Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bento Goncalves | Brazil

Sunday, February 23, 2014
We left Buenos Aires on a Wednesday and flew to Porto Alegre, Brazil.  I, on my mother's side, have several aunts, uncles, and many cousins in Porto Alegre and Canoas, and my grandparents own a farm about two hours from the city too. My mother took a cruise with my grandparents and we coordinated our arrival in Brazil to coincide with theirs so that we could all spend time there together. Also, my grandparents are getting older, and have decided to move back to the United States full time. They have a condo near my mom, and have sold their farm to an Italian farmer (my grandfather calls him "the gringo") who has also purchased the surrounding acres. They have a generous four years to completely relocate before saying goodbye to the farm forever. We took this opportunity being in South America for me to take my third and last visit to the farm. 
My grandparents picked us up from the airport and our first stop was to my cousins house in the city. We dropped off our luggage with her and her family, and packed an overnight bag, and for the first time I met her sweet children. Even though I couldn't communicate with extended family, I relied on my mother and grandparents to translate Portuguese back and forth for me. We did learn some wonderful phrases like, "thank you" of course, as well as "pleased to meet you" and "I've missed you so much". Before heading to the farm, we had reservations to stay overnight at a winery! 
We snacked on some sandwiches before heading to Bento Goncalces two hours away, an area of Brazil with vineyard after sprawling vineyard. We arrived before sunset, checked in, and laid down in our suite briefly before dinner. First, there was a sparkling wine tasting before dinner. S and I opted for the brut sparkling wine over the sweet one. Apparently, the winery that we stayed at has been awarded the right to called their sparkling wine "champagne" from France because they make theirs exactly as the French do. In fact, during the tour, I witnessed the entire process and it is exactly as the technique that I learned Madame Veuve Cliquot invented. However, no matter what it's called, I love champagne and how celebratory it is and how the bubbles seem to dance their way to the top. 
From the tasting room, we went to the dining room. There was an immense chandelier that sparkled more than a diamond ring. We sat at a long table, my grandfather at the head. He toasted to our family and we laughed and enjoyed our many courses and a couple bottles of wine. We even started with a choice of aperitifs; S chose the brandy they make onsite, and I chose the grappa, which is like a brandy but made with grapes. The brandy was the smarter choice. With one ice cube, it was smokey and complex like our favorite scotch. 
The next morning we woke early to watch the sun rise over the vineyards. The mountains were high and there were a few clouds, so it was hard to see the pink that we are used to in Florida, but watching light slowly illuminate the grapevines was beautiful. Then it was time for the buffet of omelettes, fruits, house-made yogurt, granola, coffee, tea, pastries, and even cakes. It was all a splurge, especially since we are the type to eat a simple breakfast of oatmeal or fruit and a cup of black coffee for me. It was great to keep our bellies full since we had a four hour tour ahead of us... in Portuguese! My mother was our translator, and our group was the only one on the tour so it was like another private tour! We started with where they press the grapes and put them into stainless steel tanks, the laboratory, the aging room, the bottling area, and the store. 
We didn't tour the vineyards themselves, but that is probably because the vines surrounded us. There was even a section where the vines were raised high enough for stone tables and a picnic to be had underneath them. 
Hairnets for the tour, how flattering!
There is so much to love about wineries and the process of wine making. I love the care and preciseness that goes into sparkling wine, and I love even more how bubbles mean celebration. I have a good friend Caroline to thank for my new appreciation of champagne. 
This is the hall where there were endless bottles of champagne, stored at an angle, riddled every so often to create their enchanting bubbles. It was remarkable to see everything that I have learned in my History and Culture of Wine class come to life. The way they make champagne is everything I've ever imagined and if I could, I would love to own my own winery (with ample room to hold special events of course!). 
This is me and my mom! Do we look alike? 
And of course, me and S, with a vast view of Bento Goncalves behind us. This area is the top of a tower that is attached to the store at the winery we stayed at, Casa Valduga. 
At the end of the tour was a generous tasting. We started with two whites. One was a chardonnay that I adored and could imagine myself eating with various cheeses. The other was a crisp one that reminded me of a sauvignon blanc; it was good, but it is something that I would drink by the pool with friends one afternoon, and I would much prefer to enjoy my wine with some cheese. After all, wine and cheese is my favorite couple. 
We enjoyed three reds, and I was making assumptions on grape varietal, vintage, and writing the flavors that I tasted and the scents I picked up from the bouquet. I was only right with one of them, and I guessed the correct year because of the coloring and the way the tannins aged. I guessed the wrong grape varietals on all of them, and I think the soil and climate in Brazil and Chile is completely different than what I am used to! If there was a Malbec or Cotes du Rhone, I would have been golden being as those are my favorites. My favorite red that we tasted was a cabernet sauvignon from Chile and now that I am home, I am keeping an eye out for some! Instead of going with my old favorites, I am hoping to experiment with some Chilean wines until I find a delightful one for a great price.
We ended with champagne, and our tour guide sabered the bottle with a machete modeled after Napolean. After the sabering (or after many glasses of wine?) my grandfather picked up the sword and dueled nobody in particular. I am thankful to have had my camera near me for this memorable moment, one that I will cherish and remember this trip by fun moments like these. 
After enjoying Casa Valduga, we drove elsewhere in Bento Goncalves and went to Peterlongo where they specialize in champagne as well for their tour and tasting. We saw old bottles that they left as-is in an underground corridor. The champagne bottles were brown with dust, dirt, and age. It was grounding to see how old the tradition really is. And it's a remarkable way to spend time with family. Learning history of the area you are from, and enjoy some history in a glass. Cheers! 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Buenos Aires | Day Six + Seven

