Thursday, 21 November 2013

El Afronte

It is 10.30 pm but a warm breeze blows up Balcarce when we leave the restaurant. A colectivo on diversion rattles the cobbles as we pass the gay lights of Cafe Rivas towards Defensa, Bolivar and Peru.
Our destination tonight is the Bendita milonga at Peru 571 and five of us pick our way along the broken pavements. Our table is reserved only until 10.45 pm so we haste.
From the outside, Peru 571 is just another doorway in another San Telmo street. It gives little away, save that you know it must be a milonga by the five or six smokers who linger on the footway to stub a cigarette with their dance shoes. The staircase rises steeply straight ahead, to turn at the top through double doors to the salon. Whilst the stairs are dark, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the room which is darker still. Lighting in Bendita is strategic rather than effective. We pay 40 pesos for entry and turn to our table directly beneath the stage. It bears a large sign, 'Reserva Twist'.
Bendita milonga is all about El Afronte. Eleven musicians meet each Monday and Wednesday night to play tango here. They comprise three violins, cello, acoustic base, piano, four bandoneons and the singer. Their hallmark is a deep, heavy base line, searing melodies, and complex contra-rhythm. The effect is explosive.
We arrive as the DJ concludes her set. For a moment there is total darkness; and the orchestra appears. Their opening song is instantly recognisable as tango, yet the timing laminates to catch and release the beat. Tradition dictates that the audience will sit for the first piece, but as the second song starts, dancers rise and move onto the small pista encompassed by tables. Now the drama of the music is enacted on the floor. Tangueros circle in close embrace, to be brought to that single breath that is tango.
We sit, and we dance. We listen with all of our senses, including the diverse vibrations we feel through the original oak floor. Each pair of dancers enters a private world which they alone own, in which they make the rules and interpret the music. The light tenor voice of the singer lifts with emotion and he wipes away tears. The audience of watchers and dancers erupts at the end of the performance. Lights flash and people call for more. The last Gardel song encapsulates the craggy history of tango - its moments of joy and deep crevasses of sadness. At one moment it is as if we witness Carlos Gardel's last moments of life.
Suffused with sound and dance, we depart into the now cool San Telmo night. A taxi slowly cruises to a halt and our friends depart to Palermo. For us, this is a moment of collection, as we walk and chat, rising through Humberto Primo towards Chacabuco and home.

Thursday, 14 November 2013


On few occasions in a lifetime, you have a meal that you rate as pivotal - for food, service and atmosphere. Last night at Aramburu was one of these, so let me share it with you.

To book a place at Aramburu, you need to plan well in advance, choose a mid-week evening, phone or call in one afternoon, and be lucky.

Aramburu is a special restaurant, currently rated on TripAdvisor as the second best in Buenos Aires, and in the top 50 restaurants in the world. It is tucked away at Salta 1050 -  only five blocks away from San Telmo, on the other side of Av 9 Julio, the widest road in Buenos Aires. Salta is a slightly dark and threatening street, but is in fact quite safe. The entrance to the restaurant is narrow, and at walking pace in the day, you would pass by un-noticing. The door, as for most restaurants in Buenos Aires is gated, with a small bell to the left side.

We were welcomed by Carolina, the sommelier. The restaurant caters for between 30-40 covers on three levels - a step down to the right, street level with two group tables to the left and straight ahead, the Chef's Table for two. Decor is dark and restrained, but the lighting is good, with white linen cloths and glinting glasses. The wall to the right of the Chef's Table is a chalk board, bearing recommendations and chef Aramburu's drawings.

We had booked the Chef's Table. This comprises a high glass surface directly against the two metre square window to the kitchen, providing the best culinary floor show imaginable. Behind, the kitchen is totally open, so from Chef's Table you are able to see each dish prepared and served by the five chefs headed by Aramburu himself.

