Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mamma mia, che bella l'Argentina - Gnocchi per tutti

They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you have a thing for gnocchis (spelt ñoquis in Argentina), then at the end of each month, this is the country for you. That’s because the 29th of every month in Argentina is traditionally Ñoquis day.

Italian cuisine was first brought to Argentina when Italians began migrating here en masse in the nineteenth century.

The original influx of immigrants was made up principally of northern Italians who came to Argentina once it had won its independence from Spain in 1810. By the time cholera epidemics hit Italy in the 1830s, then again in the fifties, sixties and eighties, hundreds of thousands of Italians were choosing Argentina as a place to make their new home. During the first decade of the twentieth century alone, the Italian diaspora saw over 700,000 flood into the country to escape economic hardship in Italy.  

And they didn’t only come with their hand gestures and their language, which managed to infiltrate the Spanish spoken in Argentina to such an extent that the intonation here is almost as musical as Italian and sets Argentine Spanish notably apart from other accents; but like all decent people from countries with exceptional cuisine, they came with their food.

Local taste buds were titillated with pasta, pizza, ice-cream, breaded meats known as milanesas, and ñoquis; all of which quickly became part of the local Argentine diet. Italy's alcoholic beverages too, like Fernet Branca and Cinzano, remain very popular.
Though the Italian food here has no doubt lost some of its original authenticity (Argentine pizza is thick based for example and more like a calzone), with sixty percent of all Argentines descending from those Italian families who brought it with them; the love for Italian cooking it seems, is in the blood.

And the 29th day of each month is the day for ñoquis.

It is not really clear how the tradition came about. Some suggest that the poverty in which the newly arrived Italians found themselves, left them so broke by the end of each month that the cheap, yet filling lumps of potato and flour were a sound economical option.

Others argue that it has to do with a young doctor called Pantaleón who legend has it left his home in Asia in the 8th century and performed miracles in northern Italy after converting to Christianity. The legend says that while on a pilgrimage, Pantaleón blessed a farmer who had shared what little food he had, and promised that the next year’s harvest would be plentiful. Which it was. When Pantaleón was canonized a patron Saint of Venice on the 29th of July, the farmers honoured him by eating ñoquis, a dish that represented the poor.    

Whatever the origins, the custom became tradition in Argentina, and though nowadays it is becoming less fashionable, ñoquis were no doubt still served up in homes all throughout the country yesterday; and usually with a handful of peso notes beneath the plate for luck.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The French and the British versus Argentina

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Monday was a new national holiday in Argentina, El Día de la Soberanía - The day of National sovereignty.

It commemorates the Battle of Vuelta de Obligado which took place on November 20th, 1845 when the Argentine Confederation went up against a mighty Anglo-French fleet of eleven warships on the shores of the Paraná River.

Juan Manuel de Rosas, who appears on the Argentine twenty peso banknote, was Governor of Buenos Aires province from 1829 to 1832, and again from 1835 to 1852. During his second reign he managed to really tick off the Brits and the French, who both had interests in the region, when he upped national tariffs in an attempt to protect national industry. When he then went and tried to include both Uruguay and Paraguay in the confederation, the Anglo-French alliance panicked. They did not want to be paying even close to a fair price for exploiting the region’s resources, and had no intention of playing by the rules.

The development of steam powered sailing in the early nineteenth century enabled the British and French to sail straight up the River Plate estuary and on into the inland regions of Argentina, bypassing customs in Buenos Aires. In doing so, the Europeans dodged Rosas’ taxes and hence, reaped the rewards of flogging what they gathered at cheaper prices than their competitors.

Juan Manuel Rosas thought this ever so slightly unfair, and closed the Paraná River to foreign vessels. When the British and French governments decided to ignore his authority, the battle was on.

With their eleven state of the art warships, three of which, HMS Gorgon, HMS Firebrand and the Fulton were steamers, the Anglo-French Fleet sailed up the Paraná River until they came across an Argentine line of 3 vessels and 21 barges blocking their way. The Argentines had also set up four batteries with thirty canons on the shores, and so by the 20th of November conflict was inevitable.

Canon fire and rocket discharges got things going, but the military force of the Anglo-French, which had perhaps 418 canons, was just too much. The French Fulton broke through the barricade and accosted twenty-one of the Argentine canons. With 150 dead soldiers and as many as 400 injured, the local forces were defeated and the Europeans were able to sail on.

