Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Convento San Ramon Nonato

“Let us take lunch again in the monastery garden at Convento San Ramon Nonato”, I say to Maria Cristina, my lawyer friend from Recoleta.

It is nearly five years since we last met here for lunch, and you may read about it in an earlier blog. You will recall its history: ‘the place where in 1806, the Spanish immigrants of Buenos Aires gathered to swear allegiance to their cause - the removal by force of their recent British overlords. After 46 days of occupation, William Carr Beresford was forced to surrender to the Spanish general, Santiago de Liniers, and the Rio de la Plata was returned to Spanish control’. 

Today, the Order of San Ramon stands surrounded by banks with its church to the right side, the cloisters being open to the public for the service of midweek lunches either in the large cool dining room, or from white linen covered tables in the cloisters garden.


We meet early at 1230 pm. Lunch in Buenos Aires generally starts just before 1 pm, and will last through to 3 pm or beyond. We wish to beat the rush and have the pick of the garden tables before the bankers, lawyers and office workers arrive. And so it is, for when we get there few tables are occupied and we have our pick.

Lunch comprises both a la carte menu and ‘menu executivo’. We opt for the latter, providing a three course meal with wine at 330 pesos (on today’s exchange rate between £12-13) and start with cheese Milanese followed by pork, chicken, beef, fish or salad. To finish we each select a large chocolate mousse. It has to be said that unless you venture a la carte, lunch is a basic but filling meal. Yet in one of the prettiest enclosed gardens in the city, simplicity is appropriate. 

Today being sunny and fresh the benches scattered through the garden are occupied, and small groups of friends and colleagues sit on the grass. Some have brought lunchboxes, others simply lay back to enjoy the mid March warmth.

It is hard to imagine the busy streets of the microcentre surrounding the convent, traffic congestion in nearby Corrientes, the Reconquista bank deliveries, Florida and Lavalle thonging with lunchtime shoppers. Here, that press is replaced with a calm oasis where the only sounds are the hum of fellow diners, birdsong and the tolling of the convent bell.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Mindfulness, awareness and tango

Until I danced Argentine tango I was a ‘feel-aware’ skeptic. Touchy-feely nonsense of mindfulness - what had that got to do with real life that normal people lead?

Tango changed all that. Or did it?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, pioneer of modern mindfulness, says that mindfulness is “a form of meditation.” “To be mindful is to be aware”, he says. “It is to be acutely aware of the here and now, of your sensory perception, of your breathing and of the sounds around you. It’s an awareness of the feel... of the floor’s touch on the soles of your feet, and of the quiet”.

His definition of mindfulness is in fact a description of Argentine tango.

Argentine tango is very different from the exaggerated ballroom tango that you may have seen on ‘Strictly’ or ‘Dancing with the Stars’, just as chess is different from dominoes. Teachers of tango struggle with experienced ballroom and Latin dancers who regard the floor as something to be ‘crossed’, rather than ‘possessed’ as they extend upwards, float and lean from their axis.

In Argentine tango, the floor is the vital grounding mindful element - the importance of ‘the floor’s touch on the soles of your feet’ being the first lesson for tango dancers. The tanguero learns to walk like a panther, pressing his feet into the floor, arriving on the toe or heel, but instantly descending to the ball of the foot. This forms an essential moment of arrival. It is a mindful moment of which Argentine tangueros are indeed mindful.

The ‘partner relationship’ of Argentine tango involves another dimension of mindfulness. 

A tradition of tango is that dancers will dance with many tangueros at a milonga (the social at which tangueros dance) - some they know, others as strangers. They start a ‘tanda’ - three or four consecutive dances that will be danced with the same partner - with an ‘embrace’, essential to understand the lead and follow, that is outwardly imperceptible. In the course of the tanda with a stranger you may get to know their name if you ask between songs, and maybe where they are from if you share a language. But by the end of the tanda, you part, still as strangers, but with a sense of mindfulness of each other and the shared experience - to seek another tanda with a new partner.

In the first song of a tanda a leader will dance simply, gauging his or her partner’s balance and mass, their skill, experience and capacity, their responses and preferences. In the course of the remaining songs, the dance develops in complexity, dictated by the music, its rhythm and structure. As different instruments of the orchestra emerge the lead may switch from the basic rhythm to the solo instruments or singer, changing both mood and storyline of the dance.

You may see professional tangueros dancing to non-tango music (and inexperienced pastiche dancers emulating them); but Argentine tango should be danced to tango music. At the turn of the twentieth century the music arrived first and migrants to Buenos Aires and Uruguay created a unique dance to accompany it. Tango songs have a structure of which experienced tangueros are mindful. For the true tanguero, the music creates an essential ingredient of mindfulness.

So, the music is crucially important, as is the capacity to recognise, understand and know the orchestras. A tanda of Biagi and one of Fresedo will have an altogether different and unique feel from each other. One played by a live orchestra will offer different possibilities from a pre-recorded version. True tangueros never neglect it; they are totally mindful of its power and significance.

