the river with the same name. A few hundred souls, supplemented with the temporary occupants of bungalows, one of which we rented for one night. In the end it were three.
The second day the butcher recognized me immediately. "Hoy hay lomo!", (the first day he only had T-bone steaks for me), and he produced a complete fillet of beef. "Do you want all of it, or just a piece?", he asked. That's not a hard choice. I pointed out a piece of about 15 centimeter of the broadest part; it weighed almost a kilo. The butcher was left with the lesser parts of the point and the top. I have divided the muscle in thick steaks, cutting at right angles with the fibres.
The lena in this river area is red like the dirt. The Parana river is big: a wide area of several kilometers; we needed about 5 bridges and a (toll) tunnel to cross it. And its influence area is even wider. Large areas filled with trees that grow without irrigation, and swamps with lena trees.
I did find some wine in the village, from Norton (a big house of mediocre quality near Mendoza), but it had suffered under the relentless heat like everything else. You can't keep a wine in good condition in these temperatures. That's why Argentineans put red wine in the fridge - you hardly taste the oxydation when the temperature is very low.
The humidity is high, just like the midday temperatures. The climate automatically forces us to adopt the siesta rythm. And so I have lit the wood just after noon, as did our neighbors. The smoke of the fire wasn't like usual. A bit intenser, a bit more spicy. It added to the taste of the meat.
So I stayed off the wine - this grilled meat is the best I have ever eaten. My best CO was very pure, goose bumps and all! No sauce, no vegetables, just enjoyment!
And bravely we continue. Another traveler told us the food won't be as good as it was in Chile and Argentina. Too bad, but secretly I hope it is just this man, and we will succeed in finding the gems.
Tomorrow we go into Bolivia - strangely enough I am 'ready' for a new country. We keep you posted of our experiences.