A Wine and Cheese Weekend

Wine and cheese in Mexico – who knew?! We are cheeseheads, after all, and were thrilled to find there is a wine and cheese route just a few hours away from Mexico City. We checked it out with our friends Josette and Scott during Tequisquiapan’s wine and cheese festival.

Matt was the tour director and Scott was our accommodating designated driver (he’s a beer guy) for the weekend. We started out at a reasonable hour on Saturday with our only goal to arrive at the Freixinet winery by 2 pm because we had tickets for its paella festival and we were told the paella could run out. First stop was the Neole cheese shop for a tour and tasting. We were joined by a tour group and headed behind the cheese shop for the simple tour that doubled as our daily Spanish lesson. We checked out the cheese making area, had the process described to us and then enjoyed our first cheese tasting of the trip. We would learn at our second cheese tasting that orange slices are to cleanse the palate, sweet is to temper the taste of the cheese and salty is to intensify the cheese’s taste. I used this guide as my excuse to eat the sweet pieces of “ate de membrillo” or quince jelly every time I tried a bit of blu or smoked cheese.

Even though we were full from breakfast and our subsequent cheese tasting, next stop was another cheese shop. Except we couldn’t find it and even Matt had to concede that despite its presence on his GPS, it didn’t really exist. No worries, it was time for some wine instead and we stopped at Viñedos Los Rosales. The grounds were beautiful, the servers were friendly and patiently described the wines we could taste and… the wines were terrible. So terrible that while we only had tiny 1-ounce pours, we still furtively dumped them out on the ground instead of finishing them. Driver Scott could rest easy that he hadn’t missed anything as he had taken a pass on the tasting, and we could all be confident that our $2 wine tasting fee was worth knowing never to drink Los Rosales wine again.

To get the bad taste out of our mouths, we quickly turned into Viñedos La Redonda for our second tasting. We opted to skip the tour (as we had done at Los Rosales) and headed to the tasting room at the front of the property. While the attendants couldn’t have been less interested in explaining the wine to us, the view was great and the wines were good.

La Redonda

After enjoying our wine and the view, it was off to the paella festival at Finca Sale Vivé by Freixenet. What a great time! After the usual ex-pat confusion (we had advanced tickets but had to stand in a ticket line anyhow), we got our glasses and our complimentary wine and were off to enjoy the fest. We started with a review of the entries into the paella competition. The entrants were gastronomy schools and the offerings looked amazing so we purchased from the friendliest group who told us their special ingredient was mezcal. Next up was a tour of the winery including the underground wine cave, which the winery claims is the only one in Latin America. It was a refreshing break from the sun and nice because we could wander about at our own pace.

Fun in the Cave

Back outside we checked out the hot air ballon, refilled our glasses and continue our wandering. The entrepreneurs who were supposed to be signing people up for rides the next morning were running a little side business taking pictures of people inside the balloon. We admired the effort and stepped inside. The festival crowd was laid back and family-friendly (despite the occasional passed out over indulger) and there were several seating areas with music. We headed through the vineyards, found a seat at the outdoor tent and enjoyed a mariachi band and then a band playing tunes like Stand by Me. I don’t think I have ever been in a vineyard surround by cacti before.

We left the festival and headed back to enjoy the pool at our lovely hotel. Afterwards, we returned to the main square of Tequisquiapan and went to La Vaca Feliz (The Happy Cow) cheese shop. It was crowded and we were a bit overwhelmed when the gentleman behind the counter took an interest in us and began describing all of the cheeses and giving us samples. We must have tasted 15 kinds of cheese! The man (if we got his name, I forgot it) was actually an optometrist who loved cheese and was eager to practice his English with us. We bought  couple of kinds but assured him we would be back on Monday before we left town. We did, in fact, return, and while we were disappointed that many of the cheeses we intended to buy had sold out over the weekend, we found plenty of other kinds to buy instead. And while our new friend wasn’t working, the woman who assisted us also generously gave us about another dozen samples.

