A historic pizzeria experience in Buenos Aires

Melted cheese, baked dough, cardboard boxes, and the vapors from the espresso machine. Any old, traditional pizzeria in Buenos Aires smells like that.

El Cuartito is one of those pizzerias, founded in 1934. It is a no-frills, paper tablecloth on Formica table kind of place. Years ago, a former boyfriend of mine took me there for dinner and I felt slightly offended. Don鈥檛 I deserve linen and a candle on the table? I clearly did not appreciate the cultural value of a historic pizzeria. I do now.

In the background, the bar where people can eat "de parado"
In the background, the bar where people can eat “de parado”

Cut to the present. Since El Cuartito is within walking distance from the Col贸n Opera House, I decided to treat my nieces and my mother to a different culinary experience before taking the guided visit. We got there fifteen minutes before opening time at 12:30. A group of people was already waiting outside El Cuartito: tourists, office workers, old-timers, a motorcycle courier or two.

The doors opened and we all quickly found a place to sit. Or stand, as the case may be. People can order pizza by the slice or empanadas and eat standing at a special wooden counter. That鈥檚 what we call comer de parado. Service is really fast, ideal for people on the go like the motorcycle courier.

We ordered a pizza de musarela (Argentinean Spanish for mozzarella) and a pizza napolitana (with slices of tomato and tons of fresh garlic). The strings of melted cheese stretched for ever, which made it fun to serve and eat each slice. The base was neither too thin nor too thick, the traditional media masa, crispy and chewy at the same time. Our waiter acted in a very professional, brisk and efficient manner. Definitely a career waiter, as opposed to a student holding a summer job.

Our "pizza de musarela'
Our “pizza de musarela’

Old posters and prints cover every inch of the walls, mainly sports memorabilia. Autographed photos of local football teams; posters announcing boxing fights or car races. It reads like a Who鈥檚 Who of Argentinean sports history since the 1940s. It goes without saying that only my mum and I knew most of these sporting stars; my nieces, aged 10, 13 and 17, had no clue! However, they enjoyed the experience, as did we.

We felt too full for dessert. This kind of pizzeria serves traditional, old-fashioned desserts like sopa inglesa (vanilla cake, dulce de leche, whipped cream and port), rice pudding, tarantela (cr猫me caramel with apple slices), flan casero mixto (homemade cr猫me caramel topped with whipped cream and dulce de leche.)

I put the leftover napolitana in my spacious handbag. The smell of garlic dogged us for the rest of afternoon but it made for a wonderful dinner snack that night.

Sports
Sports memorabilia very which way.

 

* Address: Talcahuano 937. Open every day from 12:30 to 1 am except Mondays.

C贸rdoba’s Natural History Museum

As my young nephews and I walked down Poeta Lugones Avenue, skirting the lush Sarmiento Park, their excitement mounted. The boys, aged 5 and 7, live in a medium-sized town, so taking the bus sans parents to the big city to see a glyptodon for the first time was a great adventure.

The entrance. The museums is located in the north section of the beautiful Parque Sarmiento
The entrance. The museums is located in the north section of the beautiful Parque Sarmiento

Our final destination was the Natural Science Museum of C贸rdoba (Argentina.) The current building was opened in 2007 and is located in the tony neighbourhood of Nueva C贸rdoba. The circular interior was designed in the shape of a spiral in which three levels are joined by a continuous ramp. The handrail is quite wide and even has backlit displays along the top.

The interior
The interior

The collections include rocks and minerals from around the world, which alas failed to create excitement among our party. However, the local flora and fauna displays did. The absolute stars were the fossil reproductions of local Pleistocene megafauna: sabre tooth tigers, smilodons, mastodons, glyptodonts, and the like. Actually, one glyptodon shell is the real McCoy and was discovered during the construction of a dam.

Hello Mr Glyptodon!
Hello Mr Glyptodon!

On the third floor is the newest exhibition, called 鈥楾he Rebirth of the Giants鈥 (El renacer de los gigantes). It consists of displays of fossils found in the area and studied by the Museum鈥檚 paleontologists, as well as photos and videos of the paleontological site and the scientists鈥 field work. The boys and I watched the videos; then they asked questions which I tried to answer to the best of my scant knowledge and made comments about what they saw. It was lovely to see them engaged.

