My husband, Andy O’Grady, and I enjoy Italian music and Italian food. For us, one of the pleasures of cruising in Chile in Balena, our homebuilt 41-foot wood gaff cutter, was our every-three-month pilgrimage to Argentina (where both are prevalent) to renew our visas. The border was rarely more than a few hours away from a safe haven. We chose to sail a different route each time, which allowed us to see more of both Chile and Argentina as well as have varied culinary adventures.
One mid-winter found us in the northern Patagonian canals at Puerto Chacabuco. We opted for an overland vs. overseas adventure to Argentina. With cruising friends, Canadians Jim Gallup and Lina Anastacio of Mist, a 42-foot cutter similar to Balena, we caught the bus to Rio Mayo in the Argentine Pampa. During our time in Chile, Jim and Lina had become our good friends, and we’d shared many adventures and laughs. The attraction of this current destination was that we knew absolutely nothing about it.
After crossing the Andes over snow-covered mountains and bumping across the barren and seemingly endless Pampa, we hit town – if it could be called that – late on a Saturday afternoon. “I’ve always wondered what people mean when they say they’ve been nowhere. Now I know they mean Rio Mayo,” Jim said.
For most sailors the first priority on arrival in a new port is to find a good anchorage. The second is to see what the galley has to offer. On this overland adventure we were determined that both our accommodations and our food should not only be good but also cheap. The town had seen better days as a center for now largely impoverished sheep-rearing estancias, yet the hotels looked more like they should’ve been in Buenos Aires. Fortunately, the duena (proprietress) of one once-grand hotel gave way before Jim’s formidable negotiating skills and gave us rooms at a price we could afford. However, the hotel had few other guests and a distinct air of decay, so the food situation hardly seemed promising.
The modest menu was mainly Italian, as is often the case in Argentina. Among a list of some standard dishes, one caught our eye: gnocchi. None of us were quite certain what this was – some form of pasta, we assumed.
“Let’s give it a try,” said Lina, always ready to experiment.
“Why not? It’s cheaper than pizza,” observed Jim.
Andy and I could hardly face the task of searching for more exciting fare in this apparent ghost town, so we assented on the condition that we splurge on a good wine. The duena asked if we were in a hurry. Having recently established that the next bus back to Chile was not due for two days, we replied, “No hurry at all.”
“Bueno! I will make fresh gnocchi,” she said.
My ears pricked up. No instant packet food or freezer-to-microwave cooking here. I asked if, por favor, I could watch. Already Rio Mayo seemed to be developing character. I was led into a vast kitchen that once served banquets to celebrate society weddings or agricultural sale days. Potatoes were on the boil and my teacher lifted out a few. “Oiga! As fresh as possible,” she said. The cooked potatoes were mashed on a wooden worktable and mixed with eggs and flour to make workable dough. This was rolled into long, thin sausage shapes and chopped by a flying blade to produce little knobs of gnocchi. Into the boiling water they went.
“Until they float,” said the duena. While I’d been busy, Andy had started to chat with a young couple in the dining room, semi-professional dancers, up from the coast. The man was a surgeon but did not earn enough here even to own a car. He and his wife danced for pleasure, but also for the extra money to acquire possessions that much of the world takes for granted. They were here for the opening of a new tango club. In Rio Mayo? “Enjoy the gnocchi,” they said. “Then come tango.”
In no time the gnocchi were on the plates, and a tasty milanesa sauce was spooned over all, topped with freshly grated provolone. Complemented by a Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon, the feast we enjoyed was fit for royalty, yet it would be simple to make on board, tasty, and a welcome change from everyday pasta. Already I was planning new dishes and different ways of preparing gnocchi.
It was early – only 10 p.m. We decided to rest – the duena would call us at 1 a.m. Yes, that’s when things get rolling in Argentina. We were called at the appointed hour and made our way through icy streets. Club Tango was a little house ablaze with light, a miniature version of a club in the capital city. There was a waiter in white waistcoat and bow tie, simple white walls, black-and-white photos of famous musicians, and (not surprisingly) evocative tango music. Our new friends danced until four in the morning, and in between told us about their lives and encouraged lively conversation with locals. I even attempted a short tango and was rewarded by laughter and applause.
Good food, rich wine, romantic dancing – what more could one want? Perhaps only an economy that would give these lovely people a standard of living to match their enchanting lifestyle.
Gnocchi Rio Mayo
4 medium-sized potatoes
2 cups seminola or wheat flour
Pinch each salt, pepper, and nutmeg
Cook and mash the potatoes. Mix in the flour, egg, and seasoning to make a workable dough. It should not be too sticky. Roll it out, a bit at a time, into long fingers about 3/8-inch thick. Chop into ¾-inch lengths; keep well-floured. (Cut at different angles to make them appear more attractive or let your imagination loose on creating the shape). Drop the gnocchi into lots of boiling, salted water. (A tasty variation is to use a rich stock, such as one made from your last lobster or chicken.) The gnocchi are done when, after a few minutes, they float to the top.
We’ve found many ways to serve gnocchi: With a tasty sauce, baked in the oven with cheese and vegetables, or simply sautéed with lots of garlic in lashings of olive oil, then sprinkled with parsley or another garnish and a strong, tasty cheese. Accompany with red wine-and Buen provecho!