Thursday, 31 October 2013

Maria Fedele

A night away from tango means 'let's go out for dinner'! So tonight, we are heading for a special meal at 'Maria Fedele', at the time of writing in Bolivar 933 - three blocks away from our home in Chacabuco (now Adolfo Asina 1465).
Passing on the way back from the micro centre, we had noticed the lace curtains of Maria Fedele, with the glow of soft lighting and candles beyond, and the tanned, relaxed faces of Portenos dining there.
This is a small, family run business, with forty covers in pairs, fours and groups. The entrance is narrow and leads straight from the street. Outside, a trusted retainer waits to ensure safety on entry. To the right is the bell, and the door will be unlocked for visiting diners.
Inside, the single room extends back to a bar area, beyond which is the kitchen. Waiting is done by members of the family, with the owner as head waiter. At the turn of the 20th century many Italian families like this made their way to Buenos Aires for a new and prosperous life. Clearly, we have a reservation and as early diners, are given a choice of tables. We choose the single against the window that looks back out to Bolivar and beyond to the San Telmo Mercado.
Here at Maria Fedele there is no point in looking for a menu. Typical of traditional Italian restaurants, the meal is set for the day, and diners eat what is prepared. The set price of 180 pesos (£12.40) provides a meal of four courses and fourteen dishes and an aperitif.
We start with antipasto - and here we are speaking of a collection of eight plates, including two hams. The aubergine with parsley is divine, and the pate smooth and buttery. The art is to resist the bread, for the meal with bread would defeat all but the most devoted gastronome. Our taste buds are zinging, and we order a Reto Malbec 2011 as a treat.
Between courses, we glance around the restaurant. To the left, mahogany shelving containing the wines rises high to the ceiling. Here too are pictures of the family - and above us to the right is a montage showing it's history from the arrival of the owner's grandparents, seated centre-stage with their progeny spreading out to the edges. At the far end of the room, next to the bar stand the iconography - Mary and baby Jesus, with the effigy of a priest in full robes.
After the antipasto comes the pasta dish. Tonight it is spaghetti with a light tomato sauce, tossed in a bag full of mozzarella with fresh basil. It is served in a bowl large enough for four, and the danger is to try it all. The pasta is beautifully al diente, giving a soft-crisp feel to to tongue.
Whilst diners have arrived at different times after 9.00 pm, by now we are all synchronised for service of the next dish. Across, six men relax together, their conversation intense and peppered with laughter. Further to the centre is an extended family who have brought their small children, aged between 4 to 5. As the evening progresses, they remain bright eyed at the table, contributing fragments of speech and taking photographs with their disposable cameras. In one corner, two young men romance their girlfriends with subtlety.
Today, the main course is risotto with wild mushrooms. The sauce is a source of delight and the taste is indefinable.
At this point, the desire for a sweet is overwhelming, but the capacity shrinks. But here come four deserts. Each has a medium sized plate to itself, with cream, chocolate, pastry and dustings of cocoa. To follow, a cafetierre with cream sweetened by liquor.
With a bill of 490 pesos (just over £34 for two) we rise and bid the owner farewell. This has been a memorable meal - for quality, taste, quantity and ambience. We feel as if we have been embraced by the Fedele family and treated as their own.
Outside the air is fresh, but not yet cool. It is 1.00 am and we have dined for three hours. As we saunter in Bolivar, we see the local residents sitting on their steps eating ice cream from half litre polystyrene tubs, and at the corner, waiting for the colectivo to take visitors to their homes. We drop a right turn, via Humberto Primo and into Chacabuco, and home.

Stormy Buenos Aires

After a delicious brunch of waffles with bacon, scrambled egg, and salad drizzled with honey, fresh orange juice, and coffee at Javier's 'Wafles SUR' Estados Unidos 509, we returned to Chacabuco to escape the storm.

Unlike Britain, episodes of heavy rain here in Buenos Aires are common. Today, a month's rain was forecast to fall in the day. When it does, streets flood and the shops - hopefully prepared for the event - sweep out the water from the ground floor areas with large handled blades. On occasions, those out and about are stranded and forced to book into a nearby hotel. The rain gorges the culverts until eventually they cope, and the water filters through to underground caverns deep below the Capital Federal.

With rain drumming on the roof here at Chacabuco, and washing across the balcony between our rooms, we stay safely at home and avoid the temptation to travel to Nuevo Chique milonga today. Astor, the house cat joins us on the bed as we peer out to the row of flowering plants that edge the balcony. At least they appreciate the rain.

Two issues with going out when the storm is due are, first, the threat of lightening. Massive electrical discharges fork across the sky and earth where most convenient - hopefully a lightening conductor on a tall block or church. The chances of being affected are remote, but they are accompanied by crashing thunder almost overhead - where the shock compresses and compacts the air.