The ‘embrace’ is unique to tango. When two tangueros come together, they close the embrace, and the magic mindfulness of tango happens within it. As an observer, you will see the footwork, perhaps playfulness, or challenge, but rarely the feeling within the embrace. In social tango this is a completely private moment, experienced and understood by the embracing dancers. It can be enormously powerful, involving a connection of mindfulness between two people that exists only within tango. 

The final element of tango mindfulness is ‘the moment’. A ‘tanda’ presents a journey. Yet that journey is neither conceived or understood at the outset, or indeed during it. Tangueros live in the moment. It may be a moment of silence, of stillness; or a giro (turn); a sacada (possession of axis), a boleo (removal from axis) - all unchoreographed moments in which the tanguero transitions seamlessly from one moment to the  next.

When you next think of sitting and being mindful, doing nothing apart from thinking of your own awareness, why not simply dance tango? It will certainly be better for you, and you may indeed enjoy it. But mind, the mindfulness of tango is addictive and you may forever chase that ‘perfect mindful moment’.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Milonga de Juan

Milongas: after years of survival of the fittest, even some of the survivors have disappeared. Confiteria Ideal at Suipacha 384, El Arranque at Bartolome Mitre 1759, Centro Region Leonesa at Humberto Primo 1462,  Milonga La Nacional at Adolfo Alsina 1465 - who would have thought that they would ever close?

But milongas still survive and thrive at Associazione Nazionale Italiana, Adolfo Alsina 1465, a location that has inherited Yira Yira and Los Consagrados from Humberto Primo. A new event here is Milonga de Juan, held each Wednesday afternoon from 3 - 9 pm.

Stephanie and I arrive just after 4 pm and are led to the prime table in the centre of the front row across the pista from the bar and backing the stage. Tonight, organiser Juan Angel Rosales is not present, so his tasks have been delegated to assistants. The salon is animated, but lightly populated, giving room to extend and to dance.

There is something special about afternoon milongas, particularly those in Buenos Aires. The atmosphere is more relaxed, with a feeling of fun. They are more recreational and less intense than their evening counterparts. Of course, they attract a different clientele - clearly those that do not work on a Wednesday afternoon. That said, with the welcome addition of tango tourists, the demography is not ancient - let us say, ‘simply mature’.

To feel our way into a milonga, Stephanie and I dance the first tanda with each other. It happens to be our favourite vals. An advantage of dancing together at the outset is that it presents us and our respective skill sets to watching tangueros, who then discern whether or not to cabeceo and mirada either of us for subsequent tandas. In this regard we need not have been concerned, for as the afternoon unfurled, we danced almost continuously.

A feature ot Milonga de Juan was just how friendly the regular attenders were, and how accommodating to us as tourists. At several points in the afternoon, local tangueros came to chat and share a moment of their time. 

For those looking for an afternoon milonga, look no further. Milonga de Juan is a great and well needed addition to the milonga circuit and should feature on your list of places to dance when you next visit Buenos Aires.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Return to Feria de los Mataderos

Assiduous followers of this blog will remember my last trip to the feria in November 2013. It is time for our return visit, today a romantic trip for Stephanie and me, our friends who were to accompany us have drunk too much wine in their jacuzzi last night.

Topping up the Sube card in Independencia, a stroll to Bolivar/Chile takes us five minutes; thence to board colectivo 126 which runs the 51 stops over 14 kilometers right out to the feria.

I should tell about the colectivos for those not familiar with the transport system here in Buenos Aires. ‘Colectivos’ are the public buses that cover every part of the city. Radiating out from the centre and initially sharing routes, they gradually gain exclusivity as they reach the outer barrios. Linea 126 starts at the APM terminal at the port district beyond Retiro, and runs via Monserrat, San Telmo, Caballito, Floresta, Parque Avellanida to Mataderos, terminating a few kilometers beyond at Cementerio Armenio de San Justo. Our Sunday journey will take just over an hour. The cost 6.75 pesos each way.

In el centro, the colectivos rush down one-way calles and avenidas between traffic lights, slowing only for the deep storm drains at intersections. Once out of the central barrios, still within the urban sprawl, our colectivo maintains a central lane, careering to the near side only when a passenger pushes the bell. With a split second to avoid collision, taxis, cars and trucks grind to a halt behind, only the motorcycles managing to swerve to maintain their progress.

As we reach Av Juan Bautista Alberdi we hit the cobbles - not the bone-wrecking type of San Telmo - but deep sets worn smooth by decades of traffic, providing a percussive drumming as we speed to our destination. The cobbles are as British as the rail terminals, old docks and post boxes here in Buenos Aires, for they were ballast in the holds of English ships arriving to collect Argentine beef. As we progress, the bus flashes with bright reflected sunlight from passing shop windows.

We reach Directorio 6000, and know that the feria is our next stop by the Anfiteatro de Mataderos and Skatepark to our left. The few passengers that remain decant into a sundrenched street. As five years ago, there is a hunger-inducing smell of parrillas on the morning air as asadores tend white bloomed charcoal in drums and long trays piled with cooked sausages and every cut of beef. 