The menu is set at twelve courses, paired if you choose the option, with six wines. Each course is a piece of theatre in minature, and each wine allows you to travel the length and breadth of Argentina.
Words fail to convey the taste, and pictures show only the shapes. But enough to provide an appetite to eat at Aramburu next time you visit Buenos Aires.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Time to learn tango

Readers have pointed out to me that, for a tango blog, I have written relatively little about tango.
Yes, you are right. I have visited numerous tango blogs and read about a blogger's  experience at a milonga - 'the milonguero from hell', and 'the tanda from heaven'. I have to say that they leave me quite cold.
What is it they say about tango....'a feeling that is danced'? The fact is that if we could simply write about it, we wouldn't dance it. Any number of words can only give a shaded reflection of the feeling of a joyful tanda with a skilled tanguera.
So, I shall spare you the disembodied descriptions of my dances. Instead, I shall tell you a little of the fascinating and sometimes frustrating process of learning.
Having been dancing Argentine tango for six years, I consider myself a beginner. The old milongueros say that it takes a lifetime and a half to learn to dance tango, and they are right. Few if any reach a stage where they are content with their dancing, and those that have are almost certainly not worth dancing with. There is always another stage to which the tanguero should aspire to transcend.
The basis of tango is walking. For something that most of us do, this appears very problematic within the tango embrace. It is made more difficult by the fact that there is not just one way - the methods of walking seem to mirror the number of teachers and tangueros!
I will avoid the 'lead with the toe, lead with the heel' debate, and focus on the joys of tango from this visit to Buenos Aires. Let me introduce you to Hector Corona y Silvina Machado.
The sharp reader will remember that on our first visit to Buenos Aires, Stephanie and I danced with them at DNI - a famous dance school here in the Capital Federal. In those days, the directors Pablo y Dana would bring their teachers together every morning before classes started, to teach and re-inforce their particular teaching technique. Experienced tangueros can instantly recognise a DNI trained dancer by the elasticity with which they form and control movement. What results is a safe and attractive form of youthful dancing, contrasting well with the traditional milonguero style.
In the intervening six years, Hector y Silvina have moved on, and together with their friends Sebastian y Eugenia formed new dance and business partnerships, underpinned by a distinctive teaching method which is very much their own.
Many experienced dancers are quite cynical about dance teachers. A few students have had many teachers, each one insisting that 'their method' is the right way to dance, and the only way to learn tango. In truth, tango was originally never professionally taught, but handed down and developed on the floors of the milongas. At most, small groups of young men would meet to practice together before venturing to the milongas, and the girls would show and watch each other, learning the art of following a lead.
This resulted in a plethora of styles, some distinct to a bario, others to a particular milonga. Now, the better dancers can be identified to a particular teacher.
Our first lesson was with Hector. We arrived at Junin 143 just before 2.00 pm to be met by Hector in the street. The venue is a private suite of practice rooms that may be hired by the hour. Each one is equipped with the smoothest of floors and a music system. Some, like the one in Tte Gral Juan Peron, are in delightful old buildings, marble corridors leading to panelled rooms with inward opening windows to allow a fresh breeze.
Hector's approach to teaching tango is to strip from it all pretension and over-stylised movement. He reminds us that tango was from African roots, developed in the barios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo by working people who danced socially, often on courtyard flags. It later moved to the ballrooms, especially after the middle classes had embraced it, on it's return from Paris.
Hector's foundation is that of walking within the embrace. Although Oscar Casas had set me on the right path in 2007, Hector re-visited the way to walk. It involves a lead from the torso, with a following bent knee, arriving on the heel, rolling to the toe, then pushing from the ankle. Properly executed, the walk resembles that of a cat. To this, he links the importance of the collect and change of weight.
For the follower, Hector suggests that after arrival on the inside toe, weight is quickly transferred to the heel, which should always touch the floor. The hip should not open, for the key to the movement comes from the core - a set of abdominal muscles that control the backward movement of the leg from the pelvis. The result is a smooth and responsive, but deliberate backward step with a brush collect.
Turning for the giro involves an opening of the torso in the direction of the movement. He suggests that assistance can be given to build momentum through the embrace, which should be kept flexible. It is clear that for him, the two partners for excellent tango are walking and the embrace - offering stability, security and a more dynamic lead for the follower.
The result - a simple and very positive lead, but one permitting subtlety of expression. For Hector, the rest - footwork and variations - will fall into place if the lead is sufficiently clear.
Of course, the magic of Hector's walk and lead and Silvina's decorations and adornos, is yet to be mastered by us. But the foundations are clearly there, and we are moving forward slowly and surely to a new dimension of tango.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Feria de los Mataderos

Its Sunday in the spring, and we decide to go to Feria de los Mataderos.
Stephanie, Silke, Francesca and I meet outside Bar El Federal at the corner of Peru and Carlos Calvo for colectivo 126. This will take us the full journey of 13 kilometres to bario Mataderos. With relatively empty streets, we race along Carlos Calvo, negotiating Av 9 de Julio, and following Humberto Primo to its source, skirting Parque Avellaneda arriving in Av Lisandro de la Torre 45 minutes later. We know the stop, for this is where the Sunday bus decants most of its travellers. What a draw is this feria!

