The Empanada Empire

The empanada. An essential for any peckish backpacker, lazy party food contributor and Argentine restaurant menu. A simple, stuffed savory pastry that looks innocent enough but carries within its golden pouch one of the longest and richest culinary histories.

Where did the empanada come from? We immediately make the assumption by its name it comes from Spain. But there is a longer trail of empanada crumbs to follow…

This bundle of warm comfort can be traced back to Persia in the ninth century, where a poet first wrote in praise of the sanbusaj: a stuffed, savoury pastry that was becoming popular across the Persian, Arab and Turkish foodie circles, and most likely originated in what we’d consider ancient Iraq. Filled with meat, onions and sometimes raisins the sanbusak would come pastry wrapped in a triangle or a half moon. Sound familiar? The sanbusak is earliest traced ancestor of the empanada.

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Lunching in Mendoza’s wine country: Ruca Malen

amanda lunch combo

Ever since moving to the sunny and pleasant land of Mendoza, my favorite pastime has been eating in wineries. Yes, the mountains are awe-inspiring, the sunny days permeate your skin to warm your soul and the people all flatter you till your knees melt; but for me, it’s all about lunch…

Ruca Malen has been one of the top foodie destinations in Mendoza for quite some time and since winning Best Wine Tourism Restaurant (in the world no less!) last year, the secret is definitely out. Although when I went there for lunch the other day, chef Lucas Bustos revealed another secret about the restaurant, which is rather less discovered.

angel devil wine pouringOn most winery lunch dates (you’re just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of how often I indulge in them) I’ll gobble up each course contentedly satiating myself in the thoughtful plays between texture, taste and colour. All the while, working out the wine pairings with my figurative devil sommelier on one shoulder and angel chef on the other. They whisper, babble and whimper to each other as they watch over me stuffing down another six courses, occasionally parping up to comment on a pairing out loud.

Ruca Malen has been on our radar for some time now, so when I went a month ago I thought that there was almost no stone left unturned in my experience of dining at Ruca. After a quick chat with Lucas though, he’d given my shoulder friends the proverbial slap with a wet fish and they were left belly-up and wriggling on the floor. It turns out we’d missed the biggest part of the menu concept!

Ruca mapAs a former, and partially rehabilitated, literature student, it is an understatement to say I like a good story. And a good story is exactly what Lucas tries to weave into his tasting menus, whether you notice it or not. Admittedly I had not noticed the beginning of the tale, my stomach getting the better of me as I tore apart the fancifully decorated plate of quinoa, herbs, apple and nutty breadcrumbs. I reveled in the crisp, tart apple, and the aromatic herbs with the bright orchard fruit and refreshing acidity of the Chardonnay. What I’d neglected to notice though was that the scribbling under the food, aside from just looking like a nice map of Argentina and an explanation of the ingredients, was an account of the native tribes that inhabited the land and the food that they would forage for. From the West came the quinoa, harking back to the Incas in Andean lands; from the East the apple and fruit from more tropical climates; and in the centre the breadcrumbs (admittedly a bit before their time) from the wheat bowl of Argentina – the pampas. It was an edible map of the land before time!

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Sicily: A rummage through God’s larder

Written for the Circle Update, Circle of Wine Writers

fruitstand2

Some people call Sicily ‘God’s kitchen’ and its not hard to see why. A bountiful coast filled with sea creatures coming from the Mediterranean Sea and coast of Africa; an agriculturally rich land with sunny climes with cool coastal areas as well as sub tropical heat; and a history of immigration and culinary influences from Greece, Africa and the Arab world… Sicily is bound to have good food.

saladDuring our week on the island we gained an insight into Sicilian cuisine, as well as a few extra pounds around the belly… Maybe it’s easiest to sum up our foodie experiences by breaking it down into courses, and there were many. Typical in Italy, any dining experience kicks off with antipasti and with such a splendid array of food it can be quite a challenge to remember to leave room for the other three courses. Abundant in Sicily is fresh produce so as expected we found a range of marinated, infused, stuffed, roasted, grilled, toasted, carpaccio-ed and simply sliced vegetables like aubergine, mushrooms, olives, peppers, tomatoes, and artichokes. Caponata is a traditional Sicilian preparation of tomatoes and aubergine which was splendid splodged all over homemade bread. An exemplary dish that showed the heavenly quality of Sicily’s produce is the simple Fennel and Orange salad: fresh fennel finely sliced with juicy orange segments and a splash of olive oil. This can be executed to perfection on the island, but requires the fresh, just-from-Nonna’s-tree oranges which are so sweet and fragrant that no doubt Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have found diamonds in them.

antipasti

Among the antipasti we often found more street food style dishes, like the crispy rice balls known as Arancini which are stuffed with a ragu, meat or cheese. Another fried typicality is Panelle, a chickpea fritter, which is simply a soft warm morsel which helps you swig down some more Carricante. Probably the favorite antipasti for everyone was the fresh cheese though… Homemade ricotta that was so creamy and fine I would have smeared it on my face without hesitation; fresh buffalo mozzarella that oozed delicious buffalo milk; and hard cheeses ripe with salty maturity.