Their victory was short-lived however as the foreigners suffered further attacks on the Paraná River. And by the following year, despite the economic incentives of tax evasion, the British and French deemed it impossible to sail Argentine rivers without Argentine permission.

The 20th of November has been observed as the Day of National Sovereignty since 1974, and became a national holiday this year. It rained but was a nice day off nonetheless.  

The reverse of 20peso note commemorates the Battle

Friday, November 19, 2010

El Superclásico y el fútbol argentino

Up in the near vertical stands of La Bombonera to welcome Boca Juniors onto the field

According to the Observer newspaper it's one of the fifty must do sporting things before you die, while the Sun newspaper calls it 'the most intensive sporting event in the world'. It's the derby of all footballing derbies. Boca Juniors versus River Plate - El Superclásico.

Let's face it, footy is massive in Argentina, and the day of el Superclásico is huge beyond all things huge; it has to be written about. Clásico means derby in Spanish, and in Buenos Aires it is used to describe a match between any of the five Grandes, Independiente, San Lorenzo, Racing Club, Boca Juniors and River Plate. With an estimated 70% of the population supporting either Boca or River, when these two giants meet the super ís added for well, self explanatory reasons.

Whether you like football or not, witnessing the way Argentine fans behave inside stadiums is a uniquely South American experience and one that aides in the understanding of society here in general.

Fans of San Lorenzo
The overwhelming noise, explosions, fireworks, paper throwing, beating drums, blaring trumpets and chants could easily describe any one of the city's several daily protests when marchers block streets to make as much racket as possible. (All be it rather musical and sometimes quite pleasant on the ear racket).

Because in Argentina, loudness is loud. Whether you're stuck in traffic or taking part in a typical Argentine debate, (where everyone tends to speak at the same time), it's the loudest of the loud who wins. Up in the stands, where you actually still stand and don't have to mess around with a seat, it is no different. Fans will even scream loudly when their team concedes a goal in an attempt to out-sing their opponents and save face.

As noisy as the adjective loud is though, the word just doesn't cut it when describing the stadium experience, especially when it comes to el Superclásico. The first match was in 1908 and the fixture has been one full of spine-tingling, no holds barred, decibelic explosive entertainment on the more than 300 occasions they have met since. Boca's home stadium La Bombonera even physically vibrates when packed to the brim.

The chanting and drumming is conducted by the clubs' barras bravas. These are the hardcore groups of fans, who in Europe are often banned from stadiums due to their violent and hooliganistic reputations. In Argentina however, (get ready for your jaw to drop) these fans (hooligans) are not only part of the clubs, they are financed by them.

Boca's famed barra brava La 12
Argentine football clubs are non-profit making organisations whose members democratically elect presidents to run them. The president needs support and so does the club, and it is the barras bravas who can provide that. In return they are issued tickets, their travel expenses to stadiums are taken care of, they play a role in new signings and they even receive a percentage of the revenue from players sold. These guys have access, and that means power.

When it came to the World Cup this year, the top barras bravas travelled on the same plane as Diego Maradona and the national squad. Back in 2006 in Germany, it is even rumoured that the leaders of River Plate's barra brava known as Los Borrachos del Tablón  (The drunks from the Plank) stayed in the house of Martin Demichellis, an Argentine defender who plays for Bayern Munich in Germany.   

This Tuesday though they were back in River's stadium, La Monumental, for el Superclásico and received their usual welcome as they marched into the stands rallied on as always by the rest of the stadium singing 'Here comes the drunks of the plank'.

Both River and Boca were formed in the working class neighbourhood of La Boca in the first few years of the twentieth century. River then moved to the affluent northern neighbourhood of Núñez in 1923 where they adopted the nickname Los Millonarios (The Millionaires).

Boca fans however, refer to their rivals as gallinas (chickens), while River's guys use the insult bosteros (manure collectors) to describe Boca supporters, in reference to the stinky River Chuelo in the neighbourhood of La Boca.

Nowadays, the clubs go head to head once per national championship. The season is divided into two and the championships are known as torneos. La Apertura (the opener) lasts from August until December, and La Clausura (the closer) from February to June. Both River and Boca had miserable and somewhat embarrassing starts to this year's Apertura and neither has a chance of finishing top. In fact, with the torneo only lasting 19 games, it's more likely Argentina will go veggie than see one of them crowned champion.