Day 2 was as exciting and wine-filled as Day 1 and once again began with cheese. We went to Bocanegra – the companion cheese shop to Neole where they have a cheese cave. It looks like a winery – a gorgeous building with cool art in a beautiful setting. Wisconsin cheesemakers should take note.

It wasn’t all wine and cheese (and the occasional beer) – we were headed to the Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) of Bernal to see the Rock of Bernal. Mexico designates certain towns as “Magical Towns” to promote tourism, protect traditions, provide jobs and highlight the towns’ cultural or natural significance. 83 towns or villages throughout Mexico have the designation, and Tequisquiapan is also one. I was game to explore another Pueblo Mágico, but I was confused by Bernal – a big rock was all it took? My first glimpse of the rock did not impress me.

Rock of Bernal

I did some quick internet research and learned it was the 3rd highest monolith on the planet. What the heck is a monolith? The Merriam-Webster definition, “a single great stone often in the form of an obelisk or column” didn’t do much to enlighten me.

We got to Bernal, parked the car and wandered around the cute town. The rock grew on me – the town was in its shadow and it was cool to see it looming above. We wandered in and out of shops on our way to the main square. We were admiring the church when we noticed a bunch of kids hurrying to stand before the door. They were eagerly awaiting something, which I didn’t think it was for mass to start, when the door opened and a guy started throwing coins to the kids. They scrambled for their share and then resumed the wait. What the heck? We saw a family come out with a newly baptized baby and Scott surmised that the tradition must be to throw coins to kids after your child is baptized. Sure enough, we entered the church and saw the set up for another baptism. Later research confirmed that this practice is called a “bolo” and the baby’s godfather throws the coins to ensure a prosperous life for his godchild.

Pueblo Mágico

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We went to a restaurant called El Negrito, which is a little disconcerting to an American as it translates to pickaninny. (Peru had a restaurant in the airport called La Negrita.) The terrace view was lovely and we enjoyed our lunch before heading back to Tequis for a cool down in the pool before going to the Wine and Cheese Festival.

Terrace View

While I think Matt, Josette and Scott would have been happy to stay at the pool and skip the wine and cheese festival, they humored me and we headed to the park, paid our entry fees, bought our glasses and started tasting. There was a pavilion set up with several rows of wine and cheese stands and a stage in the front of the grounds with several benches. I think there also was a food area, but we never made it there as we arrived with only two hours left of the festival and were focused on the tastings. While it was the last day of the festival and you could tell some of the vendors were ready to pack up, most were very friendly and happy to explain their wares to us. Like the paella fest, the vibe was relaxed. We left with several bottles of wine and cheese, so it was a worthwhile addition to our busy day.

The next morning after our final stop for cheese at La Vaca Feliz, we left Tequis with 9 bottles of wine and about the same number of cheeses. My only disappointment – no cheddar!

* In addition to Matt, as usual, photo credit for this post goes to Josette and Scott. Thanks, friends!

Living the Good Life: Mendoza

Wine, grilled meats, gorgeous scenery: how could we not return to Mendoza? After an amazing visit there in 2014 with our friends So Much Wine and So Little Time – Mendoza, Argentina we were eager to return. We again arranged winery tours with Ampora Wine Tours but this time added on an asado cooking class to learn the art of Argentine grilling.

The Hills Are Alive

Mauricio Camenforte was our host for the asado class that was held in his backyard. http://asadocookingclassmendoza.com/ We enjoy seeing how people live and his home and its view were lovely. Mauricio clearly loved having people in his home to show them a true Argentine experience. There were three other Americans from Seattle in the class  – Norberto, Jeff and Holly – and we quickly bonded over a shared love of travel, wine and food.

Ready to Feast!