Access to the feria is via Av Lisandro de la Torre, a wide avenida that is soon cut by barriers, indicating the start of the market. As we approach via the edge of the park, locals have spread white sheets bearing all manner of items, some home-made, others collected, or simply surplus to requirement. It is a chaotic boot fair, with families gathered together, drinking Mate and squinting under makeshift shades.

The formal stalls of the feria are quite different. To our left is one that is covered with steel and silver scabbarded knives - the decorative facóns, dagas, cuchillas and puñals of the gauchos. Over the way another stall is laden with bottles and drums of olive oil. Now we are about to pass a local craftsman tapping intricate patterns into Mate cups and opposite a stall selling traditional alpargatas.

The feria is awash with visitors. This being 4 March, the first day of the new season, most are locals with only a few tourists in evidence. The language is Castellano, not English, and the main currency is the peso not the card.

Before we reach the main square, we can hear the music. The feria is a folk event, so the tunes are those of chacarera, chamame, chamarrita, zamba. The dancers are already in the square. We spot our favourites from our previous visit. Aged a little, the crevices on their faces deeper, perhaps their stepping slightly slower, remarkably they acknowledge our arrival with a smile and wave. 

They are dressed in traditional costume, the men with deep-pleated pantalones held up with a cinturon de gaucho, the wide leather belt, frequently decorated with coins; the women in ankle length dresses with swishing petticoats. 

Here too is a new generation of dancers. Folklorique, once unfashionable with the young, is developing a new status, returning into the schools and providing a gateway to dance performance. 

The sun is hot, and before dancing, we call at Antigua Casa Galli at Lisandro de la Torre 2413, a store de ropa de trabajo and talabarterias so traditional that it has neither email nor web presence, reminding me of Charles Batten milliners in Soho London where in the 1970’s I worked as a student. With help from the proprietor and his elderly mother I select a traditional sombrero to team with my Aux Charpentiers bombachas. 

Three chacareras in the midday sun are quite enough for Stephanie and me, so we make our way to the adjacent asado where the Asadore directs his assistants away and leaves his coals to serve us himself. Glancing at my new sombrero and old bombachas, he declares that, for a gentleman gaucho, my copa de vino is free without charge and shall be served in his personal copa bronze, rather than a plastic cup. 

The lomito beef is so tender and succulent that our asadore’s knife slips through effortlessly. Sitting in the shade of huge Jacaranda trees, with a spoonful of chimichurri and copa de vino our meal is perfect.

We listen to the folklorique bands, then stroll the return journey via Av Lisandro de la Torre towards Directorio, dropping down to the junction with Murguiondo for the diverted linea 126. Taking the off-side back seat as is our custom, we sink into silence, perhaps due to the generous copa de vino, or simply having danced in the sun, whilst holding hands and reflecting on the joys of our day at the feria.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Morning exercises for tangueros

Perfect for dancers, especially tangueros and tangueras.  Leave a message below to say how you got on with the simple but effective exercises from Sophie at The Soma Room.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

13 Fronteras

What do you do with flyers that come through the letterbox? Normally, they are irrelevant to life and go in the bin.

But there was something about this flyer that stopped us in our tracks. It was not that the chef was from Washington DC (wherever that may be). But inspirational plates with novel ingredients? Could this be possible here in San Telmo? And so close by - right next to Origen, our favourite walking-distance cafe for breakfast.

When you go out for a meal somewhere new, you take a chance. We had walked by earlier glimpsing through the windows to a spotless kitchen and sharp interior. “Yes, let’s give it a go, and let’s see what David Soady the chef can serve up that will excite us”.

Going straight to the point, this proved to be the most interesting and exciting meal of any we have eaten in Buenos Aires: a masterpiece of composition, flavour, interest and appeal.

As fairly discerning ‘foodies’ Stephanie and I like to arrive early, before the rush and crush - generally the ingredients are fresh at opening, as is the cook. And so it was shortly after 7 pm that we walked into 13 Fronteras, to be greeted by Senor Soady. Here the kitchen, and the magic that happens in it, is an open part of the deal. You get to see the preparation and cooking of precisely what you are going to eat. And you get to chat with David, chef, owner and inspirer of 13 Fronteras. 

With few other customers so early, we were able to monopolise David’s time - and using my lawyer’s skill and Stephanie’s guile, to interrogate him about his restaurant. We could now describe how the restaurant was inspired, and tell about David’s history since he left Washington DC and arrived two years ago (via El Salvador) in Buenos Aires. We gleaned that he had worked at Aramburu, one of South America’s best restaurants here in the city before opening 13 Fronteras in San Telmo on 10 December 2017.

But we would rather tell you about the food.

The menu at 13 Fronteras is quite simple. Gone is the impossible multiple choice of dozens of dishes. Here you have a choice of 13 mains. For alcoholic drinks, there is beer or red wine - making our selection of La Puerta Malbec from Famatina a simple and delightful task.

