Where’s the F in fish?

It would be fair to say that many people, Argentines and those of us living in this resource-rich country, are well accustomed to particular produce failing to appear on supermarket shelves. Tomato juice for her essential Sunday Bloody Mary is one item my friend Sharyn searches high and low for, while I regularly rue the fact that there simply isn’t a large enough selection of mushrooms available at markets, fruit ‘n veg shops or even supermarkets for plopping into pasta or risotto dishes. And when I do find standard button mushrooms, they cost a fortune and are often sticky because they are past their sell-by date.

So what must a new kid in town think, when they can’t find that essential herb or spice for a curry, or a certain brand because it might have been subjected to this week’s impetuous import ban by Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno? Furthermore, what if you’re a chef, flown into Argentina to cook for a private client for several days, and can’t whip up your regular signature gourmet dishes simply because you can’t get hold of the ingredients?

That is exactly what has happened to English chef Ian Wood (see photo) this past week. Fresh into Buenos Aires last Monday from the south of France where he has been catering on a yacht, Wood, who cut his teeth at the Bath Priory Hotel, Berkshire’s Cleveland House Hotel and latterly at The Ledbury in London’s Notting Hill (ranked number 34 on S. Pellegrino’s top-50-restaurants-in-the-world list) has had to face up to a new problem: getting hold of the goods he needs for work.

“Although I really didn’t know what to expect, what I could find here, or what I was going to cook, I’ve been so surprised that I can’t find any fresh fish,” he says. “With a coast this long, you can’t get fish in the capital city? That’s quite surprising. And that’s a problem because that means 30 percent of my repertoire has gone.” Visiting South America for the first time, it isn‘t so far out for the chef to think that residents of a country with such a vast coastline which measures precisely 4,989km would be deshelling prawns or or picking fish bones from their teeth every day.

What was he hoping for? “I was expecting a lot of wonderful things I’ve heard of, which may be from further north in South America. But I thought there would be an abundance of shellfish, all fresh and great. And I was also hoping for snapper. The only fish I have found in Buenos Aires is white salmon, but I have no idea what that is! However, I think my biggest gripe is that it seems all the shellfish has been already cooked, then chilled down and frozen, and then it is defrosted when it is sold again.”

Talking about shopping at various supermarkets in Palermo the past few days, Wood says: “I don’t want to talk ill of a country that’s hosting me, but it’s also been unusual that you can’t get anything from outside of Argentina. I’ve researched the different immigrant populations which have come and made Buenos Aires and Argentina, the Spanish, the Italians, and I expected a bit more local input.

“Take England. It’s a complete melting pot as we take anything that’s good and make it our own.”
Other products Wood has noticed very quickly that are lacking are fruit and vegetables. “I was also surprised I couldn’t get passion fruit today. And there are certain spices too. But I did bring in my own vanilla, porcini mushrooms and truffles…”

Classically trained in French techniques, the chef has been thrilled with the rib-eye cuts, and says Argentine beef does make it to the UK, although it is pricey. If he were in London, would he buy British or Argentine beef? Taking the protectionist stance the Argentine government has been showing for much of this year, he say: “British. The idea of trying to support your own nation and its food interests is interesting.”

Given that he is catering to the tastes of his hosts, Wood says he is more limited than he has been in the south of France. But what signature dish would he have liked to wow them with? Without pausing for breath, he replies: “Ceviche. I really wanted to that seeing as we are in South America. But I haven’t found anything fresh enough that I trust to do it.”

Despite not finding a fishmonger, have there been any positive surprises? “I found an amazing place that makes fresh pasta yesterday. It was tiny little shopfront and incidentally, when I asked, he didn’t have anything. But he did say ‘come back in half-an-hour, we’ll have some.’ You don’t get any fresher than that! I bought some egg parpadelle, and it was so nice, I haven’t seen anything like that in Europe. The pasta was incredible and I used my smuggled porcini mushrooms and truffles to go with it. ”

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on November 27, 2011
Photo courtesy of María Alegre.

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