An asado is made on a special type of grill: a long, flat concrete surface with a metal grill and basket. Only wood is used and the idea is to take your time, drink some wine and enjoy the process. Mauricio started by creating a wood fire. As the wood burns, you knock off cinders and spread them under the grill. Once you have a suitable amount to start grilling, you place the burning wood in the basket, replenish as needed and continue to knock off cinders for under the grill.

As we waited for the fire to burn, we started our feast with delicious bread accompanied by an eggplant spread, blue cheese spread, chorizo and olives. Next up were some amazing empanadas. It goes without saying that there was an endless supply of malbec wine as well.

Appetizers

Then we got to work. We sliced the veggies and put them on the grill with small, fresh chorizos. Beef ribs were expertly placed for slow cooking. Holly and I volunteered to make the chimichurri and we chopped the parsley and garlic as we sipped our wine. Mauricio put green and red peppers and onions directly in the fire basket, which wowed us all. We were even more wowed when they were done and we simply rinsed them under the tap, cut them up and seasoned them with some olive oil, salt and pepper.

Mauricio oversaw the completion of the chimichurri and then we were ready to make choripan – little chorizo sandwiches with chimichurri. Delicious! We also learned to make matambre a la pizza – flank steak topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Mauricio warned us that this dish is hit or miss as sometimes the meat can be tough, but his was a big hit.

The food just kept coming! We made provoleta – provolone grilled in a special cast-iron skillet. While we were eating the ribs, veggies and a salad, Mauricio snuck some gorgeous tenderloins on the grill. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat more, we did! The meal ended with a dessert of baked apples with dulce de leche and the popular Argentine drink of Fernet and Coke.

The class was a top notch experience from start to finish. While we didn’t think we could eat or drink for a week, we rose to the occasion the next two days with our wine tasting tours. Both days were excellent and we again met great people and sampled fantastic wines.

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♥ Mendoza!

Wining Part II – Colchagua Valley, Chile

We left Mendoza and flew to Santiago, Chile, where we had an afternoon and evening before being picked up by our guide, Pablo, and driven to the Colchagua Valley for more wine tasting. We saw very little of Santiago, but it felt like any other large city in a Western country. So similar that I had flashbacks when we stopped at the Starbucks in the morning to get a muffin before hitting the road and I saw all the businessmen (yes, only men) in suits having meetings or on their laptops. I don’t miss that life!

We did have time in Santiago for two very nice meals. The first was lunch at Bar Liguria. We got a bit confused walking there and I finally stopped and asked a friendly-looking woman where it was. She was so friendly that she walked us there. She wanted to practice her English, and I happily obliged. Who said city dwellers are unfriendly? We sat outside at the restaurant and had a lovely meal, despite some issues trying to translate the menu. Food terms are so regional that our Peruvian knowledge was no help beyond the basics. Beth and Chris have this amazing app that translates text before your eyes that we were using until we were informed the restaurant has a no cell phone policy. Oops! I explained we were just translating the menu and the waitress sent over a waiter who spoke some English, so we could put the phone away. After walking around a bit and then relaxing for a few hours at our hotel, we had dinner at Aquí Está Coco, a renowned seafood restaurant. The decor and ambience were great – in particular the restroom sinks made out of tree trunks – and the food was good. As it was a Tuesday night, the place lacked energy and the vibe seemed a bit focused on clearing the joint so the staff could go home. But we had a good meal nonetheless.

Pablo, the owner of Grado Sur Expediciones, picked us up on Wednesday morning and we headed to the countryside. Pablo was great – fun, interesting, and spoke perfect English, an added bonus. His company handles more active tours, such as mountain biking and kayaking, and our ride reflected it.

No need for the kayak/bike rack on this trip! But we were comfortable and it was good for the mountain roads (and our luggage). Pablo said that some of the nicer hotels give him the stink eye when he pulls up to collect guests, so we met him in the service drive at The W.

