Ingredient: Harina Tostada

by Liz Caskey on November 25, 2014

On my weekend market trip to La Vega, I was pushing past the crowds jammed into the tight aisles lined with dried fruits, nuts, and ridiculous amounts of junk cereals like Fruit Loops when I sensed a toasty, nutty aroma in the air.

Harina Tostada.

Arriving to the corner, I saw the large, green machine, responsible for toasting the wheat berries to perfection, and after, grinding them into a soft flour. A long line of patrons patiently waited for this humble culinary gift.

I breathed deeply. The smell of harina tostada always reminds me of freshly ground peanut butter.

Harina tostada is very traditional in the rural areas of Chile where it’s mixed with milk and sugar and consumed as a cold or hot beverage. Some people even make it into a thick mash and toss in some chicharones (pork crackling). However, what’s even more popular, especially as we head into summer is the uniquely Chilean love of dusting this flour on top of juicy, fresh watermelon.

Yes. Just toasted flour and watermelon. It is quite unusual but, somehow, works. When you dig in, don’t forget your three wishes, another funny local tradition of how to eat your sandia (watermelon) and toasted wheat.

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Soccer, Wine & Killer Pasta in Apalta

by Liz Caskey on September 16, 2014

In late June, we decided to ditch the smoggy air in Santiago and head south to the clean breezes of the Colchagua Valley for one of our last (adult) weekends as a couple Little One’s due date arrived. That Saturday in Colchagua was cold but clear, typical of central Mediterranean Chile in winter. We made record time driving, only two hours, on a nearly empty road. Between the cold and Chile playing in the World Cup at noon, nobody was venturing out. Of course, when we’d planned our weekend away, I had never even glanced at a World Cup game schedule. Who knew the Chilean national selection would be playing a deciding game against Brazil?

There’s nothing like soccer to bring the country to a grinding halt. Banks and businesses close. There are no taxis, no cars on the road, and life pretty much is on hold until the game ends. Then, either delirious celebration ensues or deep mourning follows, usually with copious drinking with either result.

We arrived at the Lapostolle Residence in the micro-appellation of Apalta, located at the winery’s showcase winemaking facility that was built in 2004-2005. Here they produce their finest labels, Clos Apalta and Borobo in the state-of-the-art facility buried six floors into the steep hillside (mostly of granite). The Residence has four standalone casitas, each decorated individually and named after a grape varietal that often goes into the Clos Apalta blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Carmenere. On this visit, we had Merlot, the villa decorated with pink accents, perhaps the most romantic in color scheme (how fitting). The terrace and picture glass windows peered out over the valley with the Andes in the distance. That night we’d cozy up by the roaring fireplace on two armchairs as the temperature plummeted.

By the time we checked in, the match was tied. We settled in for an aperitivo in the form of a dainty empanada stuffed with chard, zesty cheese and tomato and a glass of their silky Casa Grand Selection Sauvignon Blanc. We monitored the game on my iPhone (no volume). Outside, we spotted another couple moseying around the garden. As the server placed down a smoked salmon croquette, she casually mentioned, “They’re Brazilian. They went for a walk while Brazil beat Chile”. Oh really? To their chagrin, Chile had some plans in store for the Brazilian soccer team that day.

Sitting down in the dining room, we turned off the game since soccer does not make for fine dining ambience. From the kitchen, we heard a muffled voice on the radio that squealed with excitement every time the Chile team entered Brazilian territory. As the game elapsed into overtime, it became senseless to try to pretend anything else could happen while La Roja, Chile’s national selection, was playing. Then the game went to penalty kicks and we could no longer stand it. We had to watch.

There we were…a gorgeous view of the vines, savoring a fabulous lunch, and about to witness World Cup history. The young Brazilian couple at the next table, who I secretly came to loath, was growing visibly tense. They anxiously sipped their wine. With each penalty shot, tension grew. The Brazilians seemed incredulous that maybe, just maybe, this was not a shoe in. Maybe their victory was not so assured. I was trying to control my enthusiasm. Chile had a real shot at winning, of making that dream real. In the end, two missed penalties by Chile sealed their fate and sent the Brazilians on their way. As we say here…UFFFFFF!!!!

