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

Guided visit to the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires

What do vanilla wafers and Teatro Colón have in common?

Opera!

Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue
Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue

Teatro Colón is Argentina’s leading opera house, opened in 1908. Opera is also a popular brand of vanilla wafers made by a company called Bagley. They were launched in 1906 under a different name but the manufacturer decided to change it to Opera to honor the magnificent new opera house. Both have delighted generations of Argentineans to this day.

My mother and I took three of my nieces on a guided visit of “el Colón,” as it’s affectionately known. Our guide, Javier, was a delight. The tour started at the main entrance hall, on Libertad Street. This is where the other half makes a grand entrance. The more humble ticket holders go in through the Tucumán and Viamonte side entrances. It’s been this way ever since the opera house was opened in 1908.

Main entrance hall
Main entrance hall

The main focal point of the hall, the grand Carrara marble staircase, symbolizes the link between the mundane and the world of the arts. The columns that support the ceiling are covered in different kinds of marble: red from Verona, yellow from Siena and pink from Portugal. The stained glass window is from Paris. The building, eclectic in style, was inspired by the great opera houses of Europe.

We mounted the stairs, worthy of the scene where Cinderella loses her crystal slipper, towards the Hall of Busts. Theatre-goers use this area during the intermission to stretch their legs, have drinks, chat, while Bizet, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Mozart, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner look down from high up.

Classical composers keeping an eye on the public
Classical composers keeping an eye on the public in the Hall of Busts

Javier told us that, in the past, the season was very short; it lasted for the winter only. The reason was that only time the European companies were able to travel to South America was during their summer. When the season finished, the Teatro Colón was closed until the following year. All this changed in 1920, when the Colón’s orchestra and ballet company were created and the season lasted from March to December. However, the Teatro Colón hosted a number of internationally renowned artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Igor Stravinsky or Maya Plisetskaya.

The lavish Golden Room sparkles, glitters and glimmers. Every surface is covered with gold leaf, gold dust paint and big mirrors. The floor is Slavonian oak. Thanks to the restoration undertaken between 2001 and 2010, the name of the artist that painted the linen ceiling was discovered. It was a Monsieur Romieu, forgotten or unknown for decades. The Golden Room is used for master classes, auditions and more intimate concerts.

All that glitters is gold
All that glitters is gold

We then moved on to the splendid concert hall. Our guide asked us to be very quiet. There was an audition going on and we didn’t want to disturb the candidates. We silently filed into one of the boxes, sat down and enjoyed part the audition. It felt like a privilege.

We were in an official box used by various authorities on special occasions. The President and the Mayor have their own boxes at either side of the stage, in a location called avant-scène. In the past, the widows could not be seen in public, so if they wanted to enjoy the ballet or the opera, they had to sit behind black railings inside enclosed boxes. Of course, widowers had carte blanche to have a merry old time.

Concert hall
A candidate belting out during the audition. The widows’ boxes can be barely seen in the bottom right-hand corner.

The hall can seat up to 2,400 people. 300 more people can stand in the upper levels. Its horseshoe shape and open boxes mean that the sound can travel freely, making for almost perfect acoustics. The giant chandelier weighs a ton, literally. The renowned Argentinean artist Raúl Soldi painted the inside of the dome. There is a narrow corridor around the dome, well hidden from view, where musicians and singers can create special effects, like a chorus of angels coming from above. I wouldn’t be able to climb up there, let alone carry an instrument!

And for good measure, an old Opera commercial. I shouldn’t say old because I can remember watching it! The quality isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but the sentimental value is there.

Go to Teatro Colón website for more information.

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

Barrancas de Belgrano park in Buenos Aires

Plaza Barrancas de Belgrano is a leafy public park located in the eponymous neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Its downward slope (barranca) towards the river gave it its name and makes it unique in the city. Or rather, it slopes down to where the river Plate used to be before the wetlands were dredged and filled in.

The park was designed by French architect Charles Thays in 1892, who also designed  the Botanical Gardens, among others, and is located in a quite posh and tony area.

Let’s take a stroll together.

Barrancas de Belgrano07
The land belonged to Dr. Valentin Alsina (1802-1869,) an Argentinean lawyer and politician. His house (photo) was built in 1856 in the Italianate style popular at the time and nowadays is dwarfed by modern tall apartment buildings. It now houses a foundation.

 

Ombu
This massive ombu is one of the park features. This evergreen tree (Phytolacca dioica) is native to the Pampas and is a symbol of Argentina, Uruguay and the gaucho culture.

 

Pergola
This band stand was built in time for the Centenary celebrations (1910.) Nowadays, a group of musicians organize milongas (tango dances) every evening and everyone is welcome to join.

 

A view of the slope that gives the park its name.
A view of the slope that gives the park its name.

 

Workers at lunch in the park
Workers at lunch in the park

 

This historic construction (1905) was once the park keeper's residence. In 2011 it was repurpused into a children's lending library called La Reina Batata after a nursery rhyme by singer, author and songwriter Maria Elena Walsh. Her music and books have influenced generations of Argentineans, including me.
This historic construction (1905) was once the park keeper’s residence. In 2011 it was purposed as a children’s lending library called La Reina Batata after a nursery rhyme by singer, author and songwriter Maria Elena Walsh. Her music and books have influenced generations of Argentineans, myself included.

 

One of the many paths that crisscross Plaza Barrancas
One of the many paths that crisscross Plaza Barrancas

 

Beautiful terrace overlooking the park
Beautiful terrace overlooking the park

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.