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