At mid-afternoon with only a couple hours of daylight left, we headed out into the vineyard for a walk and rendezvous shortly after at the biodynamic garden with the chef, Rodrigo Acuña.**(see note below) Rodrigo took over the reigns of the kitchen at Residence, now a Relais & Chateaux, and has transformed the gastronomy to something truly extraordinary. Working closer with the agricultural team in the biodynamic huerto, garden, he focuses on seasonal, home grown produce and exalting its purity in the kitchen with refined techniques. There’s a deep understanding of flavor, texture and how to contrast those highs and lows to create umami in nearly every dish without being too fussy. It is stripped down cuisine that in its simplicity is elegant.

We foraged some herbs in the garden and he showed us where they’d harvested fresh peas that morning for the pasta. He invited us into the kitchen for a demo of how dinner would be made—saffron agnolotti stuffed with those fresh peas. For dinner, he mounted this sublime pasta with a perfectly seared filet of Patagonian hake. At dinner, the gracious Casa Lapostolle staff indulged us witha delicious Cuvee Alexandre Pinot Noir 2006 from their cellar. Even after eight years, it was very bright with oodles of red fruit like cherries, fresh acidity, and some complex notes on the back of the palate that were “earthy” but did not overwhelm the dish. Very delicate wine to accompany this equally delicate pasta.

Saffron Agnolotti stuffed with Pea & Smoked Salmon Puree
Recipe courtesy of Casa Lapostolle Residence

Ingredients:

Agnolotti:
100 grams flour
1 egg
1 drizzle of olive oil
Pinch of saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon warm water
Pinch or two of salt

Filling:
¾ cup fresh sweet peas, shucked
100 grams smoked salmon (no skin), flaked or chopped
80 grams fresh ricotta
100 grams cream cheese (substitute: mascarpone)
2 eggs
1-2 tablespoons minced chives
20 grams minced Moroccan preserved lemon (substitute 2 tablespoons lemon zest)
Salt & pepper to taste

Beurre Blanc Aromatized with Truffle:
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup fish stock (substitute: vegetable stock)
150 grams chilled butter, cut into small cubes
3 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon black truffle oil
½ shallot, minced
Salt & pepper to taste

Method:

Steep the saffron in hot water. Sift the flour and make a well. In the center, add the egg, salt, olive oil, and saffron. Knead until you get a soft, uniform dough. Let rest in the refrigerator at least 30 minutes.

In the meantime, make the filling. Blanch the peas in boiling water for 3-4 minutes and refresh in cold water. In a bowl, puree the peas and then add the ricotta, cream cheese and mash with a fork until you achieve a consistent paste. Fold in the chopped salmon, chives, eggs, and lemons. Mix well and chill.

For the beurre blanc, in a small pot combine the white wine, stock, and shallots. Reduce volume by ¾ to concentrate flavors. Strain stock and return to a clean pot and begin to reheat on medium. Add the cubes of chilled butter, whisking vigorously until emulsified. Whisk in the cream, truffle oil and season to taste.

To roll out the pasta, follow the instructions on the machine for the ravioli thickness setting. This will require about 4 passes or so through the machine. Once rolled out, you will have a long strip of pasta about 4 inches wide by 12 inches lengthwise. To form agnolotti, place a long line of filling 3 inches apart in the center. Fold top of pasta down to bottom and pinch closed. Press dough flat between lumps of filling. Using a pastry cutter, cut half moons using folded part as flat side of moon. Continue until pasta and filling are finished. The pasta can be prepped and kept in the refrigerator on a tray dusted with flour.

To cook, drop into boiling water, lower heat, and cook at high simmer until tender. Drain agnolotti and place in dish. Drizzle with beurre blanc, chopped chives, and serve.

4-6 portions (depending if main or appetizer)

**Since writing this post, Chef Rodrigo has since left Lapostolle and crossed over the hills to the new hotel and winery, Vik Millahue, as their head chef.

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Introducing Baby Micaela

by Liz Caskey on August 5, 2014

Today marks two weeks since Micaela Lauren Ramírez Caskey arrived in our lives on July 22, 2014 at 12:50pm. It’s been simultaneously the fastest and longest two weeks of my life filled with more adrenaline, love, and emotions than I have ever experienced. How do I write about something like this and a little person I have only known outside my womb for half a month? Her arrival has changed everything in our life—for the better—although we are certainly adapting to the changes and lack of sleep.

