Don’t cry for me Alfajores.
Says the nice man who has just sold us Argentinian vehicle insurance. He means alfajores, a delicious, dulce de leche filled shortbread sold all over South America but particularly virulent here in Argentina. I have been making eyes at the great hefts of chocolate smothered biscuit and asked, in a wheedly voice if perhaps we could take one instead of our change. Breakfast! I say triumphantly to Jamie, holding up the two fat packets for him to see. He looks at the alfajores with a detached puzzlement as though he is wondering where they fitted the scrambled eggs and buttered toast and I find myself dining alone on the back of the bike. I push my helmet open and the wind whistles in my face, whipping the biscuit crumbs away. After each bite, the dulce de leche squirdges out richly and the biscuit, flavoured with rum, gets stuck to the roof of my mouth. It is a most satisfactory meal and I guiltily consider the other one for a moment but zip my jacket pocket up and try to forget about its weighty goodness and watch the scenery instead. We have driven all the way down and then back up the long valley road between the immigration office and the cozy, unassuming cafe who provides my unsuitable breakfast. It is a large, wooden cabin lurking amongst a variety of shuttered lodges with a dusty, souvenir packed shop next door. We peer in through the windows of the shop at artisan leather belts, keyrings, knick knacks which look as though they have been there for a long time. The place is padlocked, a sign in the window telling us to go in through the cafe. There is nothing here that indicates insurance sales but this is where we have been directed by the immigration officials, having completely missed it first time around. We go in, suspecting we have been given false information. Inside the shop is a scribbly, handwritten menu offering food and drink, some tables and chairs, an overwhelming selection of alfajores and a small cat. A grey haired man appears from the kitchen to change some Chilean pesos in to Argentinian pesos for a young, tubby boy and sell a young woman some chocolate. The bell rings as they leave and he turns to me, smiling mildly.
Hello, do you sell insurance?
I ask in a tone of voice that suggests I am not convinced.
Yes yes, take a seat!
He says, gesturing to a wooden table and I sit down, surprised as he makes himself comfortable at a designated table which I can see now has a big, blue sign by it saying ‘insurance’. The small cat jumps on my lap and purrs at me ecstatically and the man asks for Robin’s vehicle registration form. The cat bites the registration form as I read it and pulls it towards her as though she is going to take it to him though, unhelpfully, she does nothing of the sort. Instead I stand awkwardly, holding on to the cat, who looks a little panicked as the angle of things tips floowards, and pass the form over for the man to puzzle over. After a few moments of silence he just asks me for the information.
What model is it?
I say, stifling a laugh as the cat hooks my hand and chews it gently.
Er….2009, white, DL 650….
After a couple of minutes of hard labour, the man decides we all need a break and shuffles off in to the kitchen and returns with cups of coffee for all of us then resumes the task at hand. Eventually, buoyed up by the caffeine and clutching my caramel weighted treats, we reluctantly leave the cabin, fully insured, and on our way to Mendoza. The man wishes us a safe journey and smiles though I doubt he would be so friendly if he knew his cat was locked in our top box. We soon leave the mountains behind though they linger on the vast horizon like dog’s teeth, ragged and white against the heavy blue sky. The landscape will be flat as a pancake from here until Buenos Aires and eventually will bore me in to a sort of slack jawed coma but here it is completely beautiful. Everywhere we look is ripe and overflowing with wildflowers and great, lush cascades of grass. The air is prettily perfumed, the clouds plump and sugary white and the little towns we pass through are attractive and European. We stop for a while, unable to resist the idea of tramping about in jumbles of gorse, daisies and rocket in the quiet, bee buzzing countryside. I pull up handfuls of the rocket leaves and chew on them, surprised by the intensely sweet, rich, pepperiness of them and promptly pick more to eat as soon as I am done with the first mouthful. Crouched amongst the shivering flowers are fat, langurous looking cacti haloed in beautiful yellow and white flowers like scraps of wet silk. I try to pick one but, despite their flimsy appearance, they are tough and resolutely unpickable.