I love taking my nieces and nephews to museums. My mother says it is my signature outing! I firmly believe that it is never too early to acquire all kinds of knowledge. Beside, creating lasting memories is so much fun.

 

Mr Glyptodon and friends
Mr Glyptodon and friends

Museo Provincial de Ciencias Naturales Dr. Arturo Umberto Illia

Av. Poeta Lugones 395, Barrio Nueva C贸rdoba, Argentina

Tuesdays through Sundays 10:oo to 5;30. Summer opening hours vary

Admission $15. Free for pensioners, students and children under 18.聽

5 day trips from Buenos Aires

Visiting a big city like Buenos Aires can be overwhelming at times: chaotic traffic, noise levels through the roof, swarms of people wherever you go. This didn鈥檛 use to bother me when I lived there; on the contrary, I rather enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the big city. I found it exhilarating. It made me feel alive.

Nowadays, however, it鈥檚 exactly the opposite. I live in a quiet suburb of Dallas, where life goes by at a more sedate pace and birdsong has replaced car horns. So when I visit my family in Buenos Aires, I need to get away from it all, even a few hours will do nicely. My parents enjoy exploring the countryside and we used to go on day trips as a family. Now, they take my husband and me to visit old haunts and new places for a fun and relaxing day out.

The Basilica's nave - Luj谩n
The Basilica’s nave – Luj谩n

About an hour鈥檚 drive away is the town of Luj谩n, Argentina鈥檚 biggest pilgrimage center. Its basilica attracts thousands of pilgrims every year, both people on foot and gauchos on horseback. I visited the basilica many times; I still remember how scared I was as a child of the bayonets and crutches that lined the walls, donated by long-ago dead soldiers as tokens of thanks. Fortunately, they were removed when the neogothic basilica was restored and tarted up. Interestingly, the bells were fashioned from melted World War I cannons.

I get my history fix at the Enrique Udaondo museum complex, across the square from the basilica. The old cabildo, where much of the country鈥檚 early history took place, houses a fantastic collection of historical objects. The country鈥檚 first steam locomotive, the first plane to fly between Spain and Argentina in 1926, and Mancha and Gato, the first horses to join Buenos Aires and New York in 1933 are on display at the Transport Museum, among other historic types of transport.

View of the basilica's towers in the twilight
View of the basilica’s towers in the twilight

Not far from Luj谩n is the pretty little town of Carlos Keen. Carlos Keen is a railway town created in 1881 as a water stop for the steam engines. The disused station houses a cultural center now. Every weekend, there鈥檚 an arts and crafts fair on the station grounds. I love to browse the stalls and chat with the vendors. The station depot went to wrack and ruin through the decades but it has been restored and is used for art exhibitions and classes.

A leisurely stroll is much needed after a copious lunch. We have been to many of the restaurants in Carlos Keen and could not pick a favourite. However, in the colder months, I would rather eat at any of the restaurants in the town centre. In warm weather, I love the rural establishments where we can sit outside, eat fabulous food surrounded by nature and a flock of ducks or a cow or two. The menu is more or less the same everywhere: a picada de campo, Argentinean-style tapas with locally sourced cold cuts and cheeses and crusty bread, followed by either homemade pasta or asado (meats grilled gaucho-style).

The disused train station now houses an arts and crafts market every weekend
The disused train station now houses an arts and crafts market every weekend –聽 Carlos Keen

Cheese lovers will love Suipacha and its Ruta del Queso (cheese trail). It is as delicious as it sounds. Although I adore cheese, my favorite place was probably the antiques store located at the town鈥檚 entrance, where I bought an English china tea set from the 1940s. Once we got antiquing out of the way, we visited the local boar farm, called La Escuadra. The owner explained everything there is to know about rearing boars and took us on a tour of the premises. We decided to stay for lunch. The star ingredient was boar, of course and they served dishes like boar ravioli or boar stew, using family recipes handed down the generations.

The cheese trail consists of a guided or self-guided visit to local cheese factories. Some charge a small fee and provide a tour of the facilities but some don鈥檛. It鈥檚 not all about cheese however; there is a blueberry farm as well as the boar farm. They all sell their products there and then. My dad鈥檚 car was considerably heavier on the two-hour drive back home.

