Having a braai in Puma country
Ten years ago Jannie Herbst was shocked to learn that South Africans were yet to master the art of meat grilling. A trip to Argentina, combined by a stroke of good fortune, provided the opportunity to kuier with the locals around the fire, and learn how it should be done.
Destination Cape Town. Recently was hoping to report on a week-long Cape trip the missus and I had planned using back roads (mainly dirt) and staying over at interesting towns. Then the bombshell. The spouse was diagnosed with the Big C and the medical men recommended immediate surgery. That put the kibosh on a journey to which we were looking forward, and meant I had to come up with a Plan B to fill my allotted space in this issue of Leisure Wheels. Fortunately, we at Leisure Wheels are well travelled and have a treasure trove of interesting stories. If you have a good memory, you will recall a trip to Argentina that we (my late colleague Johann van Loggerenberg and our wives) made around 10 years ago.
The behind-the-scenes story of that trip gives some insight into the world of coincidence and the best method of grilling meat. Johann and I, soon after the launch of the Toyota Fortuner in South Africa, decided it would be a good idea to experience the vehicle in Argentinian cattle country. I had fond memories of Argentina when I was a spectator on a World Rally Championship event, and with permission from our respective wives, we set the wheels in motion. First, we had to arrange the availability of a Fortuner in Argentina. With the help of Toyota SA, we made contact with the Toyota Argentina public relations department and I was soon emailing and chatting regularly with a pleasant young Latina in her Buenos Aires office.
Arranging the Fortuner was no problem, but we also asked if Toyota Argentina could work out a route, or suggest one, and book accommodation on our behalf. We had come to a similar arrangement on a prior occasion with Toyota Thailand. The Thais not only arranged to put two Hiluxes at our disposal, but worked out a five-day route. Two very friendly lads from the PR department accompanied us every inch of the way, and insisted on paying for all our accommodation and food. Having experienced such kindness in Thailand, maybe I could be forgiven for thinking we might receive the same co-operation from the Argentinians. How wrong I was.
With a week to go before our intended departure for Buenos Aires, all we had was a vehicle with no route or accommodation. In the meantime, we still needed to travel to Plettenberg Bay to do a planned feature on a VW Touareg. I was beginning to think the Argentina trip might have to be cancelled. Johann and I, with our wives in tow, stayed at the Buffalo Hills Game Reserve in Plett, and when we booked in, the owner explained that as we were the only guests, would we mind if he closed the kitchen and restaurant. If we didn’t feel like a drive into town, he would do a braai in the boma.
“You’ll feel like kings and queens,” he said. “I have never cooked in the boma for only four people.” The missus and I were just leaving our chalet when we received a phone call from the owner. There were four overseas tourists at the gate looking for a place to stay, and as we had the boma all to ourselves, would we mind if they joined us. Being friendly South Africans, this was no problem. A few minutes later we were joined by two couples and, lo and behold, they were Argentinians from Buenos Aires. Our intended trip to Argentina provided an icebreaker and a talking point. Mention of our predicament with the Toyota arrangements, or lack of them, took our new friends by surprise.
They explained there were so many interesting places to visit and one of the group, Andy, sketched a selection of ‘musts’ which I intended faxing to the lass at Toyota Argentina the next day. We learnt that Andy had played rugby for the Pumas, so there was another topic of conversation, and a good time was had by all. We kuiered with these bubbly and friendly people until late into the night and drank a fair amount of good wine. They did not, however, think much of the steaks… but more of that later.
Andy confronted me at breakfast the next morning. “Forget about Toyota,” he said. “We’ll take you to places that will be of interest to you.” He was deadly serious and we were soon chatting in earnest. Andy and his companions were returning home in two days, and a week later, the Leisure Wheels contingent was on the way to Buenos Aires. After an early morning departure from Joburg, we touched down late in the afternoon thanks to a reversal of clocks over five westerly time zones.
We had a date with Andy and his friends at Don Ernesto, a typically friendly Argentinian restaurant in San Telmo, an old district of Buenos Aires. Our week-long festival of excellent wine and meat had begun. After remembering to collect our Fortuner the next morning, we followed Andy and his wife Carolina north of Buenos Aires to Mercedes, about 300 kilometres away. Then it was on to a five-star nature reserve, belonging to a friend of Andy’s, where for four days, we ate, drank and lived like kings. To top it off, our host refused to accept a single cent by way of payment.
But it was not over yet. On the way back to Buenos Aires, an insistent Andy persuaded us to stop over at his estancia for two days. Andy’s estancia turned out to be a cattle ranch. And oh, what a ranch. We experienced first-hand the gauchos working the cattle, drank more wine and were forced to agree that when it comes to a braai, we South Africans talk a good fight. We brag about our prowess at the traditional braaivleis and poke fun at people who hold “barbecues”. But in the art of asado, the Argentinians would beat us hands down. And to add insult to injury, their beef is much tastier.
Argentines are hardcore carnivores. They consume around 70 kilograms of beef per capita per annum and, as South Africans, we took a great interest in their asado methods and I ended up buying several books on the subject. Like our braai, a typical asado consists of beef and other cuts of meat cooked on a grill called a parrilla. An alternative method is to attach the meat to a perpendicular spit next to a very hot fire, the latter having the advantage that the fat does not fall into the fire and flare up. During our days as guests of Andy and Caroline, we were introduced to various asados on a daily basis. Although mostly beef (various cuts), we were treated to chorizo (pork sausage), sweetbread, chicken and lamb. Cuts that we would never consider for a braai are actually delicious. Brisket, beef ribs, flank and nape are usually snuffed at by us; but in Argentina, we found them to be extremely appetising.
I am amazed that South Africans have not yet cottoned onto the advantages of the Argentinian parrilla. The grill is designed with a sloping v-grate and drip pan (see photo), which catches the fat as it drips from the meat. The fat then runs down the v-grate and collects into a drip pan. This is also sloped and guides the fat into a removable container – a far more practical and healthier method than having to constantly treat flare-ups by dousing them with beer. Thanks to some friendly strangers who we met by coincidence, the Argentinian experience turned into a memorable one. The breakdown in communication with the Toyota girl was actually a blessing in disguise.
Do yourself a favour by typing in “Argentine asado” into YouTube. You will be very tempted to change your braai methods. And the missus and I are still determined to take that trip to Cape Town.