South Africans love their meat, but they can’t hold a braai-coal to the Argentines.
An articulated juggernaut carrying 30 large steers led us from the airport into Buenos Aires. It was four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and kids screamed up and down the verges on bikes and quads, oblivious to the passing truck and its bovine passengers, en route for conversion into the national dish. Gigantic steaks on wheels.
South Africans are known for their T-bones just as the Argentines are known for polo but, unlike our gentle chauvinism, the famous Argentine macho thing frequently gets out of hand. Men address other men with a scowl, for example, where they greet women with a toothy smile and the flash of a bicep. Nowhere is the testosterone more evident, though, than in the size of their steaks.
A parilla is a steak house, but there’s none of that South African buffalo wing nonsense, no slakke and no pizza. They serve meat. Only. And never less than 500g per person. No chips (which cost extra if you are daft enough to order them) and no veg. Obviously. What would a grown man do with spinach or carrots?
If you are lucky, you get a relish or two. Ask for a salad and they’ll look at you in total astonishment, as if you’ve just asked who Evita was.
And if you go to the be-all-and-end-all of parillas, La Cabrera in the Palermo Soho district. now there’s a combination of machismo, Mafioso and mischief, you get a small dish of mashed pumpkin and raisins to promote a tiny tickling of the bowels, and seven sauces alongside, but they punish you with a 700g fillet, served on a chopping board with a small axe and a machete, and ask you, incredulously, what was wrong with it if you don’t finish every last morsel.
Tango music plays on the loudspeakers and spills out into the street. A bottle of expensive wine sits on the table. It’s optional but you’re expected to drink it. Dressed in striped butchers’ aprons, brown shirts and gaucho berets, the Brylcreemed waiters, not one of them under 55, think they look like Che Guevara but actually more strongly resemble Beatrix Potter’s Mr McGregor without the wheelbarrow.
This is rendered more poignant by a television screen above the open-plan kitchen, on which the local equivalent of BBC Food demonstrates over and over how to skin and dismember a rabbit. Poor Pedro el Bunnio.
During our visit, five American men sat at the next table with one steak between them and a basket of ‘fries’. They knew what they were doing, we thought, but the waiter eyed them disdainfully, as if they were a bunch of girls.
No, of course we didn’t want dessert, we said, and left with our tails between our legs. We had been defeated. Worse still, the next day we were subjected to the even greater humiliation of an asado. a braai. in the street. The Argentine version, with its kilograms of meat and unrecognisable other bits, makes ours look like a church bazaar.
Had our Spanish been better we might have been able to ask which bit had hung where, but we were left guessing. I ate brains but I wasn’t doing blood sausage without a complete inventory of ingredients and the testicles were out of the question.
Still they tangoed on and on in the background. Maybe it aids digestion.
As we drove out of town on our last day, our cholesterol levels no doubt dangerously heightened, another convoy of cattle-trucks made its way towards us, bearing unwitting sacrifices to the coals of the asado.
Goodbye, Buenos Aires. We give up. Your cuts are bigger than ours, as are your appetites, but at least we don’t dance when we are eating and there are definitely no balls in our boerewors.