Eventually Jamie has to call my name and beckon me back to the bike, so consuming is my Heidi experience. I pick a few flower heads and stuff them awkwardly in our notebook along with some rattling seed pods, images of Argentinian flowers fluttering on the windowsill of our seventeeth floor ex council flat in London flashing through my mind then return to the bike grudgingly. We reach Mendoza by midday and ride through the tree lined streets appreciatively until we reach the Banana Hostel. The name doesn’t do much for the place but it is large and rambling, full of happy looking people relaxing by the large swimming pool. There are painted coffee jars full of fairy lights strung across the garden and chairs and tables dotted here and there, tucked away in the flower studded bushes. We will stay for two nights, wallowing about the pale blue waters of the pool and eating cheese and saucisson under the watchful gaze of a large and stupid dog called Thor. Mendoza hasn’t much for the roving tourist but it is a nice town, full of fragrant fruit shops and leafy boulevards. We wander about admiring the chirpy, unhurried citizens and peering in to myriad wine shops. The city, like so many places this far south, has a strong French feeling to it, like Paris would be if it had been built a little more recently. It’s only when we go to withdraw some cash that it becomes obvious we are not in France but firmly in fiscally creaky, inflation ridden Argentina. There are queues outside many of the banks and people huffing at the cash machines in exasperation. We try five, ten banks and can withdraw no cash at all. Signs on other doors pronounce the cash machines aren’t working or the bank is closed. People hang about outside waiting for something we don’t know about and everyone, once they find a functioning ATM, makes several withdrawals so the queues move like glue.
Is there a problem at the banks?
I ask one woman in the queue. She shrugs which is confusing because clearly, something is the matter. She goes ahead of us and makes two or three withdrawals and nods at us she leaves, we have no luck at all. It is only later, after several hours of roving about, desperately looking for cash, without which we won’t be allowed the key to our room, that we finally have some success. It turns out that the biggest banknote in Argentina is worth about a fiver. It is the beginning of the weekend and also pay day, everyone wants cash and lots of it. Consequently the cash machines empty out fast, dispensing piles and piles of notes that are worth very little. The machines are restocked once before the banks close for the weekend and we are lucky to catch the fresh wave of money before that too is sucked from the machines as swiftly as the last lot. We have begun a seven day cash hoarding regime so we can pay for the shipment of Robin which we have finally confirmed with the lovely Sandra of Dakar Motos in Buenos Aires. Great, fat wads of virtually worthless notes slowly collect in pairs of socks and hidden in hats of which we will take banker robber photos of as we count it out on our bed. Unfortunately for us the shiny, new Argentinian government will announce, a day before we must pay in cash, that they have had a bit of fun with currency rates. The old government kept the rate artificially low which meant they didn’t have to admit they had a messy inflation rate in the works so the new lot, all puffed up with success have scrapped this artificial rate. Now, with three quarters of the money hoarded, the peso is suddenly worth a third less than it was when we withdrew it. Over night we are suddenly £250 worse off. We are pretty annoyed but the Argentinian people are really miffed. They have lost a third of their savings, perhaps the down payment on their house, maybe their business. They take to the streets in protest immediately. This is one thing I really like about the people of Latin America. No matter where we go and who we talk to, they all know their politics. They know the financial situation of their country, who is sneaking about and stealing money and who is messing with their livelihoods. When they aren’t happy they take to the streets en masse. Thousands of people threading through the towns playing music and holding banners aloft is an exciting, refreshing sight. They gather outside government buildings and they stay there. They camp for months in the city centres, they rally, they shout. I admire it because they still do it even in the face of the most blatant bollocks spilling from their leaders mouths. Later, when we return to Bolivia my friend will casually mention that between one and two million people took to the streets to protest the latest scandal only to find the government had contacted all the newspapers and had them report that the march was in support of them rather than in opposition. It’s gobsmacking and yet still, out they come, waving flags and demanding something better. Sandra and her husband and business partner, Javier explain the whole situation to us when we finally arrive in their cozy, cluttered home to sort out the paperwork.
Everybody in Argentina knows everything about the monetary situation.
Says Sandra. Their friend strolls in and gives the new government the thumbs up. Sandra arches her eyebrows and looks at us doubtfully.
Now they look good,
But in six months time…well….
And shakes her head. They live in a distant suburb of Buenos Aires which is a huge city full of steak houses and beautiful old tiled cafes. It’s very attractive with curlicued, old apartment blocks wedged in beside modern, glassy buildings tumbling with vines and chic little shops tucked in to their bellies. To get here we have driven through a thousand kilometres of flat, very English farm land with few distractions but for the occasional chicken and the city suddenly looks overwhelmingly cosmopolitan and chic. The towns we have passed through on the way are full of rusting farm machinery, peeling paint and little else. It’s as though we have missed the apocalypse only to discover it’s all over and done with and this is how the world looks now . There’s barely a person in sight and the roads we take are practically empty for miles and miles. I listen to Wolf Hall on the iPod and am so undisturbed by actual events in the real world that I can actually distinguish one Thomas from the thirty seven other Thomas’ in the story.