The other is not the rain that is falling. Here, the trusty umbrella takes the strain in the short distance between taxi and milonga door. It is the rain that has fallen and rests, expectantly, between the paving flags.

Pavements in Buenos Aires are a luxury. They exist, but only so far as the house or shop owner's property extends - and then they stop - to be replaced by broken flags or simply compacted rubble. For the unwary, and worse for the visually disadvantaged, pavements rest somewhere between inconvenient and treacherous.

After the rain, water lodges under the small, uneven flags that rock under foot, causing spouts of muddy water to squelch up, covering trousers and legs and stockings. Foot placement on street flags is as important at these times as it is in the milonga.

The storm appears to be passing. Up above the sky is once again turning to an intense blue. Spring swallows are rising on thermals to feed from a new crop of mosquitos, and a light, fresh breeze blows away our concerns. Perhaps now is time for pizza and beer at Moderna?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Manolo y Salon Cochabamba

Crossing Avenida San Juan after dark is not for the feint hearted. Here, you leave San Telmo for Constituion - a bario with a chequered reputation. Portenos who are unfamiliar with the bario will avoid walking there, preferring to travel by taxi.

Intrepid, Stephanie and I decide to set out on foot. Our first stop is Cochabamba 444, the home of Solon Cochabamba, a lively young milonga. The street is grey and overcast by the autopista which travels out of the city towards the airport on huge concrete gantries. The milonga salon leads straight from the street. Inside is bright, with seating each side and tables across the far side adjacent to the bar.

The milonga is filling as we arrive, but Gerry and Lucia have reserved a large table for their guests. We settle and look across the pista. D'Arienzo's Lagrimas y sonrisas is playing, and this is our prompt to dance.

Here are some excellent tangueros, mostly younger and full of vitality. We are able to step out and break away from the tight milonguero style whilst the floor is relatively quiet. As the evening progresses, Salon Cochabamba draws a larger  contingent of ever younger dancers, and the floor becomes tight, requiring precise definition and expression.

It is Lucia's birthday, so we stay for the birthday vals and the cutting of a huge cake in three separate tiers - so large that everyone seems to get a piece.

After the heat of the milonga, the air outside is cool and fresh. The large tree at the junction with Defensa is opening into full spring-time leaf and shadows dance in the breeze. We turn left - our next destination being Bolivar 1299 - the Restaurant Manolo.

I am yet to decipher the history of the eighty year old Restaurant Manolo, so if you can help, do contribute below. The restaurant appears suddenly and inauspiciously in Cochabamba, with windows on two sides. Arriving at the door, we press the bell, and the door catch is released. As elsewhere here in Buenos Aires, security is taken seriously.

Inside, Restaurant Manolo reflects its founding owner. The tables are dressed with linen cloths, and all of the waiters (exclusively male) wear white shirts and long aprons. Each carries a serviette over their left arm, and at their side all of the equipment necessary to open every bottle. There is a collegiate uniformity and calmness about them. Our favourite waiter takes us to one of his tables. We glance about the salon. At one end the restaurant's association with La Boca Juniors is evident. Football shirts and photographs festoon the walls.

La Boca Juniors is not simply a football team. For those who do not know about football in Argentina, it is arguably more important than politics. When La Boca do not win, depression sets in. In the barios of San Telmo, Constitution and of course, La Boca, the team is as important as family. Their blue and white strip reflects the colours of the nation, and a La Boca win can wipe out the national debt for a night in the imagination of its supporters.

The bife churiso mariposa is sufficient for two to share, with a mixed salad dressed by the waiter at the table and accompanied by a bottle of Bodega Septima malbec. For dessert we share a zabaglione, warm, frothy and full of Marsala wine. Limoncello is served as a digestif.

We are the only tourists - the clientele being local families and couples. The restaurant lies just sufficiently beyond the tourist safety zone as to be preserved for posterity. The bill (for those that need to know) is 350 pesos.

We leave and saunter into the night air. It is a full moon and traces of high cloud shadow its huge globe. We ignore the taxi that slides past hoping for a fare. The cartoneros are out, collecting cardboard and plastic from the large wheeled bins, in small handcarts. The sound of the city re-imerges as we make our way across Avenida San Juan and into Chacabuco and home.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Buenos Aires - return for 2013

Saturday 5 October just before 8.00 am, American Airlines Boeing 777 descends from a rich blue sky to the warm runway of Pistarini airport, Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, and we descend from the plane into our new life for two months of Argentine tango.

The journey has been eventful. The choice of American Airlines was dictated unwisely by cost rather than convenience, and this was accentuated by the need to exit flight-side on touch down in the USA, to go through immigration and customs, then to repeat the same process within minutes for the on-going flight to Buenos Aires. For this of course, you need ESTA clearance. Flight time and convenience come at a cost, but my advice is to select a European interchange in the absence of a direct flight.