Uribelarrea, 80 kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires, is another railway town. Sadly, the town suffered greatly when some of the railway lines were closed. The disused station, red brick and dark green trimmings in the best English fashion, now houses the police station. Tourism has helped revive the town鈥檚 economy. Uribelarrea is probably my favorite rural town. Nothing beats the picada and the craft beer from the local microbrewery La Uribe帽a. The old pulper铆a, a typical bar and general store from the pampas, is also popular.

Microbrewery La Uribe帽a  -Uribelarrea
Microbrewery La Uribe帽a -Uribelarrea

On one of our visits, we went to the Escuela Agrot茅cnia Salesiana Don Bosco, an agricultural school founded in 1894 and run by Salesian priests. Thanks to their hands-on approach, students learn by doing, and then sell their products to the public. We bought the most delicious dulce de leche, which they are famous for, and mandarin marmalade.

On another occasion, we took our young nephews to the local goat farm, called Valle de Go帽i. The boys had lots of fun trying to get into the corrals to play with the goats while we had coffee and cake in the garden.

Incidentally, some scenes of the film Evita by Alan Parker were shot inside the church built in 1890.

Capilla del Se帽or was the first rural town to be declared Town of Historic Interest by Congress. Its Museum of Journalism displays the printing press used to print the first newspaper of the province of Buenos Aires, El Monitor de la Campa帽a (The Rural Monitor) and is located in the home of the newspaper founder.

Serene countryside
Serene countryside

The local cemetery, opened in 1838, bears witness to a cholera epidemic unknowingly started by a traveling fruit seller. Visiting a cemetery may sound creepy, but this one is interesting in that some of the older headstones are written in English and in French, not something I would expect to see in the Argentinean pampas. I later learned that the Irish and French communities were very influential here in the 19th century.

The origin of Capilla del Se帽or goes back to the mid-18th century, when local landowner Casco de Mendoza started selling plots of his land around the church, following the traditional Spanish grid layout. The main buildings (church, town hall, school, and museum) are located around the main square, or plaza. We parked the car on one of its sides and took a stroll around, enjoying the peace and quiet while planning our visit with the help of the brochures form the Tourist Office. We then bought delicious pastries from a bakery and took a leisurely stroll along the river.

These towns are accessible by train and bus from Buenos Aires.

Mazamorra, Argentinean white hominy pudding

隆Mazamorra caliente para las viejas sin dientes!

“Hot mazamorra for toothless ladies” was how freedwomen and聽 slaves advertised their dessert for sale in the street at the top of their voices. Or, at any rate, this is the romanticized image we had at school of how these women in wide skirts and a white kerchief covering their hair tried to attract customers.

This was part of almost every pageant we did at school to mark Independence Day or any other national holiday.聽 The scene was more or less the same: a reenactment of the country’s emancipation from Spain in 1810 or that of the declaration of Independence in 1816.

Every social sector was represented: from the rich gentry and merchants to street vendors and soon-to-be-freed slaves. The street vendors were, traditionally, the mazamorra and empanada sellers and chandlers. As a child, mazamorra always intrigued me as we never ate it at home. As children do, I created my own, albeit vague, idea of what it was. I knew it was something sweet and made with white corn and that was that.

My mazamorra, thick and creamy and filling.
My mazamorra, thick and creamy and filling.

Cut to the present. I was recently trying to clean out the pantry before a longish trip when I came across a bag of white hominy, some of which I had used to make locro. There was a recipe on the back: white hominy pudding. It was none other than the mysterious mazamorra of school pageants and history books. I decided to make it so I could finally taste it.

Mazamorra is聽 quite popular in Latin America and its ingredients vary from one country to the other. In Argentina, we make it with white corn, milk, sugar and maybe a cinnamon stick or lemon rind. A very simple yet somewhat labour-intensive dessert. It is very filling and warming, ideal for a winter’s evening.

Ingredients

1/2 pound dry white corn (hominy)

2 litres milk

Lemon rind

Be patient!
Be patient! It’s worth the effort.

Soak the corn overnight. Drain and rinse. Place in a large pot and cover with water. Boil until the water starts to evaporate and add the milk, sugar and lemon or cinnamon. Bring to a boil and simmer until the corn is soft and the mixture thickens. If liquid evaporates quickly, add boiling milk. Remove the rind or stick and serve warm.

隆Buen provecho!