After much deliberation, Stephanie chose la churnea, a white fish caught of the coast of Buenos Aires Province, served boneless, together with chunos and toasted maiz mote. The dish, pictured here on the first plate, was utterly fascinating in flavour and composition. This was fine dining at a totally accessible price point. 


Pictured on the second plate, I selected porchetta, delicious succulent pork, cooked whole, then portioned and served at the prime moment, so prepared to tender perfection. 

We had opted for a pavement table nestling beneath a Jacaranda. As dusk fell, David returned to introduce us to the desert menu. By now, having understood the potential magic of 13 Fronteras, we simply left it to our chef to make our choice. David returned with coca panna cotta with hibiscus for Stephanie, and for me a desert with a surprising range of ingredients, including those that could never be guessed. “If you tell me what is in them, you may eat here for free for the rest of your lives”, David jested. Stephanie and I agonised for 10 seconds, before simply succumbing to the deserts and giving up on the task. The combination was perfection - like Argentine tango, the panna cotta being light as an upper body giro, the mystery desert being rich, vernacular and grounded.

What I have not managed to capture here was the fun of the meal, with its additions and San Salvador tones, courtesy of Cristabel, David’s San Salavadorian wife. Having David almost to ourselves was a bonus, but the conversation, guessing and tasting provided a special experience.

13 Fronteras is now number 1 on our list of Buenos Aires delights. When you arrive in the city, ensure that your first visit is early, for you will surely want to return. 

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Bond and Moneypenny in Buenos Aires

Planning to visit Buenos Aires, or maybe a regular visitor here? Then you should check out ‘Bond and Moneypenny in Buenos Aires’ a blog account of their exploits in the city, taking you with them to new places, milongas, restaurants, cafes and more.

Simply follow the link, and click to follow the blog. With this recommendation, what have you to lose? 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Salon Canning and Orquesta Romantica Milonguera

There are fringe milongas; and there are posh ones. Salon Canning (or just Canning to its regulars) is definitely one of the posh ones.

Canning is less favoured by this vernacular tanguero; yet there are times when it is fun to dress up, hail a cab, arrive in style and dance until the early hours with the glitterati, the polished Canning crowd. Tonight is one of those nights.

It is 11pm, and we have just finished celebrating another milestone at our dance school, when our dance professor insists that we join him for a night out at Canning. We are already dressed and equipped with our best dance shoes, so the invitation is timely. Moreover, Orquesta Romantica Milonguera is to perform there at 1am, after which there will be two dance performances. So moments later we collect in 9 de Julio, flag down two cabs, and race towards Av Cordoba and the journey to Scalabrini Ortiz. 

Canning is one of those iconic milongas that seems to have been there always. Its history is a little cloaked - its name does not register in the list of famous milongas of the Golden Age - but every self-respecting tanguero (and those that aren’t) ensure that they dance here. 

Spilling from the taxi, we join a short queue to obtain our 150 pesos entrance ticket. Around us magnificent milongueros hug their friends, as well-heeled milongueras disappear into the banos to change into their dance shoes. On entering, the room is packed. It is hard to discern a single seat, let alone a free table, but Patrick has used his influence to pre-book the last remaining place, right in the corner of the salon. 

Those arriving at Canning are inspected as they process to their tables. Milongueras in tight fitted dresses slashed to the thigh look disdainfully, whilst the old milongueros, too busy with each other’s egos, hardly notice our arrival. If you are somebody in tango, Canning is a definitely place to be seen; a smart club of mixed age group that tolerates the groups of foreigners that flock to dance here.

Settled, with sparkling water, Stephanie accepts my cabeceo and we wind our way to the dance floor. Along the route we teeter between close packed tables against which innumerable chairs are crammed, each overflowing with an occupant. We angle our bodies and tip-toe through to the pista. There, the line of dancers seems never ending, but a thoughtful tanguero nods to invite our entry, and we are sucked into the outside lane.

Late last year, Francesca reported the demise of Canning’s ceiling. During a sudden downpour, water and plaster rained onto the floor and tangueros scattered. Tonight, all is restored, with new lighting and bright white walls to replace the yellowing paint. At the head of the room is the iconic mural, a photo-montage depicting the notables that have frequented this place. Elsewhere, bright coloured pictures grace high walls above the sea of tables. 

Busy Friday nights at Canning require the art of producing a joyful dance for one’s partner - whilst moving defensively to avoid inadvertent collision. The floor is so tightly packed that all movement is confined to immediate personal space, and even this is under constant threat from those behind or in an adjacent lane of dance.

The first song over, we have advance but four metres. Ochos, ocho cortados, and giros become the staple diet of the Canning floor. Walking, which was the mainstay of Golden Age tango, is almost impossible here. Our tango world has shrunk from that of Mariposita to a micro world where every movement is condensed, shortened, tightened and to my taste, restricted. I intercept my giro as I sense the closeness of the dancers behind. 

It is now evident why tonight Canning is so densely populated, for we pass an area, usually filled by tables, that has been cleared for the orchestra. Pink blouses and black suits identify the performers who have gathered to one side for photographs. Orquesta Romantica Milonguera is currently the darling of the milongas, having taken Buenos Aires by storm in 2017.

