It’s fire that defines Argentine cooking. It’s the flames charring the skin of red peppers. It’s the burning wood that heats the pizza oven; it’s the hot coals that slowly cook the finest meat; it’s the open fires surrounded by butterflied kid or lamb. The crack and sizzle is the soundtrack to an Argentine meal. That and laughter, animated banter and the clink of a wine glass.
I’m in the middle of a vast vineyard in the Mendoza wine region and fire surrounds me. It’s 11am, a tart Torrontés is already open and I’m at The Vines Resort & Spa, about to have a cooking lesson from the chefs at Siete Fuegos — one of the restaurants of Francis Mallmann, Argentina’s most famous chef and the subject of an episode of Netflix’s documentary series The Chef’s Table. In it, he talks rhapsodically about cooking outdoors with fire; how using it adds smoky complexity to meat; how the charring brings out flavour.
Chef Leandro Salatino shows me the fires. The pirca is an open fire that roasts a butterflied goat — a common method of cooking meat here. We stare down at a pit with large stones at the bottom. Leandro tells me it’s a technique used by the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile and Argentina, to hide food from invaders. “Vegetables cooked this way are complex and earthy, delicious,” he says.
He then shows me the infiernillo (a scary-looking grill with fire above it and fire below it). It’s fiercely hot. There’s also the log-fired oven, the chapa (a cast-iron griddle that heats with coals) and the parrilla (the classic Argentinian barbecue, consisting of an iron grate over hot coals). Sparks fly, the fires crackle and breathe, smoke wisps up into the clear Mendoza sky.
“OK, estamos listos, we’re ready,” says chef Matias Mansilla. “Let’s start cooking.” Whole beetroots, potatoes and garlic bulbs are brought out. “We have amazing produce in Mendoza,” Matias explains. Even the salt we generously use to cover the vegetables is local. We slot the pan of salted vegetables between the fires of the infiernillo for around 45 minutes to slowly bake.
Next we make bread: just a simple mix of flour, water and yeast. The dough rises next to the huge oven while we assemble empanadas, a classic Argentinian stuffed pastry. We cut simple dough into saucer-sized shapes and fill them with satisfying chunks of meat infused with paprika, cumin and oregano, as well as olives and hard-boiled eggs, and then slip them into the oven.
But the cornerstone of the meal is the beef. More than a foodstuff in Argentina, it’s a way of life. The asado is a social event, a ritual, and a reason for family and friends to gather on a weekly basis. Matias brings out a huge piece of meat and notes my grin. “It’s beautiful, no?” We discuss the marbling of the meat, the way the fat weaves through it, the colour of the ‘eye’ in our rib-eye. I sharpen the knife and start to cut out three thick steaks. “Bigger, bigger,” he says. We rub in salt and then, with a small shovel, pull some hot coals from the fire and place them under a low iron grill.
More wine is poured as we roll out dough into saucer-shapes, placed directly on the glowing coals. They balloon into loaves and char quickly. Matias deftly chops cherry tomatoes and places them on top of the bread before drizzling it all with extra virgin olive oil (also from Mendoza, of course) and a quick grate of local pepato, a hard sheep’s milk cheese with peppercorns.
The blackened bread adds a nutty flavour, which along with the sweetness of the tomatoes, the umami hit of the cheese and the earthiness of the olive oil is a stunning combination. I rashly vow to cook only on my barbecue at home. But I realise it’s also about context. The fires still rage; smoky air wafts around us; glasses are refilled. We turn the rib-eye for one final blast of heat and dish up.
I crack open the salt-crusted vegetables like I would a hard-boiled egg. The earthy flavours of the potato and beetroot are infused with garlic and smoke. The glistening rib-eye (cooked medium-rare, in the Argentinian fashion) is laced with chimichurri, the traditional sauce for beef (parsley, garlic, chilli, salt and olive oil). Fresh greens are dropped over it, a deep-red Malbec (made from the vines that surround us) is poured and we sit down to eat outside.
Mendoza is where the Malbec grape grows best — producing a wine designed for food. It’s no coincidence that there’s also an abundance of great ingredients and people cooking with them from their heart. As I walk to the bus station later that night to return to Buenos Aires, the restaurants are stoking the fires for the evening trade.
Four places for a taste of Mendoza
This restaurant serves big dishes of comfort food to share, like cannelloni filled with cheese and corn and milanesas (escalopes). The menu changes daily, depending on what catches chef Pablo del Rio’s eye in the morning market. He also runs Siete Cocinas, which serves different styles of food from around the country.
How much: From £13 for three courses, based on two sharing.
Want to start an argument in Mendoza? Just ask who serves the best lomito sandwich. Many think it’s Don Claudio’s. Order one and you’ll be asked if you want French bread or pan árabe. Choose the latter and you’ll get a steak sandwich loaded with cheese and salad — the sort where the juices should drip off your elbows.
How much: From around £6 per sandwich. (T: 00 54 261 423 8784)
Specialising in Mediterranean cooking, this lovely place uses ingredients local to Mendoza. From the open kitchen comes starters such as baby potatoes with mustard, grilled shrimps and parsley; small plates like pumpkin soufflé; and mains of pastas, salmon, porchetta and braised rabbit. Be sure to try the cakes and tarts here.
How much: Three courses from £30 per person.
Set in The Vines Resort & Spa, Siete Fuegos is dedicated to seven types of fires — all outdoors, and each used for a different style of cooking. It’s overseen by the famous Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, who also runs 1884 Restaurant, in Mendoza city.
How much: Three courses from £35 without drinks. Cooking class costs US$150 (£115) per person.
Six Mendoza food finds
Helados Michel: Argentine ice cream is amazing. The best in Mendoza is at Helados Michel. A highlight: dulce de leche (caramel).
Sueño Gourmet: Stock up at this great delicatessen, which boasts a wide selection of vegetables, including colourful Andean potatoes, local olive oils, wine and craft beer.
La Aldea Cocina: This parrilla is a great place to try some beef the Argentinian way. The parrillada is a stack of meat that arrives on a sizzling grill.
El Mercadito: If you haven’t seen a vegetable or fruit for a few days, this bistro serves light lunches and dinners, oh and meat…
Hangar 52: If you’ve had enough wine (is that possible?), then this bar on Avenida Villanueva Aristides — a hot Mendoza nightlife spot — has wide selection of local artisanal beers.
Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)