IN beef-crazed Buenos Aires it is not unusual to be greeted at the entrance to a traditional parrilla (steak house) by a pair of bullocks standing guard next to the huge sizzling asado (barbecue grill).
The sight of those two proud steers, restored to their former glory by expert taxidermy, did halt me guiltily in my tracks as I prepared to darken the lofty doors of a celebrated ‘temple to steak’ — La Cabana on the upmarket Rodriquez Pena strip.
I wondered if other past customers including Bono of U2, Sarah Ferguson and the late Pavarotti — who was served slabs of meat the size of the iceberg that sank the Titanic — also felt any small qualms of conscience about the feast ahead.
Our beef was so personalised within this ‘mecca’ for serious carnivores that, I kid you not, it arrived with a certificate giving the date of birth and also the death notice of the meat.
There was even a photo of farmer and beast, the latter munching happily on Pampas grass at the ranch where he was raised. Surely a vegetarian’s ultimate nightmare.
Beef and Argentina’s equally renowned red wine are both a simple meal, enjoyed everywhere in this vast and fascinating country and part of a gastronomic ritual that goes to the heart of Argentine pride, tradition and hospitality.
It’s impossible to imagine one without the other. The average annual intake of beef is nearly 60 kilograms per head while wine intake stands at 48 litres. Leading wine exporters, they reputedly keep the best Mendoza vintages at home.
Another famous Argentine export is known as ‘the three minute love affair’: The tango, best described as a sensual meander of feet around feet, human dressage and electric body chemistry danced with your heart pressed against that of your partner.
The entertainment has started — you’ve guessed it — with beef, a three course meal of steak in different guises, at Tango Porteno, a popular city centre Buenos Aires ‘tango for export’ show, aimed at visitors (approx €50 buys dinner and show). It is all unashamedly touristy, yet the famous dance of passion and haunting music seduces us completely. By the next day some of us are enrolling in €4 tango classes having bought sexy footwear on Calle Suipacha, Porteno, as the chomping of steak and clatter of cutlery subsides.
Impossibly lissome men and women start to dance. Soon fishnetted legs are wrapping themselves around pinstriped thighs.
Nothing quite sums up the passion and soul of this great city of 3 million inhabitants and its numerous barrios (neighbourhoods) like the soulful, intense and vibrant tango. Revived a couple of decades ago, the intricate steps and intimacy of tango unites generations as you watch their fancy footwork — on street corners, in parks, at milongas (dance halls) in restaurants and professional theatres.
Some of the dancers I saw take to the floor almost looked too old to walk, never mind dance. But dance they could and expertly.
If the bife de chorizo (sirloin) Tira de Asado (rib roast) and Bife de Lomo (tenderloin) — fails to entice, you can easily bypass places proudly showing off meat in their windows being cooked in traditional gaucho fashion — whole carcasses on metal crosses above a mound of coals, and try other culinary options.
Interesting variations on nouvelle cuisine, Argentine-style, continue to make inroads. New ethnic restaurants spring up all the time and even vegetarian fare is to be found these days in trendy neighbourhoods like Palermo Soho. Homemade pasta and fabulous pizza also rules in a city where a third of the population traces its ancestry to Italy. Restaurant prices are cheap by European standards. Buenos Aires ice cream — especially the soft caramel calorie bomb ‘dulce de leche’, native to Argentina, packs out neighbourhood ice cream salons.
Nightlife starts late, so as you struggle to keep pace with the city that never sleeps, you may find yourself snacking in one of the many historic confiterias, sampling delicious alfajores (cookies), addictive cheese and herb filled sorrentinos and empanadas to keep your strength up.
Many confiterias are grand salons of faded grandeur, all chandeliers and enormous beveled mirrors. After several visits to Buenos Aires, Confiteria Ideal (Suipacha, 384) is still my favourite Latin ballroom of romance. Here a diminutive tango genius named Diego told me: “Your partner, the man, is in charge. Put all your trust in him and just walk backwards.” Then he tried to teach me some dramatic and sensual moves. I may not have looked the part but I sure felt like a tango vamp in his arms. And it made a change from tackling all that beef.
Visit Recoleto Cemetery, the last resting place of Eva Peron at whose mausoleum flowers and votive offerings are still laid.
Plaza de Mayo, where Argentina’s worst and proudest moments in history unfolded, is a must-see and also be sure to experience one of the milongas — the outdoor dance at La Glorieta in the Belgrano district is all stilettos and seamed stockings.
WHERE TO EAT
At Chiquilin (www.chiquilin-Argentina.com.ar), waiters serve beef tenderloin tableside. It is so tender it is cut with spoons.
At all hours, Gran Parrilla del Plata, (www.parrilladelplata.com) is filled with families tucking into its famed beef cuts. One portion is ample for two hungry people, washed down with inexpensive Mendoza wine poured from the barrel.
Cantina Pierino, at Lavalle 3499, is one of the oldest and best Italian cantinas — a haunt of musicians since the turn of the century.
For leather clothing, boots and luggage, cow hide rugs and ponchos woven with llama wool, visit the mile-long pedestrianised Avenida de la Florida, or try Palermo for bargains.
Argentinas Aerolineas (www.aerolineas. com.ar) has daily flights ex Madrid direct to Buenos Aires; Iberia (www.iberia.com.ie) ex Dublin via Madrid. Air France (www.airfrance.ie) via Paris.
Further information: www.bue.gov.ar. Irish- based specialists include Beacon (www.beaconsouthamerica.com; Twohigs (www.twohigs.com); Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.ie); Abbey Travel (www.abbey.ie), and Club Travel (www.clubtravel.ie). Visas not required for EU citizens.
WHERE TO STAY
The Panamericano (www.panamericanos.us) on 9 de Julio Avenue, has roof-top pool and dizzying views. You may be entertained with an impromptu aria over breakfast from visiting opera stars performing at the nearby Colon Theatre (from €95 for two).
Rooneys Boutique Hotel (www.rooneysboutiquehotel.com) is a belle époque gem on Sarmiento, 1775, owned by Belfast-man Kieran Rooney.
Free tango classes and free airport pick up (from €80). Tango Suites (www.ayresportenos.com) covered in colourful tango murals, good value, San Telmo (from €40).