Sometime after 1.30 am the orchestra performs, and the floor floods with tangueros and others. Buscandote, Oigo tu voz, Solamente Ella ring out like bells across the floor. Tomas Regolo leads from the piano, Roberta Meagli, nursing her bandoneon, looks up and smiles; Roberto Minondi and Marisol Martinez arrive simultaneously at the microphone to sing. 

Whilst Orquesta Romantica Milonguera’s sound is distinctive, it is Marisol that seduces the audience. As in the Golden Age, where the vocalist would not appear until half-way through the song - it is said, because to do otherwise would result in the women standing to look at the handsome singer - Marisol will often make a late appearance. When she appears, the floor before the orquestra congests with desire as both men and women watch longingly. 

Later, as two professional couples give back-to-back performances, we struggle to watch through the press of standing dancers. It is time to leave. With our dance shoes tucked away in dance bags we nod to Andreea, and step out together into warm night air. Somewhere distant, a clock chimes 3 am. A taxi pulls up and we board. Now racing along the calles and avenidas, slowing only for the storm drains, we head back to San Telmo. Andreea is humming Fueron tres anos; dawn light appears just above the horizon. We all picture Marisol and re-define our tango love.

Orquesta Romantica Milonguera
Lucas furno: Violin
Luli Christe: Violin
Sara Ryan: Violin
Oscar Yemah: Bandoneon
Ricardo Badaracco: Bandoneón
Roberta Maegli: Bandoneón
Juan Miguens: Contrabajo
Tomás Regolo: Piano

Marisol Martinez: Voz
Roberto Minondi: Voz

Friday, 9 February 2018

Finding Friends in Buenos Aires

Facebook friends, and other blog readers will already have discovered my ‘other’ blog.

Its title might suggest that you should be of a certain age to read it. In fact not. If you are over 50 years (or may sometime reach that age in the next decade) the blog is for you. If not, it is still a good read to inform you about your parents’ and grandparents’ outlook.

Here is the link. Pop across and check it out. But don’t forget to return here for the next tango blog from Buenos Aires. Next time we will be visiting and contrasting two famous milongas - Salon Canning and Lo de Celia. Now, there’s a contrast! Which will win?

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Its time for asado - Buenos Aires style

It is time for an asado.

Asado is taken very seriously here in Buenos Aires.”How is your asado?” is the third question that a woman will ask a prospective fiancé after “are you solvent”, and “are you generous or mean”. Unless she is a tanguera, when the only question is “can you dance tango?”.

Fortunately for me, Stephanie is more interested in the butcher than my asado skills. Jose, Pascual y Gascon have run unit 54 in San Telmo market for 40 years without a break. Part of the fabric of the market, they are always thrilled to see Stephanie and hear her request. “Un bife de lomo”, says Stephanie to Pascual, at which he will scowl with mock disbelief, dart furtively into the chill store and return with a smile and 600-800 gms of pure beef filet.

One of our first purchases on arrival in Buenos Aires was a small parrilla (pronounced ‘par-y-sha’). For this we went to Casa Bella, Independencia 1502, a hardware shop in Monserrat stuffed with every kind of device from the ‘patio portable’ to huge 2m long grills opening into brick chimneys. We opted for a small, slim grill that would sit on the roof and be easily protected from rain. Armed with a 4kg  bag of organic charcoal from the grocers in Defensa and a fistful of twigs retrieved from beneath the plane trees of Paseo Colon, we were set to asado. 

In less kind climes, lighting the parrilla can be a tortuous task. Here in Buenos Aires, with long summer days, it is relatively simple, for the metal and tiles of the grill are already hot from the sun. The ‘art’, apparently, is to nest the charcoal - spaced so that it can breathe, but sufficiently close that it will catch and spread. When the bloom of ash is evident on one side of a coal, simply turn it to allow contact with the other side. Once lit, the next imperative is to open your first bottle of Malbec and pour a glass or two. Rushing an asado can be fatal: you need at least 30-45 minutes of steady, quiet, smokeless, ash-covered coals before dreaming of adding meat.


Barbecue in Britain tends to be an unseemly active affair. You will see men (for it seems to be a ‘male thing’ to light fires to cook meat) in a sweat, rushing pieces of chicken from scorch to safety, or flapping at flames as dripping fat catches. 

Here in Buenos Aires, movements are molecular. The asador will stir as if from deep contemplation, to squint at the asado. He will breathe deeply to summon energy, perhaps sing a phrase or two of Fresedo, then rise purposely. Unless absolutely necessary, the meat will stay exactly where it was placed, simply to be turned when needed. Cooking asado is slow; leisurely. The charcoal may be hot, yet the rack for meat is spaced well away. My Porteno asadors tell me that beef matures with slow cooking, producing a crisp outer skin and soft, succulent, moist interior.

