Córdoba’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 Córdoba (Argentina.) The current building was opened in 2007 and is located in the tony neighbourhood of Nueva Córdoba. 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 ‘The Rebirth of the Giants” (El renacer de los gigantes). It consists of displays of fossils found in the area and studied by the Museum’s paleontologists, as well as photos and videos of the paleontological site and the scientists’ 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 Córdoba, Argentina

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

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

Aahhh the food – Córdoba series 3

You know when you hear people mention something, say a kind of fruit, that you had no idea existed? That’s what happened to me with cuaresmillos, the Shangri-La of candied fruit for me. I had heard family members praise these little peaches but never seen or eaten them until recently. I was visiting historic buildings in the city of Córdoba by myself. At lunchtime I chose a restaurant that looked inviting and served traditional dishes.

I read the menu and did a double take. They served cuaresmillos for dessert! I ate a delicious empanada and some locro, a hearty white corn, pumpkin, white bean and meats stew. To cap a very tasty lunch off, I had these sweet little candied peaches with quesillo, a traditional homemade cow’s milk cheese, the perfect accompaniment because it cuts the fruit’s sweetness. They were delicious.

I wanted to buy some to bring back with me because they are not available in many places. I had to hunt high and low for a couple of jars. Not many locals knew what they were, which shocked me. I thought they were popular in Córdoba!

Cuaresmillos and quesillo
Cuaresmillos and quesillo. Their name comes from Cuaresma, Spanish for Lent, because this is when they are ready for picking.

A traditional cuisine that is famous in Córdoba, other than traditional Argentinean, is German cuisine. Many German, Swiss and Austrian immigrants settled in the hills and their descendants keep their traditions alive. Villa General Belgrano and La Cumbrecita are two picture-perfect villages where one can eat sauerkraut, wursts, strudel and drink beer to one’s heart’s content all year round. I was there twice, in winter and in summer and I enjoyed both visits very much. The food is generally locally sourced and made on the premises and it’s good. Very good.

An assortment of German-style meats and sauerkraut (called chucrut here)
An assortment of German-style meats and sauerkraut (called chucrut here)

We Argentineans have a sweet tooth, no doubt about it. Córdoba is known for its sweets too. One  delicious treat is the colación, a crispy pastry filled with dulce de leche and topped with lemon glaze. I never leave Córdoba without a box of alfajores. They are similar to sandwich cookies or whoopie pies but the pastry is more firm. They can be filled with dulce de leche or fruit preserves and are covered in glaze. Delicious with a cup of coffee or mate.

Colaciones and mate, a match made in heaven
Colaciones and mate, a match made in heaven

Photo courtesy of Diana. P. Gemelli from Je cuisine donc je suis. Gracias!

 

Read previous posts about Cordoba

Church and convent of San Francisco – Córdoba series 1

Bread-making lesson with my grandmother – Córdoba series 2

Bread-making lesson with my grandmother – Córdoba series 2

I love food. It makes me happy. It brings back cherished memories. It makes new memories as well. Food is comfort and nourishment for the soul and the body. It embodies whole cultures: food is identity. I have countless memories of meals at my grandparents with my extended family: parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, even great-aunts and second cousins. Sharing food, conversation, games, arguments (we red-blooded Latins have strong opinions), in a way, shapes who you are.

I am paella. I am asado. Tiramisú. Pasta made from scratch. Flan with dulce de leche. Pollo al horno. Birthday cakes. Locro. Humita. Milanesas. Facturas.

I am homemade bread – the pan casero con chicharrones my Cordobesa grandmother used to make and was such a treat for us.

Pan casero1

A few years ago I asked her for the recipe. She said she didn’t have one and that the only way she could describe it was to actually make it. So I bought all the ingredients: a cube of fresh yeast, a packet of flour and a kilo of grasa de pella (lard) for the chicharrones, the delicious crispy bits of beef that remain after rendering the lard, and went to her house.

My grandmother rendered the fat first, drained it and let the crispy bits cool down. The yeast sponge came next: she activated the yeast by mixing it with warm water and sugar. Then proceeded to make a crown with the flour on the worktop and slowly added the sponge and warm water, mixing the ingredients with circular movements. Once it was all perfectly mixed, she asked me to knead the dough because the effort was too much for her arthritic hands.

