I love food, as you know, but up there in my nirvana is my next best thing to do – ride horses, sleep with horses (cuddles, nothing else, but maybe a kiss on the nose) and generally be around them. I have a strange affinity with them, but anyone who rides with a passion knows what I mean. Same with dogs.
Combination time folks. Cook in the open with your horses grazing on the local plant life, taking a well-earned drink from a pretty, babbling stream, whilst you sit and savour the flavours of a freshly cooked dish straight off the plancha.
Planchas in Patagonia
I do like meat, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for me to chow down on, so if you are a vegetarian or vegan, plancha-life is not for you. But Patagonia still offers some delicious food ‘sans viande’, so visiting there is not a problem, as the scenery is amazing. Riding out is tough with such a terrain, so you can’t be fainthearted and you need a bit of stamina, for sure.
Ten years ago was the start of the wave of popularity of vegetarian dining, and restaurants all over Argentina (Patagonia is a region in the Argentine) now produce veggie and vegan tasty dishes. So, I thought, I am not going to be anywhere near a ‘sit down for hours with a great dish and a bottle of fabulous wine’ type restaurant, but I didn’t need to be. Patagonia, whilst off the beaten track, has an astonishing melange of vegetables and fruit, some of which I did not recognise in its raw form. I was surprised that my macho-gaucho guides were so up to date on the cooking front, particularly as they were all hardy ranching types who let their wives be the cooking kingpins. But not the case. Of course, they were dab hands at grilling meat on a barbecue or plancha (a barbecue style grill fuelled by coal, wood, not a turn on the gas type used in the garden), but their cooking prowess went a lot deeper, and perhaps I was stereotyping them a little too early on this assignment).
Eating at the Ranch
We started our trip on a ranch that would host only six of this kind of guest visits per year, just enough to top up their income. It was surprising to learn just how little they made from the livestock they raised for sale but considering a lot of meat is due for export, they are just the bottom of the chain and make the least of all.
After a hearty and welcoming meal at the ranch, I literally fell into my primitive bunk bed, so tiring had the trip been. We were due to set off at sunup, and I am a very short sleeper usually approaching my first day with enthusiasm and a thirst for what the day would bring. But this time I was so tired, and my bunk had become the best bed in the world, so I was loathe to leave it.
We trekked for almost the whole of the next day, way, way up in the mountains, stopping only once for a late lunch. The gauchos put up a plancha in record time, pulling equipment out of their saddle bags and food from a large, insulated container. I was a bit concerned as we (and the food) had been in the heat for hours, but no need, as the packs were still ice cold. We had lamb, crudely cut but deliciously sweet and tender with tons of grilled tomatoes and onions (they love onions and salads are normally packed with them). One of the wives had packed some empanadas and cheese from the previous night, which were also tossed on to the grill. I have to say it was damn good! Grilled provolone cheese, yum.
Packing up the horses, I was dreading the last stretch to our overnight stop, figuring I would fall asleep at the saddle! We took a leisurely trek for the last 3 hours and arrived hot and dusty as we took off at breakneck speed to what appeared to be a chocolate box house, all cute and quaint. Where the hell were we?!
Eating at the ‘Welsh house’
‘A Welsh house’ – in the middle of nowhere, being greeted in a very strange accent to which the gauchos responded! The menu that night (after we had showered and changed) carried on in the same theme – some Welsh food and some Patagonian delights. I guess you could call it Pata-Welsh fusion, giggle! More lamb, succulent beef, grilled aubergines, tomatoes, fresh salad leaves and some, wait for it, garlic prawns, giant beasts that the owners had marinated and were truly delicious. I would love to know where they got them from, but never did find out. Welsh is spoken across Patagonia, surprisingly. All over Patagonia there are little town with a strong well community, quite a diaspora when you think of it. Tea houses are very popular with the Patagonians.
There was another meat on the plate, looked a little like a long fillet of beef. This I did find out about after – ‘Guanacos’ are camelids native to South America, similar to the Andean llama. The population of guanacos in Patagonia is so large, that they can be hunted in a controlled manner for human consumption. Guanacos are the favourite prey for the Patagonian Puma, as well as for many travellers looking to try local Patagonia food dishes. I asked them if they have pumas around their land, and they smiled and they said apparently that as they had ‘guanacos’ there, they had pumas! Gulp. Oh well, I am supposed to be writing about what I ate and saw on my trip before I get devoured by the pumas as an English delicacy!
I thought I would sleep like the proverbial log, but my head was full of this somewhat bizarre world I was currently in, so decided to put it down on paper there and then.
We left in the morning at sunrise after a light breakfast and the guides asked us if we would mind riding through, stopping only for 10 or 15 minutes for a drink a and a bite to eat. We said yes, no problem, but daunted at the prospect. It wasn’t so bad, the trip back was a good 2 hours less, lunch was basic but to be served Welsh cakes on a mountainside in Patagonia was a first! They were wonderful as well.
Quick shower, and bed was the aim, but after more meat, this time in a stew served in a hollowed-out squash and packed full of meat, carrots, onions, Andean potatoes and green beans all with rice in too. Lovely, but too filling by then. I found out in the morning the name of the dish, ‘Cazuela de Llama’. Oh no, not another relative!
I needed the next few days off before we came home, and we decided to spend it whale and penguin watching down off the coast. It filled my heart with joy and Daniel got some great shots off the boat. He told me that the nights we slept back at the ranch he had decided to go out and photograph the animal nightlife and was thrilled with the photos he took. I guess you could say that we are both dedicated to our art, but we need to be, as some of our trips are arduous, but worth every minute.
Adios, till next time!