Stretching out into the distance is a huge market of small stalls, covered with tarpaulin and plastic sheeting to shade the wares and the vendors. To our left is a parilla, already in business, with masses of sausages and steak on the grill. The air is heavy with smoke from the charcoal wafting along the street. A band has arrived to play in the park, and visitors are strolling up and down the rows of produce - food, crafts, clothing, jewellery, mate cups, carvings, paintings and shoes.
We make our way to the stage area, positioned in the centre of the feria, with small streets leading off in four directions. With others, we remove our hats and bow our heads as a national hymn is sung, and then the dancing starts.

Feria Mataderos is a folk market, populated by local people. This is far distant from the tango trail, and the dances here are principally chacarera and zamba. Some of the dancers are in costume - the men wearing pleated trousers gathered at the calf, raglan shirts, with riding boots, waistcoats, silk scarves and leather belts. Inside the belt are sashes and a decorative dagger. The women wear brightly coloured dresses, cut above the ankle, with white petticoats. They are joined by the people of the market, simply dressed for their Sunday out at the feria. The music is bright and dramatic, drawing passersby in to dance or to watch. There will be over 100 in this group alone.

Nearby are the stalls for food. Just to the right is an empanada stall. Four women sit making these small savouries, whilst two men deep-fry them in a large pan of oil. Each one is a work of art, with delicate patterns in the pastry to seal the contents. Just across from here is a churro stall, selling freshly made sweet pastries filled with dolce de leche and chocolate.

The main focus of the feria is horsemanship. Shortly, I will take you further down the street to a place where there are no stalls. Instead, the centre of the road has been covered with a strip of sand, and placed centrally is a light steel gantry carrying a short piece of rubber strip, below which is affixed a steel circle, the size of a key ring. On the pavements under the shade of trees are the gauchos - some mounted, others tethering their horses; and they wait.

Back here in the market is everything to support your equestrian needs - riding boots, spurs, ropes, harness decorations, bridles and sashes. You may buy gaucho costume, especially the daggers - bearing intricate detail in silver and bone.

A bell rings and we hear the sound of thundering hooves. Even for race goers or those used to attending point-to-point, nothing can prepare you for this specacle. A young gaucho, perhaps 25 years of age, wearing a boina (Argentine beret), has spurred his horse to a gallop. The speed is astonishing, as is the noise. He charges down the sanded strip. Between his lips he carries a small steel tube the size of a pencil.  It is a mate straw, used for drinking the special Argentine 'tea'. As he approaches the gantry, though which he will pass, he takes the tube from his mouth and holds it aloft. The crowd roar as he just misses the tiny ring. It will be another 100 metres before he can bring his horse to a canter. His return brings commiserating applause from the crowd. He wipes the sweat from his brow with his kerchief. In the meantine, the senior gaucho, mounted on a huge chestnut bay, reaches up to reposition the ring for the next pass.

We are now directly beside the gantry. The oldest gaucho turns his horse from the pavement and he mounts swiftly, despite his 60 or so years. Under a flat topped hat with wide rim, his hair is silver as a fox, as is his moustache. Across his saddle is a full sheep skin, his dagger slipped into the back of his belt. He rides a bright grey mare, the sort that will cut fast. A coil of rope rests against his knee. His turn of speed is remarkable. One moment gaining the saddle, the next at lightening pace. His speed must be too fast. He is approaching the gantry, his hat having flown off, to be captured by a string tie. But the horse knows this task well. She is dead centre of the gantry. At the last moment he removes the steel tube and holds if aloft. It happens so quickly, that the eye cannot see the point of contact. It is only after he has passed below the gantry that you realise that the ring has gone, speared and possessed. The crowd goes wild as the thundering recedes down the street. Pesos slip from one hand to another. His return is gladiatorial. He holds the tube to show the crowd, and he sits back on his horse.

Thoughout the afternoon, more gauchos take their turn. Some succeed and others fail. The crowd has their favourites, but the skill and courage of each one is appreciated.

