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”.

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