Taking a Bite of Patagonian Terroir: Lamb Roasted on a Metal Cross

I arrived in Calafate without a single preconception. My expedition to the end of the world had been plotted out by my outdoorsy brother and his outdoorsier wife, who were planning to accompany me but ultimately canceled just a month before. A 1 hour cab ride to the international airport at 5 a.m. followed my first day back to the summer-in-the-city paradise that is Buenos Aires in February. Only 3 hours later I was tightening the straps of my coat to keep out the chill of Patagonian wind. When I got to the hostel I secured a hairdryer and counted my pesos. I borrowed a pair of grungy sneakers that had been left behind by a previous guest, one whose feet luckily had the same dimensions as mine. (Not being too outdoorsy myself I had left my own kicks at home.) I booked a glacier trek for the next day and asked about things to do that afternoon. “I want lamb,” I said to the receptionist/problem-solver/all around great gal at the front desk, “But I don’t want it at a restaurant. I want to see the person who cooks it cooking it.” She thought for a second before suggesting Estancia Nibepo Aike.

27And that is where I went, a gorgeous estate within Los Glaciares National Park on the banks of the lake Roca. There were sheep and sheepdogs, horses and gauchos a-plenty. I felt blessed that the place had been stuck in time long enough for me to see it. Outside of the comfort and convenience of the modern guesthouse, everything seemed to be working the way it did one hundred year ago. With the round belly of a matador fitted perfectly into my palm, I stepped outside to gawk at the beautiful scenery – mountains, snow, green pasture, the bluish haze of the glacial lake reflected in the sky. I pulled the bombilla out of my mouth only to say to a stranger next to me in broken Spanish, “I’m soaking this in. I want to put myself back here whenever I feel like it by just closing my eyes.” I think it came out something like, “I’m full of this. I want this in my eye,” but no matter. I was kind of talking to myself anyway.

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A gaucho and I rode horses down to the lake and he showed me how he herds the sheep daily out to pasture. I watched him sheer one, snipping away at the thick wool with a very sharp knife less than an inch away from the throat. The animal seemed fine with the set-up, a passive look of trust, indifference even, in its eyes. She probably won’t be so relaxed on the day the Reaper comes for her delicious meat though. When I got to the estancia, there was already a whole lamb split open lengthwise at the rib and stretched onto an iron cross angled over coal fire. This would be our lunch later on that day. Free-range, grass fed lamb plucked right off the most beautiful terrain I’ve seen in a while. And I would have the chance to taste that terrain- the green-green grass, the cool, clean breeze – in its flesh.

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x11Lured by the smells of proteins denaturing and fat caramelizing, I snuck into the small room on the side of the guesthouse that had been dedicated to preparing the lamb. I sat down next to it and sucked liquid out of my mate as I watched the animal cook, peacefully. It had cooked for 3 hours, time allowing the flesh to tenderize and the excess fat to drip off. This lead to meat that was juicy but lean, the exterior licked with the stream of fat but the meat not chewy because of it. The juices did not drip onto the coal so there wasn’t much smoke involved in flavoring. Nor were there any crazy seasonings to take away from the essence of the meat. Just salt and pepper, heat and time.

a42When the meat had cooked through and the skin had become as crispy as a potato chip, the asador slipped the body off the cross and laid it flat on his chopping table in one swift motion. The tail had hardened into a crunchy stick and was sticking straight up. He applied a deft chop at the spine and cracked the thing in half before breaking it up further. He then set the pieces on a nearby parilla where some chorizos were already crisping up. A minute or two there just to warm through and the meat was heaped up onto mini-parrillas and brought out to the table.

a5a6a7There were bowls of lettuce, white onion, tomato, shredded carrot and shredded beet set out on the table but I kept my distance from these place-holders. I filled my plate instead with various chunks of lamb, the famous cordero patagónico. I had plenty of crispy rib and a big hunk of its hind leg, which the asador told me was his favorite part. Needless to say the meat was juicy, moist, soft like a baby’s bottom (…would be after 3 hours of slow grilling). It slid readily off the bone and was tender yet lean, the crispy skin wrapped tight around flesh and bone. There was plenty of fat but it had softened into a tasty cream and spread over the meat like a velvety blanket instead of becoming tough. But the flavor of the meat was what struck me the most. It was lamb alright, but the mineral quality so dank and gritty in other lamb I’ve eaten was incredibly mild, sweet almost. It still had the characteristic flavor of the animal, but a cleaned up version of the latter, almost as if a pork loin had been ground up with lamb and reshaped into what I was eating.

a9a10a1 a2Perhaps the best word to describe Patagonian lamb is “clean.” It was milder in flavor than any other lamb I’ve had previously and it almost seemed as if the flesh had been repeatedly washed with cool stream water throughout the animal’s life to remove impurities and to dilute its flavor. This was the meat of a happy, healthy animal, one with relatively free reign over the beautiful land which was its home. Myself on horseback, I had watched sheep grazing green grass for hours. They seemed stress-free, almost freakishly so, even as the sharp sheering scissors snipped close to their skin. It almost seemed like the flock had been injected by some sort of tranquilizer, their eyes aloof as if glazed over by Valium. Reflected in that pure, clean flesh was the land itself. To avoid rambling on about terroir I will only say that each bite tasted on my tongue the way the lush landscape looked, the way the crisp air felt as it filled my lungs. It tasted like a tall glass of ice water feels flooding a dried out mouth. It was exactly the “Patagonian lamb experience” I wanted, far more enjoyable than eating an overpriced version of the dish “with a mushroom sauce” at some tourist-magnet on Ave. Libertador.

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