“Now we let it rise in a warm place,” she said as she turned on a small portable heater and placed it on the counter-top. A warm temperature is vital for proofing.

During the bread making process, my grandmother told me bits and pieces of her early life in Córdoba. Although a ghost of her native tonada (the rhythm of intonation with lengthened vowels typical of Córdoba) still lingered after decades of living in Buenos Aires, she still had the strong r sound of her homeland, a particular roll with friction.

050

She learned to make bread at the age of 15 and got up at the crack of dawn every day to make it for her family. She also told me about the deal she made with her sisters: she would make bread daily and sew their dresses if they did the housekeeping, which she didn’t like to do. She talked a little about her hometown, Villa Dolores. “If we were walking down the street and a priest was walking in the opposite direction, we had to step down the curb and let him have the pavement for himself,” she reminisced. I was aghast. She said it was the way things were then.

It was time to punch the dough down to deflate it and knead it some more. Then, we added the chicharrones and made the loaves: some were round, some were braids. I always loved to tear the airy, soft pieces of braid and eat them slowly. The loaves went into the oven until they were golden brown. The lovely smell of freshly baked bread pervaded the house. That is how I remember my grandparents’ home: there was always the most delicious food smells coming out of the kitchen.

The first time I visited my brother in Córdoba, we were driving towards the mountains when we saw a food vendor by the side of the road. He was selling freshly baked homemade bread. We were relatively hungry and bought some. The taste was very similar to the bread of our childhood, the bread my grandmother taught me to make.

 

 Read it in Spanish here.

Church and convent of San Francisco – Córdoba series 1

A potted history of Córdoba first

What happens when a subordinate disobeys the Viceroy’s orders?

A new city is founded. Or, at any rate, that’s what happened with Córdoba. In 1673, the Viceroy of Perú, the head of one of the administrative units of the Spanish colonies in South America, commanded Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera to travel south from Potosí (modern-day Bolivia) and found a settlement in the Salta valley (northern Argentina) to stop the threat of the Calchaquí Indians.

Cabrera had other ideas and pushed on south towards the Atlantic. He did found a town, however. Roughly halfway between Salta and the ocean, he founded Córdoba de la Nueva Andalucía on the banks of the Suquía River.

With Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera came the first religious order to settle in the area, the Franciscan friars. Under Cabrera’s patronage, the Franciscans founded a convent in 1575, a humble adobe and thatch structure. Years later, a more permanent construction was built to house the growing community. The convent of San Francisco still stands in the city centre, on the corner of Buenos Aires and Entre Rios streets.

Church of San Francisco
Church of San Francisco

The convent of San Francisco

I had the chance to visit Córdoba a while ago. I did not have a list of must-see places or even a map. I simply strolled around, occasionally asking passers-by for directions. This is how I came across the convent and church of San Francisco, almost by chance. Granted, I knew about a few historic churches and buildings that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and kept an eye out for them.

The convent sits between the church and a private Catholic school. It consists of a two-story building with an unprepossessing façade. The year of its foundation is written above the door. That is what caught my attention and drew me in.

Convent's facade
Convent’s façade

“I’m sorry but the convent is not open to the public because it’s the friars’ private residence,” said the girl at reception with a pleasant smile.

“Oh. OK then. I’d thought I’d ask. Thanks, anyway.” I was disappointed and it showed. I really wanted to see the convent. My country, Argentina, is relatively young so any construction that dates from the 16th century is considered ancient by our standards. I‘m always excited to visit those historic buildings, especially because there are precious few of them.

“I can show you the domestic chapel if you want. It’s not open to the public either, mind.” My spirits rose with her words. She led me through a massive wooden door into the cloisters. The domestic chapel was a few feet to the right.

The chapel dates back to the early 1600s. Its thick walls (3 feet deep) still show traces of the original frescoes that adorned them. Most of the floor tiles are original as well and show damage in some areas. The chapel is slowly being restored.

The most important feature of the chapel is the image of Our Lady of Copacabana sent from Alto Perú (modern-day Bolivia) in the 17th century and which rests on a piece of wood. Legend has it that this is a slice of the carob tree under whose shade the convent was founded. The thought that I was standing where local history was made four centuries earlier gave me goose bumps.

