I can’t help it, I love going to food festivals. Be they out on the street, in an exhibition hall, or, well, anywhere. Sometimes they’re just “more of the same”, and sometimes, there are little discoveries to be made. We’re going to start off a bit on the edge of the concept, not a festival, though festive, a daytime combo walking tour and backyard asado that makes up BA’s newest closed door restaurant, Asado Adventure, from Frank Almeida, whom many locals here know as one of the pair behind Sugar & Spice cookies (and other goodies, like bagels).
I joined a pair of lovely ladies from New Zealand at Frank’s home in Palermo one morning recently. We headed to the backyard where we were met by one of Frank’s guides, Agustin, and, another well known figure, particularly in the meat world, Max Carnage, our asadero, or grillmaster, for the day. Frank and Max demonstrated the Lighting of the Parrilla, and the Making of the Chimichurri, which seem like traditions we should add to one or another Jewish holidays. Then we set out on an expedition through the neighborhood with Agustin, picking up meat and vegetables for the parrilla, wine to drink, and more, all with a running intro to the area, the architecture, and local traditions. Returning with our haul, the fire now ready to go, we were joined at the large picnic table by a local hotel concierge who’d missed out on the tour part, but came to experience the lunch. And what a lunch it was, as Max turned out a series of “courses” of mini-provoletas, sausages, sweetbreads, pork and beef steaks, one after another. All perfectly seasoned, all perfectly cooked. Fernet and Cola, the national tradition was available for those who wanted to imbibe, and there was the wine we picked up, and the hours passed as we made great friends around the table. The meal finished off with vigilantes and mate quemado, a tradition from northern Argentine that involves burning sugar in the mate cup with a lump of glowing coal, and then adding the mate atop, something I’ve never seen done before. All in all, a fantastic experience for those who don’t have local friends to hang out with at a backyard asado.
Let’s head on to a sampling of recent food festivals….
Off on a rural route, we headed out on the 129 bus to La Plata via the Centenario, rather than our usual Autopista, the fast bus. With multiple stops, it was going on two hours before we arrived in City Bell, a small town on the outskirts of the provincial capitol, where alongside the railroad tracks we found a field filled with tents, and a couple of large signs proclaiming this to be the site of PICURBA, or “Picnic Urbano”. Unusual for an outdoor gastro-fest, there was an entry charge (not noted on their Facebook page, something they probably ought to do, as many seemed surprised by it) – 70 pesos, so around $4 and change, not excessive, just not expected. Inside we found a mix of tents and food trucks, many of them completely new to us, since they represented restaurants, breweries (my goodness, a lot of breweries), and other food businesses from La Plata and surrounds. Barbecued pulled pork seemed to be all the rage, and a notable percentage of the stands were offering up their take on it, hamburgers weren’t far behind (including a stand for Carne, which I reviewed recently). There were also several Colombian stands – I had no idea how big the Colombian community in La Plata apparently is, nor that there are, I gather, quite a few restaurants there. Something to keep in mind for future visits. Great fun, a bit pricey, sort of – in general, the prices for plates from each stand or truck were higher than we’d have paid at similar festivals in Buenos Aires, but on the other hand, they were larger portions – many of them full sized meals, rather than just a few bites of something to try. Definitely a place to go with friends and split things if you want to try multiple dishes.
Truly dedicated to the world of meat, BA’s hipodromo (the horse racetrack), now the site of virtually weekly food festivals, hosted the first CARNE event, a multiple day paeon to all things grilled. I met up with friend Wayne, writer of the Moon guides for Argentina and Chile, and we headed on in for an afternoon of sampling. Usually the food festivals are held in the area surrounding the hipodromo’s buildings, the parking lot, the plaza, the sidewalks, but, apparently expecting much larger crowds, this one was held out on a grassy meadow on the far side of the track, requiring a bit of a trek, with starts and stops, because the track was active with races, which meant that the huge crowds headed in and out needed to wait, reasonably patiently, for moments between. Once there, we found the usual assortment of tents and trucks, the vast majority, given the theme, dedicated to red meat (though we did find an excellent fish taco from La Pescadorita). Pulled pork, some of it barbecued, some not, seemed prevalent once again – kind of fits with the advent of a few more places focusing on smoked meats that are starting to spring up here and there. Standout for me, a braised beef cheek chorizo with sweet and spicy mustard from Los Infernales. Strangely, I don’t think we tried anything actually grilled. Nor did we head into the cluster of food trucks at one end of the festival where the first “gourmet hamburger fest” was offering up burgers from nigh on a dozen of the better spots in and around town (all of which, I think, I’ve reviewed). Sated, we toddled out.
It’s been quite a few years since I popped up to Belén de Escobar, a bit northwest of the city. That time it was just a day of wandering around and a visit to the BarbaRoja brewery. I happened across a notice that yet another gastrofest was about to take place, up there, the 3rd Annual Festival of the “Pollo al Barro”, or Chicken in Mud. It’s a dish I haven’t tried, and only heard of now and again. A little research suggests that the dish was created at a restaurant in front of the train station there in Escobar, many, many moons ago. There’s a youtube video of, I think, the chef from the place that invented it demonstrating it – I’d venture to say that even if you don’t speak Spanish you can follow what he’s doing. At its heart, it seems to be a whole chicken, stuffed with aromatic vegetables, coated with a spice and brandy glaze, wrapped in butcher’s paper, covered in mud, then lowered into the ground over hot coals and buried for four hours to cook.
So, it took, as last time, almost two hours to get there – this time I took a bus, which gives more timing options, since the trains only run there twice a day. The municipal park where the event was held is only a couple of blocks from the bus terminal, nice and convenient. It turned out to be a more general food festival, with maybe a dozen or so different stands serving up various foods, and several craft beer outlets, and lots of arts and crafts. The whole pollo al barro part was limited to an ongoing series of demonstrations and a competition between various local cooks, however the tasting of those versions was limited to a panel of judges. Disappointingly, only one stand out of the whole fair was selling the dish, and there was quite a line. But, I’d spent the time getting there, and never having tried the dish, hey, I wasn’t going to let a line deter me. Eventually, I got myself a quarter chicken. Second disappointment, the whole chickens wrapped in their paper were being brought to the stand already cleaned of their mud – which had a lot of folk, including me, wondering if they really ever were covered in mud, or if it was just a simulated setup, especially as they were bringing them in dozens at a time, steadily. They were also bagged in oven safe bags inside the paper, clearly not traditional, and only stuffed with onions, no other vegetables. So I may still never have tasted the real thing, but this was pretty good – she gave me a little breast meat to try along with my leg/thigh quarter that I asked for – I’d figured that it would stand up better to such long cooking – and yes, the breast was a bit dried out in comparison. Enjoyed it, had a tasty Scottish red ale from Bratsj, made here in BA province. Sampled a mediocre locro (“local style” made with chickpeas and white beans in addition to the usual white cracked corn, and with only a little braised meat in it, no sausages), and headed back to the bus terminal for the return trip. A long day for a piece of chicken, but interesting nonetheless.
I’d intended on one more writeup, the Basque street festival, but ended up spending most of the day on the couch after having a meal the night before where I got food poisoning of some sort. Besides, this is long enough, no?