I am on the shore of Lago Buenos Aires, in front of a crackling fire on a beautiful autumn evening (late April) in Los Antiguos. At a southern latitude equal to Quebec City (Canada) in North America, it is 70 degrees one month into Argentina’s autumn, but the fire feels nice now that a breeze off the lake chills the air. After a 13-hour bus ride from El Chalten on Argentina’s legendary (mostly unpaved) Ruta 40, through the near-desert steppe of Patagonia, entering this oasis of alumina trees (cousin to poplar), cone laden pines and the startling blue of Lago Buenos Aires is surprising. It doesn’t matter what you read, reality is always more intense.
Los Antiguos is one of the lucky regions on Earth – a microclimate – those areas that possess an environment warmer than they deserve given their latitude and/or altitude. In Los Antiguos’ favor this means a rich agricultural area for fruit with dozens of profitable farms. Being on one of the nation’s most beautiful lakes, Lago Buenos Aires, certainly doesn’t hurt.
A mere 1-1/2 miles from the Chilean border, in the foothills of the Andes, at an altitude of 700 feet, Los Antiguos is the cherry growing capital of Argentina. In January they celebrate with the National Festival of the Cherry. In October, their cherry blossoms blanket this village of 2,500 people. In summer, the population swells filling the modest number of hosterias in town with visitors from Argentina and Europe but less than 1% from North America.
Having visited a number of beautiful Argentine towns, I am surprised that Los Antiguos isn’t more developed for tourism. I saw only a small number of lake-side summer homes and a half dozen nondescript hotels in town. The Hosteria Antiquo Patagonia is the only hotel on this vast lake, at the town’s entrance, but it’s a gem! There is only one road into the village from the closest larger town, Perito Merino, with bus service from Route 40 making it not as attractive to tourism. From mid-May through September (the Andean winter) nearly everything related to tourism closes. Yet its climate remains moderate with winter temperatures rarely falling below freezing and summer topping out at 80 degrees.
It’s a paradox because this is a retreat, but if it was more accessible it wouldn’t be a retreat. There are no dramatic mountains to trek and, although I’m told there are some good restaurants open in the summer season, what is available now is nothing to write about – decent but not exciting. Yet there’s a peace that I would seek if I were a busy Buenos Aires professional who desired a mid-winter escape in front of a crackling fire on a beautiful lake…but you know what’s said about having fantasies fulfilled.
From September through April, you can visit most of the farms, the “chacras,” but I had the great pleasure on this beautiful late April autumn day of having a personal tour of Chacra Don Neno.
Dona Malu Cienfuegos met me as I walked into her garden. She was not expecting me. She simply saw me from the glass wall of her kitchen where she was jarring one of her many creations from the fruits and vegetables she and her husband, Walter Treffinger, grow on their 15 acre farm. Dona Malu is the 4th generation of Cienfuegos’ to own and farm Chacra Don Neno.
I already knew that Chacra Don Neno was one of the few Los Antiguos farms that remained open all year for visitors to purchase products. Naturally, seeing that in the first month of autumn so much of Los Anteguos was closed for the season, I assumed Don Neno would be a tourist store with everything but “real” food.
Assumptions are made to be broken. Dona Malu’s store is a small structure stocked full of several dozen chutneys, jams, conserves, escabeches, honey and liquors. Many are old family recipes. Everything, down to the herbs that flavor these incredible creations, is grown on the farm.
I set aside 7 items – (1) Escabache of Mushrooms with onions, tomato, garlic, herbs, oil and vinegar, (2) olive spread, (3) preserved cherries, (4) Dona Malu’s grandfather’s cherry liquor, (5) calefate berries in gin, (6) a marmalade of tomatoes and walnuts and (7) a mixed berry jam (all for $35.00).
Dona Malu asked why is an American visiting Los Antiquos? I explained my mission and handed her my card. She immediately beckoned me out of the shop to her fields. With her English as basic as I knew Spanish we communicated on a food level just fine.
My first question was about pesticides. “NO!” was her strong response. Pesticides, fungicides and non-organic fertilizers are unnecessary in this microclimate and rarely used by any Argentine farmer. Particularly in this microclimate there simply are no pests. Water for the fields comes from the Rio Mayo that’s fed from the glacier water of Lago Buenos Aires through a system of irrigation canals.
In garden-like arrangements, Dona Malu showed me orchards of apple, cherry, apricot, figs, raspberries, strawberries, as well as Andean varieties that are cousins of these soft berries, quince, Andean melons, sweet and hot peppers, almond, hazelnut, rose hip, rosemary, basil, wormwood (the herb basic to vermouth), oregano, edible flowers, the plots for tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, onions, garlic and other vegetables, lavender, asparagus, anise, horseradish, grapes, fava beans, and thyme. All the plots are protected from any harsh winter winds by towering alumina trees, cousins to the poplar. Dona Malu cooks and jars her creations in a small, pristine kitchen with modern commercial equipment and showed me a new, larger kitchen facility under construction.
Organic is a word used for tourists; Argentines accept it as the norm.
To read more about Argentina – this fascinating 5th largest nation on Earth – you can visit my web site: http://www.travel-with-pen-and-palate-argentina.com/