There are many interpretations of the meaning of ‘slow food’. Some think it is simply cooking slowly, which really describes the concept well-you really can’t prepare whole grains quickly, or rush the making of cheese, the rolling of fresh dough or the filling and baking of empanadas. Each of these things takes as long as it takes. Slow food however, is more than just a measurement of time; it is a way of relating to one’s food and food system. It may represent growing and eating one’s own food, or using the food nearby in your cooking. It definitely involves supporting producers in your community or region, planning and eating meals according to your local calendar, nurturing the earth in return for being allowed access to what she provides. It is also taking part in making wholesome, real food available to all people regardless of who they are, where they live, or what they have. Ultimately, it is quite simple.
Good. Clean. Fair. For everyone.
We were traveling for the last 10 days in the Salta and Jujuy region of Argentina, just below the Bolivian border, where the Andes are high and vary between cactus covered plateaus, dense and thick green cloudforest, and richly colored, marbled rock. Here they call mother earth “Pachamama” and seem to maintain a reverence for her that is visible in their lives and their wares. Nestled within these massive and dramatic landscapes are small communities-people living off the abundance of the region. Spinning and knitting sheep and llama wool, and preparing their meats for meals, drying red peppers to be ground into paprika, preparing salads and stews from the local quinoa, amaranth, goat cheese, eggs, oranges, peaches, figs, walnuts, spinach, carrots and squash.
In the town of Tilcara, we were lucky enough to be introduced to a small restaurant “El Patio” offering ‘comida tipica’, which included all of the above prepared in simple, creative and delicious ways. I knew we had found kindred spirits immediately upon arriving to the sign in the front of the house:
What was exciting about the cafe (besides the obvious) was the creativity and uniqueness of the offerings. While we have had many tasty regional versions of empanadas, Mercedes, the owner and head chef offered the most unusual and delicious version I’ve ever had. Quinoa and goat cheese empanadas!! I had never heard of, nor thought of such a simple and delicate thing. Fresh and warm out of the over, they were moist, with just soft quinoa, slightly melted and not too goaty cheese, flecks of red pepper, garlic, onion and fresh herbs. I would have been satisfied to fill my belly with these (and the lovely roasted potatoes next to them), had it not been for the other enticing menu items.
In all of Argentina, it has been a challenge to find food without meat. While I am happy to enjoy the occasional Asado (grill with several meats) and particularly the local specialties, I have been somewhat disappointed with the limited use of the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables here. This made the specials on the menu that much more appealing. It was clear that Mercedes had enjoyed creating these dishes as much as any others on the menu. It was a difficult choice, but we went with two ‘budins’ or timbales (a molded dish, often made with eggs or other sticky ingredients). The first was a budin of Amaranth surrounded by fresh stir fried vegetables including spinach, carrots and red peppers. The second was a budin of broccoli with grilled vegetables and complemented by a fresh peach chutney. Each was presented beautifully, was colorful and a perfect balance of flavors, textures and colors. I love the use of fruits together with vegetables, and the Amaranth was a tender, savory and sweet mixture that was full of flavor.
And, of course we had to try the Llama meat. Again, while I personally am not a big meat eater of any kind, it makes complete sense that this is the local meat. It is very lean meat. You don’t see any fat Llamas around-while they are not wild, they are free roaming, and are simply not raised like feedlot animals. They are quite mild, with a great texture for sauces. We tried two, one was baked with a dark and rich orange gravy, and the other grilled with green onion and local potatoes. Both were satisfying and rich, without being heavy and again presented with creativity and care.
Besides enjoying a delicious, regional and seasonal meal served lovingly and thoughtfully, the space seemed to represent the community, and the history of good local food, and the kitchen, filled with jars of grains, herbs, spices and other delights, spoke to me as a chef. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Mercedes, the owner, and found, not surprisingly that she was a kindred spirit. We shared our love of working with food from our community, and crafting menus that honor and highlight that food. She is committed and passionate about slow food, and actively building a network in her small corner of the world. I continue to find inspiration in places like Tilcara and it refuels my own passions and commitment to building a world that is Good, Clean and Fair.