Friday, November 13, 2009

Student Life

Hundreds of nervous students flood around a university notice board. They’re searching for their name and for the seat number they’ve been assigned for their exam. Some frantically wrestle with their revision notes, while others sit more calmly, running dates, facts, and figures through their minds. The time is 8:50am and the exam starts at 9.

The scene could be one at any university campus in the United Kingdom. Except it’s not just any morning; this exam starts at 9am on Saturday morning.

Unlike British students, who would probably be sleeping off the previous night before nursing a hangover, on Saturday mornings Argentine students have been up and out of their homes since dawn, have made the commute to uni, and are waiting to put their knowledge to the test.

Why not schedule the exam on a weekday?

There’s no time. A typical Argentine university student is too busy working a nine to six day job from Monday to Friday. Saturday is the only day they can sit their uni exams.

It sounds tough, and it is. Whereas university students in the U.K will go to classes during the day, and maybe do the odd bar shift in the evening to earn a little extra on top of their student loans, students in Argentine do not enjoy such luxury.

After leaving school at 18, a typical student here will start straight off in a company. For the next four to six years, sometimes more, he or she will, in general, get up in time to commute to the office by nine, work until six, leave the office, travel to university, start classes at seven, finish classes at eleven, and finally end the day after commuting home to have dinner and a rest, before repeating everything the next morning. Saturdays are reserved for exams and Sundays are used to study and complete assignments.

Student life in the U.K. starts to sound even more like one big holiday.

The most popular university in the capital city is UBA (University of Buenos Aires). UBA was inaugurated in 1821 and is a public university with over 150,000 students. With fees at the private universities rivalling and sometimes surmounting British tuition fees, it is hardly surprising enrolment in UBA is oversubscribed.

So students suffer the fourteen to sixteen hour days, the Saturday morning exams, and the Sundays spent preparing assignments, with their minds firmly fixed on the final goal and the possibility of a better career.

Not an idea that would find popular support in the UK.

Though one huge advantage of working in a company while still studying is the experience. University graduates enter the job market with six years of real work experience, usually in their field of study. This surely looks far more attractive on their C.V. than three years as a trolley boy in Tesco during summers.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why Argentine beef is the best in the world

Alejandro, an Argentine friend of mine, was at an international conference in Canada. He was waiting in turn to introduce himself to the group and to say a little something about his home country. Two participants before him was a Uruguayan. He stood and told everyone he was from Montevideo, the capital, and that Uruguay was famous for producing the best beef in the world. Hold on a second thought Alejandro, that’s what I was going to say about Argentina.

Despite their neighbours across the River Plate laying claim to the throne, internationally, Argentines are widely regarded as the Kings of beef. 

What makes it so good? The finest beef and excellent preparation.

The beef’s quality is derived from the grass the cattle feed on. Contrary to other countries, the majority of Argentine cows are not fed on grains in feedlots but are raised eating luscious grass, principally in the humid pampas, the biggest beef producing region of the country where open flat plains dominant the landscape.

Grass has less saturated fats than grains and more of the healthy omega three fatty acids. And although production results of free roaming cows are harder to control than in feedlots, most experts agree that natural conditions, in which the cows don’t consume antibiotics and growth hormones, are a principal factor in the final quality of the beef.

Spanish conquistadors first brought cattle to Argentina in 1536 but soon abandoned the project and left the cattle to run free. In the pampas, covering 289,577 square miles (750,000km²), with its’ mild climate and perfect rainfall, gauchos eventually tamed the cows, and with refrigeration and the introduction of trains in the late nineteenth century, beef production increased rapidly. In that century Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn breeds were introduced.

13 million head of cattle are now slaughtered per year in Argentina, and beef exports contribute $US 500-700 million per year. The majority of the beef however is consumed within the country, and total revenue is over US$ 5 billion. In fact, Argentina has the highest consumption of beef in the world, a whopping 68kg per capita each year. 

Dinner at a traditional parilla (grill restaurant) demonstrates the country’s fondness for beef. A typical menu will offer around a dozen different cuts of steak, from the leanest and most expensive, lomo (tenderloin), to the fatty flank (vacio) and cuadril (rump). The insides of the cow are also a delicacy and prices are high for small intestines (chinchulines) and thymus glands (molleja).

The preparation of the meat is tried and tested. The cook will usually season it with nothing more than salt. It may sound simple, but grilling the beef well is a skill.

In the home, this skill is put to the test with the family asado, when the man of the house will assume the responsibility. The barbeque, enjoyed traditionally on Sundays in gardens all over the country, will include strips of ribs (tira de asado), the rib cap (tapa de asado), and matambre, a thin cut that comes from just under the skin between the lower part of the ribs and the belly. All grilled over charcoal or wood.

And though some Uruguayans may disagree, Argentines from Patagonia to Jujuy will relax and wash down the world’s best beef with some refreshing Argentine red wine.