The fall colors in the Colchagua Valley were at their peak and grapes were still being harvested, so the valley was stunning. First stop was lunch at Viu Manent. Wow – the setting, the food, the wine, the service – everything was absolutely perfect.  We each ordered a different glass of wine and passed them around to have our own tasting. We didn’t tour the winery, but if I were ever in the area again I would definitely do the tour (complete with horse-drawn carriage) and have another meal there. Part of the attraction of the meal was that we were not limited to a set menu, as on our Mendoza tours, so we could have exactly what we wanted and each dish was a winner.

Second stop was the Laura Hartwig winery. Our tour was very nice, but we, and Beth in particular, were turned off by the winery’s label –  a prim picture of the now 83-year-old Laura back in the 50s. Very old-fashioned and it made us feel we were drinking wine with a aura of disapproval hanging over us. Really, check out her picture on the website and tell me if you think they could use a better marketing campaign! http://www.laurahartwig.cl/default.asp?id=52&ids=65. It was cool to see the barrels being filled and because our guide was so nice we bought a bottle of wine for us to drink with dinner that night.

Our final stop was Museo Colchagua, our only museum of the trip. It was quite interesting, with exhibits ranging from fossils to pre-Colombian artifacts to steam engines to the Chilean mine rescue in 2010, complete with the drill bits they used to drill the escape passage and the capsule that freed the miners. Had we not imbibed generous amounts of wine, we likely would have appreciated it a bit more. We decided on a simple meal that evening and bought cold cuts, cheese and a frozen pizza to have for dinner at our quaint inn, Posada Colchagua. The proprietess was very sweet and opened up her kitchen for us and offered us  bottle of wine. We were so over-wined, that we had to decline.

Day two started with a 2 hour drive through the mountains, instead of the 20 minute direct route to Viña Santa Cruz. For the record, I voted against it as I despise car rides, but I must admit that the views were impressive despite the fog. Even more impressive was the view from Viña Santa Cruz overlooking its vineyards.

Our guide described Viña Santa Cruz as a tourism winery and that was certainly true. We took a gondola to the top of the estate where there were three mini museums, each devoted to a different indigenous Chilean culture: Mapuche, Aymara and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It was very interesting and Pablo was an informative guide. His descriptions made all of us want to visit Easter Island.

After we descended our tour began and that is when it became apparent that wine is not the focus at Viña Santa Cruz. Our guide was impersonal and pedantic: he would ask us a question and stare at us until someone would venture a response. Usually he would tell us we were wrong with a curt “No!” I felt like I was in junior high and hadn’t studied for a quiz. Despite the $30 per person cost of the tour, we were only allowed to taste the cheapest wines they make. Pablo knew something was up when we left without buying a single bottle of wine.

We had lunch in Lolol, Pablo’s hometown, at a lovely local restaurant. We walked down the main street in the town and saw where the homes were destroyed from the earthquake in 2010. Much devastation and the rebuilding process is slow due to a lack of funds.

Lolol

Lolol

After lunch we went to Mont Gras for a tasting instead of a full tour. Our host Marcelo was animated and very generous with the pours, which included all the different price points of the wines. It definitely made up for our bad experience at Viña Santa Cruz and we bought wine to prove it!

We headed into Santa Cruz where Beth and I walked around the market, yep, just like everywhere else, while the guys had a drink. Afterwards we headed to dinner at the lovely Vino Bello. Good wines, Italian food and service made for a great last dinner together.

Our last day together started with some excitement – an earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter Scale shortly after we arose. Matt and I had never experienced an earthquake before so we were a bit freaked out, particularly after visiting Lolol the prior day. To me it felt like a truck hit the building and then 4 waves came through that rocked me simultaneously up and down and back and forth. Very odd sensation. We found out later that an earthquake that small isn’t considered anything by those who live in the area and Chris, who lived in California as a kid, didn’t even notice it!