Our Lady of Copacabana. The slice of carob tree is beneath her feet
Our Lady of Copacabana. The slice of carob tree is beneath her feet

The church of San Francisco

I wanted to see the church next. I had to hurry because it was about to close. Although Córdoba is a big, modern city, it still retains some traits of a small town and observing the siesta is one of them.
The church of San Francisco was built between 1796 and 1813 to replace the crumbling earlier construction. It was designed in an Italianate Post colonial style. The building and the Franciscan community saw the change from Spanish colony to independent republic. Interestingly, the church gave sanctuary to the vanquished during the Independence and civil wars.

The main altar. Although the church is dedicated to St. Francis, its patron saint is Saint George. He's killing the dragon above the altar.
The main altar. Although the church is dedicated to St. Francis, its patron saint is Saint George. He’s the one killing the dragon above the altar.

My Córdoba

Córdoba is rife with history, both ancient and modern. It has played an important role in the history and economy of Argentina. But it has also an important place in my personal history. My paternal grandmother was Cordobesa and although she lived elsewhere for over 60 years, she never lost the cadence and sounds of her place of birth. She used to tell us stories of her childhood in Córdoba and cook traditional local dishes.

Her native land held a kind of fascination for me as a child but for reasons I don’t know we never visited it. I only did when my brother and his family moved there last year. My grandmother passed away two years ago and I deeply regret having taking her for granted and not having appreciated her stories and her culture more.

Let this series of posts about Córdoba be a long overdue tribute to my grandmother, Maria Elvira Altamirano de Astri (1918-2012.)

My grandmother and I in the early 70s
My grandmother and I in the early 70s

En route to Los Gigantes

– Go straight on, at the roundabout take the exit to Tanti and continue on that road. You’ll drive past Lo de Daniel, a popular steakhouse. Keep climbing until after the tarmac ends. There’s only one way up, you can’t miss it.

Keep climbing
Keep climbing

With these directions, we set out to Los Gigantes range in Córdoba (Argentina) in our rental car. This mountain range is located in an area called Pampa de Achala, 28 kilometres from the sleepy town of Tanti and 90 from Córdoba City, down state route 28. It was the November bank holiday. The day before had been hot, with temperatures in the high thirties Celsius. The weather changed overnight and it was a cold, rainy morning. Córdoba has rather unpredictably weather.

A tree, a dry-stone wall, a cloud
A tree, a dry-stone wall, a cloud

We drove past Lo de Daniel, famous for its grilled kid goat, a local specialty. I would have liked to stop in Tanti and have a look around the place where my father spent many a childhood summer visiting relatives. But Los Gigantes beckoned.

We were now driving uphill. Slowly, urban areas began to thin out until they disappeared. Tarmac gave way to gravel; picket fences became pircas, as dry-stone walls are known locally. Rocks and boulders outnumbered trees and plants the higher up we went. The ghostly figures of grazing cows and horses stood out against the low-lying clouds and drizzle.

Estambul11

The hills suddenly became a big, verdant plateau. In the distance, a lonely bus disappeared behind a curtain of fog, adding a new layer of contrast.

The gravel road was now peppered with big flat stones and our car was definitely not an off-road vehicle. We continued for a few kilometres. We drove past Lo de Daniel II, an isolated restaurant that promised desayunos camperos (country-style breakfast) and grilled kid. We figured it belonged to the same Daniel as the steakhouse back in Tanti.

Estambul10

A sign posted at a fork in the road indicated Los Gigantes to the left. The going was rougher. We were the only vehicle in sight and had little or no cellphone signal. Discretion being the better part of valour, it was time to turn round and go down.

We stopped at Lo de Daniel II for a hot drink. We had a big bowl of café con leche and the most delicious homemade bread we’d had in a long time. Bread tastes different in Córdoba, it’s special. It tastes like the bread my Córdoba-born grandmother used to make.

After a while, a gentleman asked us whether we were German. No, we said. I’m Argentinean and my husband is British. We invited him to sit with us. He asked questions about England and Europe and he told us his life’s story. He turned out to be Daniel, the owner of both establishments that bear his name. Three generations work in this family business. He told us that he owns a few hectares of this lunar landscape where he raises his own goats. We chatted until he had to go and wait on new customers who also braved the rain and the cold.

Estambul3

The weather and the road conditions prevented us from reaching Los Gigantes. Instead, they led us to an interesting and colourful local man. And delicious bread.

 

There are buses that connect Cordoba City with Tanti but the best way to reach Los Gigantes is by car.