Meeting one of Argentina's rare talents
Argentina is renowned for being the land of great steaks. But with more and more feedlot cows hitting the market, is the beef still better in Buenos Aires?
Imagine you had a friend in every city that you visited. Imagine that they were enthusiastically into food and knew the lowdown on how the city worked, that they warned you against any potential dangers and taught you how to speak that language and fed you the best of that country in a meal, all in the space of a few hours. Tonight, we are taking part in the Argentinian experience which shows us exactly that.
Started by Englishman Leon Lightman and his team from all around the world, he sheds light on Argentinian culture gained through eight years living here and pairs it with the most amazing steak (which we learn how to cook) and Argentinian wine all from the comfort of his first floor apartment (although this is set to change when he moves into new premises later this year). He also sees this as a great opportunity for people to meet other travellers that they possibly wouldn’t as they might be travelling as a couple or a small group and recommends doing this experience early upon arrival into Buenos Aires rather than towards the end.
We start the evening with some champagne, lemon juice and herbs – an unusual combination but somehow it makes sense in Argentina. Leon talks at lightning speed and when we first arrive, he is so keyed up that I wondered if he was speaking English. A former lawyer, he realised that the world of law was not for him and sold everything, including his suit for ₤5, to fund a trip to Argentina where he has stayed since. On the table is a bowl that contains mate (the cups) and yerba (the tea) and ceramic mates line his wall in a rainbow of colours.
Our first activity is one to get us in the mood for something to eat and get our creative juices flowing. Leon shows us how to fold our own empanadas using the filling ingredients already prepared for us. There is beef slow cooked for four hours in malbec (Argentinian red wine), caramelised onions also cooked in malbec, provoleta and mozzarella cheese and mixed sauteed vegetables. We separate the empanada pastry rounds and fill the centre with our choice of filling (I went for classic beef). The key is not too much or too little filling, and then you press down the sides to seal them. He shows us the traditional shapes in which to make empanadas so that you can tell what filling is contained within.
Then we crimp the edges by stretching and pulling the pastry gently and folding it over. Before we know it, our empanadas are being baked and we are onto our next round, novelty empanada shaping. There is a prize for the most creative novelty empanada and he tells us that a past winner made a ballerina pirouetting!
I get points for my regular empanada, above, but not for my strange bird creature. We get to work while they bring us our next course of food. Leon tells us that Argentineans are extremely conservative with food and don’t like any spice at all. There are three countries whose food influences the cuisine here and they are Argentinean, Spanish and Italian cuisines. However, normally spicy items like chorizo here don’t have any chilli in them.
Indeed the predominant spice flavour in the pan fried chorizo is black pepper. There is also melted moons of provoleta cheese and chimichurri which is a herb mix packed with flavour that the chef makes using caramelised onions and garlic to take the edge off them. He suggests spreading the bread with the chimichurri and then adding the cheese and chorizo to it. We follow this with our empanadas with chimichurri (eaten with hands, the traditional way) and the beef filling is fantastic and full-flavoured and the richness contrasts nicely with the fresh chimichurri.
Steak time. Now this is serious here as Argentina is known for its grass fed beef and has built its reputation on it. Leon tells us that over 80 per cent of the beef is no longer grass fed and is feedlot beef which is cheaper and, because of economic issues, it has risen to become more common. He always uses the grass fed beef and he shows us how to ask for it in Spanish.
His chef cooks the steak using the Heston Blumenthal method which involves cooking it on a very high heated pan and turning the steak repeatedly every 15 seconds to ensure that each side is cooked evenly and constantly. He also recommends us ordering our steak one degree rarer than we are used to. I eat steak medium rare so I order a rare. He tells us that most Argentinians like their steak well done.
Our steaks come out and they have a gorgeous caramelised coat on the outside. He serves it with a salad although the steak interested me much more than the salad, and I slice into the eye fillet. It is divinely rare. I pop a piece into my mouth and it is incredible. There is a lightly crunchy caramelised outer and the inside is perfectly tender and seasoned with the chimichurri. I’m in heaven and I only wish I had more room for this perfect 200 to 250g eye fillet.
Last but not least is the yerba tea made from a holly bush. Now this is a tea unlike any other. Leon shows us how to make it in a mate cup and it is made the opposite way to other teas. You add a lot of tea and only a relatively small amount of water. First you fill the mate cup up until just under the rim ...
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