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.

San Augustin 3 Kake2kale

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.

San Augustin 1 Kake2kale

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!

San Augustin 2 Kake2kale

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}

From the Culinary Trail – An Appetite for Argentina Part 3

What does quinoa, salt and llamas have in common?

After Cachi, it was time to move off Ruta 40 and make our way further north in Argentina, towards the border of Chile and Bolivia .   The anticipation of a new destination was trumped by the joy of driving on paved roads.  Our car hummed along the highway towards Salta and we were finally moving faster than 40 km/hour. Woo hoo!  The scenery continued to impress us as we crossed the massive Los Cardones National Park (home of giant cacti) and peaked at the Piedra del Molino Pass (3347 m, pictured below), offering incredible views of the mountains, canyons and valleys below.  As we descended steeply into the Quebrada de Escoipe and Cuesta del Obispo, the lovely paved road turned to a narrow dusty track that clung to the cliff side.  In several spots, the road’s edge collapsed from erosion.  We descended 2200 m in a 2-hour white-knuckle kinda drive, but we managed to find comfort in the dramatic landscape and in knowing that we we left early to miss all the tour buses crawling up the same road.

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Quinoa, the ‘mother grain’

Another staple ingredient in Argentinian cooking is quinoa.  It’s a grain-like seed that has its origins in the Andean regions between Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina.   The Incas referred to it as the ‘mother grain’, while the Spanish named it Quinoa, derived from the Quechua word for kinwa.  It is a powerhouse superfood!  Incredibly nutritious, quinoa contains all 9 essential amino acids making it a complete protein, which is perfect for vegetarians. It is high in fiber (higher than most grains), antioxidants, and minerals, while being gluten free and low on the glycemic index. It also contains Kaempferol and Quercetin, which may have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-depressant effects, according to various studies.

Quinoa bake kake2kale

I started eating quinoa back in the early nineties, when it was lesser-known.  These days, quinoa is often in the spotlight.  In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2013 as the ‘international year of quinoa’! At home, I mainly prepare quinoa as a salad with sauteed veggies; but on occasion, I have added it to make a flourless chocolate cake. While in northern Argentina, it was interesting to see how the locals prepared this superfood.   My two more memorable dishes was a baked quinoa pie (pictured above), and a quinoa tower salad (pictured below). Both delicious and appealing!

Quinoa salad kake2kale

Llamas and Salt

Our destination was Tilcara (2465m), a small village about 175 km north of Salta in the Jujuy province.  Located in the Quebrada de Humahuaca Gorge (Unesco World Heritage Site), Tilcara is quaint and rustic – perfect as a base for exploring yet another fascinating part of northwestern Argentina.

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There are three must-do highlights in Tilcara! The first is La Garganta de Diablo (Devil’s Throat) hike which starts from the village. The 7 km trail takes hikers up along a striking red-rock gorge (pictured below), surrounded by panoramic views.  At the end, there is a steep trail down to the bottom, followed by a stroll along a river to view hidden waterfalls.  Then, the next top experience is the archaeological site of Purcara de Tilcara. Declared a National Monument,  it is a well preserved pre-Inca fortification located on a hillside overlooking the village.  After hiking around the Diablo and the ruins, we were famished.  This leads to the third highlight, which was dining at the El Neuvo Progresso restaurant. We felt it was the best choice in town and certainly had the best llama dishes.  Llamas (pictured below) are camel-like animals found in the Andes Mountains and used for their wool, meat, skin and transporting goods.  I seldom find llama meat at home, and while it’s not a superfood, I wanted to try it.  It was served to me in three styles – carpaccio, grilled and stewed, and all were really tasty.  The meat is fairly lean and the flavour is comparable to bison.

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Beyond Tilcara, we ventured higher into the Andes to seek out one of the largest salt desserts in South America – Salinas Grandes – covering about 8000 square kms and located at 3400 m above sea level.  To give you a comparison, this salt flat is about the same height as the Mount Etna volcano in Sicily and nearly as high as Mount Fuji in Japan.  The drive to and from the salt dessert was another big road adventure.  A short distance from Tilcara is the town of Parmamarca, which is famous for its ‘hill of seven colours’ and artisan market.  From this town, a paved road winds up the side of the valley in a ribbon of switchbacks to a mountain pass at 4170 m.  Beyond the pass is the Salinas Grandes.  All the while, we’re surrounded by huge stretches of wild and barren land.

Salinas Grandes was once a lake. Now dried up, the salt concentrations are being mined for its sodium, potassium, and lithium brime.  Nothing appeared to live or grow on the salt.   The sheer size and scale of the dessert is what makes it captivating.  The patterns and texture of the salt was interesting; but most of all, the brightness of the salt was dazzling.  One could easily kill many hours wandering around, enjoying a picnic, and taking goofy pictures…as we did.

