Buenos Aires is undoubtedly a fantastic city, and Argentina has certainly had a great deal to offer, but for those of us only here short term (less than seven days,) the city in particular offers some confusing and tricky social and dietary arrangements.
Timekeeping and a daily schedule is perhaps the most flummoxing for the short-stayers. Residents of Argentina (and especially BA) seem to keep hours at which even those night-owls the Spanish would flinch. Need to meet granny for a coffee at 1am? No problem. Don’t forget to bring the baby. Need a steak dinner with seven friends at 2am? Go ahead, but you might need to book.
Coming from Peru and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Brazil, where dinner is at 1700 hours and all are in bed before 2200, this requires a major shift in the timetabling of one’s day. No more the rush to see and do everything in the middle of the day – after all, most things are shut between 1 and 6pm. No racing around, walking block after block looking for that gallery or market – if you don’t take it easy you’ll peak too early and need your bed before dinner time.
Which brings us onto the second problem: when to eat? It might sound trivial to those of you in the middle of your working lives and indeed we expect no sympathy, but when travelling, mealtimes can often become a focal point for the day. It’s therefore a slight problem if you get to the point where you’ve saved yourself for a “local mealtime”, only to find that you begin to snore over your steak and drop off over dessert. In general in South America, people seem to enjoy a light breakfast and a hearty and long lunch. The difference in Argentina is that dinner is so late it requires some sort of teatime snack between 5 and 7. For us three-meals-a-day Brits, for whom breakfast is, we’re always told, the most important, we’re already confused.
This brings us to our third issue, diet. Rio aside, fresh food has been hard to find in the last three months. Vegetables are not prevalent in shopping baskets; supermarkets are chocked-full of dried foods, tins and bread; pasta and pizza make up a large part of many restaurant menus; on the road (much like home) the only option seems to be biscuits and pastry. Argentina, in particular, seems to be the land of the complex carbohydrate.
The large-scale consumption of yerba mate seems to have created one gigantic sweet tooth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the obsession here with dulce de leche. This thick caramel sauce spread is pretty much smothered on everything, and is known as the “taste of Buenos Aires”. It appears in coffee, on cakes and, most prominently, sandwiched between wagon-wheel like alfajor biscuits. It’s good, but it’s sweetness is hair-raising. Elsewhere, ubiquitous kiosks provide endless arrays of chocolate and sweets and ice cream, whilst coffee and cake are acceptable sustenance at any time of the day. For those of us who prefer a savoury snack, empanadas abound and sandwiches are exclusively of the ham and cheese variety. Occasionally, for a further bread fix, a superpancho hotdog can be found. I prefer the triple version…
All this sounds great, and added to the excellent steak dinners and meat-mountain parillas, you may wonder what the problem is. Nevertheless, it all seems like either food for a treat or food for an athlete. There isn’t a great deal of middle ground. Helen thought that it might be heaven to be in a place where cake is served for breakfast and biscuits, ice creams and pastries such as medialunas are the only available snacks. I thought likewise about the prevalence of good red meat, but for both of us we are yearning for fresh food, good salad and perhaps more regular eating hours.
However, this is a fairly minor complaint, and if you look properly and spend the money you can eat many international cuisines in Buenos Aires. In fact, it wouldn’t take long to get used to the lifestyle, timekeeping and diet, but unfortunately time is something we’re running out of.
Come to Argentina, come to Buenos Aires, and to get the most out of it, stay for a while and stay up late.