After a few unsuccessful searches for a decent market in Buenos Aires, I made it a priority to seek one out in Córdoba early in the month. With two markets near the neighborhood I am staying in I chose a bit longer walk to the larger one. Along the 20 blocks or so my mind was filled with visions of fresh vegetables piled high, tiny restaurants bustling with guests and butchers hawking their goods as you walk past the case.
Surrounding the building itself are carnicerías, verdulerías and misc. shops with all sorts of housewares and knick knacks. All similar for the most part. Each vegetable stand is like the other and each butcher has the same items on sale for the same price. Inside, the scene improves a bit with the vegetables looking a little fresher and the meat counters a bit more interesting. Whole cabritos (goats), corderos (lambs) and chanchos (suckling pigs) a plenty hang from racks in front of the cases. I stand back and watch for a bit as patrons walk by poking and prodding at them, as if checking on the quality of the animal. They grab the ribs, give them a pinch and look inside the cavity, then wipe their hands off on the back of their pants as they ask the butcher about price. The carniceros work away at frenching racks of goat or lamb, another is peeling the knuckle from a hindquarter of beef.
My butcher instincts are on high as I watch them work and look for differences. They all use similar knives that have a straight top edge with the bottom mostly flat save for an upward sweep near the tip as opposed to our traditional rack of 3-4 blades. The saws have marble cutting tables, great for sturdiness but terrible to clean. I wonder if they use them as the marble stays cooler than the air around it and may help keep the meat a bit cooler as well? With a small shop, there’s no room for an overhead rail system. The animals hang from wall mounted hooks and rest against a sheet of stainless steel. The biggest difference though, is in the size of the animals. They’re all much smaller than we are used to in the United States. By a quick estimate, the beef are nearly half the size of what I have come accustomed to butchering, and the legs are shorter than that by proportion.
I do wonder what the proud Argentines would think of American beef. As I have written about before, their beef is good but by a different measure than we have in The States. Would our marbled and dark red meat be welcomed in contrast to the lighter colored and less marbled standard here?
My quick assessment of the butcher scene comes in handy as I had plans to cook with Luciano Sincic for the friends and family opening of his new restaurant. People say that chefs are eccentric, and Luciano is no stranger to that dialogue. A self-proclaimed Viking Chef, he prefers an axe to a knife when it comes to carving beef and his chef coat of choice is a leather and brass adorned vest over a rock and roll t-shirt. I was first introduced to Luciano back in January as we exchanged some chat online. The first night I met him he hosted a group of us at his mother’s house for a traditional asado based dinner. Watching him cook that night, I knew we would get along as he tossed eggplants directly into hot coals to char before smashing them into baba gahnoush.
Come opening day his friend and partner, Pablo, picked me up at the apartment for a 30 minute ride to the new restaurant. Pablo was rocking away to 90’s American rock as seems to be the norm here. Upon arrival to the still being finished restaurant, pumping bass and shrieking guitar sounds came from the back of the big grey building. The restaurant is at the rear of a small collection of shops that surround the huge courtyard/patio/dining area. As we step out of the walkway and into the open space, I see Luciano wielding a five foot long sword as he lunges towards a camera man capturing the would be viking reliving a raid from his past life.
“Clint! Here, take the sword.” He says as he hands me the blade and starts introducing me to the crew setting up lights and cameras to capture the evening’s event. I’ve already had a hard enough time figuring out if I greet someone with a hug and kiss, a handshake, just a hug, etc. and holding a sword in one hand with my pack slung across the other arm doesn’t help much!
Once settled a bit, and with two hands free, I get a tour of the space and start realizing just how grand it is. Out of the restaurants I have seen in Córdoba it is easily the largest and most interesting setup yet. One side of the courtyard houses a larger than life “viking oven” and parilla- the outdoor chef’s table and open kitchen. Opposite the fire and action of this space is a wooden trellis nearly thirty feet tall, draped with thick rope hammocks that act as curtains and large bell shaped lights that gently swing in the breeze. To the left a small and quiet dining room with four booths adorned in rich fabrics, the ceiling height macrame style dividers keep a bit of privacy. “This is for the ladies.” Luciano says. Opposite this room is the main dining room and bar. Seats and tables here are wood and leather, a little more masculine, with dark walls behind huge mantles and fixtures trimmed with gold. Animal and tribal prints cover the bar front and rugs. Up a flight of stairs next to the bar sits a throne topped with a large fur, a floor to ceiling two-toned painting of a woman with tribal facepaint provides a backdrop, while the sword from earlier sits front and center. “For selfies. People can be a viking here and take pictures for their friends.”