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So, what does quinoa, salt and llamas have in common? They simply all co-exist in this wild Andes environment. When we set out to explore this corner of Argentina, we were hoping to find remote and unspoiled places with unique local flavours.  Well, we got what we wanted, and more!

Travel Far, Explore More! – {Kale}

From the Culinary Trail – An Appetite for Argentina Part 2

Cruising Ruta 40 from Cafayate to Cachi.

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Our car bounced and tossed on the single track dirt road for what felt like hours.   We were in the middle of nowhere and the urge to turn around grew stronger with every lurch and blinding bend. Then, ahead of us we saw water running across the road. Find out more, later.

If you like road trips, then you may be interested in Ruta 40 (RN40).  It is one of the world’s longest highways and is Argentina’s longest national route, stretching 5000 km along the spine of the Andes Mountains between the southern and northern tips of the country. As a fun comparison, America’s famous Route 66 is roughly 4000 km long (east to west).  Outside of Argentina, awareness of RN40 likely grew because of the ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ movie which popularized Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s motorcycle trip through South America, including RN40.   Considered one of the wildest and most remote roads on the planet, RN40 crosses 27 Andean passes (as high as 5000 m), 20 national parks, and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites. Much of the route covers desolate topography with a scattering of frontier villages.  This is not an ordinary route.

I have been fascinated with RN40 for a while. However, I haven’t had the time or means to do the entire trip, which I suspect would take 4 weeks at a leisurely pace.  Instead, I am content to drive shorter portions over several visits.  My first segment was completed in 2007 when I visited Patagonia. Recently, I cruised the portion from Cafayate, Molinos, Seclantes to Cachi.  This last trip was, without exaggeration, one of the best scenic drives of my travel life. But, in Kake2Kale style, let’s talk about the food first!   Then, I will retrace our epic drive and provide a glimpse of what I discovered.

Traditional Cuisine

One would expect the food in these remote villages of the RN40 to be pretty basic. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the meals, from traditional to fusion.  Because I was craving typical dishes, I found the local specialties more interesting. Aside from the empanadas (described in the previous post, part 1), I thought the goat soup, locro, tamale and humita were all exceptionally tasty and good value! And, they included a variety of superfood ingredients.

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I don’t have the statistics, but based on a visual survey I think there are more goats than cows in the northwest. And, judging from the amount of goat cheese (Queso de cabra) available, I think I’m right. Besides, the terroir is more suited for goat farming.  Because of the high altitude and cooler mountain weather, it is easy to understand why goat soups (pictured above) and stews are popular.

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Locro (pictured above) is a heartier and thicker stew that is made from corn, white beans, and potatoes.  It can include chorizo, beef, pork or goat. Or, the vegetarian options include chickpeas and pumpkin.

At first, I thought tamales and humitas were the same since they are both wrapped in corn husks and boiled.  But, they are different. There are variations of the stuffed ingredients, depending on the village or region; but, in general I found the following.  A humita is stuffed with a dough mixture of fresh corn, onion, garlic, and spices. Sometimes goat cheese is added.  It is most often wrapped in a rectangular shape with a tie in the middle (pictured below, left). On the the other hand, a tamale is stuffed with a dough of cornmeal and ground or shredded meat. Other ingredients could be boiled eggs and/or cheese.  The parcel is rounder and tied on one end or both ends (pictured below, right).

Now that the gastronomic highlights have been covered, the rest of the post is all about the beauty of the route.

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Wines of Cafayate

Armed with a sense of adventure and a regular rental car, with no 4×4, GPS or maps (just a few Google Map screen shots), our party of four friends set out from Salta airport and headed south (190km on a paved highway) to the high-altitude wine region of Cafayate in the Calchaquí Valley.  Although the region is not as famous as Mendoza, Cafayate’s reputation is improving.  The area is best known for the Torrontés white wine, and rarely seen canopy trellis vines. The relatively obscure Torrontés varietal is produced only in Argentina and is a genetic hybrid of two varieties – criolla and muscat of Alexandria –  brought to the country in colonial times.  As a fan of muscat grape, I enjoyed the Torrontés wines’ aromatic, fragrant and floral notes.  Sitting at an elevation of 1700 metres, I understand that grapes develop  thicker skins as protection against the intensive sunlight and radiation; hence, allowing the grapes to ripen more completely.  Besides Torrontés, other popular varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tannat and Merlot.  Most memorable and best valued wines on this trip are: i) Bodega Nanni Rosado, Syrah and Tannat Reserve, ii) Bodega Quara Malbec and Torrentes Tardio, and iii)  Bodega El Porvenir Cabernet and Malbec. Sadly, these are not readily available in Western Canada.