The birth itself, without going into too many details, was beautiful and exactly as we’d dreamed and planned for. Completely natural with no anesthesia, drugs, nor intervention, I labored at home with my husband and doula before arriving fully dilated at the hospital to welcome our baby girls into my arms shortly after.  I was blessed with a fast labor and supported by an amazing birth team. Micaela came into this world with her eyes wide open and that first, sweet glance made us melt—like she was always meant to be ours. Truly love at first sight. I am still wrapping my head around the experience that was completely transformational in so many ways.

Our parents have been present to savor these first weeks of her life as new grandparents and help us manage life in “baby time”. Some days are fluid, others less so, but I learn so much about myself through this little miracle that is our daughter. Sometimes her eyes remind me of my own, other times her gestures look exactly like her uncle…her delicate little lips are painted like a rose and a carbon copy of my husband’s and I could spend hours watching her “smile series” as she falls asleep.

The best part? This is only the beginning of our adventures together as a family and exploration of the world.

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Artsy, Boutique Lima a la Carte

by Liz Caskey on July 2, 2014

On Friday night, Santiago was overtaken by a thick, cold low-hanging fog that shrouded the city. It rolled in, unnoticed, like a sly fox. As I walked to the corner to buy a few staples for Saturday’s breakfast, I shivered in my light wool sweater. The afternoon had been nearly 65F and now the damp, cold air, which had plunged over 25 degrees, penetrated every pore and bone of my body.

The next morning we arose to zero visibility.  At 10am, it still felt like sunrise was coming. By sundown at 5:30pm, it had been the darkest day of the year. A good part of our apartment faces north with a lovely view of Parque Forestal towards Cerro San Cristobal, the Fine Arts museum, and the high rises across the other side of the Mapocho River and we could not see beyond the first line of trees. It made getting out of bed a chore and leaving the house unthinkable. Fittingly, when I glanced at the calendar I noticed it was officially our first day of winter, June 21, in the southern hemisphere.

There’s something eerie and mysterious about fog. It quiets and masks a city. It casts a spell of temporary invisibility. The dense fog reminded me of Lima’s misty garúa, that gray, invisible “rain” that often blankets the Peruvian capital for days on end during the winter and the city’s only source of humidity as a desert.  My husband and I reminisced about such a foggy long weekend we spent in Lima at Hotel B, the city’s smartest boutique hotel. It is very odd that such a creative, cosmopolitan city as Lima had lacked this type of hotel for so long. However, Hotel B arrived less than a year ago and has reinvented the hotel, and artistic scape.

Located in the artsy, colorful neighborhood of Barranco, home to the city’s famous Puente de Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs), the hotel sprawls across a scenic corner in a coverted early 20th Belle Epoque century mansion. Once a private summer home for the Bedoya García, it was a private residence prior to becoming a Relais & Chateaux hotel. Even if today it looks impeccable, the story of its rebirth is one of persistence and passion by the team who brought this dream to fruition. Just negotiating and acquiring the house took over three years and then another two years of tedious red tape to approve the reconstruction of this historic monument. The remodeling took a little over a year, as it converted the older part of the palace with a newer construction. In fact, the team brought on an Italian artisan specialized in the ornate wooden floors, ceilings, and walls to seamlessly integrate the old and new styles.

Beyond the refinement of a stay at Hotel B, the hotel’s vision lies in unifying the neighborhood, design, gastronomy, and history. Situated only two blocks from the Pacific coastline (with a dynamite view from their rooftop terrace, I may add), it’s within walking distance of the city’s top galleries and museums like fashion photographer’s Mario Testino, MATE, or the MAC (Modern Art Museum) along with all the dining hot spots in nearby Miraflores.

As you enter the sweeping marble staircase, large vases full of fresh-cut red roses adorn the reception with plush velvet couches. The ceilings are over 15-feet tall and there’s a subtle hint of fresh figs and jasmine flowers, the house “scent”. The décor fuses the elegance of early 20th century in the mansion’s attractive “bones” but here, contemporary art is the true protagonist. Hotel B is, in fact, the first hotel in Lima to have its own extensive collection of modern art with works from renowned Peruvian artists like Cherman, Elliot Tupac y Fernando de Szyszlo. There are other pieces by international artists like Andy Warhol, Marta Minujín, Aldo Chaparro, José Tola, Miki Aguirre, Jorge Cabieses and Clo de la Puente. The hotel shares its collection with the well-known art gallery (conveniently next door) of Lucia de la Puente, one of the partners.

