Tag Archives: international food

The Idyllic Life of a Sandwich – Jamon y Queso in Argentina

The inventor himself (1718-1792)

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.

Hams for sale in Madrid, Spain

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.

Cafe Hotel Touring Club, Trelew, Argentina

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.

tostado de jamon & queso

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)

ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg & anchovies

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)

Lomitos Martinica, Ushuaia, AR

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)

Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires

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.

Left: ham & cheese pizza, Tight: ham & cheese stuffed bun

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)

La Cerveceria's incomparable Jamon y Queso

Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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The Best Entertainment in Buenos Aires

And it’s free!

The western barrio (neighborhood) of Mataderos in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is host to the incomparable Feria de Mataderos.

Once the meat-packing district, this barrio on the edge of the Pampas rocks every weekend year round to the sounds of folkloric music and dancing, A-list performers, artisan foods, crafts and antiques. It is a must for any visitor especially since few guide books even mention this treasure!

The Puna – Produce Garden of Hawai’i

    

Top Left: Papaya, coffee beans, avocado. Bottom Left: unknown, Asian cucumber, Cacao pods

 

I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.    

Hilo Market

 

Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.    

For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.    

    

As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along.  The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market  is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!    

Top pics: sweet potato cheese cake and "what is it?"

 

The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !    

    

The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.    

Tradition meets SPAM and Loco Moco: popular island breakfast

 

The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.    

Macadamia: green from tree, dried and shelled

 

Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.    

    

The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.

Yiddish in the Pampas

 
   “We planted wheat and grew doctors.” Argentine Jewish saying
Estancia La Cinacina, San Antonia de Areco

For a tourist, the Pampas present an endless flat grassland punctuated by small, nondescript towns and immense fenced estancias, many still owned by families that are a “who’s who” of Argentine society. Traveling through the Pampas is akin to driving through Nebraska. As often as possible during my many trips across the Pampas, I traveled on comfortable overnight buses knowing that I was not missing any “sites” during the 1,000 mile journeys.

Yet at day break, even bleary-eyed and looking out a bus window, I cannot deny the beauty of these grasslands bathed in the pink light of dawn, gossamer layers of mist hovering over the ground and the black cattle – herds of them – dotting the fields.

grasslands of the pampas
Gauchos are nomadic horsemen riding the plains, following herds of cattle – “cowboys” who developed their own code of honor, music, machismo and myths. Fiercely independent, they wore black hats and wide belts, and always carried a well-sharpened knife – and they still do.
gauchos

As befitting an immigrant nation, the Pampas attracted its own unique settlers. Like the United States, Argentina actively recruited immigrants to fill the vast and empty country. Eight hundred eighty-four Jews arrived in 1889, escaping persecution in Russia, without tools or provisions in a geography far different than Eastern Europe.

Months later, William Lowenthal, a Romanian Jew, surveying the countryside for the Argentine railroads, discovered a ragged band of settlers living, literally, at the end of the line. Having been transported to the sparsely populated northern Pampas, they were stranded and their meager savings were soon exhausted. Lowenthal found them subsisting on hand-outs from workers extending the line.

Appalled, he urgently appealed to the Baron Mauricio de Hirsch, banker to the Hapsburg dynasty, philanthropist and builder of the Orient Express, the legendary rail link between Paris and Istanbul. De Hirsch immediately came to the aid of the impoverished settlers. This was the beginning of the first Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina: Moises Ville (the Village of Moses).  

 With an endowment of $450 million ($13 billion in 2017 dollars) the Baron de Hirsch created the nonprofit Jewish Colonization Association. Between 1891 and 1932 the JCA purchased  one and a quarter million acres  in the provinces of Santa Fe, Buenos Aires as well as watery Entre Rios for Jewish settlement.
entrance road to Estancia La Cinacina, San Antonio de Areco
The Jewish Colonization Association gave each family a 200 acre homestead, a mortgage, a few cows and some chickens. Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, many with beards and side curls, were transplanted to Spanish-speaking, Catholic Argentina bringing the Torah, pickled herring, building wooden synagogues and becoming farmers and ranchers of the vast pampas.
farm tools
Jewish gauchos, playing guitars and sipping mate, could be seen strolling the village plazas in the Argentine colonies. Where there had been a wilderness, the pioneers built schools and libraries, hospitals and theaters, synagogues and agricultural cooperatives. The 72-minute documentary, Legacy — produced by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation — is the second best experience other than traveling through the pampas. 
horses always ready

Despite an element of antisemitism, which seems to be fading since the terrible events of the early 1990’s, Jewish-Argentine society has prospered, but most of the Jewish towns in the Pampas either no longer exist or have lost their Jewish populations. In the post World War II years, the younger generations migrated to Buenos Aires for educational and professional opportunities.

Today the Jewish community in the capital is over 200,000, and you can eat kosher pizzas or grilled Argentine beef at El Pasaje Resto & Bar and at dozens of kosher delis and shops in Buenos Aires.

 Food does bring people together.  

You can read more about Gauchos and the Pampas at my web site: www.travel-with-pen-and-palate-argentina.com

 

 

     
 

 

 

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Welcome to the ends of the Earth

Welcome to the ends of the Earth… 

 

 …and to your own backyard. Travel with Pen and Palate Blog will soon post on organic food in Pennsylvania, an ode to the ham and cheese sandwich and an essay on Jewish gauchos in Argentina.  

 

Many childhood weeks visiting grandparents in Florida and wandering the South of the 1950’s excited a life-long desire to travel. Summers spent in our ancestral village in Canada stirred a love of discovery. A year of university in Ireland, nine years working in Puerto Rico, travels throughout Europe, the Caribbean Islands, Central and South America, southern Africa and South East Asia has infected me with the incurable desire to have fun learning about other cultures.
Six months exploring over 15,000 miles of Argentina while creating the web site www.travel-with-pen-and-palate-argentina.com cemented the fun of sharing experiences through vivid personal essays.   

Thirty-five years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality world, and as a Chef/Educator, coupled with a diverse educational background, helps me focus on the kaleidoscope of images a traveler experiences every day.

As a chef, the question’s not only “what’s to eat?,” but rather “is the food grown/raised local?,” “who makes the best comfort food,?” and “most adventurous dishes?”

What makes the local area unique – what culture/diverse backgrounds did the residents come from? What traditions did they bring to a new land?” The more I travel the longer the list of questions, which makes the journey more exciting.   

Travel with Pen and Palate will apply the same sense of wonder whether writing on a great craft market in New Jersey or catering a Good Friday meatless buffet in Tierra del Fuego.

Travel with Pen and Palate  is a magazine without borders.

 

Chef Marc d’Entremont

Member: American Culinary Federation

 

Header photo by Marc d’Entremont : Alaska dawn, September 2010