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
We were so lucky to have heard about the Buenos Aires bike tours, and we took advantage of it and made a Monday morning reservation. The tours can have up to 10 people, and we were the only 2 signed up for the 9 am parks and plazas of Palermo and Recoleta tour. It was 100% chance of rain, and although the sun moved in and out from behind the ominous clouds, we were lucky to have only felt a few drops! 
Our bike tour guide was a young local that has lived in Paris and has spent time in New York as well. He took us around, this area being where he lives and where we were staying too, so it gave us a good sense of these barrios as if we were locals. We went to the cemetery and the Libertore Avenue, both of which we had seen before. But he also took us to new places to us like the horse races and gave us a little bit of a history behind it. At 9 am, the jockeys were exercising the horses for the day. 
We went to the rose garden, and unfortunately on Mondays it is closed for maintenance. But we still were able to sit on a bench around the perimeter and enjoy a break for yerba mate and dulce de leche pastries. We chatted about his life in BsAs, in Paris, and New York. We passed the mate gourd around like the locals do.
From there, we also went to a bridge over Libertore Avenue in Recoleta and it was a great view of the boulevard and that part of the city. After we said our goodbyes at the end of the tour, our guide suggested some places close by for lunch. We went with his recommendation of the best burgers in BsAs which was close enough to the apartment that we could nap right after we ate and rest from the eventful day. The burgers were juicy, and I even got a Quilmes, the Argentinian beer, which was super refreshing after a bike ride. 

For dinner, we went to  a local parrilla that a blog recommended in our area. It was not as fancy as the first parrilla we went to, but it was also not as casual and family-owned like the second one we had been to. It was just in the middle and I can say, with experience now, I much prefer the food and the atmosphere from the quaint family-owned parrilla. However, at this parrilla, we ordered a bottle of wine to go with our grilled meat and we saw the penguin jugs on the wall. We asked if we could have it served out of one of the penguins, and our server happily cleaned one out for us, just so we could have that experience. Of the two pieces of meat that we ordered, I really loved the rump roast. It was tender and juicy and had a delicious char from the grill on the edges. There was just enough fat to give it flavor like the Brazilian cut of meat called picanha. 
For dessert that night, we still had room for some ice cream! Every one says you have to try the ice cream here because it is more like gelato. We ordered two waffle cones, mine had almond gelato and S ordered tiramisu and mint. It was a delicious treat, but the owner and his family that worked in the shop were so nice that they made it a place to remember. Even if they didn't speak English and our Spanish was terrible, he taught us what they call a waffle cone, and joked with us that in English, it's called a cucurucho too. 
Our last day we spent hitting up some restaurants and pastry shops that we wanted to try before we left. We had a cheese and wine tasting at Bar Du Marche, which was relaxing and delicious, and kept us dry from the rain for a few hours. We also tracked down some souvenirs for friends and family. We used this last day as an opportunity to take advantage of the tiny pastry shop below our apartment. We asked the owner what his favorite pastry was, which was a delicious croissant (medialunas) and we also got a dulche de leche sweet bun and my favorite, a lemon tart. All were good, but the lemon one was so great I wish we could take a few of those on the flight to Brazil with us!
Speaking of, we leave shortly for our flight to Brazil today. We will be at the Bento Goncalves winery for one night, and from there we will have dinner the next night in Porto Alegre with my family. After that, we go into the south of Brazil, into the countryside where my grandparents live, surrounded by vineyards and tobacco farms and we spend the rest of our trip relaxing by the pool and roaming the lands. Wi-fi in the south is not the greatest, so I don't think I will be able to post after this. So until next time! 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Buenos Aires | Day Five

