What thoughts come to mind when you think of a Patagonia hiking tour? Most people’s top five are the peaks of Torres Del Paine, glaciers, lamas, gauchos and guanacos. Few travelers, even those on a customized tour, would put Patagonian food on their list. Yet the cuisine of Argentina and Chile is very much a part of the Patagonian adventure experience, especially for those whose trip includes a stay at a working ranch, or estancia.
Food is said to be one of the most significant trademarks of a culture. And that is certainly true of the unique Patagonian cuisine served at any estancia, from the most luxurious estate to a rustic ranch. Here a sampling of what you’ll be served.
Argentine Meat Dishes
Meat is the mainstay of the American cowboy’s diet, and gaucho’s–the cowboys of Argentina and Chile– are no different. Beef (asado), the Argentine national dish, is a given, but parrillada, an Argentine mixed grill, will also include mutton and lamb, goat, pork and wild boar, or lama and possibly all of these plus a chicken.
Meats for the parrillada are grilled long and slow over an open fire of wood or charcoal, and that fire might be outdoors, in the kitchen fireplace, or on a portable grill at your table. Because of the 6-to-8 hour cooking time and the elaborate grilling set-up, a parrillada usually is served at only one dinner during a typical three-to-four-day estancia stay.
On other evenings, meat is served in stews with potatoes and carrots (carbonada) or casseroles (cazuelas) or as a filling for empanadas (see below). At breakfast and lunch, cold cuts of meat are offered to assure that you have meat three times a day.
Spicing in Argentine Cooking
Along with salt and pepper on your table’s condiment tray, spices used in Argentine cooking you find a cruet of chimichurri, a tangy salsa. Some cooks make fresh chimichurri, a mix of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, garlic, shallots, herbs (thyme, oregano, and/or basil), salt and pepper.
Chimichurri goes on everything: Empanadas can be dipped in it, salads can be tossed with it, and asado or any other meat or fish can be smeared with it.
Carbo-loading Patagonia Style
Potatoes. Both sweet and white ones are the vegetable du jour at most estancias. Not surprising, considering that nearly 250,000 acres of land in Argentina are devoted to growing five different potato varieties. Boiled, mashed or fried; mixed in stews, made into dumplings, and stuffed into empanadas, you’re never far from a potato in one form or another.
Bread & Dessert. Argentina is a melting pot of immigrants primarily from Europe (Germans, Italians and Swiss) and the Middle-East, and each group has brought its reliance on wheat products with it. In Patagonia you’ll find a profusion of different breads, cakes, biscuits, and cookies at breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea.
Considering the prevalence of cattle, you’ll also find delicious dairy products from cheeses to the epitome of South American sweetness– dulce de leche, or milk jelly. The brown, silky smooth paste is sweetened and cooked condenses milk. It’s spread on bread, cake, and crepes; dolloped on ice cream; and mixed into the batter of desserts from brownies to cheesecake.
A box lunch served on the pampas will likely contain a slab of hard cheese, a boiled egg, a chewy bread, fresh fruit, trail mix, and a piece of cake topped with dulce de leche.
Empanadas To Go
These small, fried or baked pies are everywhere and are usually filled with meat, but almost anything goes–chicken, cheese, tomatoes and peas, and even potatoes. Empanadas are easy to hold in your hand, so you may be served a selection of them at a lunchtime picnic or as an appetizer before dinner. There are sweet ones, too, filled with dulce de leche and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Empanadas may have started as a working man or gaucho’s portable lunch, but throughout Chile and Argentine Patagonia, you’ll see they are a staple, even at the most luxurious estancias.
Argentina and Mate Tea
The Brits brought the afternoon tea ritual with them and it continues to be a tradition in many parts of Patagonia. When you return to the estancia at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, you’ll likely find a warm fire blazing and tray of biscuits and cookies and a pot of black tea waiting for you.
Some estancias also serve mate, a brew of highly caffeinated yerba mate leaves, but it’s really more of a gaucho’s drink served whenever they gather to relax and socialize. It’s made in a special round bombilla and sipped through a small metal straw. Travelers often say it’s an acquired taste, but you can’t go home without trying it once.
Rounding Out Your Culinary Adventure
Where ever you go in Argentina and Chile you’ll find delicious wines. When you’re near the coast, you find a profusion of seafood, from ceviche made with fresh fish, lime and chile peppers to corvine, a firm sweet fish similar to snapper. If you have a passion for street food, look for choripan, a kind of sausage slider or sandwich, and bondiola, a sandwich of pork shoulder.
And last of all, try the pizza. In fact, it will be hard not to have it when you’re in a city, since pizza stands and restaurants are everywhere. The Italians introduced pizza to Buenos Aires and the Argentines have made it their own with flavors and toppings that vary from one region to another. Typically, the dough is thin, firm and crunchy and lighter than Italian pizza.