I have just reached the part where Henry Vlll is throwing a tantrum at the Pope when we slow down outside a dusty looking restaurant. We have to peer carefully in to the window to see if the place is open at all. I push the door open to find myself in a large, chaotic room filled with tables and overflowing piles of knick knacks arranged around a large, brick grill. I am admiring the piles of sausages and chunks of sheep lined up neatly at the back, away from the heat of the flames, when an extremely ancient waiter I took to be a model suddenly creaks in to life. He shuffles over and welcomes me to 1927, inclines his head when I order a Coke and then processes rustily to serve the only other occupied table. Jamie joins me a minute or two later and looks around the place as though he is in an interesting but slightly shambolic museum then sits down to pour himself a drink. The waiter returns and informs us that we are having a platter of meat and busies himself at the grill. The parilla or grill is Argentina’s most beloved cooking method and dish. A sizzling platter of various meats served with salad, chewy white bread and chips is available in every town in practically every restaurant and no one ever seems to tire of it. The requisite iron skillet is plonked down in front of us, replete with lamb chops, sausages, black pudding and, slightly alarmingly, what I am fairly sure are little, crackling coils of lambs intestines. We dig in hungrily and I fail to mention the intestines to Jamie, figuring what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. The lamb chops vanish first, followed by the sausage. The black pudding, known locally as morcilla is gungey and a little spooky. When you slice the tough skin of the sausage, it oozes out around the edges, deep purple and slightly malevolent looking. Luckily it tastes delicious, rich and smokey with a sweet lacing of cinnamon and clove. Finally though, the skillet is bare but for those little loops of intestine. If you want to make me unhappy, give me a plate of tripe; little triangles or pale scrolls of chewy, rubbery cows intestine. The bland, animal taste and the tiny, groping villi fiddling about on your tongue is one of the least pleasant gastronomic experiences in my book. So I am not altogether taken with the idea of barbecued sheep’s intestine. However, this voyage has seen me queasily choking down tripe in peanut sauce, heartily embracing tongue in tomato sauce and positively wolfing down heart on a stick, so I can’t turn down this latest offaly challenge. I spear a piece with my fork and quietly saw a chunk off and pop it in my mouth. The taste is surprisingly good, salty and succulent with a good measure of smoke from the wood fire but it’s pretty chewy and also unnervingly tubular. A sort of soft, pale paste creeps out from within when you bite it or flatten it with your knife and I suddenly find the taste a little less encouraging. I manage a whole piece, torn between liking it and really hating it but belying nothing in my face. I really want to watch Jamie try some and if I tell him, he won’t eat it. He picks up a piece and enthusiastically slices a mouthful off then chews on it, his attention elsewhere. The chewing slows as the cylindrical shape of the intestine makes itself known and the springy texture works at his jaw. He swallows reluctantly and looks down at the intestine as though seeing it for the first time, then pushes it to one side and hides it under his cutlery. Today is not going to be a victory for lamb’s guts.
Argentina and Chile are extremely expensive compared with the rest of South America and we pay what feels like a small fortune to the waiter before greasily making our way back to the bike. I feel a ghostly gathering of accusatory lambs gather around us to bleet soundlessly before we are back on the road, over stuffed and drowsy. The hours stretch out around us, the vanities of the Tudors droning softly in my ear and great, grassy fields unraveling from the road in every direction. The following two days is punctuated by a series of bizarre, empty hotels and lifeless towns. A rain storm so violent that the water blows in spluttering curtains across the road is one of the few things that gets our attention. We open the shutters from our curious, Camelot themed hotel, a fine spray of rain speckling our clothes and watch in fascination. The light dims to an ethereal, pearly glow and great gusts of wind herd the sheets of water in chilly blasts across the road. The trucks and cars snail by, barely able to see past their bumpers and the air turns a steely grey, so full of spray you could barely breath it. And then it’s over, as suddenly as it started and the sun comes out and pretends nothing happened. Disappointed, we retreat to the empty halls of the hotel and play outrageously inept ping pong and eat sweets for dinner. Then suddenly, Buenos Aires is upon us.
