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9 Things I Learned at Córdoba’s ‘La Cumbre Gastronómica’ Festival

Is Buenos Aires the center of the food scene? This festival has other ideas.

By | [email protected] | May 29, 2019 3:41pm

On FirePhoto courtesy of On Fire
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It took nearly two hours driving from Córdoba’s capital city and through its winding hills to reach La Cumbre, the charming pueblito that hosted the first annual La Cumbre Gastronómica food festival. Gastronómicos from across Argentina gathered in this remote town last week for a series of seminars, discussions, and food-filled events.

The festival was organized by Santiago Blondel, chef and owner of Gapasai restaurant in La Cumbre, with the hope to bring together leaders in the industry from Jujuy to Tierra del Fuego, for four days of sharing, learning, and connecting with nature. “This event was my dream,” Blondel told an audience of cooks, students, and food enthusiasts. “We wanted to gather the culinary community and create strong ties, because we won’t be able to accomplish anything on our own. We must work together.”

These are nine important takeaways from the first edition of La Cumbre Gastronómica.

1. La Cumbre is Cordóba’s very own bubble

La Cumbre in Cordoba (Photo courtesy of Trippin Argentina)

Before this event, I had never heard of La Cumbre, but I quickly learned why so many people from around the globe call this magical town home. Some fun facts: La Cumbre has a population of about 7,000 people, which increases during the summer high season. Back in the early 1900s, the British railway locomotive engineers settled in what was the highest point of the railway, and renamed the town La Cumbre, which translates to “The Summit.”

During the years that followed, British families built their vacation English-style cottages in La Cumbre, many of which remain. Today, La Cumbre is a tight-knit, relatively liberal town, made up of artists, free thinkers, hippies, hippies with OSDE, and those in search of a quieter life surrounded by nature. It’s the type of place where you hear the common tale of the porteño who gave up the bustle of the big city for peace and safety in the sierras of Córdoba, and the La Cumbre native who, after traveling the world and living abroad, decided to move back to this special town. There is also a substantial expat community, bilingual schools, and many Anglo-Argentine inhabitants who maintain their strong British identity and culture.

Another interesting nugget told to me by the driver of the tourism minibus: According to some locals and conspiracy theorists (including the History Channel’s series Hunting Hitler), after Adolf Hitler faked his own suicide, he fled to Argentina, and lived in Hotel Eden, a German-owned Nazi-sympathizing hotel in La Falda, a few miles away from La Cumbre.

2. Buenos Aires isn’t the center of Argentina’s food scene. We need to look to the provincias, the heart and home of the country’s prized ingredients and natural resources.

Azafrán Criollo (Photo courtesy of La Cumbre Gastrónomica)

Producto nacional argentino and discovering Argentina’s food identity was a common theme during the talks and seminars by industry leaders from Misiones, Jujuy, Tierra del Fuego, Mendoza, Patagonia, and Buenos Aires. Gabriela Lafuente and Fernando Rivarola of El Baqueano talked about their endless quest for finding small farmers and ingredients, as did Martín Molteni who started cooking farm-to-table Argentine food before the term really came into existence.

Walter Leal, from Jujuy, filled a table with Andean ingredients like multicolored corn and potatoes, quinoa, herbs, and spices. “You eat a red potato and it has this strong sense of identity,” he said. “But many Jujeños have still not managed to find value in our agricultural diversity.” Many lamented and addressed similar hardships: the lack of consumer appreciation of local ingredients, bureaucratic regulations, and transport logistics that make it complicated for many of these products to reach the market. Jorge Monopoli, chef and owner of La Kalma in Ushuaia, used erizos (uni, or sea urchins) as an example. “Depending on the time of year, erizos cost about AR $300-$800 per dozen*, but it’s not available at fishmongers,” he explained. “Locals don’t consume it. Instead, you have to go directly to the artisanal fishermen.”

**FYI side note: if you aren’t a math whizz or uni love, this is ridiculously cheap for sea urchin, which is one of the world’s greatest delicacies.**

Many of these chefs also praised the farmers and artisan productores, making it clear that their hard work makes it possible for consumption, and that they should be fairly compensated. These dialogues hopefully will open the door for future conversations on how to increase awareness of local ingredients, value the work of the farmers, and ways to create a sustainable network that gains easier access to products.