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Mapping out Chilean wine and gastronomy

 chile wine mapWritten for The International Wine & Food Society

There aren’t many places that can boast the prodigious geographical diversity of Chile: deep forests buffeted by creeping glaciers; sun cracked deserts and white washed salt flats; snowcapped mountains, smoking volcanoes and the dizzying heights of the Andes; fertile valleys with rolling hillsides; and an enviable expanse of Pacific coast spanning 29° of latitude. The heart of Chilean wine and gastronomy reflects this topographical potpourri and any glimpse into Chilean cuisine reveals an encyclopedia of endemic ingredients.

One of the greatest influences in shaping the country’s culinary culture is the coastline stretching over 4000kms across the entire length of this skinny nation. The coast is one long fish counter for Chileans: established favourites like oysters, small sweet scallops with melt-in-your-mouth corals, fleshy salmon, pink and succulent clams, Patagonian King Crab and enormous Pacific sea bass are accompanied by a plethora of weird and wonderful native sea dwellers, such as the Humboldt Squid (reaching a monster-sized 2 meters), Erizo de Mar (sea urchins which are quite logically translated as ‘sea hedgehogs’), Cholgas (a gargantuan relative of the mussel), Picoroco (ginormous and irrefutably ugly barnacle) and so much seaweed that you wonder if biofuel will be Chile’s next cash cow.

Most Chilean seafood and fish is prepared simply and often eaten raw with just a dash of limon de pica (a small sharp lime), Pebre (Chilean condiment of coriander, onion, chilli, garlic and olive oil) or a pinch of their delicious Fleur de Sel. The Spanish influence is seen in rich fisherman’s stews and other fusion influences arise in dishes like ceviche, sushi, clams ‘al parmesano’, shellfish pasta and risotto, seafood pastry pies and even the humble battered fish sandwich makes an appearance.

AMANDA Fisherman's StewIt almost goes without saying that the perfect pairing for most Chilean seafood are crisp, aromatic and fresh coastal wines. Pioneered by winemakers like Pablo Morande in the 80s, the main coastal wine regions of Casablanca, San Antonio and Leyda benefit from brisk sea breezes and protective, low coastal mountains creating a buffer from extreme cold and a cavity to bathe the vines in cool morning mist before the afternoon sun emerges. The varied coastal wine regions, which extend to the borders of the Atacama desert region, produce wonderful seafood pairings: the herbal aromatics and citrus fruit of crisp Sauvignon Blanc from coastal Leyda; the voluptuous, tropical and chalky Chardonnay from Limari; or the earthy and fruity cool climate Pinot Noir of Casablanca Valley. Further inland, the natural acidity and mineral notes of the Chardonnay from Malleco, one of the southernmost wine regions in the world, also works well in seafood pairings.

Intensely aromatic whites – Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier – have seen a rebirth since the exploration into cooler climates. Their acidity, off-dry nature and sublime fragrance make them fun pairings for the influx of Asian cuisine using local seafood.

Moving in from the coastal mountain range the country morphs into warm flat plains, breeze brushed foothills and the rugged start to the Andes. Naturally the cuisine shifts focus onto land dwellers and Campesino (rural) cooking dominates. The simple Huaso Asado (Chilean cowboy’s BBQ) with grilled meats like pork, beef and lamb are an ideal partner to the bigger reds from the Central valleys.

The Asado tradition of hours spent around the fire warrants an equally time-absorbing wine. Syrah is Chile’s new champion and the deep black fruit, rosemary, smoky and pepper notes, juicy tannins and bright acidity of Syrah from Apalta in Colchagua is dreamy with slow-cooked Patagonian lamb. “Apalta is mostly colluvial with granite and some clay – it’s a great terroir for Syrah for its soil and water,” says winemaker Andrea Leon who makes terroir selection Syrahs.

Another favourite of the cowboy culture and prepared all over Chile is the hearty stew. Usually with a base of root vegetables, coriander and full flavoured meats like cow tongue, it pairs well with what really was a Campesino’s wine of years past: Carignan.

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