From the Culinary Trail – An Appetite for Argentina Part 4

Long live the Gaucho Way!

At the end of our lengthy road journey around the Andes (described in my parts 1 to 3 previous posts), our party of four wanted to unwind and try another quintessential experience in Argentina, that is – staying at a horse ranch and enjoy riding the gaucho way.  For me, it had to be a genuine guest ranch and we were thrilled with our stay at Estancia San Agustin, which is no ordinary B&B.  It is the old world kept real! Without a doubt, it was the ‘local’ highlight of our trip. It is worthy of a dedicated post.

With its white chapel, tiled verandas, thick adobe walls, and hand-hewn rafters, Estancia San Agustin still looks very much like the colonial estate it was in the 18th century.   The head of the household, Carlos, along with his wife La Negra, and their staff went above and beyond to make our stay amazing++! Their warm welcome and hospitality made us feel right at home.

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Beautifully situated in the countryside, about 25 kms south of Salta, the sprawling estate has been part of the family for centuries.  Carlos and La Negra’s children have been married onsite, as they did and their ancestors before them. Rich in history and character, San Agustin is very much their home and not purpose-built for tourist.  We were grateful that they opened and trusted their home to us and other international visitors.   Every massive room or space is graced with beautiful colonial decor – family heirlooms, art, tapestry and furnishings.

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The house alone would make this Estancia worth a visit; but, San Agustin is also a working ranch for Peruvian Paso horses.  These horses are a special breed known for their gentle, smooth-gaited ride.  They were first bred in the 17th century in Peru as a cross between the Jennet, Barb and Andalusian horses which were brought to South America by Spanish Conquistadors.  The Paso horse has an elegant prancing gait, allowing for a comfortable ride whether in a trot or gallop.

Carlos has been breeding Paso horses for 26 years.  He knows the name and personality of each of his many horses, and loves them like family.  Carlos told us that they are a very tame and elegant breed.  This we found to be true.  When we went into the corral, his beloved Paso horses sauntered over to meet us and many nuzzled us affectionately.

We were invited to ride with Carlos in the country-side and farm lands that he owned.  Indeed, the ride was incredibly smooth and comfortable.  Our horses were very responsive to our lead and I felt they enjoyed the ride as much as we did.  I now understand Carlos’ affection for his beautiful Paso horses. I share it too.

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As we rode, Carlos told us about the gauchos and their long distance rides on Paso horses.  Gauchos are the Argentinian version of a North American cowboy.  They are excellent horsemen and worked at estancias to herd cattle.  Gauchos were a celebrated way of life in Argentina during the 18th to 19th centuries and are today an important part of the country’s folk history!  However, we got the impression that the gaucho culture is alive and well in these parts. But, whatever you do, don’t call them cowboys!

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During our stay, we were also treated to exquisite home-made meals.  The most memorable was the Asado which was personally prepared by Carlos.   No doubt, you’ve heard about Argentina’s cattle and tender beef.   For the gauchos living a nomadic life on the wild plains, grilling meat was their main way of cooking.  Today, an Asado is the name given to a style of grilling or BBQing and also refers to the social event where the BBQ is the focal point.

As explained by Carlos, the Asado is prepared several hours in advance when he slowly reduces a fire to hot coals.  The coals are placed under a grill in a rectangular shape to create a gentle but even heat.  On the side is a reserve of additional coals that can be added to keep the grill hot for an extended period.  Carlos continued to tell us it is important that meats are cooked slowly and at the right temperature. While he cooked, we sat around his grill socializing and watching the meat cook to perfection.  Although not superfood-related, it was wonderful to get the real Asado experience! That night, we feasted on scrumptious sausages, steak and tenderloin.

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For dessert, there were two distinctly memorable dishes that we enjoyed at the Estancia which we didn’t see elsewhere.  The first was a dish made with spaghetti squash and sweet syrup.  Spaghetti squash is a superfood and contains lots of nutrients – folic acid, potassium, vitamins A and C.  The other dessert was dulce vigilante, a plain cheese topped with candied fruit such as quince or prunes (pictured below, lower left).

On the topic of desserts, other notable sweets that we tried in Argentina (and not necessarily at the Estancia) include dulce de leche (sweet milk) products such as cookies or cakes (pictured below, upper right).  We also had churros (deep fried fritters) in plain or chocolate (pictured below, lower right).

Although coffee goes well with all these desserts, I preferred to have coca tea (pictured below, upper left).  It is a herbal tea made from leaves of the coca plant, native to South America.  In case you didn’t know, coca is used to make Coca-cola products.  But, you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that coca plants are used for making cocaine.  But, chewing or making tea from the plants’ leaves do not produce any cocaine-related stimulating effects.  Instead, coca is rich in nutrients and has potential health benefits. Its alkaloids help to reduce body fat.  Its inulin can boost energy.  Its high concentration of vitamins and antioxidants are beneficial for the immune system. Coca also  aids in oxygen absorption which helps ease indigestion and altitude sickness.  I consider coca a superfood!

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Staying at Estancia San Agustin was the perfect end to a wondrous and memorable trip in NW Argentina, where nature reigns and time stands still. We felt the pull of the open road and loved it. The art of being authentic is perfected in this part of the country.  However, it may not last.  Our visit coincided with the region’s largest travel trade show which attracted international tour operator buyers wanting to develop packaged tours.   The truth is, NW Argentina is an up-and-coming destination so my advice is to visit soon, before Ruta 40 gets paved and mass tourism hits.

Travel Far, Explore More! – {Kale}