During our stay at Hotel B, we found recluse in the library every afternoon. Surrounded with shelves with photographic books, watercolors of characters from Lima’s city life, cushy leather couches, and a proper tea time every afternoon (for guests only) with homemade macarons, cakes and teas, it was a delightful way to read, write, and listen to music and leave the misty garúa outside.

Hotel B is now quite a “hub” in Barranco and has become a hit with chic locals. In the evenings, the restaurant is the real drawl. With sultry candlelight, it sets the perfect mood for a relaxed evening of tasty food and people watching over Pisco Sours. Prestigious Lima-chef Óscar Velarde, designed the menu to integrate Peruvian ingredients with a touch of Mediterranean in a well-executed bistro style. All the products are local with seafood hailing from the fishing dinghies of the nearby Chorrillos wharf on the Pacific. I was enamored with the fresh tomato soup that had a little nest of dried figs and swirl of creamy chevre dissolving into the aromatic broth. We savored quite possibly the most tender octopus in Lima–which I cut with a spoon (the true test). We sipped Spanish cava, then some Argentine Malbec and conversed by candlelight while nibbling on minty lamb meatballs or homemade pizza. It was a hopping place.

The next morning, after a night of blissful slumber, we’d have a relaxed breakfast in the library. Waiters brought up plates of homemade tamales; a breakfast tradition in Peru, in crisp, white jackets and poured steaming local coffee from a silver pot. So local, so refined, so laid back. Love at first stay.

Hotel B is our preferred property in the Peruvian capital and will be our home base during our Flavors of Peru tour this October 2014. Contact us for more information and rates!

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Gluten Free Sticky Orange-Almond Cakes

by Liz Caskey on June 5, 2014

This past Saturday was my first baby shower. This last trimester has snuck up on me so quickly. I am finding it hard to believe in little more than a month and a half I will have a babe in arms; a little person completely dependent on me for everything. It’s not as if I have not known this was coming, but moving from a far off date to the present feels like it’s happening all of a sudden. Pregnancy, for me, has been delightfully creative, vital, and productive with lots of “me” time. I have enjoyed it so much. The shower hit home the realization that this period of our life “together” (me, husband, in utero baby) will be ending very soon, and we’ll be three. It makes me appreciate how fleeting the time is during these ten months, and how I must relish every second of it…even the afternoons when my cramped rib cage feels props up little feet and Gaviscon is my preferred “beverage” of choice as the karate-style baby kicks churn my stomach acid.

Baby showers in Chile are still a fairly new concept and certainly not as common as in the US. In fact, I was not even sure I would have one earlier in the year. In the US, from the time we are little girls, we attend baby showers and are groomed that when it is our turn to have a baby, well, not having one would be unthinkable. In fact, many friends up north mentioned they had not one but multiple showers (family, office, best girlfriends) to outfit them for the new arrival. In Chile, my hypothesis is that baby showers have never been totally necessary since the family network here is very strong to start. It is normal to have aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extended family showering the new parents with gifts, lending cribs and baby equipment, offering child care support. It’s a different social structure. Thus, the need to throw a “party” for baby stuff is only now arriving, much like Chileans began importing Halloween ten years ago.

Baby showers here tend to feel more like birthday parties with baby presents. Registries and lists are optional and often not adhered to at all. A Chilean friend of mine even mentioned many Chilean women opt to have baby showers in the evening almost like a carrete, party with booze, starting at the very Chilean hour of 9pm versus a more typical weekend afternoon or brunch in the US. What mother-to-be can stay up that late, anyways (not me!)?

So all this being said, a couple of my girls offered to help organize the shower. We decided they’d manage the invites, the décor, the games. I tried but I just could not outsource the food (nor venue). Blame it on the entertainer and cook in me but I had to micromanage this part of the event. My mother seemed to be a little shocked by this and mentioned, more than once, “the mother-to-be should not have to lift a finger”. Nonetheless, I knew that if I have my immaculately produced brunch filled with “baby-sized” portions, petit fours, and favorite flowers, I would need to be involved. It was important—to me–and that, my friends, counts. A lot.

I also calculated this probably would be my last entertaining foray for the next 6 months, at least, so why not enjoy it . The thought of planning the menu and spending an afternoon “playing” in the kitchen to crank out gorgeous honey-dijon ham-Parmesan palmiers, choux puffs for shrimp cocktail salad, baby-sized quiche, stuffed rosemary baby muffins, among others, all sounded like fun to me. What joy to prepare for an intimate celebration with my best girlfriends marking my transition into motherhood and the arrival of our baby. What more noble reason could there be to cook and share?