We went to the swanky Lapostolle Clos Apalta winery for our only tour of the day. The owner is the great-granddaughter of the creator of Grand Marnier and it was impressive to see what old money and a good distribution system can do for a winery! The winery is organic and biodynamic, the latter of which I don’t totally understand but it includes elements of mysticism, moon cycles and the like. The winery is intended to look like a nest perched in the mountains and it uses gravity (something we also saw in wineries in Spain) as the force to create its wines, with the wines moving down 6 stories during the process instead of being machine moved. The winery was impressive, as it should be given the US $10 million price tag. It was an excellent final tour for our trip.

But just because our tours were over didn’t mean our wine shopping was! We stopped at the Montes winery for our version of a tasting (ordering wines and sharing) and a snack. It was another lovely winery; the staff was friendly and the wines were good.

It was also interesting to see the fields being harvested. I made the mistake of saying “oh, those poor workers,” when I meant poor because they were engaged in back-breaking work while we were drinking, but I was mocked endlessly. Pablo’s brothers’ business is supplying the harvesters for the vineyards. We suggested they should also provide a wine shipping service as this was not available in the area as it had been in Mendoza.

Our final winery stop was Las Niñas, a winery owned by 3 generations of women, for the express purpose of buying their “high heel” wine per Pablo’s suggestion. Unfortunately, we learned that they had relabeled the wine because they felt it was too feminine and not doing well in the market. Clearly they were not shipping to the US where novelty labels fly off the shelves, particularly if the wine is good! Our final stop before the airport was a quaint restaurant where we had the best empanadas ever and sopapillas (fried dough) with honey for dessert.

We had just enough time to get Beth and Chris to the airport for their flight. Then Matt and I collapsed for the night – no dinner and no wine – before we returned to Peru the next morning. All in all, an amazing trip. Most importantly, all 5 1/2 bottles made it safely home! photo 2

So Much Wine and So Little Time – Mendoza, Argentina

Our friends Beth and Chris were our first South American guests. We couldn’t persuade them to come to Peru so we met in Argentina and Chile for a wine adventure. All adventures need some mishaps and ours started with a pretty big one: as Beth and Chris sat on the tarmac in San Antonio, TX, for their flight to Dallas, they received a text that their flight from Dallas to Santiago was canceled and they would be flying out the next day. We were all disappointed to be losing an entire day of vacation together, so we started off strong when they finally arrived in Mendoza.

First stop after our lovely inn, Villa Mansa, was the tiny tasting room at the Carmelo Patti winery per the recommendation of our driver, Marcelo. Carmelo was holding court, surrounded by other tasters, but warmly welcome us despite our limited Spanish. The wines were delightful and we each bought a bottle of the 2004 Gran Assemblage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Who said Mendoza is just about Malbec? A perfect first stop now that our trip was up and running!

Marcelo and Barbara at Villa Mansa attempted to get us last minute lunch reservations at Zuccardi, a popular winery owned by the cousin of a woman Beth and Chris met on the plane, but were unsuccessful. After calling other wineries, they finally got us a reservation at Vistandes. When we pulled up, we were pleased with the choice as it had the beautiful views its name suggests and the outdoor patio was lovely. Unfortunately, our initial server was terrible, the food was awful, and about 10 minutes into the meal I fell ill (no, not due to wine consumption!). We rushed back to Villa Mansa where I was indisposed the rest of the day and evening. While Matt and friends offered to stay on site, there wasn’t much that could be done for me, so they headed to Mendoza for dinner that night.

The next day I was vastly improved when we were picked up at 9:00 by Ampora Wine Tours to start our day of wining in the Uco Valley. Our guide, Sabrina, was very knowledgable and friendly and the other 4 tourers  – a Canadian, Brit, Swiss and Brazilian – were all pleasant company (no wine snobs, thank goodness). We learned that tasting wine early in the morning is best because your palate is at its freshest, so that became our excuse for drinking by 10 am each morning. First stop was the organic Bodega Domaine Bousquet.

