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Gourmet Odyssey

If you lose anything, it will not be your appetite on these tours accompanied by a top chef

By Colin Barraclough
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - “Oh my, that’s delicious,’’ said Susy Davidson, a gourmande from Seattle, as she tucked into a plateful of king crab ravioli at Chila, a chic bistro in this city’s restored docklands.

Two years ago, Chila’s resident chef, Soledad Nardelli, picked up the Best Upcoming Chef prize from France’s Académie Internationale de la Gastronomie. On any ordinary day, her seafood and game-bird dishes - clam risotto, moulard duck magret, quail with mascarpone and lemon - attract a demanding clientele of local and visiting foodies.

On this night, expectations were running higher than usual. Davidson and fellow clients of food-oriented travel operator Argentina444 had come to Chila for a private dinner that would see Nardelli sharing kitchen space with Suzanne Tracht, an award-winning chef and the owner of the Los Angeles chophouse Jar.

Seated in a secluded space at the restaurant’s rear, where plate-glass windows overlook the docks, guests were treated to a succession of creative plates: wild Patagonian oysters, presented on towers of leek, celery, and black beans; a confit of suckling pig with passionfruit and mashed potatoes; sizzling ribeye steak with Szechuan peppercorns and teriyaki. As waiters served each dish, the two chefs emerged briefly to describe their cooking technique before dashing back to the kitchen to finesse the next.

The brainchild of Alberto Inza, an Argentine-born food lover now a US resident, Argentina444 signs up well-known foreign chefs who accompany paying guests on 10-day culinary tours of Argentina.

Starting in the capital’s steakhouses and Italian-influenced trattoria, the groups journey to the wine-producing province of Mendoza - a region known for its roasted kid and organically produced olive oils, herbs, and cheeses - and on to Patagonia, where monster-sized trout, crab, and hunted game rank among South America’s best. Some tours include an option to visit Salta, a photogenic Andean province known for its high-altitude vineyards and spicy cuisine.

Guests fly first class or by private charter, staying in the toniest hotels in each region, from Park Hyatt’s Palacio Duhau, a restored Belle Époque mansion in Buenos Aires, to Bariloche’s Estancia Peuma Hue, a luxury Patagonian ranch set on 500 acres of granite peaks and glacial valleys, including a mile-long stretch of lakefront.

In each region, the visiting chef prepares a collaborative dinner with a noted local cook, steering guests to farmers’ markets, butchers, and vineyards along the way. A concierge is also on hand to set up off-the-cuff excursions, ranging from tango nights in out-of-the-way dance halls to forays on horseback through Patagonian forests.

The trips are pricey, but the tour I joined in November combined Romanesque indulgence with intimate, behind-the-scenes access to some of Argentina’s leading kitchens.

Their collaborative efforts over, I asked Tracht and Nardelli how they resisted the temptation to try outshining the other. Is there enough elbow room in a single kitchen for two alpha cooks? “Of course there is,’’ said Nardelli, a gracious hostess. “For one night, anyway,’’ joked the warier Tracht.

The two had met just three days before, when they shopped for prime meat cuts at Buenos Aires’s Mercado del Progreso and fresh seafood in the city’s Chinatown district. “Soledad has access to some things I’d die for: the best sweetbreads I’ve ever seen and some phenomenally succulent piglets,’’ Tracht said. “I had no idea Buenos Aires even had a Chinatown.’’

From Buenos Aires, the group flew to Mendoza and settled into Finca Adalgisa, a winery guesthouse set on a 4-acre patch of malbec vines. All around, an emerald landscape of trellised vines led the eye past breeze-disturbed Lombardy poplars to the snow-etched peaks of the Andean cordillera on the horizon.

“My family has been making wine here for more than a century,’’ owner Gabriela Furlotti said, as we strolled among the cherry, apricot, and hazelnut trees that shade the vines. “We continue to work in the traditional way, with horse-drawn ploughs and with irrigation water coming by stream. The vineyard is a small but important slice of Mendoza’s history.’’

We cracked open one of Furlotti’s malbecs in the vineyard’s sun-checkered tasting room and were dipping into tasty tapas of cheeses, nuts, and locally grown olives when Tracht erupted in a cry of surprise. “I have to have those olives,’’ she yelled, honing in rapidly on one of Mendoza’s most-prized products. “They’ll work perfectly with the anchovy toast I’m preparing tomorrow.’’