3. What is the future of Argentine cuisine?

Future of Argentine Cuisine (La Cumbre Gastrónomica)

“This is the first time in Argentina’s culinary history that we are actually talking about what we have, who’s producing it, and how to cook it,” Pablo Del Rio said, who opened Siete Cocinas nearly ten years ago in Mendoza, but has been cooking with locally-sourced ingredients for decades, long before it became a trend. Unlike many young chefs who traveled the world and returned to open restaurants, Del Rio first explored Argentina, and was inspired by the seven regions of the country. “Argentines are only now, in the last five years, starting to value what we have.”

Nowadays, for a younger generation of chef, it’s a given that they will use local ingredients. Chila’s head chef, Pedro Bargero, focuses on Argentine flavors, memories, and produce in every dish he makes. In his talk, he went behind the scenes on how exactly they design their ingredient-driven tasting menu to honor that concept. The team at Alo’s, Yamila Di Renzo, Guido Casalinuovo, and Alejandro Feraud, spoke about creativity in the kitchen. Di Renzo talked about the versatility of ingredients, and how the same cured egg can be prepared in both savory dishes and desserts, while Casalinuovo touched upon conditions of creativity, and that failure is a large part of growth in the kitchen. Santiago Macías of I Latina shifted the focus away from ingredients to the importance of minimizing waste, and practicing sustainable methods like composting. He, one day, has the hope of becoming a zero waste restaurant, and wants to raise awareness for others to do the same.  

4. Go into the forest to forage for your food. 

Foraging (La Cumbre Gastrónomica)

Foraging for ingredients comes as second nature to Santiago Blondel, who, along with his sister Inés, highlight these gems from the forest on their menu at Gapasai. “There are 70 or more plants in the forest,” he said, explaining that they act as forest coverage, medicinal remedies, and delicious foods. “We have started to look at the forest in another way, in order to connect with the environment.”

Blondel and his team don’t harvest everything; they forage in a conscious and sustainable way, only picking about 20 percent of what they actually need. Some of the ingredients include: viravira, carqueja, espino amarillo, romerillo, espinillo, and suico, which is similar to huacatay (Peruvian black mint).   

Blondel also practices sustainable forestry and fights against deforestation. “Buying firewood is bullshit,” he said as he dramatically held a piece of wood up in the air. “Pruned trees and branches are firewood.”

5. It ain’t a food festival in Argentina without Mauricio Couly, the King of Queso.

Mauricio Couly (Photo courtesy of La Cumbre Gastrónomica)

Ever wonder where some of your favorite Buenos Aires restaurants get their cheese? It’s from the King of Queso, Mauricio “Tony” Couly, who makes all sorts of cheesy goodness on his farm in Neuquén. “We are trying to find an Argentine identity in the cheese we make,” Couly said. A chef first, and cheesemaker second, Couly creates cheeses that are versatile in his kitchen at La Toscana. “I couldn’t find the cheeses I was looking to cook with, so I started making them myself.” One of his most famous inventions is the Patagonzola, an Italian-inspired gorgonzola blue cheese, but made in Patagonia. At La Cumbre festival, Couly demonstrated how to make halloumi, live on stage.

6. La Cumbre may be small, but it is filled with talented chefs, artists, great restaurants, art galleries, and hotels. 

Photo courtesy of On Fire

Gapasai: There aren’t many restaurants like this in Córdoba, let alone all of Argentina, or even South America. The Blondel family restaurant overlooks an incredible valley, and has a 0KM philosophy – all of the dishes use locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.

La Casona del Toboso: First they brought out two rounds of fried empanadas, then salads, grilled vegetables, potatoes, and a whole lot of chivo. I’m talking platters on platters of roasted goat. This classic La Cumbre restaurant not only has been around for decades, but it’s where Roux’s chef and owner Martin Rebaudino first got his start (it’s his family’s restaurant).