We pulled ourselves away from the beautiful grounds and went to Bodega Gimenez Riili. This was our favorite stop of the day. Not only were the wines excellent, but the charming owner, Eduardo, gave our tour, complete with tank and barrel tastings. Our final tasting was on the beautiful patio and complete with cheeses, quince, bodega-made chocolate and fresh empanadas brought out by Eduardo’s wife. We could have sat there all afternoon in utter bliss and our only disappointment was that we couldn’t buy the chocolate to go with our wine.

Our final stop was lunch at Bodega O. Fournier. We were late, so we caught the very end of the tour, which was fine as we had already heard the wine making spiel twice that day. The medieval barrel room was over the top and Matt spent the rest of the day humming the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme. Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant, with average food (I stand by my prior statement that Argentine beef is not impressive www.https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/02/14/bread-glorious-bread/) and nice wines, but the experience had a definite assembly line feel as we saw other tables from other tour companies throughout the room and the meal wasn’t as amazing as the setting. Except for the dessert, which was incredible and included a spun caramel confection, or as we preferred to call it, bird’s nest. Matt had to restrain himself from picking off the plates of our fellow diners who didn’t eat theirs. In addition, our wine glasses were readily refilled so that was a plus!

Beth and Chris were accumulating wine to ship at a brisk pace, so we headed to Mendoza after our tour to drop off their loot at Ampora. We wandered about the vendor stalls at Plaza Independencia, which felt very similar to wandering around any outdoor market in any country. Some things are apparently universal. We continued to walk around aimlessly, found another similar but smaller market, and ended up eating at Anna Bistró, where the other three had eaten the prior night because nothing else in the neighborhood was open so early  (it was only 7:30). It was very cute, with a nice patio, attentive service from a cute waiter and decent food. My cosmopolitan was terrible (we were all off wine by that point) but as I didn’t need more alcohol, I didn’t mind not drinking it.

Our next day was much like the prior one – Ampora tours picked us up at 9:00 and we were wine tasting by 10 am. Jorge was our guide and the four of us were the only guests, which made for a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere.  We visited the Luján de Cuyo region and started at Bodega Lagarde, which is right on a busy street in Luján de Cuyo with its vineyards behind it. They offer a pure Cabernet Franc, the first we had tasted on our tours, which both Matt and Chris loved. They also produce sparkling wines, which is a bit unique in the area, so we saw the racks where they hand turn the bottles during riddling – the process of getting the sediment to consolidate in the neck of the bottle for removal prior to final corking.

One thing that amazed us on all of the tours is the manual labor involved in producing the wines – the grapes are harvested by hand, sorted by women (always women, we were informed repeatedly, due to their nimble fingers and attention to detail) at a long table, and, at some wineries, the stems and leaves removed by hand as well. Then, add on the time it takes to make good wine – several months in the casks and time in the bottle as well, and it is amazing that one can buy a decent bottle of wine for $10-$15!

Our next stop was Pulenta Estate, and apart from my notes that indicate we really loved these wines, the only other thing I remember is that the owner is a car aficionado and imports Porsches to Argentina. The winery had an area with some very cool engines and pictures of various cars. Maybe when we drink this bottle some additional memories will return!

Pulenta Cabernet Franc

Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc

After Pulenta we went to Bodega Caelum, a small, family business owned by a woman and run by her son and daughter. The family had produced grapes for other wineries for 10 years prior to opening their own winery in 2009. The son, Hernán, conducted our tour and his pride in his family’s business was evident and endearing. The family took a lot of time in deciding the name and label and settled on Caelum, a small constellation in the southern hemisphere that depicts a sculptor’s chisel. The tour had a personal feel and Hernán even showed us how to hand-label a bottle and mentioned that on occasion he and his sister pitch in to do so if they need to get a shipment out. The wines were good, including a Malbec dessert wine that we hadn’t seen at the other wineries. The family also grows amazing pistachios, which we eagerly bought (although we ended up leaving a half of a bag behind in Mendoza as we knew they would be confiscated when we returned to Chile).