But el Superclásico is el Superclásicio and the league postions meant little as the stupendous importance of the match got the fans riled up and raving to go, as desperate as always to defeat their rival. It was River's fans who went hell-crazy this time with their beloved team defeating a lacklustre Boca one goal to nil to take home the bragging rights of the all important head to head known simply in Argentina as el Superclásico.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

McCartney rocks Buenos Aires

The old boy can still get down. And he can do it two nights running. Not something that can be said for every 68 year old man.

Paul McCartney and his band flew into Buenos Aires last Monday from neighbouring Brazil, where he’d played to 66,000 fans in Porto Alegre, some of whom are rumoured to have queued for a week to get in.

After hanging out with some cows and other farm animals for a couple of days in the Buenos Aires countryside, Paul strutted onto the stage on Wednesday evening. It had been seventeen years since the most Beatle-ish ex Beatle last performed in Argentina, and the River Plate stadium was jam-packed to the brim and overflowing with McCartney mania.

Generally the music that Argentines most love to strut their stuff to is Cumbia. Originating in Colombia's Caribbean region, the sound is salsa-ish with African style drums, guitars and keyboards stimulating the hips of listeners, who dance rhythmically like only Latinos can, leaving an Englishman to feel like a deaf and constipated robot while he's teased with comments like 'Hey Ingles, you look like you're doing the dishes while stamping on cockroaches. Lube up your hips boy.'
But whether they are swinging one another round and moving their limbs in impossibly musical ways, or tapping their feet to the greats like Queen or Europe, Argentines love music and most of the country has a finely tuned appreciative ear for British rock.

McCartney feels that.
‘I love South American audiences,’ he said ‘I always think I have Latin blood because I connect so strongly with their love of music, and their love of rhythm and their love of melody.”

He would certainly have enjoyed the boost to his bank balance. Tickets in Argentina were the most expensive on the current tour, ($US100- $US1500) and after selling out within hours of being on sale, Paul rolled up his socks, sucked on a few orange slices, and agreed to get back out there the following night for an equally sold out concert.

And according to reports, oh what a concert it was.

45,000 screaming fans jumped, shouted and sang along in Argentine accents to their favourite Beatles and Wings tunes. McCartney joked with them wearing the number ten of Maradona and proclaiming, ‘I am Diego,’ while wowing them with all the classics, from Something, in tribute to George Harrison to Let it Be and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band.  

According to reports, the band was flawless, while McCartney was his energetic, charismatic and Scouse self. His Spanish wasn't half bad either.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Malnutrition in Misiones

“Ours is a poor province with endemic poverty,” the Governor of the northeastern province of Misiones in Argentina, Maurice Closs highlighted as he announced that so far this year 206 children have died of malnutrition in his province.

Misiones, which borders Brazil and Paraguay, is home to one million people. Its main source of revenue comes from agriculture and tourism, and despite federal subsidies to combat poverty, it appears that far too many are finding the task of feeding their children an impossible one.

The subsidised Zero Hunger project (Hambre cero), was set up to detect and assist malnourished and underweight children. It distributes baskets of basic foods to the poor, and Governor Closs says it has helped 130,000 children. It has not however been able to solve the problem with estimates suggesting there are still 6000 cases of malnutrition.

Quite alarming really considering Argentina has a GDP per capita more or less equal to that of the EU’s Latvia.

San Ignacio Ruins
Misiones' history is one of toing and throwing between nations. European settlers originally arrived there and joined the indigenous Guarani population in the 17th century when Jesuit missionaries began constructing villages throughout the area. The remains of which, like the impressive San Ignacio Ruins, contribute to the tourist income the region enjoys.

But with the Guarini in Paraguay laying claim to the land, Misiones didn’t officially became a province of Argentina until 1876 when Paraguay, who had invaded nine years earlier, was defeated by the allied forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in what is known as the War of the Triple Alliance.

Historians still debate the real causes of the dispute, which saw tiny Paraguay declare war on mighty Brazil, but the result was devastating for the former, wiping out between 60-90% of its entire population. Misiones however, now a real part of Argentina, began to prosper as more European immigrants, principally Ukrainian and Polish farmers, flocked to the area to take up the occupation of harvesting yerba mate, the plant from which Argentina’s national hot drink comes.  

The Iguazú Falls are 2.5km long
The yerba mate plant is still the province’s most important agricultural source, as the area’s rainy and sub tropical climate makes crop farming difficult.

But despite the abundance of the yerba, the Jesuit ruins and Iguazú (the UNESCO World Heritage site and arguably the world’s most spectacular waterfalls), Misiones is still struggling economically.