Given that baby will be born in the middle of the Chilean winter, the weather has turned and is feeling more season. Citrus and pomegranates are flooding the markets. In fact, on many corners of Santiago, vendors crack open pomegranates and sell them like popcorn, which people buy to snack on. Pomegranates have a delightfully sweet-tart-crunchy flavor and texture. I was itching to make a dessert with them and something citrusy.

Then I remembered an old go to recipe from my catering years: sticky orange-almond cakes. Back in the day, this was always a huge crowd pleaser, and marvelously gluten free/flourless (not sugar free so it’s not health food!). The recipe for the cakes itself is extremely easy and has few ingredients. The magic here is the union of pureed oranges, eggs, almond flour, and sugar that all join together to form a moist cake. I stamp these out with a pastry cutter into the cutest little circles and put a dollop of natural yogurt and pomegranate seeds on top. You could make these cakes larger for a proper-sized dessert but they are so dainty, why not just serve them as nibbles?


Gluten Free Sticky Orange-Almond Cakes
Adapted from Hors d’Oeuvres

5-6 whole clementines, peeled
6 large free-range eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups almond flour (almonds with no skins)
1 teaspoon double-action baking powder (if you don’t have this, double)
1/2-cup non-sweetened yogurt, whipped
4 tablespoons pomegranate seeds, for garnish

In a small pot, cover the clementines with water and cook until very soft, at least 1 hour. They will become very pale. Cool thoroughly and then drain. Pick out any seeds that may have been left behind.

Preheat oven to 170C (350F). Prepare a jellyroll pan (approximately 14×10 inches or 55 x 25 cm) with greased parchment paper. You must cover the entire pan with paper and generously grease (canola spray or butter) to avoid sticking. I cannot emphasize this step enough.

Place the oranges in a food processor. Process till you get a very smooth, silky puree. Add the eggs, sugar, almond flour and baking powder. Pulse until blended. Pour the batter into the lined pan.

Bake until firm to the touch, 30-40 minutes. If the pan gets too brown/golden on one side, rotate half way through baking. It should feel firm and “bouncy” to the touch when done (do not use a knife to test for doneness, won’t give you any feedback!). Remove and cool completely.

Next, cut the cake into rounds with a pastry cutter. I used one that was about 1-inch diameter. Place the rounds on a tray with parchment paper. Whatever you do, do not toss the scraps. I repeat. Do not toss the scraps. This would be total sacrilege. While they are not adorable like the cut outs, this cake is so delicious, they should be shared with others. Trust me, they will easily disappear with afternoon tea at home or in the office (and you will be praised by your spouse or co-workers).

To assemble, spoon a little bit of yogurt onto the cake and artfully garnish with three pomegranate seeds. Dust with powdered sugar and serve on a silver tray for a dazzling presentation (I used the base of our Moroccan tea set since it seemed to go with that flavor theme). The cakes taste best at room temp so don’t stick them in the frig or heat them up.

The other beauty of these babies? They are ideal for work ahead for parties, like a baby shower. They can be made two days in advance and kept in an airtight container or frozen for up to one month and defrosted overnight in the frig.

Makes 30+ cakes, plus scraps (see note above).

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Eyes on Mendoza’s Uco Valley

by Liz Caskey on May 23, 2014

In late March, my husband and I embarked on our annual road trip over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina, one of the most scenic routes in South America. We said tchau to the sprawling metropolis of Santiago and cruised past arid, caramel-colored hills north of Santiago into the Aconcagua Valley, carpeted with green vines and the sharp-toothed granite peaks of the Andes in the distance. After slowly ascending two dozen caracoles, switchbacks, we neared the Chilean-Argentine border at over 10,000 feet above sea level, close to Portillo Ski Resort, and passed through the Cristo Redentor tunnel into Argentina at the base of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.

It always amazes me how the Chilean side of the Andes has such vertical terrain. It is relentlessly steep. In fact, Chileans often jokingly call the Andes the “Gran Muro Chileno”, Great Wall of Chile, referring to how this natural barrier has maintained the country isolated during much of its history. As we emerged from the tunnel into the glaring morning sunshine, squinting like moles emerging from hibernation, the river valley widened and there was no more sense of vertigo nor dangerously dangling on a curvy mountain road with the valley floor thousands of feet below. The Andes changed instantaneously from steel gray granite to shades of red, yellow, and even green from the mineral content.