Hours and hours of rolling fields and choosing between JCB or John Deere turn Argentina’s capital in to a glittering paradise full of desirable objects, gushing fountains and fabulous diversions. The truth is a little less interesting. It’s an attractive, pleasant city which has preserved its copious old coffee houses and steak houses in the style they were built. It has one or two nice parks, a zoo and a few museums here and there but it’s a strange place that looks the same around each corner. I never get a handle on where exactly we are and where we have come from and my eyes slide off the buildings, unable to recall details later. We have a wonderful time at the copious pizza houses, however. Argentina has had a heavy dose of Italian immigration in its time which has affected both the language and the food strongly. Listen in on an Argentinian chatting to their mates and you might mistake it, at first for Italian such are the dancing cadences and rolling pronunciations. Plates of gnocchi are abundant in many restaurants and, in Buenos Aires, they simply adore pizza. The pizza restaurants are big, echoey white tiled affairs, a little reminiscent of New York. You won’t find thin and crispy pizzas here either, they are big, thick deep pan affairs loaded with olives and ham, the cheese melted to a puddle rather than brown and bubbling. We case the joints enthusiastically ordering garlic oily, anchovy strewn, tomato laden pizzas and liberally festooning our faces with strings of mozzarella. The places are always full, always friendly and always good. The rest of Buenos Aires can wait. Robin, however can’t wait. We have three days of paperworking, banking and crating to do before she leaves promptly on the 22nd December and makes her way home without us. We drive to Sandra’s house where we are met by Javier and ushered in to the house. Little cups of strong, sugary coffee are promptly passed around and a long chat about Argentina’s monetary situation and all its implications to our eventual bill are explained. The couple are funny, warm and friendly and we sit amongst piles of paperwork and boxes enjoying their stories of biking through Argentina. At last though, the boring bit begins and we are handed the paperwork. The freighting company are contacted and Robin’s breezy passage in the chilly hold of a British Airways jet is secured. We hand over a small wad of cash, the fee for Sandra and Javier and are told that tomorrow the bike must be taken to the airport, emptied of petrol, the battery disconnected and the whole thing popped in a wooden box.
Only one thing,
Says Sandra, looking at me.
Jamie is the one named on the paperwork and so he is the only one allowed in the building. You can’t go in.
And so this is it, outside in the street I climb back on to Robin for the last time. Jamie will ride to the airport alone tomorrow. We whip down the sixteen lane highway, dodging frighteningly fast cars and filtering through the heavy traffic. I watch the city spooling past us, the towers, churches, billboards and pedestrians. This is really it, I think, feeling the warm breeze whistling through my open visor, this is as far as Robin takes me. We pull in to the dim entrance of the carpark next door to our cheap hotel and I get off. I pat Robin on her tattered sheep skin saddle and we cover her over with the ripped up, gaffa patched tent she has worn for the last eight months and head out in to the city. I am a pillion no more.
Alfajores– naturally gluten free and easy to make, alfajores make everyone happy….except vegans but should you be so inclined, use soya margarine instead of the butter and replace dulce de leche with coconut caramelnwhich can be bought at Chinese supermarkets.
500g cornflour or, if you can get it Maizena. It has featured in other recipes in this blog and can be purchased in Latin American shops or online at www.mexgrocer.co.uk. it has a richer flavour than cornflour.
2 tspn baking powder
75g icing sugar
2 egg yolks
3-4 spoonfuls of salted butter
A handful of maldon seasalt
One jar of dulce de leche or, if you can’t get it a tin of condensed milk. You can now buy it preboiled in to caramel but if you can’t get that use ordinary condensed milk and follow these instructions http://m.wikihow.com/Make-Caramel-from-Sweetened-Condensed-Milk
100g dessicated coconut or 200g mleted dark chocolate (optional)
Preheat oven to 175 degrees celsius.
In a bowl, whizz the buzzer and sugar together until light and creamy then whizz in the eggs and keep whisking until they too are creamy and light. Sift in the flour and baking powder and gently stir the mixture together until you have a nice, rich dough. If it looks too dry, stir in a splash of milk to loosen. Gather the dough in to a ball and refridgerate for half an hour then roll it out on a sheet of baking parchment to the desired thickness. They are very fragile so easier to handle if they are a cm or so thick but more delicious, in my opinion, if rolled to half a cm thick. Using a cookie cutter, cut as many rounds as you can and carefully peel them from the baking sheet with the help of a spatula or knife then transfer to a parchment lined baking tray. Reroll the dough and repeat until it is all in rounds, ready for the oven. Bake for 10-20 minutes depending on the thickness. They shouldnt be browned at all on top. You can tell they are ready when they lose their darker, doughy centres and the top is dull and not at all shiny.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Open your dulce de leche or condensed milk. Handling each biscuit very carefully, turn half the biscuits over so the bottoms are face up. Using a teaspoon and a light touch, blob a spoonful of caramel in to the centre of each upturned biscuit and gently flatten the blob but not right to the edge of the biscuit. Sprinkle the top of each blob with Maldon sea salt then carefully top with another, not upturned biscuit.
If you dare, you can roll each biscuit gently along its side through the dessicated coconut which will stick to the oozing caramel. They can also be dipped carefully in melted dark chocolate and allowed to solidify in a cool place if you prefer.
Place on to a board or plate and sift icing sugar over the tops of the alfajores liberally. Serve with absolutely everything.
If you want less structurally unsound biscuits, use 400g cornflour or Maizena and 100g strong white flour.