As Paris is to France, Buenos Aires is the cultural magnet and hub of Latin America and we navigated to as much culture as we could.
One of our first stops was to one of the world’s greatest bookstores, El Ateneo Grand Splendid. The building originally housed the theater Teatro Grand Splendid, designed by architects Pero and Torres Armengol in 1919. After years of popular shows, including performances by the famous tango singers Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini, the Grand Splendid was converted into a movie theater in the late ’20’s, featuring some of the first sound movies shown in Argentina. The El Ateneo publishing house converted this old theater into a bookstore in 2000.
The El Ateneo publisher has contributed a central role in Argentina’s literary scene. Opened in 1912 by Spaniard Pedro Garcia, El Ateneo started out as a publishing house whose initial catalog included The Divine Comedy, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare, Ruben Dario, Machiavelli and Homer translated and printed for an Argentine readership. In 1968, the publishers launched “The Spring of Letters”, a series of lectures and signings with famous authors which eventually evolved into the International Book Fair held annually in April. Today, the editorial forms part of Argentina’s most important literary conglomerate with many bookstores throughout BA and the rest of the country.
We went to a dinner show that featured a history of the tango that had great music and dancing, but I would have loved to go to a milonga where locals go to dance the tango – there is a dance club, cultural centre or park hosting milongas almost every night of the week. We did learn of one in Palermo but alas the Argentines have Spanish hours and the dances don’t start until 11:00 p.m. (I read that if you wanted to go night clubbing, don’t even think about showing up until 2:00 a.m, that is when they are just getting started.) However, it is cool to know that the tango is still alive and well and being danced very tightly in Buenos Aires.
BA also has a rich jazz scene and many artists flock to this city. It was only an ill-timed, electrifying thunderstorm that kept us from the Thelonius Jazz Club on Thursday night.
The Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (the MALBA) is probably the most important art museum in Latin America. Similar to the MOMA in New York, its architecture is almost as impressive as its collection. Interestingly, the museum has a cinema in which art films are screened, in a happy cross-cultural mingling which we saw more than once in S.A.
Along with paintings by the greats – Kahlo, Rivera, Berni, Matta and many more, there are wonderful exhibitions, and we saw the photography show of Sara Facio’s powerful documenting of Juan Paron’s return to Argentina between 1972 and 1974 – amazing, artistic photographs created in the extreme heat of the moment.
We missed Aida by only a week at the Teatro Colon, one of the three best opera houses in the world. We went to a modern ballet performance but it was held in a rehearsal hall. That did not take anything away from the performance, however. Experimental, exploratory, intimate, las bailarinas no hablan was based on the brave memoir of dancer Florencia Werchowsky.
Babilonialiteraria.com says of the book which predicated the dance:
“With a constant rhythm and a very personal prose that balances fair humor and drama, this book is a book to rethink the mandates to child prodigies, the unwavering will of demanding parents and the cultural policy of a country in constant crisis.” There appeared to be many dancers in the sold-out audience, and delight when Ms Werchowsky and some older performers took the stage. It was one of our most authentic cultural experiences in Buenos Aires.
Starbucks may have penetrated the BA market, but walking around carrying a coffee with a lid has not replaced Argentina’s coffee culture. Coffee can take hours, whether to socialize with friends or to spend an afternoon reading a book – you will never be thrown out of a BA cafe. A cortado – an espresso cut with milk – is served with a small glass of sparkling water and a sweet treat. We went for the ultimate cultural experience at Buenos Aires’ original coffee house just off the Plaza de Mayo: Cafe Tortoni:
Argentina is world-renowned for its food and many specialties – empanadas, the pastry-wrapped meat mixtures, the ultimate finger food; dulce de leche, the sweet specialty made by caramelizing sweetened condensed milk and the alfajores which wrap pastry and chocolate around the dulce de leche (BA’s answer to the macaron); gelato introduced by the Italians; and of course, asado, the endless meat BBQ so central to Argentine culture and the better part of most families’ Sundays. We were lucky enough to experience a home-cooked family asado with all the wine pairings at the home of a retired chef and very good friend of Chrissie.
We pulled up to an impressive home next door to the Presidential residence. We walked through the lovely home, past the pool, past the amazing bbq with wonderful aromas emulating
and into a dining area leading off a kitchen where our gracious hosts, Rodolfo and Alejandra awaited.
First we were given a very professional wine tasting lesson by Rodolfo during which he took us through proper looking, smelling and tasting the wine, punctuated by gentle coaxing, if we cheated, “shut UP!” 🙂 We tasted beautiful Torrontes and two Malbecs for comparison.
Along with the wine came some tempting empanadas.
Next our host and cook led us out to the bbq, an altar to the carnivore gods. Intestines are marinated for 2 days in lemon and garlic, they are served first.
The sausages are on the grill.
Great slabs of meat await us – pork ribs and a legendary slab of beef from which will be cut the exquisite filet mignons.
The intestines required a few more sips of wine for courage. Trying to adhere to the maxim that one should go out of one’s comfort zone on these trips, I braved a couple of bites – it tasted like liver to me, which I like – but combined with the consistency, shape and the thought of what it was, I looked ahead to the beef.
But first, the sausage – rings of chorizo and links of blood sausage and heaping baskets of bread. I was surprised to learn that Argentines do not favour spicy foods and think pepper is too heavy a spice, so only salt is on the tables. Mostly the cooks use fresh herbs of all kinds for flavour. The chorizo is lovely and delicately flavourful, not hot and spicy like Mexican or Italian sausages.
Time to sample more wine, just the right amount.
Now a wonderful aroma reaches us as the pork ribs arrive on the table. We try to pace ourselves knowing the beef is yet to come, but the ribs were moist , meaty and delicious.
A little more of that tasty Malbec, please!
At last, the steaks arrive. The cows raised for meat in Argentina, mostly herefords, are grain-fed and roam free and the meat is much more flavourful than Canadian or indeed any other beef I have ever tasted, cooked to perfection and the crescendo to the meal.
It was an honour to be invited into the home of these Portenos and have them share their culture with us in the most relatable way, by sharing a meal with us. There are many different modes to learn about a country’s culture, but to have someone open their home to strangers must be the most heartfelt, kind and genuine experience we could have asked for. Thank you!
P.S. Chrissie told us later that Rodolfo was telling his friends that we all entered the asado acting as though we were going to the Teatro Colón, and left as though we had just seen a Boca Jrs. game in the Bombonera. 🙂