‘Dear mother, I’m feeling quite ill, From all of these bits off the grill; Nostrils and tits and unspeakable bits, Balls haven’t come yet, but they will!’
So wrote my late father-in-law, Cyril Ray, as he ran up the white flag after one asado too many during a trip to Argentina many years ago. And nothing has changed: I’m the least vegetarian person I know, but by the end of a ten-day trip to Buenos Aires and Mendoza, the merest whiff of woodsmoke had me reaching for the lettuce sandwich.
The traditional Argentine asado — a loose term that can mean ‘short rib’, ‘grill’ or ‘barbecue’ — is a long, drawn-out affair. On Sundays, when families traditionally eat together, it can last all afternoon. They start with pork and beef offal such as sweetbreads, chitterlings, black pudding, blood sausage and various unrecognisable bits of this and that marinated in chimichurri, before moving through several cuts of barbecued beef, finishing with the short rib, the tastiest cut of all.
And what do they wash it all down with? Well, the pre-asado ceviche is accompanied by well-chilled glasses of light, delicate, charmingly floral, appetite-inducing Torrontés, after which it’s on to buckets of soft, supple, violet-scented Malbec, grown in the high altitude vineyards of Mendoza.
Here, in an area the size of Britain, there are more hectares under vine than in New Zealand and Australia combined. Most of the 26 varieties grown are classic European ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay, brought over by French and Italian immigrants, but by far the most successful is Malbec.
Once a staple in Bordeaux, the grape fell out of favour after the dread phylloxera struck in the 1880s, and in France it is now really only grown in Cahors, where it’s responsible for the region’s so-called ‘black wines’. In Argentina, though, Malbec has found its spiritual home, making rich, ripe wines of great style — velvety smooth and crammed with juicy, dark berry fruit. The best are made to age for at least 20 years, and all are the perfect accompaniment to the asado, thanks to their soft, silky tannins that caress and complement the meat rather than fight with it.
Although basically a desert, Mendoza is perfect for vine-growing. There are 300 days of sunshine a year with searing, dry heat during the day and dramatically cool nights (the thermal amplitude — the difference between day and night temperatures — can be a whopping 25 degrees), as well as plentiful irrigation from the meltwaters of the Andes. And it is the breathtaking mountain scenery of the Andes that’s fuelling the other growing industry: wine tourism.
With abundant space and a New World ‘anything goes’ attitude, many of the wineries not only have cutting edge wine-making facilities, but restaurants, guest houses and even art galleries too. At Bodega Tapiz I swam in a pool in the middle of the vineyards; at Cavas Wine Lodge I stayed in a whitewashed pod open to the sky, surrounded by Malbec vines; at Bodegas Salentein I wandered around its celebrated art gallery, glass in hand. And everywhere I went, it was asado‘n’Malbec time.
And now, back in the UK, I am scraping down the barbecue in anticipation of a blistering summer and stocking up on the Malbec. I’m completely converted and if it’s what the greatest beef-eaters in the world drink (the average Argentine eats some 70kg of beef a year, roughly his own body weight), then that’s what I’ll drink too.
Names I can heartily recommend include the seriously fine LVMH star, Cheval des Andes; Luigi Bosca, the oldest producer in Mendoza and pioneer of the export market; Trivento, with its easy, accessible style; Salentein, the wine-tourism trailblazers; family-owned Zuccardi (who also make scrumptious olive oil); chic, boutique O. Fournier, and Norton, Mendoza’s largest producer and my personal favourite.
And if the sun fails to shine, we can all do far worse than nip into our local Gaucho. This mini-chain of some dozen or so Argentine-themed restaurants does a mean take on the asado and boasts well over 200 meat-friendly wines on its list.
This summer, I plan to be well fed and watered come rain or shine.
When not drinking Malbec, Marina favours a strong cup of beef tea.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 25, 2011Tags: Argentina, Cuisine, Food, International cuisine, South America