Buenos AiresWords Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus
Life doesn’t get much better than when you’re spending a Sunday afternoon in La Boca, one of Buenos Aires’s most notorious barrios (districts). A football match at La Bombonera stadium, home to Diego Maradona’s former team Boca Juniors, has just finished and the streets are teeming with jostling fans, all heading for the pizza joints of Avenida Almirante Brown. They’ll feast upon pizza a la piedra (thin crust) or al molde (deep crust), fugazza (onion-topped focaccia) and faina (chickpea dough flatbread), all washed down with copious amounts of beer or the excellent local red Moscato wine. Football and pizza – two of Argentina’s greatest loves, and they really do devour them both with a passion.
Settled by Genoese immigrants in the nineteenth century, La Boca is an old dockland area famed for the bright Mediterranean colours of its houses, originally built from corrugated iron and other discarded materials from abandoned ships, with washing hung out to dry on swaying lines across the balconies of its streets. While it is beautiful, it also attracts coachloads of tourists, especially to the famous Caminito, a narrow cobbled lane that takes its name from a famed tango song penned in 1926, that’s filled with restaurant touts, portrait painters and tacky trinket shops. It’s worth choosing your time to visit carefully.
But football and pizza aren’t the only obsessions of the Porteños, or ‘port dwellers’, as the 14 million inhabitants of this city are known. Tango is also a constant fascination. Like Portuguese fado, the American blues and Greek rebetiko, this sensual music was born out of the poverty on the streets when compadritos (street toughs) still fought over their women and carried knives and guns in their pockets. Ignore the expensive tango clubs of San Telmo, with their choreographed shows, and head for the hidden milongas (dance halls) around the barrios. This is where the real spirit of tango survives, as elderly and young couples alike turn out in pinstripe suits and split skirts, brilliantined hair and bouffant hairstyles to relive the glory days, dancing to the haunting music of Carlos Gardel, Ástor Piazzolla and other famous tango stars.
The great rush to Argentina began in the 1880s. Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms, impoverished Italian peasants and Basque and Galician farmers all escaped the harsh reality of their lives by emigrating to Argentina. Herded onto ships out of Europe, they were then shuttled by rail to work on the vast estancias (ranches) of the Pampas without family or friends. Unable to buy land, most returned to Buenos Aires to fill the conventillos (tenements) of its overcrowded barrios, before eventually becoming the middle-class Porteños of today.
Now, Buenos Aires remains a patchwork architectural anomaly of different European heritages – early colonial Spanish churches, Victorian-style British railway stations, austere Italian Fascist-style public buildings (see the Ministry of Defence), and French-style Art Nouveau apartment blocks of the Barrio Norte all reveal the city’s former glory.But it’s in its food culture that the city really comes to life. It’s fascinating to trace the varied influences that inspire BA’s pizzerias, bodegónes (wine taverns) and parrillas (grill restaurants): everything from the traditions of the Spanish tapas bar, the Neapolitan pizza shop, the Peruvian cebicheria and the British-style colonial club bars can be seen. Like Singapore and Barcelona, two other great cities I can think of where the inhabitants are obsessed with their food, the Porteños also all have a firm opinion of where to find the very best pizza and pasta, ice cream, seafood and meat dishes. Every barrio has thriving local street markets, artisan bakers and confiterías (pastry stores), as well as knowledgeable fishmongers and fruit and veg shop owners. But if you’re a food lover on a short break, you must take the time to absorb the most important topic of all, meat, which Argentina is famed for – specifically beef, every conceivable cut (and many unmentionable offally ones you’ve never even heard of) grilled to perfection. To understand how deeply ingrained this love of beef is in every Argentinian, you have to go back to the era of the Peróns, who ensured beef from the famed Pampas was cheaper than any other meat (as it still is), and it’s now taken for granted by most Argentinian carnivores that they produce the best grass-fed beef in the world.
The smell of charcoal smoke is everywhere – in the numerous parks where carritos (food stalls) set up their grills to cook chorizo for choripán (sausage sandwiches) and in the parrillas that are in every neighbourhood. The diet of practically every Porteño is almost wholly based on meat (they eat more per head of population than any other nation), with every part of the animal being cooked on the asado (traditional barbecue) and grill. Most meals at a typical parrilla start with offal, such as riñones (kidneys), lamb or goat chinchulines (small intestines), tripa gorda (large intestines), brains, liver and morcilla (blood sausage), simply seasoned with dried oregano, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon.Then it’s on to the best cuts of meat, traditionally cooked slowly over quebracho (a native hardwood) and charcoal: asado de tira (short ribs), bife ancho or ojo de bife (ribeye steak), lomo (tenderloin) and bife de chorizo (sirloin), to name just a few. There’s also always whole suckling pig, lamb and chivito (kid), which you’ll see splayed, crucifix-style, onto iron crosses and slow-grilled until it falls off the bone over an open fire of embers, and, as an afterthought, the odd salad and grilled vegetables. The first time you try such a feast, you feel as if your stomach’s going to explode, but after a few days of such meals, the onslaught bcomes irresistibly welcoming.
If your time is limited, just make the pilgrimage to El Pobre Luis, one of many meat temples. Here, the chef and owner Luis Acuña, who’s actually from Uruguay, raises the art of cooking meat to new heights. He’s also one of the few to age his beef for up to 15 to 20 days.Argentina is also justifiably famous for its local criollo (Creole) dishes, such as matambre (‘hunger killer’), a stuffed flank steak traditionally taken by gauchos (Pampas cowboys) in their saddlebags, empanadas (savoury pastries) and humitas en chalas (corn purée wrapped in husks). But for most Porteños it’s the thrill of the grill that remains a romantic reminder of life on the Pampas plains. Throughout the city’s parrillas, chefs dressed as gauchos tend the open charcoal fires that, for many, recall the origins of open-range cooking of this great country’s history. Porteños also like to shop, and the Sunday ritual that is the San Telmo flea market is the best place to hunt for antique bargains. Around the crowded streets and squares, there are plenty more nostalgic reminders of the past – old tango posters and gaucho prints, empty soda siphons and sailors’ scrimshaws, and imported European antique furniture that once graced the grand apartments of the city.
All the restaurants here are filled with families eating Italian pasta and Spanish tortillas and paellas, reflecting their immigrant origins. The scene here perfectly encapsulates the energetic vibe of this spirited and sensual city.