Caelum

Caelum

Our final stop of the tour was a gourmet lunch with wine pairings at Osadia de Crear at the Dominio del Plata winery. The meal was excellent, even the ribeye was decent, and we agreed it was our best meal in Mendoza, and that wasn’t because it was about 3:00 and we were in desperate need of food! The experience felt more personal than that at Bodega O. Fournier and the food was definitely better.

Osadia de Crear Menu

Osadia de Crear Menu

After the tour we returned to Ampora so Beth and Chris could ship their two cases of wine back to the US. Matt and I were jealous – due to the difficulty we have had in getting packages delivered to Cajamarca, we limited ourselves to the wine that I could pack in our suitcases (I have become a master at this practice due to the booze runs we make in Lima), which ultimately were 5 1/2 bottles – the half being the malbec dessert wine that Caelum cleverly advertises will fit in your shoe and it did in Matt’s size 12! The irony is that upon their return to the US, Beth and Chris determined that they can buy most of the wines they shipped in the US for only slightly more expensive prices while Matt and I cannot find any of the wines in Cajamarca.

Mendoza was just the start of our tour – next up, the Colchagua Valley, Chile.

5 Reasons I Love Buenos Aires

From the moment Matt and I arrived in Buenos Aires, we were smitten.  Ten days later our passion hasn’t faded – despite the heat and dog poop, this place is great and has made the list of places we would like to live some day.  Here are my current top 5 reasons this city is fantastic.

1.  Green.  Buenos Aires does parks right.  There are green spaces everywhere, ranging from the large parks and gardens in Palermo to small squares in every neighborhood.  Old, lofty trees line many streets, adding shade and beauty to an urban environment.  There are also numerous plazas that incorporate green spaces as opposed to being just a fountain or statue on a slab of concrete.

2.  Vibe.  Buenos Aires is laid back with coffee shops and bars galore.  While many guide books talk about the congestion and fast pace, we haven’t felt it, possibly because we arrived during a heat wave that forced life to slow down. People here dress casually – it is the first time I have been to a major city outside of the US and could wear shorts without looking like a tourist.  People linger over lunch and hang out at the bars until the wee hours of the morning.  The fact that Matt and I can both pass as locals (due to Italian genes), until we talk, also makes us feel very comfortable here as we are not immediately spotted as tourists.

3.  Food.  With a strong Italian influence and wonderful beef, the food here is amazing.  Items not to be missed include carne asada (grilled meats) , milanese (thin cutlets of beef, chicken or soy [is there a such thing as a soy cutlet?], breaded and pan fried), alfajores (shortbread cookies with dulce de leche filling, sometimes covered in chocolate), empanadas (savory, filled turnovers), pizza and helado (ice cream).  And bread.  I will be writing an entire post devoted to the bread here; it is that good.  The cuisine is not only local – there are plenty of Japanese, Peruvian, Chinese, Indian and other restaurants to choose from.  We went to an Armenian place in the neighborhood that was delicious.

4.  Wine.  What is great food without great wine?  Malbecs rule the roost, but excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and red blends abound as do several delicious Argentine white wines.  The proximity of the Mendoza region and an apparent lack of sin tax makes wine as affordable as a soda (or at least that is my excuse for drinking at lunch).

Wine tasting

Wine tasting

5.  The weak peso.  I feel a bit guilty writing that as the Argentines’ misfortune is to our benefit, but for once Matt and I are on the right side of the exchange rate.  Despite this being the second largest city in South America, we have been able to enjoy ourselves without breaking the bank, with wonderful dinners with excellent wines costing around $70, far less than similar meals would cost in Milwaukee.  We have offset those dinners by going to more modest restaurants and eating at home – today we bought two servings of a torta (these were similar in look to a quiche, with a pastry crust but a filling that wasn’t eggs – one was ham and cheese and one a minced chicken filling) and some cookies for dinner for less than $8.  The tortas are huge and we have plenty of cookies, so we will get two meals out of our purchase.