Monday, February 10, 2014
The night before our fifth day was our dinner reservation at the home of an American chef and his Peruvian partner. We were one of the first to arrive, just behind us a couple from New Jersey. We were welcomed inside to the living room that looked out into the wet patio from the rain, but green and lush. We introduced ourselves to the other couple and walked past the dining room table set for 8 guests with all of the formal place settings. We chatted and stood in the living room and within minutes, they brought out a silver tray of four cocktails for us, made with gin and grapefruit juice. A little something to taste before our 5 course meal and wine pairing, and a little something to hold on to while we chatted. 
Behind the tray came the rest of the attendees, from Manhattan, London + Boston, and London + Chile. Of course, we all knew each others names at this point, but for the sake of writing, where they're from as their names works easiest. We all spoke about when we arrived, what we've done so far, the plans for the rest of our trip, and how we came to Casa Saltshaker.  A few guests already did the Buenos Aires bike tour, which sounded great! It was one thing that we wish we did in Paris when we were there. Other couples have plans to go to Patagonia, and I really had no idea how popular of a destination Patagonia would be. After chatter and infrequent pauses in conversation, it was time to go to the dinner table. We all sat in our pairs, but there was no assigned seating. We started off with ratatouille paired with a sparkling wine, then enjoyed a chilled avocado soup with corn gelato in the middle, there were two fish dishes, one paired with a rose Malbec and the other paired with a red pinot noir. We ended with a lemon and olive oil cake as dessert. There wasn't anything too frou frou about the dishes; everything was just good, honest, home-cooking with wonderful ingredients. My favorite was the soup because I have never had anything like it. It was spicy enough and I loved that the chef shared with us that he and his partner often have soup together. It was like sharing a little bit of their home even more. 
We all talked pretty effortlessly, asking about each other, what we all do, and about our past travels. I really enjoyed myself and wanted to continue hanging out with our new "friends" even after the dinner! But it seemed no one was interested in going out again, but considering that we were there from 9 pm to midnight, I can understand. I do wish I took more photos than of just the dishes on my phone, but it was one of those things that it didn't seem like that many people were interested in taking photos. Either way, I can remember the lighting, the design of the ceramic plates, the spicy soup, and the low ceiling of the dining room that made it that much cozier. 
Then, on day five, it was the Sunday Antiques Market in San Telmo! Before heading to that part of town, we brunched at Olsen, a Scandinavian restaurant that has wonderful reviews online and was a little something different than the empanadas and meat we've been eating. We ate simple brunch with salmon, pork shoulder, eggs, and salad, plus a glass of champagne for me since brunch isn't really brunch without bubbles. The pork shoulder was some of the most tender meat I've had here! 
In San Telmo and the market, we started at the northern end of the street Defensa, which is full of vendors and shops and people leading up to the Plaza Dorrego, where the antique booths are set up. It was a long and eventful walk full of musicians performing, tango dancers, comedians and street performers, and local characters serving their fresh pressed juices or staring out from their cafe doors into the lively streets. We have plenty of video footage to share with you so that you can get more of a sense of this action. It is really best translationed in moving pictures rather than still images that lose the life of the streets. In our normal fashion, we stopped in the afternoon at a cafe for cafe con leche and medialunas (croissants) and took the moment to rest our feet and I wrote in my moleskine, catching up on the details before moving on to the next. 
We were in San Telmo during a week day too, and it is amazing the difference in crowds. During the week, it is all business men walking around, taking their lunch breaks in the restaurants. On the weekends, all the streets (except for Defensa) are quiet, and the only people in this area are those who are going to the market. 
In order to keep up with the locals late dinner of 9 pm and our jam-packed days of action, we've been napping any where from 5 pm to 7 pm, giving us a little siesta before we get back up and moving. We went back to Acabar to enjoy some delicious empanadas, some chips and salsa and queso, and of course, the hard-to-resist bottles of $4 Argentinian wine. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Buenos Aires | Day Four