As usual, I took the Tienda Leon coach from the airport to the city. Look for the booth in the arrivals hall flight side. New travellers may be tempted to book a taxi, but for 95 pesos (exchange rate 14 $ARS / £1) the coach is a first choice, taking you directly to Retiro, and then on in small grey taxis to your hotel, hostel or apartment. The coach is quick and affords views over the city as you enter on the Autopista 25 Mao.

The city, Capital Federal, is clearly about to burst into spring. A mild winter, followed by a cold September has confused the seasons. Unlike my visits in February (Argentine autumn) the roadsides are verdant with grasses and the city streets look fresh washed. Within the next few days the pink buds showing on the Jacaranda will unwrap into splendid vermillion.

Our little grey taxi pulls from Avendia Independencia into Chacabucco. We stop just short of Av San Juan outside 1181. This is the tango hostel run by Fabrizio Forti and used by me for two and three months respectively on two of my previous three visits to Buenos Aires. It could be said that returning to the same hostel was unadventurous, but this place is always an adventure in itself. Fabrizio is a slight built tango performer and teacher and has run the hostel for many years. He is there to greet us, and carries Stephanie's case to the first floor.

Fabizio's is run as a private home for tangueros and other visitors. The two floors are self-contained, but on our floor is the tango practice room with balcony overlooking Chacabucco. For tangueros this has distinct advantages. For others, the second floor access to the roof patio garden is a boon.

Our room is that recommended by our friends Rudi y Linda. They have been my companions here at Chacabuco for two consecutive years, but they travel here for two months in the autumn. The room is simple, but with a magnificent marble dressing table, soon to be festooned with visiting cards, candles and fresias. The ensuite bathroom comprises bath, with overhead shower, handbasin and bidet.

Our companions on this trip are Carlos, Silke, Cristina and Alvero. They each have rooms that access onto the little balcony that runs the length of our floor of the house. Carlos is a student studying at the Universidad in Av San Juan. A special cook, Carlos speaks six languages, most fluently without accent, and enjoys jazz. Silke, who we call Sally, is from southern Germany and is staying for two months. By profession, she is the director of a kindergarten, but by appearance a decade younger than her age. Sally too is learning tango, and will accompany us to milongas over the next weeks. Cristina is also a student and tanguera. She owns an apartment in Buenos Aires which she rents to support her on-going studies. Finally, Alvero is a long-term resident. His skill is that of musician, and he sells instruments in the street markets locally.

Life in the house proves to be a social as ever. "Join us for breakfast - we are cooking now" is a familiar call as Silke and Carlos mix their skills. At other times, tango music drifts from the practice room where new steps are perfected or visitors take lessons with Fabrizio. Sharing in a tango house may not be to everyone's taste; but it provides instant companionship with kindred tango spirits, whilst here at Fabrizio's - sufficient privacy when sought. For both sole tangueros and couples travelling to dance, I would wholeheartedly recommend the energy of a shared house or hostel.

The next step is to buy those essentials and luxuries that make a longer trip comfortable. We have brought a travel kettle and small Bodum coffee jug from England. Although it sounds ridiculous, we have also brought chocolate - for this is one area in which the Argentines do not excel. We add fresh towels, shampoo, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, spices, two wine glasses, a bottle of Malbec, fresh bread and empanadas to our shopping list and head out to the local shops.

Visitors should note that credit cards are accepted rarely in shops and occasionally in local restaurants. They are also a very costly way to pay, for the government takes revenue from transactions, especially cash withdrawals. Here there is an active black market for currency exchange - especially US$ - and a stroll along Calle Florida is beset by vendors. I have decided to use Azimo, a British company offering currency transfers at excellent rates. Check out the link on my Facebook page and sign up using the link provided. When doing so, it is worth increasing your allowance. This can be done at no cost by providing proof of identity (more easily done before you depart) - required to avoid money laundering.

So Argentine pesos it is, with simple conversion at the current rate of about 14 pesos for £1. As a guide, breaksfast for two costs 100 pesos, a meal for two with wine currently costs about 300 pesos, pizza an beer for two at 85 pesos. For tango, entrance costs between 25 and 40 pesos per person, with sparkling water at 14-18 pesos. Day-to-day living is thus highly manageable, especially if you prepare your own food with the plethora of fresh vegetables and fruit available from each street corner for a handful of pesos.

In the next entry, I will tell more about tango - after all, that is why we are here and you are reading the blog. Until then, picture this -
The sun is setting over San Telmo. Music and a distant smell of cooking rises in the air. Voices chatter and spring evening birdsong carries across the roof. We are preparing to dance at El Maipui - to stroll there across Avendia 9 de Juilo into Monserat. What could be better than this?