Asado for Stephanie and me has an added joy of a rooftop view across the barrio to Puerto Madero and San Nicolas. The scene before us extends for two kilometers over 200 degrees. Above, the sky is a sparkling azure blue peppered only by the swifts in aerial displays, racing teams of green parakeets and the odd dove settling into a tree. Below, countless roofs of inumerable homes; and occasionally from one of them the tell-tale spiral of smoke from another asado.

Today we are serving the filet of beef with salchicha parrillera, pinned spirals of sausage grilled for 30 minutes or so. The beef will cook for as long as needed. With this is the mixed salad of lettuce, tomato and red onion. Red chimichurri is essential. 

As is another bottle of Malbec. This time, being on a 6th floor roof, we chose a ‘high altitude’ Mendoza, stunningly delicious from the effect of night-time thermal amplitude. Manuel Louzada of Terrazas de los Andes explained the significance, 
“During the day the plant produces, via photosynthesis, carbohydrates that are taken into the berries. Throughout the night, respiration takes place without photosynthesis, consuming some of the carbohydrates and other organic compounds. The lower the night temperature and, therefore the bigger the thermal amplitude, the lower the amount of these components consumed during respiration, resulting in more intensity of the grape expression due to a bigger richness in the berry of these components, that affect colour, aroma and palate structure.” 
Well, now you know!

Stephanie asks, “Is it the Argentine temperament that makes the asado, or the asado that forms the Argentine ways?”. I look at her lazily and gaze into my half-full glass of Malbec, “Both, I reckon, but right now I am feeling particularly Argentine”.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Sunday in San Telmo

‘Hielo, hielo’, is the call from Calle Defensa. I peer down from the terrace to spy the white-coated icecream vendor threading his way through a mist of colourful tourists. His box hangs from his shoulders on broad leather straps that were used by his father before him. The sun is still hot, so his trade is brisk.

Either side of the street the traders have their stalls. Early, about 8 am, we heard a gentle clanking on the cobbles, indicating that the market overseeers were busy setting out the metal frames and wooden benches. The sound, hardly discernible, was familiarly in a soothing way than disturbing. By 10 am the scene had changed, with advancing pools of tourists seeping, then pouring into the street. From time to time they pause, only to pulse forward when a channel appears.

It is now after 4 pm and the lone Argentine singer who stood away from the sun in the shadows has given way to amplified sounds of a singer, guitar and drums in San Lorenzo. Judging by the waves of applause he (or they) are surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who he is unsuccessfully teaching to clap a rhythm. They must be English. 

In fact the English presence here in San Telmo is sparce, new visitors preferring the seemingly safer barrios of Palermo and Recoleta. English accents from around the world are however ubiquitous. It is the principal language for stall traders with those not bearing the tell-tale Latin signs.

Shortly, our performers will be driven from the street by the San Telmo drummers, a band of about thirty who, as dusk gathers, process along Defensa every Sunday when not raining. They dress for carnival, with aerobic extravagance as they turn and spin.

Of course, Stephanie and I pass them at a pace. Our destination is not their rehearsal carnival, but the real street milonga in Plaza Dorrego. Here we will dance tango on the polished tiles of the square for an hour or so until Pedro (El Indio) Benavente calls the Santiago del Estero folk dance of Chacarera,  now learned by all Argentine children. 

At this point, we too slip away, along deserted Sunday night streets, and back to the lights of Independencia and home.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Bar Los Laureles - Golden Age of tango

Have you been to Bar Los Laureles?

Deep in Barracas, southern barrio of Buenos Aires, there is a cafe. It dates back to 1893 when it was a hotbed of socialism and tango. Later in 1940 Jose Lomio, the famous tango singer known popularly as ‘Angel Vargas’ started to sing at the bar, and since then singers have come from across the southern barrios of Buenos Aires to sing here.

It is Friday night - open mic night one might call it in London or New York. But the very term seems to steal the true-tango-authenticity of Fridays at Los Laureles. The songs are tango - of the Golden Age singers Carlos Gardel, Alberto Moran, Angel Vargas, Armando Laborde, Virginia Luque, Pepita Avellaneda. They are tango at its very best, some of the resident and visiting singers having sung for a lifetime, as professionals and enormously talented social singers.

We meet with Moneypenny and Damian to board colectivo 24 to Herrera, then on foot to Av Gral Iriarte 2290 Barracas. Stephanie and Moneypenny sit towards the front of the bus, whilst Damian and I stand by the wide open window that allows in cooling air. Green traffic lights are in our favour, and number 24 careers through the intersections, the windows of closing shops and opening cafés flashing past in a blur. 

Av Gral Iriarte is a suburban boulevard which we recognise, in contrast to the rest of Barracas, by the long slim garden that divides the road. Just before the railway bridge on the left is ‘Los Laureles’. Tables have been gathered close below the street windows, and already locals sit there with copas de vino, beers and empanadas. Nearby, a mechanic and its owner appear to dismantle a car’s carburetor and momentarily Los Laureles is lit blue by the flashing lights of a passing police car. 