We were lucky on this trip. We breezed through immigration and customs in only 15 minutes (and a record driving time for the whole trip). A couple hours later, as we passed the Portrerillos reservoir, a deep azure lake colored by the glacial runoff, I could not believe my eyes. Mendoza was green. Not only that, it was, in fact, blooming. Yellow wild flowers alongside the road danced in the wind. I cast my eyes high up on the red mountains to discover the stratified layers covered in a soft green moss. The shrubby plains were unmistakably verdant and full of soft grasses. What happened to Mendoza…the desert?

“So that’s where all our rain has gone”, I commented to my husband. We remembered several cloudy days in Santiago when Mother Nature teased us with the promise of rain only to have the storm clouds move over the Andes and leave us dry. Mendoza in 2014 has received a record amount of precipitation so far, part of the undeniable changing global climate.

This trip, we were not headed to Mendoza city. Rather, we turned south to another “oasis” within the region known as the Uco Valley, about 80 kilometers from the capital and wine growing region of Lujan de Cuyo. Between Uco and Lujan de Cuyo there is only desert scrubland with a smattering of oil pump jacks and the massive, brooding, snow-crested Andes to the west and the looming Tupungato volcano. Route 40 here feels like the highway to nowhere and little like the wild west.

In Zapata, a police check point, and entry to Uco, we waited behind old trucks filled to the brim (with no tarps) with Roma tomatoes and garlic. No doubt the destiny of these tomatoes was conserva, or homemade tomato sauce, to be consumed during the coming winter months when there’s not a tomato in sight. Uco is its own “agricultural corridor”, irrigated by two rivers producing not only top quality grapes, but two thirds of the other agricultural products are fruits for export like apples, pears, plums, peaches almonds, and walnuts. While it may be considered one single valley, it is not homogenous at all. The valley is punctuated by the green, water-fed oases of crops and trees surrounded by mountains and desert, but there are also hills, gorges, and ancient pine forests.

Uco Valley reminds me of the countryside south of Santiago. Certainly as the vineyards around Lujan de Cuyo have been engulfed by larger Mendoza city, Uco still is far enough to move at its own, slower pace. Winding roads are encased by tall, century-old poplar trees that in autumn turn mustard yellow as fall descends on the region. In the many tiny towns and villages, seemingly frozen in time, vintage trucks from the 70s pulled out of vineyards with cases of dark purple grapes stacked high, baring the fruit of the high-altitude Malbec that has made the region so sought after.


However, what really strikes me about Uco is the light and the scale of distance. The visibility extends for, seemingly, hundreds of kilometers. The sun here also has such an intensity that by 9am, you must have sunglasses and high SPF (well, for my fair skin that is!). The mountains dominate the western horizon of the valley and even a leisurely walk west in the vineyards looks deceptively easy. It’s more like a constant incline that after a while makes your quads burn and you’re out of breath. Uco without the Andes would be unremarkable. With them, it is a haunting beauty and you can never seem to stop gazing.

We arrive at our “home” in Uco, The Vines Resort, a 1,600-acre vineyard-focused property aimed at giving guests an “experience” in the Argentine countryside–a highly pampered one. As we turned off the paved main road, we drove for a couple kilometers among the vineyards belonging to the 135 small vineyard owners (producing over 225 private wine labels). Creative names like La Luna or Amor de Mi Vida. We pulled up to the main lodge, built with low-slung architecture that melded into the mountains. The Andes felt so close I could reach out and touch them. For a minute, I lost my bearings. I was not sure if I had arrived in Arizona, Napa Valley or Mendoza. The Vines Resort has a distinctly American vibe yet the setting is obviously Mendocino.

Uco has been desperately needing a top notch hotel for years. While close to Mendoza, those 80 kilometers are often slow on the country roads, a situation made longer after a day of wine tasting. It was high time for a closer retreat to savor this pristine place. Many of Vines’ guests do not leave the premises. They engage in playing winemaker for a day, if they own a vineyard sit down with the resident sommelier to plan their blend, or simply walk the vineyards, hit the spa, sip wine, eat, relax and take in that grand mountain views. We decided the first day to follow suit and settled into our comfortable, well-appointed condo. After hours on the road (about 7.5 to be exact), we dozed off on the terrace on the soft lounge chairs under a blue sky studded with clouds in the warm sun. Perfect for decompression.