While we enjoy living in Cajamarca, the two experiences couldn’t be more different so we plan to make the most of our last two weeks in Buenos Aires.  Or maybe that is just another excuse for drinking a lot of great, inexpensive wines and eating to my heart’s content!

Vacation Part I – Pisco

While my life is an endless vacation, Matt had his first vacation last week.  Because we are saving Machu Picchu, the main Peruvian attraction for when we have visitors, we decided to head south to the Ica region of Peru to see the sights and do some wine/pisco tastings.  Easier said than done; given our Cajamarca location, our trip required us to first fly to Lima for the evening and then catch an early flight to Pisco.  Imagine our surprise when we discovered this was our commercial airplane to Pisco:

LC Peru Twin Otter

Neither Matt nor I fear flying, so we didn’t mind the small plane although it was a little disconcerting to realize the co-pilot was being trained.  But there was even complimentary snack service, which is more than most major airlines provide these days.

We landed in Pisco (which is both a place and a liquor) and were picked up by our driver, Guillermo, and our English-speaking guide, Patricia.  While we were originally going to go to our hotel in Huacachina for a few hours and then have our wine/pisco tours in the afternoon, the plan changed and we were at our first winery stop, Vista Allegre, by 9:30 am.  We were hoping to find some good Peruvian wine on this trip, but our tours confirmed our fears: there is no good Peruvian wine.  There is some okay, everyday wine, but nothing amazing.  We also learned that Peruvians are incredibly proud of their pisco and are in a feud with Chile over the right to call their respective liquors pisco.  In early October, the El Salvador Supreme Court ruled that only Peru may use the name pisco.  I am not sure whether that means anything outside of El Salvador (the way only France can market champagne), but the Peruvians were pretty happy and proud to share the news with us.

Our drive was surreal; there was no confusing our location with Napa.  We were in a desert with huge sand dunes, yet Ica is also an agriculture area due to its sunny climate.  Check your asparagus – it may be from Peru.  Other crops include cotton, potatoes, olives and, of course, grapes for wine and pisco.  As a result of the agriculture, transplants from the jungle, where there is no real industry to support people, migrate to the area to work in the fields.  We saw many odd straw hut communities in the middle of nowhere that didn’t appear to be inhabited. We were told they are “planned invasions” – transient communities that come and squat on the land and eventually own it if the government cooperates and no landowner throws them off.   The process is very political and some locals greatly oppose it.   It sounded very odd at first until we thought about Western migration in the US.

We were handed off to the winery’s tour guide, a young guy who spoke decent English and did a nice job explaining the pisco distilling process.  (Although I think Matt was offended when the guide disparaged blended whiskeys.) I assumed pisco was like grappa and was made from distilling the leftovers (stems, seeds, skins) of the wine making process, but it is not.  Fresh grapes are pressed/stomped to make pisco.  If you are interested in learning more about the process, this link will take you to a decent explanation (although we did not go to this winery). http://www.barsolpisco.com/web/index.php/process

After our tasting, we headed to our next stop, Tacama, the oldest winery in Peru.  We were excited to go there as Tacama Gran Tinto is one of the few Peruvian wines we drink and we were hoping to try some of their other reds in an effort to find a better one.  Unfortunately, the Gran Tinto was the best we tasted.  The grounds at Tacama were beautiful and the traditional caballero/señorita dance was a nice touch.

Our final stop was a smaller producer, Bodega El Catador, which is on a compound of several wineries and restaurants owned by different members of a family.  The tour showed the traditional way of making pisco, complete with ceramic casks.  It was very interesting and we made our only purchase of the day: a bottle of fig-infused pisco.  It has a creaminess reminiscent of Baileys and is quite tasty.  Or maybe it just seemed tasty because we were up at 5:00 and wine/pisco tasting by 10:00 am!

Next up: We hit the dunes!