A small seed is sown

Chefs Matias Kyriazis and Soledad Nardelli work Casa Arévalo’s kitchen.
Although the intense rain over the past few months has little to do with it, the number of markets to take to the streets or mushroom in dilapidated yet functioning buildings around Buenos Aires has been notable.

From the organic-focused Buenos Aires Market — which one month pops up underneath the eucalyptus trees in the Palermo Woods then four weeks later takes over a few blocks in the heart of La Boca — to the BA Underground Market aimed at small producers raising their profile in an Almagro factory, these offerings come in addition to other more established markets. Take indoor organic markets Chacarita’s El Galpón, whose vegetable garden straddles the disused railway line, or Punto Verde and Mercado Bonpland, which sell clothes and reading materials as well as organic fruit and vegetables.

One thing is certain, however: even if Buenos Aires, Argentina in fact, is playing catch-up with the rest of the world in terms of celebrity chefs, innovative restaurants creating dishes through molecular gastronomy, food blogs, organic produce and the need to Instagram your lunchtime sandwich for the world to comment on, it’s better late than never. And whichever word you prefer, the F word and all it encompasses is super cool, or super hot: food is topping menus everywhere.

And chefs are leading the way in terms of educating Argentines to take a second look at their beef-heavy diet and try something new. ‘Acelga’ (chard) is an 18-month-old organization comprising various chefs from all backgrounds and of all ages who are keen to put home cooking back on the table, while the fledgling 13-strong gang, Gajo (which stands for young Argentine gastronomy), regularly holds dinners at one of their respective restaurants with two or three chefs pooling together to create one particular course. If one cook normally makes your mouth water, then imagine what a couple pooling their wisdom to prepare a dish will do to your tastebuds.

So the latest initiative is in the hands of chefs and restaurateurs, an event organized by the best in their field that has garnered not only some of the biggest, most well-known names from Argentina’s gastronomic scene but also the support of Buenos Aires City government.

Ten days ago, Matias Kyriazis, co-owner and chef of Paraje Arévalo, flung open the doors to his latest restaurant Casa Arévalo to launch — along with a complete Who’s Who from the local scene — a food fair with a twist.

The three-day Fería Masticar market aims to take food events to a whole new level. Not only will chefs — the Who’s Who includes Francis Mallmann, Dolli Yrigoyen, Narda Lepes, Maru Botana from the telly as well as pioneering chefs Hernán Gipponi, Christophe Krywonis, Dario Gualtieri and Soledad Nardelli among many others — be purchasing produce for aspiring cooks (that’s you and me) to take home, but there will be cooking classes led by some of the big names, talks and workshops on health and nutrition and tasting stands with dishes cooked up by some of the aforementioned culinary muscle.

The idea behind Masticar is simple — to get people to cook at home like they did in the good old days, and to step away from the standard lettuce-tomato-onion salad and be rather more adventurous. But behind it lies a deeper problem that the Acelga chefs and the City government wish to address: obesity.

According to doctors at a conference organized by the Argentine Society of Obesity and Eating Disorders in October, Argentina’s children are suffering from obesity, and 10 percent of preschoolers are overweight. Up from three percent in the 1980s, that statistic makes them the heaviest kids in Latin America. Of course, obesity brings about additional health risks and problems, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and so the timing of an event such as Masticar is better than good.

María Eugenia Vidal, deputy City Mayor, says the capital’s government has been actively raising awareness over health through a new initiative. Indeed, one only has to see how cycle lanes, bike-hire huts and health-check tents have mushroomed like all those food markets.

Talking to the Herald, she says: “Nine months ago, the government set up a new section, Health Development. We set this up because all the indicators show that we are unhealthy, due to obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking — it’s all negative. Around 40 percent of adults and children are overweight in this country, something which has long-term consequences and is related to heart disease and other illnesses. And so we started to take action to promote health programmes and a healthier lifestyle.”

Preparing for the launch of Masticar (2).
Thanks to the high profile of many of Acelga’s members, the group of chefs was an immediate choice for the City to approach in order to combine forces for a larger-scale project.

Vidal adds: “We got in touch with Acelga association and they told us about their plan to hold a market, which would vindicate Argentine cooking and the use of seasonal produce. The other key point is that people not only have a healthier life but also get back to cooking at home. And that is fundamental.

“Argentines have stopped cooking at home, getting the family to sit down at the table to eat together, and stopped eating in-season fruit and vegetables. And besides trying to improve people’s health, the aim is for everyone to live a little bit better. It’s a cultural change and like all such changes, it will take time. And although Masticar is being organized by a private entity, the City fully supports it.”

Peruvian Antonio Soriano, who was executive chef at the Algodón Mansion up until June this year and was introduced to Acelga via Paraje Arévalo’s Kyriazis, talks more in depth about how the idea for Masticar came about: “Acelga, which is a chefs’ and business owners’ organization, came about through the need to improve the links between producers, customers and those on the food preparation side. After several meetings, we realized we needed to give a twist to all those elements by taking action, and the most logical way to do that was to present it through food and produce. And given that we chefs and business owners are all based in Buenos Aires, living and working here, that is how Acelga — and Masticar — garnered the support of the City (government).”

“We used to invite friends round for dinner and cook for them, but now if people visit the first question anyone asks is ‘where shall we order from and can they deliver?’ That’s one habit that we are looking to change.”

That’s not to say that changing people’s eating habits and diet is going to be a short or easy process, far from it. And they, both Acelga and the City government, are well aware of that. “If we can plant a seed then that seed can grow,” adds Soriano.

Kyriazis alludes to Acelga’s efforts organizing Masticar as the first rung on a ladder: “We still have a long way to go. And even though the government has set up medical checkpoints around the city, for example, that is just the beginning: we still have plenty to do.

“Take produce. Everything that will be for sale at the market will be fresh and seasonal and this is a great chance to send that message home. Why do people complain about tomatoes costing 20 pesos a kilo in winter? Because they’re out of season!

“People have started to eat nuts and seeds, or buy wholegrain bread, but we also want them to realize the benefits of using an extra-virgin olive oil or knowing whether a piece of fruit is good to eat, or what a healthy balance is.”

And so what to expect from a fair that is looking to be so much more than “just another food market?” Kyriazis laughs, to say: “Well, I’ve been calling it a party rather than a fair! And we’re really going for it: so much will be happening, it will seem as if we are on the fifth edition.”

Although many visitors will be keen to catch a glimpse as well as a pearl of wisdom from a live cooking class courtesy of their favourite chef, fresh produce will also be available to purchase, as will dishes prepared by any number of the cooks involved, ensuring a nourishing and encouraging process that gets people back in touch with the daily task of cooking and eating.

Vidal adds: “What interests me about Masticar is that it isn’t just a place to buy. Regional producers will have direct contact with consumers and can tell them how much products costs. Plus it’s a chance to try some tasty food!”

Feria Masticar, November 16-18, 12pm to 11pm
El Dorrego, Zapiola 50,
Admission 30 pesos, children under 10 free.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on November 4, 2012

Photos courtesy of Mass Media

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