Steak your claim in Uruguay

By | Category: Travel destinations
a moth watering steak © Lares

a moth watering steak © Lares

I confess I arrived in Uruguay in a bit of a state, having got the fast boat from Buenos Aires. Touring the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) in search of a fine meal, the previous night I’d found I was the main course on the menu. No one had warned me that Buenos Aires’ fashionable Puerto Madero district, right on Río de la Plata, was a hotbed for ravenous mosquitoes, particularly keen on feasting on the cocktail-swigging restaurant goers enjoying their meals al fresco, thus giving those blood-sucking, little fiends their food- and drink-fix all in one (who would have suspected mozzies of being such mojitos lovers?).

Consequently it was with a gentle, if itchy, sigh of relief that I stepped onto Uruguayan soil at Colonia del Sacramento, bang opposite the Argentine capital, on the northern banks of Río de la Plata. This pleasant town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, was founded by the Portuguese back in 1680, making it one of the oldest towns in Uruguay. There is plenty of fascinating history, beautifully preserved colonial buildings and an ample selection of museums, but, as mentioned, I was here to eat.

Uruguay is currently starting to give Argentina a run for its money in terms of gastronomy, for the simple reason that food traditions in the two countries are rather similar. Where Argentina has reigned supreme for decades, Uruguay is now putting up some healthy competition – this small nation also has great beef, good wines, excellent grilling skills and estancias ranging from the hard-working to the posh, while at the same time being smaller and therefore easier to get around. With tourism in Uruguay coming into its own, more people are finding out about Uruguayan cuisine and viticulture, often also finding themselves pleasantly surprised by both.

preparing the meat gaucho style © Lares                                Lares

preparing the meat gaucho style © Lares

After depositing my bags in a hostel not far from the river, I ventured out in search of pleasantly surprising sustenance myself. One of the great things about Uruguay is that finding good food is rarely a hardship and unlike the places where food instantly goes downhill the minute these become “touristy”, this country actually seems to up the stakes (or was that steaks?) instead. Well-known and visited places tend to have even better quality restaurants and Colonia del Sacramento was no exception. As I was close to the river still, and didn’t want to be on the menu two days running, I opted for a restaurant with indoor seating despite the pleasantly warm weather (this was March and late summer).

It has to be said, if you are a vegetarian your options will be limited across the nation and if you’re vegan, best to bulk up beforehand. There will be things you’re able to eat, but in all likelihood they will not be that varied. If, however, you’re of a carnivorous disposition, Uruguay (and all of the Southern Cone, for that matter) may seem like heaven on earth. Even if I do like a bit of greenery myself, this definitely wasn’t the place to munch a simple salad. Instead I grabbed a seat at Parrillada El Portón and settled down to a meal of sausages and mash. This very Uruguayan meal does sound rather British, but think plump, tasty, faintly spicy chorizo, rather than bangers and mash, then you’re firmly back on Spanish-American soil with the taste buds. My meal was washed down with Uruguay’s red wine grape of choice and distinction, the tannat grape – the country cultivates vines in 15 of its 19 departments and is the 4th largest wine exporter in South America.

Asado with chorizos, morcillas and other sausages ©                               Lares

Asado with chorizos, morcillas and other sausages © Lares

Sausages are a popular part of Uruguay’s cuisine and the lunch in Colonia provided me with one of the tastiest chorizos I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. In terms of vegetables – well, you don’t need any veg apart from the humble potato, right? I don’t want to be doing Uruguay an injustice by portraying it to be less varied than it really is, but you’d be hard pushed to come across a meal that doesn’t include chips, mash or potatoes in some other tasty form, from baked to fried. They do exceedingly tasty mash, and not just from potatoes, pumpkins and sweet potatoes also feature heavily in mashed form.

I thought I’d had a fairly large and decent meal – it was only a few days further into my journey that I came to realise I’d mostly been having a starter. Uruguayans take their grazing seriously and most have their main meal of the day at lunchtime – often a three-course affair with coffee afterwards. It’s not rare for a sausage or two to be served as a nibble before the real deal, the real deal of course meaning meat in gauchoesque proportions.

The gaucho, or Uruguayan horseman, has inspired countless legends and folklore, remaining very much part of the country’s cultural heritage. Historically, the gaucho was employed to herd cattle on vast estancias, a none-too-glamorous life, full of hardship and, by the looks of things, barbeques. You have not lived (or eaten Uruguayan) until you’ve spent some time on an estancia and taken part in the ritual of an asado. Asado refers to a barbeque, as well as the art of grilling, while the grill itself is called a parrilla. Spending time at Estancia Vik, I was treated to a Sunday lunch of prodigious proportions, certainly fit for a hard-working gaucho.

just a small lunch for me please! Lunch at  Estancia Vik

just a small lunch for me please! Lunch at Estancia Vik

I settled down not far from the parrilla itself, watching the meat slow-cook over the open fire. Be aware that Sunday asado is a leisurely affair and make no plans to move for several hours. It also helps if you have a wheel-barrow and someone to wheel it, to take you back to your abode afterwards. During my three-hour lunch, I was treated to chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage), neck of beef, ribs and filet steak, pork, lamb and chicken all grilled to perfection. Then there were grilled vegetables including peppers stuffed with cheese, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, red onion, several types of salad (wow!), homemade bread and different sauces. I sorely missed that wheel-barrow afterwards.

These vast quantities of meat can seem a bit over-the-top at times, but for the most part, the food is so tasty you just want to tuck in – “when in Rome” is my travelling motto. Talking of Rome, Uruguay is, perhaps surprisingly, a great place for Italian cuisine – the vast influx of Italians in the 19th and early 20th centuries clearly arrived with excellent recipes in tow. Even in smaller towns and villages you can usually find classic homemade Italian dishes and excellent woodfire oven pizzas. Ice cream is another Uruguayan must-eat with Italian roots.

Big asado at the Mercado del Puerto market in Montevideo Big asado at the Mercado del Puerto market in Montevideo © Lares

Big asado at the Mercado del Puerto market in Montevideo Big asado at the Mercado del Puerto market in Montevideo © Lares

Although Uruguayan cuisine has many similarities with its Argentinean and, to some extent, Brazilian, neighbours and a shared history of emi- and immigration, one dish feels uniquely Uruguayan – the chivito.

The national dish, chivito, is to all intents and purposes a sandwich. However, referring to this rather complex “structure” as a sandwich would not be doing it justice. Even calling it a steak sandwich would be a misnomer. This tower of a sandwich tends to include churrasco beef, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, mayonnaise, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and possibly also peppers, olives, ham, cheese and whatever you fancy really. Add to this a “healthy helping” of chips and you have a tasty little snack to help you get through the day. If that’s not enough, you could stake your claim to a sausage or two from a nearby parrilla.

Getting there and around:

There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Uruguay, but good connections via South American, European or U.S. hubs.

All main cities and towns are served by a variety of bus companies originating from the Tres Cruces Terminal in Montevideo (www.trescruces.com.uy). More remote locations, smaller towns and villages are served less frequently, particularly off season.

There are fast and semi-fast boats from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, including  Sea Cat Colonia, Colonia Express and Buquebus.

For more infomation  about Uruguay, click here.

Anna Maria toured Uruguay with Lares Tours who make  tailor-made holidays, focusing on a variety of activities including horseback riding, estancia stays, wine-tasting, hiking, biking and much more

 

 

 

By Anna Maria Espsäter  First UK Rights

 

 

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