With the smell of leather, sweat, sand, mate and parilla in the air, we take our leave. Departing this place brings a sadness as well as a sense of peace. It is in this quiet moment that we talk and review the excitement of the afternoon. Colectivo 126 is waiting at the stop, and we run, catching the bus just as the doors swing closed. We return, bunched and standing with other revellers, back along Avenida San Juan towards Chacabuco. We grap half a kilo of icecream from the corner, climbing the turned staircase to Fabrizio's. A day at the races, well spent!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Dinner at Fabrizio's

We offered to cook, but our offer was rejected. Maybe this was because our offer was made to two superb chefs - Carlos and Silke with whom we share our first floor corridor here at Chacabuco.
Instead, we were given instructions. 'Do not enter the kitchen until you are invited', and 'Don't forget to dress for dinner'.
So it is approaching 9.00 pm and we are hungry. Despite admonishment, we have kept the door to our room open, so the wonderful smells of cooking waft our way along the balcony.
I am now dressed in black with a scarlet/pink silk handkerchief in my breast pocket, and Stephanie wears her matching 'Vivien of Holloway' orchid in her hair. We will have to walk fifteen paces for dinner, and Stephanie takes my arm. Ahead is the sound of tango, the clinking of glasses and a plume of steam from the hob.
Here on the first floor at Fabrizio's, the dance studio and kitchen are en suite, separated when needed by large floor-to-ceiling doors which form a sound proof wall. Tonight, they are open and the kitchen table has been positioned in the centre of the studio. Glasses gleam in candle light, and rose petals decorate the place settings. To one side is the small bar divider, bearing bottles of Malbec and Etchart Privardo Torrentes.
We are not the first to arrive. Cristina is here, elegantly attired in black tango trousers. Arianna is preparing an aperatif with Schnapps, and Carlos conceals his latest surprise dish. It is at that moment that Fabrizio and Silke arrive.
For the first time, we see Fabrizio in a different light. He wears a cream/white jacket to compliment his new hair cut, his style accentuated by his combats. Silke wears a 1920's dress, her hair cut to a bob, with a 'Vivien' flower to the left side, so that she can dance tango. This is a moment of searing elegance, and a fitting pre-requisite for the meal that is to follow.
Seven of us are seated at the table. Carlos, both chef and waiter, serves the first course of aubergine, with melted goats cheese, blanched pink and white onion on a bed of rocket. The first sensation is that of smell, which rises longingly from the plate. A mouthful reveals that the ingredients I have described are only a small part of the magic. The taste to the tongue is like small busts of joy.
We toast each other, the chefs, and the food. We toast tango, Argentina and Bolivia, from which Carlos hails. Malbec splashes into glasses and the gentle haze across the room becomes diffused with delight. Conversation dismantles and re-builds republics, democracies and the world order. We speak of art, music, and of life.
Love must wait for the next course. This has been a closely guarded secret of Carlos'. But we have noticed several bottles of white wine, and know of the special risotto rice. We have also seen a blue cheese, and tub of cream peep emptily from the servery. The recipe is a family secret, not known outside Bolivia, and its taste transports us to new levels of ecstacy. Each mouthful, accompanied by the smallest of miniature tomatoes, causes gasps from the diners.
In my rush to describe the food, I fail to properly describe the timescale. We have arrived, drank, eaten and danced between courses. Each topic of conversation has been highlighted by personal experience and aspiration. Time has rolled, just as the candles have burned down. The row of empty bottles reveals its true passage.
I sense that this is the moment you have been waiting for. The culinary delights have risen and surfed and we are drunk with taste. But here is Silke's delight - the desert. Between dancing at DNI and dressing for dinner, she has created a special memory. To speak of cake does not disclose the nature of this offering. With cream and fresh strawberries, this is a cake of cakes. We look hopefully that our's will be the largest slice, and are not disappointed. It melts on the tongue, and adds the finish to a memorable meal. How is it that such talent can combine in one small place, here on the outside edge of San Telmo?
Federico and his girlfriend join the party, just in time for the last slice of cake which they share. It is now time to dance again - still in candle light, with a nod of approval from Fabrizio who departs for the night. That our senses are blurred with wine simply adds a new dimension to our tanda of Di Sarli. Now four beautiful tangueras, each with 'Vivien' orchids in their hair, take to the floor. For two songs, Silke leads Stephanie, and we all look longingly at their talent. Later, the tangueros take over, and the evening is sealed with a taste of tango in a truly Argentine way.
I am not sure when or how I reached our room. The fifteen paces became but one short dream. The candles burned to a distant flame, and this night became one of a thousand memories of Buenos Aires - and one of the most special of its kind.