The alternative slant that was El Bolson is now in the past, we find ourselves a short skip north on the highway to Bariloche, a place we had visited nine years ago. From everything that represents a simple life and extraction from commercialism we step off the bus into flashy chocolate heaven and a marketers dream. It’s not an exaggeration that Bariloche routinely boasts chocolate shops as big as a small supermarket at home, it’s staggering. This amusement park style concentration is a phenomenon that seems too big to be viable. How much chocolate can people eat? The sad answer to that is found in the general approach to food and diet in Argentina. We joke about a resurgence of the hunter gatherer instinct in the hunt for coffee but that joke takes a notably serious tinge when thinking of finding healthy food in Argentina.
There is of course what Argentina does well, the meat is a standout when done well, strangely much Argentinian meat is overcooked and sadly disappointing but when it’s done well, wow it’s fantastic. The wine is a strong point also, not often critically noteworthy but for young easy to drink and enjoy wine it is sensational, barbecue wine at its best. These are the highlights and as such are just that, highlights and therefore often sadly lacking in the every-day diet. We did attempt the solo wine and meat diet but to disastrous effect in Sayta, these hunter gatherers were forced to reach farther afield, and here ladies and gentlemen is where the Argentinian house of cards came tumbling down.
Initially it couldn’t be avoided noticing that Argentinians are in serious need of a dietician to come and beat them about the heads, imagine a whole nation with the taste palate of a spoilt nine year old. A fairly standard Argentinian day might look like this: On an empty stomach we postpone breakfast till 10am or a little later upon which time we eat a small amount of sugar in the form of a cake, sweet break with caramel or some desecration alike. Lunchtime is a big meal of usually meat, not so bad but often quite fatty and it is a near certainty that you will devour a whole bottle of soft drink with lunch. On this heavy sugar filled meal you have a nap, not ideal. Afternoon tea you find the emptiest carbohydrate you can find and add some sugar to keep you going, yet to see a vegetable. Then dinner is a starchy heavy meal which must have cheese and lots of it, it simply has to; not to mention that it’s often after 10pm or as late as midnight. Oh and if you were hungry from nutrition depravation in the day just have a sugary biscuit or a soft drink to keep you going, simple.
This is not a joke. Our first night in Bariloche sees us catching a cheeky beer and at the table beside us is a family with three young kids. The communal plate of chips smothered in cheese accompanied by a miniature muffin tray type apparatus with puddles of melting cheese is particularly horrifying. Either it was dinner which was frightening or it was a pre-dinner snack and I think that might be even more scary. Sadly this sort of culinary debauchery is not a one off.
So the issue becomes, how does one avoid this? Diversity doesn’t seem to be a strong point either, it seems that Argentina prints one menu and all cafes and restaurants at a reasonable price point have this menu. It reads like this. Entrees: Empanadas or Salad (which means lettuce and tomato only as a token gesture). Menu items are a sandwich of sorts which could be a hamburger or some variant along with pizza with more cheese than pizza, meat or a pasta nearly always with cream. Dessert is a sugar obsession I dare not mention, my gag reflex isn’t that good. Occasionally there might be a variation from the norm but that’s invariably not being served today (no tengo).
So there ladies and gentlemen is where the phenomenon of a chocolate city comes from, a complete abandonment of the connection between food and nutrition. We ventured into a cave with enough marketing material to sink the Titanic and there we find mums and dads wandering around with shopping baskets selecting chocolate items just like a routine shop, it’s phenomenal. Now to be fair the shops here are pretty amazing, they’re huge, they have every kind of chocolate you can imagine, very impressive; the seventh one of these in a few blocks though just comes across as a bit weird.
So in this travellers oasis of boom and bust experience Argentina again delivers the highest of highs with the most dumbfounding of lows. We’ve taken to bizarrely seeking out vegetarian restaurants, the only options that seem to deliver appreciable food along with cooking ourselves if we can. A good Parrilla (barbecue) is second to none and the wine can easily become a daily occurrence sending any food ravenous hunter into dizzying heights of awesomeness. On the other hand we have the food equivalent of a small child’s birthday party gone national, the ones that are a once a year binge set to send everyone home with a doggy bag and a sore stomach.
It’s strange and bizarre, we set out to see different cultures and ways of life with open eyes ready to appreciate. At the risk of sounding silly we’re realising that this constant struggle for food is in simple terms tiring and in more complex terms not such a silly reference to the hunter gatherer instinct after all. After a month and a half in Argentina we’re just about ready to take off the rose coloured glasses on this one, Argentina you’re awesome but can we please have something adult to eat now? In Australia we take food for granted, it’s easy to eat healthy, tasty good produce with next to no effort. Saying that our world is all about food is a flippant and easy comment; only when this normality becomes genuinely hard to find do we appreciate the power of this most basic of assumptions.