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The wine region’s setting is remarkably dramatic. Situated at the edge of the Andes Mountains, the massive green vineyards are a strong contrast to an area that is largely desert-like and sparsely populated.  At its heart is the quaint and sleepy town of Cafayate.  Here, sampling the Torrontés and Malbec ice cream is a must.

From Cafayate, we picked up the RN40 and travelled north to the villages of Molinos and Cachi as overnight stays.   The route is a barely maintained gravel road (sometimes grated) that is prone to flooding because it crosses river beds of all sizes.  We decided to travel in September because it is the season between the winter melt and summer rains.  We hoped for dry weather, but knew there was a risk of the road being impassable, especially since we didn’t have a 4×4 truck.  As we set out and heard there was a storm brewing, I secretly wished we had rented the more expensive all-terrain vehicle.

Molinos and Colomé

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When driving the RN40, it really is the journey that matters and not just the destination.  The terrain along the drive between Cafayate and Molinos is surreal, particularly through the Quebrada de las Flechas (Canyon of the Arrows) around the 4308 km marker.  As far as the eye could see, jagged rock formations reached sharply into the air – like arrows – to heights of 20 metres. The strange landscape was covered with pink and ochre colours, depending on the sun’s angle during the day.  As we drove, the lunar-like topography felt like a scene from a sci-fi movie.  Believe it or not, UFO sightings are frequent in the area!

After a punishing and dusty 3-hour ride (including photo stops) that covered 116 km, we made it to Molinos.  But, we were not done.  We deviated off the RN40 and continued to drive another 24 km to Bodega Colomé on a more inferior road.  It was on this drive that I contemplated turning around. I really thought the suspension would break or the wheels would fall off with all the grinding and bumping of the car against the road. The water that crossed the road, which I mentioned in the opening, turned out to be minor.  We persevered and hoped there were no deeper streams ahead.  Luckily, there were none.  It felt like hours but it took one hour to drive 24 km. When we arrived, my first thought was – ‘why build a winery in the middle of nothing and make it so hard to get to’?

Founded in 1831, Bodega Colomé is the oldest winery in Argentina.  It was purchased and restored by the Hess family in 2001.   Of all the Hess wineries (US, South Africa and Australia) it’s their Colomé estate and wines (biodynamic) that are the most unique. With vineyards at elevations between 2300m – 3000m, Colomé is also famous for having the highest altitude wines in the world. Yes, the wines were good and we carried a 2012 Malbec (special lot, 2600 metres) back to Canada; but, the most impressive part about the winery is their amazing art museum.  The owner, Donald Hess, built and dedicated this museum to the works of James Turrell, an American artist specialising in light and space.  The James Turrell Museum opened in 2009 featuring 9 experimental installations which can only be visited by appointment and accompanied with a trained art guide from the Bodega.  On the day of our visit, there were only a dozen visitors (not surprising considering the crazy road) and six of us had the museum to ourselves.  Upon leaving, I understood why Hess rebuilt Colomé.  He, like me, appreciated the remote beauty of the area; however, I’m guessing he takes a helicopter to get there!

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Molinos (pictured above) is a tranquil and pretty town with colonial and adobe houses.  Despite its charm, Molinos felt like a ghost town with its abandoned streets.  Stranger than that, were the corner doors in buildings.  The few people we met could not shed any light on the design and a Google search turned up empty.  For now, it remains a mystery to me.

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Seclantás and Cachi

Carrying on from Molinos, we drove along the RN40 and passed more beautiful barren landscapes on route to the village of Seclantás and the ‘artisan route’.  Both are slightly off track from the RN40 but worth the detour to visit the homes of weavers selling their beautiful goods.    The main products were hand-woven ponchos, blankets, scarfs, and shawls made from llama, vicuña or alpaca wool.

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The last town on the RN40 that we visited and stayed overnight was Cachi (2280 m).  It was the antithesis of Molinos. The streets were abuzz with people strolling, shopping or dining.  There were kids riding horses, artisans selling their wares, and families gathering at sidewalk cafes.   Tour buses filled with day visitors were part of the mix, likely because of Cachi’s proximity to Salta, and most of them were Argentinian.   Even though Cachi is livelier, it retained its primitive charm.