The next morning we arose to clouds. It was the first sweater day of the season for us. I was delighted to have a reprise from the heat in Santiago where March temperatures still felt like January (Hades!). We put on some good driving tunes and set off in the direction of the Manzano Historico on scenic backroads towards San Jose de Tupungato for a morning round a golf in a centuries-old pine forest. Uco Valley, in a short period of time, has become arguably the most exciting wine region in Argentina. It makes the country’s best Chardonnay, along with the coveted high-altitude Malbec (complete with unique floral aromatic profiles) since the wines display intense color, aroma, fresh acidity, and succulent tannins. Don’t be fooled though, these are still “big” wines, there’s no such thing as a low-alcohol “subtle” wine with Mendoza’s dry, continental climate.

Uco has really become quite an international valley, developed by notable foreign wineries like O Fournier (Spain), Achaval Ferrer (Italy-Argentina-US), Andeluna (US), Salentein (Holland), Lurton (France), Clos de los Siete wineries (Michel Rolland, France), Alto Las Hormigas (Italy), and Cobos (US/Paul Hobbs). Within Argentine wine circles, it’s also an elite address with homegrown wineries like Catena Zapata, Zuccardi, Mendel, Rutini, Trapiche and Finca Sophenia all sporting vineyards in the region.

After golf, we stopped off in the “wine corridor” of Tupungato for lunch at one of my favorite spots for honest, homemade food. The chef here “gets” food understanding a dish’s intrinsic balance yet at the same time, infusing everything with care (which always makes food taste amazing). The cuisine playfully deviates from the Argentine triology of grilled meat, pasta, and grilled vegetables by integrating a tasting menu of appetizers and desserts. The clouds covered the Andes but we quickly forgot sipping a favorite Malbec from Lurton.

Back on the Vines homestead, I decided I needed to burn off some of the morning’s medialunas (Argentine-style croissants dangerously delivered every morning to your condo as part of breakfast). The all-glass gym is elevated two stories with a 360-degree of the vines—45 minutes on the treadmill goes by very quickly with that kind of a view.

That evening, we dined at the resort’s signature restaurant called Siete Fuegos, Seven Fires, overseen by Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann, a bit of a personality in these parts. Mallmann, who’s cooking style is inspired in grilling and “burnt” flavors using different fire techniques, has inspired a generation of cooks from his 1884 restaurant in Mendoza, many who have opened their own restaurants to serve an identical menu. A large American group took over the outside patio and no doubt were slowly being ahumados (smoked) by all the grill action. Vines puts on these special dinners several times per week where the chefs demo the seven fires that make up the backbone of Mallmann’s cuisine: the grill, the chapa (flat piece of cast iron over a fire), the infiernillo (two fires with a cooking level in between), the horno de barro (mud oven), rescoldo (method by covering vegetables with hot embers), the asador (to butterfly and cook whole animals), and salt-crusting technique (in this case a whole trout). Each technique is essentially a course and the grill team presents the final results to the group with “oohs” and “aahs”, all paired with Vines’ line of wines.

Although a grand feast, my husband and I opted to avoid the smoke and eat inside a la carta. I personally do not do well with the large, heavy dinners so common in Argentina (all at 10pm), and have a love for Mallmann’s salads that marry “burnt” vegetables, artisan cheeses and greens. My husband ordered a crunchy salad with grilled seasonal pears wrapped in tender Serrano ham, studded with blue cheese and a pungent olive oil sauce. It was fruity yet acidic and worked well with the Rutini sparkling wine (I sipped my one glass ever so slowly with baby en route). I was seduced by the smashed beets salad with baby greens goat cheese, and garlic chips. Over the years, I have come to love beets. Their true beauty is not apparent when boiled into tasteless submission (the usual cooking technique here). In this dish, Mallmann has his team cook them in a broth enriched with olive oil and vinegar, then smashed and griddled. The natural sugar content creates a chewy, burnt crush that is delicious when paired with the greens and this creamy, tangy cheese. Love at first taste.


My husband and I toasted our day. Tomorrow we were meeting new, smaller wine projects, a trend starting to flourish in the valley. There is most definitely a lot happening in Uco and it merits more than a day away–maybe several. Good wine, beautiful mountains, a laid back vibe, a great trio.

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