In the 1990s, 33 out of every 1000 children died from malnutrition, and though Governor Closs points to the success of the Zero Hunger project in reducing that figure to its current 12.9 per thousand, Misiones’ economic output is still 40% below the national average, and with 329 child deaths in 2009 and the 206 so far this year, things need to improve for the province’s young and poor families.                         

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Last Wednesday

The eeriest of eerie days pretty well sums up Wednesday the twenty-seventh of October 2010 in Argentina. 

The city streets of Buenos Aires were deathly empty, as they were in the whole country as absolutely everything except essential services was closed while questioners hit the doorsteps of each and every house and flat, and whatever other place counts as a dwelling, for the once a decade national census.

It was weird. The entire nation from the Bolivian border to Tierra del Fuego, and in fact Antarctica which 230 Argentines presently call home, was forced to remain at home all day until each was asked questions considered to be of national interest.

How many people live in your household? Can they read and write? Do you have a computer? Can everyone in your household see? Can they hear? Do you have a fridge? Do you flush your toilet after every visit? (Okay, the last one may be made up).

The census was carried out by Indec, the country’s national statistic office. The very same institution constantly accused of bowing to the Kirchner government and publishing ever so slightly unrealistic inflation figures. (In 2009 they said inflation was 7.7%, while the private sector suggested prices went up by around 30%.).

The objective of the census was to learn about the main characteristics of Argentine households, and the social and economic demographics of its citizens.

And just as it was getting underway........

Nestor Kirchner dies

The morning news flashed across television screens announcing the sudden death of a former president.

And it wasn’t just any ex-president who had gone and died, it was only the one who still had all the power behind the scenes of his wife’s incumbent government, former President Nestor Kirchner; dead of a heart attack aged just sixty years old.

Stuck at home waiting for the national census meant the country was left glued to their television sets, stunned by the shocking news.

The head of the Kirchner dynasty had been ill on and off since he left office to make way for his wife in 2007, even undergoing emergency surgery in September this year for a blocked coronary artery; a procedure which left him away from work and the thrones of power for a whole two days. But neither the country nor his family was aware his death was imminent.

Kirchner, who hailed from Rio Gallegos in Patagonia, was governor of the oil and gas rich Santa Cruz province before becoming Head of State in 2003.

‘From here they will take me out dead,’ he said to a friend in La Casa Rosada (The Government House) after assuming the presidency.

He came to power after a turbulent time in Argentine economic and political history. President de la Rúa was helicoptered out of office after the complete and chaotic collapse of the economy at the end of 2001, and then the country saw in the New Year in style with three presidents in one week. Two lasting three days each while President Adolfo Rodriguez Saá threw in the towel after a solid run of eight entire days in the job.   

'Nestor lives on in us. Be Strong Cristina' - Posters covering the streets

When he took over seventeen months later, Kirchner, who would always have the support of the workers, the unions and the big industries around Buenos Aires, brought a little stability back to the famously unstable nation. The tough economic policies he imposed are widely heralded as saving the country’s economy after its total meltdown in the 2001 crisis when it defaulted on a world record $95bn of debt, and his role one that has been compared to that of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Great Depression of the United States.

President Lula of Brazil, who arrived in Buenos Aires with other Latin American leaders to join the thousands who came singing in the streets at Nestor’s funeral, said ‘He was able to pull Argentina out of the pit it was in.’

He was renowned for his obsession to control the media and was rumoured to receive half hourly updates of every comment any reporter or journalist made, dishing out prizes and punishments as he saw fit.

And he frequently employed the old divide to reign trick, using all the resources of the state to create internal battles to weaken and divide his adversary whenever a sector resisted or rebelled against his policies.  

Perhaps the constant accusation of authoritarianism which followed him around like a banker follows a quick buck, was not entirely unjust. But some say that when he ruled like a one-man show, you had to see him as the child of his country. His powerful political rhetoric and dramatic speeches rallied plenty of popular support, and certainly scared off the IMF which backed down when Kirchner refused to give into its post crisis demands.

Nestor passing the presidential throne to his wife
When he stepped aside for his wife in 2007, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, it was clear the couple was planning to bend the rules of the presidential term limits. Cristina would not run in the 2011 elections in which her hubby was expected to take back over and Nestor would have handed the presidential 
baton back to Señora Kirchner in 2015.  

That eerie and eventful Wednesday last has changed all that, and the now freshly counted country waits to see what will happen next.