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The distance that we drove along and off the RN40 was only 250 km. Relative to the size of Argentina, this is a short distance.  Reflecting back, the slow speed of travel on the relentlessly bumpy road was a blessing.  The pace encouraged us to soak in the views and stay longer.   As expected, the things that amazed us were the endless big scenery, the rough road, the simple villages, traditional cuisine and the isolation.  What I didn’t expect was the silence, the beautiful silence of nothingness.  When we were leaving Cachi, someone told us that the local government had approved to pave the road.  My heart sank….when they finished paving, the silence will be lost.

Travel Far, Explore More! – {Kale}


From the Culinary Trail – An Appetite for Argentina Part 1

In Praise of Salta & Jujuy.

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There’s something about Northwest Argentina that is hard to define. Vast. Mesmerizing. Remote. Diverse. Unforgettable. These, to me, are the best ways to describe the region, particularly around Salta and Jujuy.  I love Argentina and think it’s one of the more unique countries to visit. It is not overrun with tourist but offers good travel value, and experiences are still authentic. People’s first impressions about Argentina are about tango and beef.  They would miss out if that’s all they wanted to experience. While the country is receiving more international travellers, most of them are unaware of the special spots around Salta and Jujuy.   Having already travelled to Argentina’s other popular areas, like Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Patagonia, and Iguazu Falls, I feel the Northwest’s countryside is far more interesting because it’s undiscovered. There’s nothing I like more than being off the grid in a destination.

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Why is this area appealing? The top experiences are all in the higher altitude backcountry of the Andes.  These are places where time stands still and landscapes have infinite horizons.  The scenery is a feast for the eyes.  You cannot miss seeing the eerie rock formations, massive valleys and gorges, mountainsides covered with giant cacti, multicoloured slopes illuminated by the sun, salt flats that stretch forever, wild vicunas or llamas grazing,  rustic adobe villages and preserved Inca ruins.  Each place we visited contrasted with the next. We drove along winding dusty dirt roads and through dried river beds for hours with few cars in sight. Some of the mountain switchbacks were a bit nerve-racking when steep, single lane tracks were at the mercy of soil erosion.

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Beyond the arid and deserted mountains, but closer to Salta, we discovered fertile valleys with beautiful bodegas, vineyards, tobacco plantations, and colonial estancias or haciendas where gauchos ride Paso horses.  The setting is simply stunning.

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Although a good problem to have, it felt like the scenery was overwhelming and too much to absorb in 10 days. To really appreciate the distances and stops to soak in the local culture, I recommend 15 days if you like having the freedom to explore by car.  Aside from the visual stimulation, some of our nicer moments were because of the warm hospitality from the locals.  And, the regional food and wine really surprised us! Over several upcoming blog posts, I will share some of our more memorable moments.  One of them was our obsession with empanadas – we had them daily.

15 Days of Empanadas

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Empanadas are stuffed pastries that have a Spanish origin and are a traditional dish in many Latin American countries. The name is based on the Spanish word “empanar” and roughly means to coat or wrap with bread.  Empanadas differ slightly from country to country. In Argentina, the empanada is typically made with flour-based dough, not corn.  There are also variations in different provinces. In the Salta region, these pastries are called empanadas saltenas and are baked, not fried.  They are commonly filled with ground or cubed beef, chicken, goat, llamas, or ham.  Other ingredients include cheese, onion, boiled eggs, cumin, paprika, olives, peppers, potato, and peas. OK, some of these are superfoods so I was satisfied.

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I have always liked empanadas.  Perhaps it’s because I like anything that is wrapped – perogies, gyozas, dumplings, wontons, samosas, etc.  There are other wrapped food in Argentina, namely tamales and humitas; but, I’ll save that for another post.  Knowing that I was going to be in a country of empanadas, I vowed to have them every day.  And so I did, at least once a day for 15 days!

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Driven by curiosity, every empanada I had was different with a range of fillings.  My favourite had ground beef fused with blue cheese. There were empanadas of varying sizes but I liked the smaller ones the best – easier to eat more! Some empanadas were accompanied by sauces of which the spicy red pepper was the most popular. More or less, all the empanadas looked pretty similar, but interestingly, some were decorated with a branding iron.

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I was told the key to perfect empanadas is in the baking.  The oven had to be super hot!  No matter where we were on the trip – small settlement or large town, modest or fancy house – we always saw a mud or clay oven (wood burning) outside the homes.  Sometimes, I saw empanadas on BBQ grills.  Then, I discovered that there are special stainless steel ovens built for emapanadas, which can bake them at 450C!  The penny dropped – Argentinians are very serious about their  empanadas.

I wanted to learn how to make empanadas and signed up for a cooking course, but to my disappointment, it fell through.  Instead, I was given a local recipe passed down from generations, which I have yet to try.  I hope I can live up to the standards of this recipe. When I make them, I will blog it!

Travel Far, Explore More! – {Kale}