I soon realize that the whole place is a theatre of contradiction. The flames of the oven opposite the relaxing lounge. A quiet and private dining room opposite the animal prints and swords of the main bar. A tattoed chef sporting a mohawk at night, a loving dad by day. (Luciano was to have another child within the next couple of days.) In his words the restaurant is what he imagines a viking stronghold would look like. Treasures gathered from around the world, rich food and drink served on larger than life plates, candles burning on the mantles.
With the video crew following closely behind, we lit the fire and hung a whole lamb, pig and loin of beef in the oven. Vegetables were laid out on the table to make for good video as well as a handy mise en place, big stone bowls of spices and slabs of wood with the restaurant name “Nordico” burned into them for serving pieces. The rain started slowly as we prepped veggies. We kept working thinking it would pass, taking breaks here and there to dip into the kitchen to dry a bit. And about the time guests were set to arrive the sky really opened up. Wind was pushing the lights around creating the effect of spotlights sweeping across the patio as the water got deeper and deeper right where we were to have dinner. Arriving guests ran quickly across the patio and joined the growing group in the restaurant as we all sipped beer hoping for the weather to cooperate.
Luckily it wasn’t too long before we were back to cooking. By this time we had just a bit of finishing up to do before service, and 40 or so hungry guests waiting for a feast. Luciano and I jumped into setting up tablas of roasted potatoes, corn, charred baba gahnoush, smokey red cabbage and pumpkins braised with honey and beer right in the fire. The lamb came up next. For as young and fresh as it was, the acrid funk of mutton hit my nose as I carved into it. I could barely shower on a final dusting of salt before guests were lined up to devour it. Straight from the table, knife and fork in hand, they lined up and took their turns stabbing at pieces of lamb and swiping it through the juices on the board before gobbling it down.
We stepped back a bit for a swig of beer before we moved a few shovels full of hot coals to the parilla. Luciano carved the beef loin off the bone and sliced steaks to be seared on the coals. A sprinkle of salt and spoon of butter were the final touch before I sliced them into manageable pieces, saving a handful of bites for myself of course. Again, knives and forks came stabbing in before the platter hit the counter. Smoky and garlicky chorizo was up next, the pile disappearing quickly. Then I went for the pig, a nice little suckling that had spent four hours or so over the fire with an occasional baste of beer and lemon salmuera. Luciano stopped me. “Let’s take a relax” he said. We grabbed beers and klinked bottles in cheer before wiping down the counters. I was feeling rushed, he wasn’t. “Let them have a drink and wait a bit.” A good lesson for me to learn…
The pig came out and was gone in a flash. We were three hours into eating and guests were still going for more. A small group had made their spot at the counter, I put a shoulder of lamb in front of them and they went to work with their knife and fork. Then the ribs and bones of the pig. Then the brains and all the good bits of the lamb. And the pig… By this point I had stepped back and was enjoying conversations with the guests in Spanglish. Stories of their home asados complete with pictures, talk of the surrounding rivers and mountains that remind me so much of home.
I couldn’t help but to think of how familiar this all seemed. Past parties with whole animals and fire are some of my favorite cooking memories. Again I couldn’t help but notice the difference here… no concern from the guests about the rain, no worries about the meal being an hour late, no need for plates or tongs, no need to rush to the end and hurry off to the next stop. Just like the food, the people of Argentina are simple and welcoming. No need for extra spice or hiding behind a veil. Just being yourself and enjoying the moment seems to be the lesson I am meant to take away from here. Or as Luciano kept reminding me, almost from our first messages to each other- “Relax Clint”