The bar’s owner takes us to our table by the dance floor. Finding that we were tangueros, this place was reserved specially for us. To our left shellac resin and vinyl spins on the turntable of the analogue radiogram. Its Pugliese, his plump face peering out at the room from an old crumpled photograph on the album’s cover. We have come early for Yuyu Herrera’s tango class, but we need not have rushed - here in Barracas we are definitely on ‘Argentine time’. 

With the change of mood to Osvaldo Fresedo, Moneypenny accepts my cabeceo  and we take to the pista. Odd tables are now occupied, yet we dance alone. ‘Los Laureles’ is not a place for show. Here, in the traditions of the barrio, tango is totally grounded, feet barely leave the floor, movement is unhurried, continuous and seamless. We dance in close embrace, receiving approving smiles from faces by the floor and beyond the windows in the street. Shortly, we are joined on the floor by Stephanie and Damian and the evening has started.

Within three tandas a small, fiery woman bearing a shock of curly black hair appears in the room. In a place that has seen no sudden movement since the 1950’s, her arrival amounts almost to consternation. The music switches to a Canaro beat, and she corralsher students into groups of ‘beginners’ - and ‘the rest’. Yuyu darts to a window to repel staring chicos with the sweep of her arm; then as if by magic, she sets the beginners to walk - the most important skill of the tanguero - and we (the rest) are invited to embrace. Argentine tango is a dance that requires contact, a proximity so close that the follower can understand the lead from the partner’s breath and torso. 

Stephanie and I hold each other in the perfect embrace before moving to the next partner and a new embrace. Here in Buenos Aires, it is often visitors that have an issue with the embrace; Portenos simply relax into it. After all, it is part of the culture. If one wants to learn Argentine tango and become truly integrated as a tanguero here, you simply have to release any aversion to hugs and rotation of partners.

Before Yuyu takes us all onto the giro (the tango turn) she admonishes a couple for talking and lines up her students in a column, as if for a Greek Sirtos; but these steps are those of the turning giro. Within seconds we are all proficient - including the new beginners. Then it is the moment for, two, three-four, five. Yes, we have got it. And the class finishes with applause. 


I need not take you, my reader, through the menu, the taste of the Malbec, nor the finale of fabulous budin de pan with dulce de leche and cream. In truth, one does not visit ‘Los Laureles’ for gastronomic delight. We are here for tango. And so it is now that a small, compact man in a black pinstripe suit and shiny shoes seizes the microphone. 

You must understand that everything about ‘Los Laureles’ appears in time-lapse, so even the microphone dates to the 1950’s, it’s platted cord extending from the radiogram plug. In his hand is a single sheet of paper bearing names in a neat hand - those who are to be called to perform. At this moment, we are transported back to the 1930’s and 40’s as one-by-one traditional silver tango singers, and young handsome men with slicked back jet-black ponytails arrive to sing their favourite songs. A lone guitar player sits to one side, the warmth of his accompaniment visceral in quick moving fingers on the fret. 

Just like the projected images of old film that flicker on one wall, the evening turns sepia; time slows to walking pace; a little shudder of a breeze moves dropped blossom from branches in the boulevard; yet another police car sales past - quietly as if not wishing to break the spell. Small groups of local men and women occupy outside tables to enjoy both song and night air. I feel that time is rolled back, and with it, I sway like a seaweed frond in a moonlit swell. Time now has no significance or meaning.


We dance, just the odd couple of dancers to accompany the singers, our movement directed by their orchestration; we express in dance what they sing. I feel a touch to my arm and turn. A young man stands before me and speaks in Castillano. Will I dance a tango with his mother? She has not danced since his father died, and apparently I remind her of him. She is tiny, but in tango this matters not. As we dance she comes alive with memories,  fitting for a night at Bar Los Laureles. Her face is wreathed in smiles as I take her back to her seat and give her son a hug. The pinstripe man reaches the end of his list,  and we feel a sense of loss. It is as if another century is stealing back its place. 

Outside, a taxi waits, it's meter ticking. We board and speed through Barracas streets, now deserted and in shadow from the moon. Then there is the moment that we cross 9 de Julio, the road that divides the city. This tells that we are nearly home. Bar Los Laureles seems a distant dream, but most definitely one we shall remember. 

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Maldita Milonga with Lucia y Gerry

It is Wednesday night. For those living in, or visiting San Telmo, this is the night for Maldita Milonga at Peru 571. 

Dressed casually, Moneypenny arrives promptly at 2230 hrs. Today temperatures have reached the mid 30’s and it is still warm from a day of uninterrupted sunshine. Helpfully, a Buenos Aires breeze whips lazy pools of daytime air and spins them into the darkness.

Stephanie and I join Moneypenny on the stairs to descend to Defensa, and then to wind our way through the San Telmo streets, passing cafés, restaurants and bars to which the early night revellers have repaired. There is a softness about the evening. San Telmo is unhurried. Few cars pass, here a taxi sails by looking for a fare, now colectivo 24, then a lone cartonero pushing his trolley of boxes. We walk in silence, soaking up the evening, from an open doorway hearing the sound of jazz, voices laughing, glasses chinking. A jacaranda tree, now almost devoid of purple flowers, is in full leaf swaying gently to what appears to be the same tune.