Inza had worked hard to provide his clients with access to the people who matter in Argentina’s culinary world. In Mendoza, vineyard owners were on hand to chat about soil composition or the effect of temperature oscillation on alcohol levels; local chefs explained how they crafted their dishes. Even Jorge, the driver, was steeped in knowledge of the wine world, debating the finer points of global trends as he shuttled the group around the province.

It quickly became evident that we would do little in Mendoza but totter from one overladen table to another. Wine-tasting sessions after private vineyard visits each ended with an array of edible delicacies. At Bodega Vistalba, we filed through darkened tunnels and storage chambers, passing hauntingly lighted barrels, tanks, and vats, before washing down smoked wild boar and crisped sweet potatoes with the vineyard’s malbec-and-cabernet sauvignon Corte A blend, awarded 93 points by Wine Spectator in 2008.

At Almacén del Sur, the restaurant of a 25-acre farm known for its chutneys and conserves, sunlight filtered through trailing fronds of jasmine on an outside terrace as we tucked into a five-course lunch of chorizo-stuffed peppers, squid salad, and a delicate quiche served with blood sausage and green apples.

Indeed, the hardest part of the visit was gearing oneself up for banquet-style dinners after what seemed mere minutes since the banquet-style lunches. Thank goodness, I thought many times, for the siesta.

And at every stage I would find Inza and Tracht poring over menu plans for the collaborative dinners, adapting preplanned recipes to the availability of local products. A supplier’s phone call would lead to a flurry of additions and deletions; a pile of discarded menu drafts began to litter the floor. I soon grew accustomed to their urgent shouts: “What are the parsnips like here?’’ called Tracht. “Should we use sweet potatoes instead? Where can we get good goose fat?’’

“We adapt as we go along,’’ Inza said. “We picked up some wild boar today that was raised nearby, bought garlic from Almacén del Sur, and found some fantastic corn in a stall by the road. We use what’s fresh and what works best in the local context.’’

In the end, I spent just two days with the group in Mendoza. The others would head on, flying first to the Lake District hiking hub of Bariloche, where Inza had planned a typical Argentine “asado’’ barbecue of beef, lamb, and blood sausage. Then they would go on to El Calafate, where they would stay at Hostería Los Notros, the only estancia to overlook the 3-mile-wide Perito Moreno glacier.

On our last night together, Tracht teamed up with Matias Podesta, resident chef at vineyard Bodega Benegas, the last remnant of one of Argentina’s great wine dynasties. It is rarely open to the public, yet at Inza’s urging the winery’s owner, Federico Benegas Lynch, agreed to host a banquet at a table he normally reserves for his family.

We entered the winery’s vast hall, its adobe walls hung with antique ponchos and scattered with Lynch’s collection of hoes, presses, and other wine-making implements. Lynch was seated at a baronial dining table lighted by candles and laid impeccably for 14. Behind him, sparks and flames leaped from a rack of wood-fired grills, smoke from spitting steaks already swirling up toward the ceiling, some 40 feet above us.

“Back in the 19th century, before the phylloxera bug hit Europe, my great-grandfather Tiburcio Benegas was the first to bring vines here from Bordeaux,’’ Lynch told us, as waiters laid out plates of quail with fennel and spring onion. “He built his Trapiche winery into the largest in the province. Later, as governor of Mendoza, he constructed the dams and irrigation ditches that turned the province into the country’s biggest wine region.’’

Lynch’s anecdotes were fascinating, but I was distracted by the six delectable dishes that followed the quail: roasted beetroot, ribs of wild boar with pear chutney, smoked tenderloin with sage butter - on and on they came.

Across the table, behind his sated clients, I could see Inza breaking into a broad, satisfied grin. “You have the history of Argentine wine sitting at the table with you,’’ he said, as we sat back among the discarded plates with a last bottle of Lynch’s 2008 malbec. “You can’t get much better access than that.’’

Colin Barraclough can be reached on colinbarra@hotmail.com.

If You Go

Argentina444
310-717-4809
www.argentina444.com
A 10-day tour costs $11,500 per person, including five-star accommodations, first-class flights, activities, collaborative dinners, and other meals. Shorter stays are possible.
Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences
904-687-0340
www.lizcaskey.com
Uses local guides for its food-oriented tours of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Prices from $550 per person per day.