If John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, had been an Argentine he would have enjoyed slices of ham tucked between bread, not beef. The pig had been domesticated since 4900 BCE. The Romans had hams since at least 400 BCE. Backpacking in England (1971 ACE) every British pub had ham and cheese sandwich – two paper-thin ham slices, one of cheese on white bread (no butter… well sometimes, rarely mustard…) I’d say it’s a good bet Montagu had ham tucked into that first sandwich.
Iberian hams were already famous when the Romans arrived on the peninsula. Wild pigs lived an idyllic life roaming free in the woods eating a natural diet of acorns, herbs, roots and legumes. Cured, air-dried and aged using centuries old methods, the paper-thin reddish slice’s intense flavors are released slowly as your mouth moistens the ham. This is not Oscar Mayer lunch meat, and I’m going to assume the Spanish slapped some Jamon Iberico between pan eons ago.
In Argentina the vast array of ham and cheese sandwiches seem odd only to tourists. In their local areas, these café standards reflect a cultural fusion that is the hallmark of the national cuisine. Spanish (Andalucía and Basque), French, Italian, and English hams all took their place in new Argentine settlements. Along with these cuisines’ love of cheeses and breads, the recipe for a ubiquitous national dish arose – tostado de jamon y queso. Yet as in any fusion, not all jamon y queso look-alike: grilled open-faced with blue cheese sauce, or with hard-boiled egg and anchovies, as a pizza topping, or a delectable gourmet creation on homemade bread are a few variations I’ve munched.
At Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s favorite haunt in northeast Patagonia, the Café Hotel Touring Club, (Fontana 240, Trelew) they’ve been serving the granddaddy of all since the 1890’s: tostado de jamon y queso – toasted, buttered, thin sliced bread with a couple of slices of ham and cheese. It’s not quite an American grilled ham and cheese but more than just cold ingredients on dry toast. A tostado de jamon y queso is best if the buttered sandwich is grilled on a ridged pan, to create grill marks, while gently pressing. The cheese should be wilting, not melting and the ham warm. It is simplicity itself and only as delicious as the quality of the ingredients. The Touring Club could use a better ham, but relaxing in its faded early 1900’s interior with a cold cerveca, or café, and a tostado, you know why Butch and the Kid felt safe here.
For breakfast at Café Flora (Avenida Illia 1690, Rosario) the carlitos de jamon is a popular item in the northeast Rio Parana port city of Rosario. Two rectangles of crustless white bread with ham, fried egg, cheese and olives is grilled to a golden brown. That might not be a typical American breakfast, but it certainly satisfies a person who seeks out cuisine that is not ordinary. With espresso it was a very satisfying start to the day. (AR$13 – US$3.50)
In Argentina’s dry, sparsely populated northwest, on San Juan City’s leafy, lively pedestrian mall, Café Capalino, (Avenida Tucuman, San Juan) specializes in another classic: a double-decker made with 8”x 8” crustless sliced bread. The sandwich is cut into four equal squares and easily can serve two people, but it’s meant for one. Many fillings are used on the upper level, but the bottom half has ham and cheese and my upper layer was lettuce, tomato, chopped hard-boiled egg and anchovies. I know what you’re thinking, but I love anchovies on anything, and so do many Argentines. This huge sandwich and an espresso, set me back AR$22 (US$6.00)
Variations on the theme of the ham and cheese sandwich abound. In Ushuaia, 600 miles north of Antarctica, popular hole-in-the-wall café Lomitos Martinica (San Martin 68, Ushuaia) makes a thin egg omelet, topped with a slice of ham & cheese and placed on a huge beef burger, or on a long roll filled with skirt steak, grilled sausage or tender fried chicken fillets, along with lettuce, tomato and mayo. I had both the skirt steak and the chicken. The combo was flavorful, satisfying and filling. (AR$21 = US$5.75) A similar variation was had at Hostel Rancho Grande Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 493, El Chalten). Their Rancho Grande Burger is a large, hand-made wood grilled beef burger with ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato accompanied by French fries topped by two perfectly made sunny-side eggs. Satisfying and fresh makes good comfort food. (AR$28 = US$7.75)
In Buenos Aires’ Microcentro, elegant, 150-year old Café Tortoni (Ave. de Mayo 825, Buenos Aires) enwraps its clients in gleaming dark wood, stained glass, good china and silver. Famous for its coffee service, the café offers a menu of light fare, including, naturally, the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich. Except this is Café Tortoni which has served presidents, celebrities and royalty for a century and a half. A simple tostado de jamon y queso can be had, but arriving on a beautiful white china plate is an open-faced grilled ham sandwich smothered in a creamy blue cheese sauce. (AR$20 = US$5.25)
The oddest variations were on a pizza and the varieties served on Argentina’s long distance, inter-city busses. The central Andean city of Mendoza may be world-famous for its wine, but to Argentines, the city’s culinary fame is its thick, southern Italian style pizzas. Capri (Ave. San Lorenzo y San Juan) is a Mendoza institution that I was told I had to try. I did, twice, but I must admit I was not impressed with their “special” pizza – a thick layer of mozzarella cheese was covered by slices of boiled ham with sweet marinated red peppers and olives. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with southern Italy, especially since it lacked seasoning of any kind. But lots of Mendozans were ordering.
Argentina’s private, long distance, inter-city busses are spacious, comfortable, modern, inexpensive and efficient. Meals appropriate to the time of day are always included in the fare. Whereas the quality of the buses is high, the food looks like its been catered by a convenience store. The entrée at dinner might be some sort of chicken or pasta, at lunchtime it’s frequently variations on ham and cheese. Besides a cold jamon y queso on buttered white bread, appetizers and extras at any meal may include: a semi-sweet “cake roll” with ham, a packaged square of a sweet shortbread with ham and cheese and/or a warm bun with ham topped by melted mozzarella, an olive and oregano.
Modern life is replacing the jamon in sandwiches with unremarkable boiled commercial ham that lacks the rich flavor of a good baked, smoked or cured ham. But a variety of local smoked hams are available from any market in the country. Argentina’s Spanish-style cured hams, the best being the jamones serranos from the Sierras de Córdoba in central Argentina, are not used in sandwiches but rather served thinly sliced accompanied by an assortment of sausages, salami, cheeses and breads. Likewise, processed cheese has invaded the nation, but regional cheeses are abundant. For sandwiches, Argentine’s prefer mild cow’s milk varieties such as Patagonia’s Queso Chubut. When quality ingredients are utilized, this lowly sandwich reaches for the culinary stars.
The modest La Cerveceria Brew Pub and Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 320, El Chalten) in an isolated Andean village in south-western Patagonia, can, in my opinion, justly claim Argentina’s Finest Sándwich de Jamón y Queso. La Cerveceria is an attractive timber and glass chalet in this enclave within the vast Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Owned and operated by three personable 60-something women (one is the brew master), they serve a stunning round, 8” grilled sandwich. The bread is a seeded homemade flat bread, like a panni but more tender (proprietary recipe). Inside are thick slices of smoked ham, ripe tomatoes and a local artisan white cheese with a grainy Dijon mustard. The yeasty bread’s texture, the smokiness of the hand-cut ham slices, the deep flavor of fresh Andean tomatoes, the rich creamy cheese and earthy mustard….. La Cerveceria raised the lowly ham and cheese to the stars. (AR$20 = US$5.50)