Maldita Milonga is one of those ‘must-do’s for visitors to Buenos Aires. It is a milonga with a difference: that difference being El Afronte - a very different tango orchestra. Those of my regular readers will recall my blog from November 2015 in which I recorded Sara’s last tanda in Buenos Aires. It was here at Maldita that Sara experienced the full energy of a tango band for the first, and the last time. Her final Facebook post read, “We sat directly in front of four passionate, highly energetic and totally absorbed bandoneon players. I felt as if my whole body was electrified, especially when they played their final Pugliese track, La Yumba! The effects of the powerful live music felt indescribably healing”.

Tonight we are meeting with friends at Maldita. Friendship is a privilege, and few come more handsomely than Lucia and Gerry  They are arguably Buenos Aires’s most authentic tango teachers and delightful people. As tango’s Golden Age came to an end, tango was forced into concealed recesses of ‘underground’ milongas by governments that feared public meetings of any kind. The famous milonguero Oscar Casas managed to collect the reminiscences of old milongueros (teenagers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s), and his set of lunch-time video recordings captured their stories about tango. 

If you go to 6.15 in the Almuerzo Milonguero Part 4 video you will hear reference to ‘La Flaca Lucia’. This is Lucia Seva - who became their very favorite milonguera. Alito says, “She lives and feels the moment” Neli replies, “Yes, that is a milonguera!” What better reason could there be to learn from the only living link that carries the traditions between then and now? 

These days, whilst coaching more experienced tangueros in the ‘milonguero style’, Lucia and Gerry also successfully steer non-dancers and new tangueros on their tango journey to tango competence. As part of the experience, they escort their students to a variety of authentic milongas, of which Maldita is one. 

We join Lucia y Gerry and their students at the table marked ‘Reservado Lucia’ - which is all that is needed in San Telmo. Some students have come straight from their tango lessons in Balcarce. New dancers will be taken to the centre of the pista to get their first feel of a milonga; the more experienced tangueros will be introduced to some of the lesser-known codigos. 

I receive a hug from Gerry, who I first met in 2007 on my extended visit to Buenos Aires. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the tango orchestras, and one of the larger collections of popular and obscure tangos. Chatting to Gerry takes one back to the 1920’s to1940’s - the golden era of tango music, when orchestras toured the regular salons in the city, and milongueros only ever danced to live music.

Shortly, Gerry and Lucia take to the floor surrounded by coloured marker lights. From a dark corner, Gerry checks with a following tanguero, and receiving a nod of approval to enter the pista. Theirs is not the stage-effect tango of performances; it is keyed to the floor, in close embrace, totally connected and seamless. No show is necessary. The joy of watching is to see tango as it was always danced - and within the milonga, always should be. Within moments, they slip from view. We crane our necks to catch further glimpses, but they have gone, swallowed up by a turning tanda. 

It is now 11pm and movement on the stage behind us foretells the arrival of the orchestra. A tanda finishes; suddenly there is darkness. I count the seconds, then the crash. Lights burst into a host of colours - bright intense, and sallow dark. The shadows are ripped away and there is the orchestra - tonight eight performers, fronted by two bandoneons, with three violins/violas, cello, double bass and piano. Within four more seconds the singer Marco appears. He has sung with the orchestra for over a decade and is an integral part of their sound. 

El Afronte are not for the faint-hearted. Their sound is magnificently aggressive. Each instrument takes its share of percussion, so that their songs pulse with primeval energy. We feel the reverberation through the floor and it rises almost to the chest. Anything that will resonate does so. The bandoneons grind their way, and violins chase to catch up. At the end of the first song dancers take to the floor. Theirs is a different tango - one that expresses angst, sorrow, joy and decision. 


With an emphasis on Pugliese style, this orchestra is not the easiest to mark. Inexperienced dancers find themselves beached during changes of rhythm - or those moments when the music moves from bright-light to dark-obscure. Tango music has always had this quality, but El Afronte magnify the contrast to a point that requires total dance-absorption-awareness. Those that dance well to the performance are those experienced in the dramatic art of tango; accompanied by those who cannot spell the word ‘disinhibition’.  

Stephanie and I watch; but no El Afronte performance would be complete without dancing a tango. We select a quieter song that offers less drama and feel our way out onto the pista. At this moment we sense that we have truly arrived in Buenos Aires. Laura, Maldita’s organiser smiles from the shadows. We hold in close embrace. Stephanie’s Katrinski flats caress the floor. And I breathe in the moment.

We will stay until almost the last tanda played by the DJ following El Afronte’s departure. It is now 2.0 am. We reach the bottom of the staircase and the streets of San Telmo are deserted. Distant is the sound of a siren, wailing on limpid air. I link arms with Stephanie and Moneypenny as we walk the length of Peru towards Independencia and home. 

With thanks to Lucia Seva for the photos