Sunday, February 09, 2014
We started our day with brunch in Palermo Hollywood at a place called Oui Oui. We sat outside and when we arrived it was overcast, and by the time we got our coffee and tea the sun was shining. We ordered two specials that I read were highly recommended from various blogs. One was a simple (and delicious) croissant with ham and cheese, and the other was an eggs benedict, which is the go-to for S and breakfast food. 
We dressed comfortably enough and decided to walk from Palermo to Recoleta, completely walking through the Palermo Chico area which is known for it's beautiful buildings and luxurious apartments and hotels. Along this walk are some great sights that we saw today that were on our "to-do" list.
We began with the botanical garden, which was shaded yet buggy. I attract mosquitoes like a piece of meat and surely, I left with bites. It was serene though. The ornate green houses were pretty and somewhat magical, and it was quiet with couples and families exploring the grounds. There was everything from Argentinian traditional neo-tropical botany to Asian bonsai. It was a great little walk, and a taste for our next stop which was the Japanese botanical garden. 
There was less shade here, but it was laid out nicely. There were koi fish in the pond and there were bridges and small water falls through out. The trickling of the water and the clunk of the deer scare made it a very serene park, even among all of the tourists. Above, there was a collection of folded paper, wishes I believe, and they blew in the wind. It was a pretty sight. 
Markets, old buildings, locals relaxing on a lawn, northern trees, and palm trees - only in Buenos Aires does one find this blend of Paris, the tropics, a northern city, and Naples. We walked all the way back to the Recoleta area and what a difference one day makes! Yesterday it was raining and empty, while today was one of the cities busiest art markets! Every weekend these booths get set up with jewelry, leather goods, and even traditional gourds for tea - all for sale. 
We spent so much time today in Recoleta, the barrio right next to ours and I love it more with every minute. I think that the next time we visit Buenos Aires we will chose an apartment there. It has all the charm, is safe at night, is close to many restaurants, and is in a central area for all of our walking. Palermo is good too, but in it's own way. Palermo is a much younger crowd and definitely has a safe and fun night life, and less tourists. But the beauty in Recoleta is just hard to deny. 
Tonight are our dinner reservations at the home of a chef in Recoleta. Him and his partner met in Buenos Aires years ago, the chef being from the United States and his partner is from Peru. Every weekend they open their homes for reservations to a supper club with wine pairings for less than 10 people. Apparently, these casa dinner parties are a popular thing in Buenos Aires, and the one we found has a lot of English speaking attendees so I am quite excited! From what we know, cocktails start the night at 8:45 pm in the garden, from there we have five courses all paired with wine, and we sit communally among other travelers while enjoying an evening in a cozy home instead of at another restaurant. 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Buenos Aires | Day Three

Saturday, February 08, 2014
Our third day started out with thunderstorms and rain as early as 6 am and was relentless. We started the day by purchasing an umbrella, which is now another word we learned in Spanish! After getting an umbrella and walking to the bank, our pants and shoes became soaking wet even if our heads were dry. We decided to go to the Museo de Bellas Artes - the perfect way to spend a rainy morning. We were a bit early, so we enjoyed some cafe con leche and croissants at a cafe not too far away, with a window view of the wet streets. It was a good choice, full of locals quietly reading their newspapers and leisurely drinking their espressos. 
The museum had a wonderful collection and was even complimentary admission. We spent about an hour and a half in the museum admiring the Monets, Manets, Degas, Goya's, Rodin sculptures, and being absolutely blown away by the Rembrandt. I adore his use of black paint around the figure in the portrait. And I love how translucent their skin looks and how softly the darkness fades to light on their glowing skin. 
From there we walked to the Recoleta Cemetery to admire the gorgeous tombs and the cats that roam the grounds. One cat followed us for a few minutes while we weaved in and out of the rows, like a maze. By this time, we were also hungry, and luckily there was a food truck just outside of the cemetery for tourists like us. We each got a choripan (chorizo sausage on a sandwich) and we asked the guy what he liked on it, which was grilled peppers. So of course, we ate those on a wet bench while kicking off pigeons and it was totally worth it. 

Above is what we believed to be coffin wagons for transporting them throughout the extensive grounds.

After we were finished exploring the  beauty of this ornate resting place, we walked along a large avenue in Recoleta with a lot of shopping and gorgeously Parisian buildings. We stopped inside El Ateneo, an old opera house and tango stage turned into a book store and cafe. It was definitely a pretty sight. 
Although this opera house was not as grand as Teatro Colon from the day before, it was still well kept, beautiful, and fun to be not just a historical building, but to be a store as well. Guests read books while sitting in chairs in the old opera boxes. The stage was turned into a cafe that was full with the quiet chatter of guests. 
For dinner, we went to another parrilla, meat buffet, somewhere less fancy and family owned. We arrived at 8:30 pm, just when their own family came to eat before the dinner rush. We ordered two bottles of wine, a platter of mixed meats to try for two, and a salad for something to eat other than bread and meat! My favorite cuts were the tenderloin and the flank steak. The tenderloin was so juicy, and the flank was nice and charred, perfect with the house made chimichurri sauce. There were also some delicious picada to start, like a sun dried pepper and vinegar topping for bread, and a onion and tomato salsa for crackers. 

It was a delicious, and the platter for two can really feed four. We took our time, staying there until just before 11:00 pm. It wasn't really until 10:30 pm that the locals started to arrive for dinner, even with their young children! The dinner lifestyle is so much different here!
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