On Fire Catering & Grills: Argentines certainly love their open flames, fire pits, and meat sizzling over grills. So it’s always a pleasure to meet a high quality handmade parrilla. On Fire, a project by Paulo La Malfa, not only caters events using these innovative grill models, but they also design and hand build all sorts of open fire devices, like the flat top plancha with detachable grill grate and the Mallmann-esque dome hang. I had the chance to eat off of this remarkable contraption, and the results? Total fuego. Like, for real, on fire, I almost burned myself grabbing a piece of chori off of the griddle.

Photo courtesy of On Fire

All of the other delicious bites of the weekend: It was truly a team effort, with cooks from Córdoba, like Miguel Escalante from Republic Restaurant, helping to put together all star meals. Fede Massa brought his award-winning chorizos topped with a perfect chimichurri and salsa criolla, and Nahuel Pomponio mixed up some of the best white polenta with ragout I’ve ever tasted. Every bite had a special detailed component, like the crispy sweetbreads topped with marmalade, or pork shoulder sandwiches with excellent condiments and toppings. And it would be rude not to mention the insanely addictive ice cream from Si Quiero La Cumbre.

There’s also an impressive number of beautiful posadas, boutique hotels, and mansion B&Bs. So, if you are planning your next trip to La Cumbre, you won’t have to worry about a great place to stay: Redil del Paraíso, Gapasai, La Fonda de Cruz Chica, Villa Art, La Viña, Posada de la Montaña.

And a special shout out to all of the La Cumbre artists. Check out notable works by Duncan Grant, Matias Mischung, Mariela Garcia Yarza, and Santiago Darti, who also runs a closed door bar in the back of his workshop, Parada Mantiales.

7. Never skip a small town artisan fair. It can be filled with one-of-a-kind treasures.

Feria de Productores (La Cumbre Gastrónomica)

I love me a good fería de productores, especially in a region known for both agriculture and artistic talent. Some of the highlights: Córdoba’s infamous miel del monte honey; cartamo flower (safflower), also known as azafrán criollo, a saffron substitute; seed crackers, rhubarb, and fruit jams from Alegre Origen; pottery and ceramics by Arbol en el Viento, Carlota, and Emma Gargiulo; and mortar and pestles made from local marble. And probably the most unexpected encounter of the day, Mark Witucke, a local artisan who, just like me, happens to hail from the mean streets of suburban Chicago. Mark has a closed door restaurant, makes chocolates, and also produces his own sriracha-style hot sauce called Shai… as in Chi, that’s Chitown, short for Chicago, yeah, you got it.

8. Cordobeses are good drinkers.

Nebula Vineyard (Photo by Nicolas Resille)

I’ve lived in Argentina for over a decade and just now learned about the 90210 Fernet guideline: 90 percent Fernet, 2 ice cubes, 10 percent Coke. Mind = blown. Sure, I knew it was a written rule that one must guzzle Fernet when in Córdoba, the birthplace of the beloved Fernandito, but I didn’t realize that Córdoba has young vineyards, too. Viñedo Nébula started to plant wines up in the Valle de Punilla in 2015, and now have about nine hectares planted of Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewürstraminner. Leonardo Erazo, the Chilean winemaker of Altos Las Hormigas and Revolver in Mendoza, was also at the festival, and shared some of his favorite bottles. Plus, Rutini was a partner of the event, so there certainly wasn’t a lack of wines.

A few other things I learned: many La Cumbre locals, especially those of British descent, are fans of drinking gin and tonics and afternoon tea.

9. Where are all the women?!

Despite the wonderful initiative to orchestrate this caliber of festival in the outskirts of Cordoba, it’s hard not to mention the elephant in the room: why weren’t there more women involved as headliners? One look at the promotional flyer of all the chefs’ faces, and it’s like the theme song to Two and a Half Men on repeat. Sure, cocktail queen Inés de los Santos was in attendance, and Narda Lepes was due to participate but had to cancel last minute, but this is a common theme at many food festivals across the country (and much of Latin America), and something that needs to change. With so many talented females in the industry, we need to do better. It’s time to be more conscious of the importance of diverse representation: different genders, sexual orientations, ages, cultural and economic backgrounds, and nationalities will only enrich the future of Argentine gastronomy.

Allie Lazar is a freelance food writer and the founder of the food blog Pick Up the Fork