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Eating Argentina: Kalma, Ushuaia

A foray into the flavors of the Beagle Channel with chef Jorge Monopoli.

By | [email protected] | October 26, 2018 9:00am

Pulpo - Ph Vale Otero

“What products can you find in Tierra del Fuego? Centolla (king or spider crab), centollón (snow crab), cachiyuyo alga, merluza negra (Patagonian toothfish), mussels, sardines, cholgas, octopus… the Beagle Channel and beyond is so rich,” says Jorge Monopoli, chef-owner of Kalma in Ushuaia. “Then there are herbs and berries that come from the forest, such as chickweed, mountain parsley and oyster mushrooms…”

While Monopoli has a lot of fun playing around with fish, bivalves, echinoderms, and algae, as well as getting his hands cold and filthy foraging in this remote wilderness that is the actual end of the world, the reality on this island province is that fresh produce such as vegetables and salad leaves are hard to come by: he really has to dig deep into his culinary creativity. Fermented products, vinegars, and aged beef feature on his eight course tasting menu at Kalma, making the best possible use of what he can get a hold of, a menu that aims to capture Tierra del Fuego’s rugged spirit.

A Patagonia native from the province of Río Negro, Monopoli worked in Seville, Spain, acquiring vital kitchen experience before returning to Argentina. More than a decade ago, he moved to Ushuaia and this year Kalma notches up its tenth anniversary. And, Monopoli is more inspired than ever by the Beagle’s deep, murky waters and mysterious forests that surround the most southern city in the world.

He’s about to run out of cachiyuyo, a lengthy tentacle algae that can grow up to 15 meters long and lurks in these chilly waters. We drive to Puerto Almanza, 90 minutes east of Ushuaia, to find some. This tiny village, home to a handful of hardy families, sits directly in front of the Chilean town Puerto Williams: both are located on the shores of the Beagle Channel that were “discovered” by Europeans in 1826 when the good ship HMS Beagle sailed into town. (The Yaghan, indigenous people from the southern cone, had, of course, been exploiting these waters for more than 10,000 years.)

Puerto Almanza’s residents make a living catching what is Tierra del Fuego’s most renowned product, the orange-shelled centolla, as well as diving for bivalves, such as mussels, and sea urchin. A crustacean whose legs and shoulders are filled with succulent white meat, naturally centolla puts in an appearance on Kalma’s tasting menu.

Today, however, Monopoli is excited about gathering cachiyuyo. Clambering on board a small fishing boat with fishermen Sergio and Ezequiel, he stashes two empty plastic drums on board ready to be stuffed with ribbed alga and we motor out a few hundred meters into the legendary channel whose waters, this day, are particularly calm.

He says: “The chance to get on board a boat, collect algae, catch spider crab and octopus, watch divers bring in mussels, sea snails and urchins: the word ‘unique’ isn’t enough to describe it. Then, to be able to take these products back to Kalma and cook with them is incredible. They have so much flavor and quality, plus there’s the added value that they originate from an inhospitable and aggressive environment and its cold waters. It’s an incredible experience.”

Hauling meters of algae from these waters is hard work, two pairs of naked hands dragging it up into the vessel and into the drums. The wind and waves remain calm, meaning this foraging expedition is relatively straightforward. But the sea is icy and black, as dark as the clouds that linger above; it takes determination and an adventurous spirit to come here and collect this culinary prize on a regular basis.

Back at Kalma, Monopoli loves cachiyuyo’s versatility. “I use it as a crunchy snack, fried, a la plancha, in salads or as dough balls. You could even make a milanesa with it, albeit it would have ocean flavors. There are heaps of possibilities to play around with.” Besides foraging this complex island and bringing it to the table, the chef is a keen wine aficionado and offers up one of the city’s best cellars. With around 200 labels in a purpose-built cellar, he works expertly to pair Argentina’s finest vintages with Tierra del Fuego’s fare.

His execution and plating is top-notch, service is efficient, and the tasting menu ample enough to traverse the province’s flavors but not so intense you need to be wheeled out. Seafood naturally forms the bulk of Kalma’s eight-course menu, though carnivores will also leave with a smile on their face. The cacao, almond and dark chocolate crumble has little to do with Tierra del Fuego, the chef admits, but it’s been on the menu since day one; one bite and you’ll understand why.