Madryn on a plate

PUERTO MADRYN – While a destination used to reel in travellers with its tranquil beaches, snow-capped mountains or lush green valleys, these days we demand more.

Putting the fundraiser into fundraiser lunch.
Putting the fundraiser into fundraiser lunch.

Food and travel are more intrinsically linked than ever, and what you eat is as important as where you stay and the sights you see.

In Chubut, Puerto Madryn is ticking boxes. While the city’s main activity means plucking prawns, hake and squid from the sea, the clean, deep waters also allow you to get close to nature with whale-watching, snorkelling with sea lions and bird-spotting activities – Valdés Peninsula is home to around 200 species.

With these natural advantages on side, Madryn-based chef Gustavo Rapretti, who runs En los fuegos de mi casa, set up a food festival to highlight the sights while putting local produce on the map. Although Madryn al Plato just concluded its eighth edition, visitors can still enjoy the fruits from around 40 restaurants offering menus inspired by regional ingredients until July 31 for 145 pesos. This is my guide to eating and travelling around Puerto Madryn.

While a source tells me madrynlenses aren’t apparently big on cooking seafood at home, they do love going out for dinner to scoff shellfish. One classic on main drag Roca is Cantina El Naútico, a family-run eatery in the game for five decades. While there’s a tendency to overload scallops with parmesan-style cheese in local eateries, El Naútico gets its seafood salad bang on, with prawns, scallops and mussels luxuriating in simple lemon juice. Owner Ariel Bordenave was moved to tears when Madryn al Plato recognized his efforts for 50 years in the business.
Av. Julio Argentino Roca 787

No trip to Puerto Madryn is complete without a little southern right whale spying action (not exactly hard, given that they weigh up to 60 tons). We were in massive luck after a young male befriended our Avistajes Bottazzi boat, circling around and under the vessel, eyeballing us with measures of curiosity equal to his human spies. The season kicks off in June and winds up in December.
Puerto Pirámides

Mauricio teaches us about REAL cheddar cheese.
Mauricio teaches us about REAL cheddar cheese.

One popular aspect to Madryn al Plato that infuses madrynlenses and IGI culinary institute students with gastronomic inspiration are masterclasses led by celebrity chefs. Food is still the new rock ‘n roll – even in Chubut. Aiming to paint a new picture with local ingredients such as shellfish, seaweed and lamb, brothers Robert and Christian Petersen – AKA Los Petersen Vikingos as seen on El Gourmet – sported a jolly attitude to respectively whip up barley, prawn and clam risotto and a north-meets-south creation featuring sweetcorn humita and prawns. TV presenter Silvia Valdemoros, meanwhile, made pasta ribbons from scratch then teamed it up with a lamb ragout; both she and the Petersens were in demand for selfies with the public.

Robert told me: “It’s a great initiative led by the people of Madryn to encourage local gastronomy. Classes help local residents to see their products in a new light and while it could have been promoted more, it’s always good to lend a hand.”

One highlight was meeting Mauricio Couly from Neuquén’s La Toscana. Turns out the guy has a cheese fetish as large as my own, and makes his own cheddar that he ages for a year for extra sharp bite.

Other guest chefs included Gustavo Lena from Palermo Botánico’s Bella Italia who turned to rabbit for his demo; Joaquín Grimaldi from Recoleta’s Four Seasons and creator of Dolce Morte ice-cream, who baked a traditional Welsh cake under the watchful eye of Nelcis Jones from the Welsh Cultural Association; and Federico Domínguez Fontán from Bariloche’s Llao Llao hotel who made a venison and black garlic couscous.

Brandishing raffle tickets, two lucky observers got to tuck into from each chef’s offerings; high numbers were the winners of day one, much to the dismay of one disgruntled granny sitting behind me.
Club Social y Deportivo Madryn

Snorkelling Patagonian waters in the search for a little sea lion one-on-one loving should be an obligatory exercise. While the best part of an hour is spent squeezing into a wetsuit, the fun begins when you arrive at a busy sea lion colony following a 25-minute boat trip with Master Divers. By busy, I mean noisy and sociable: sea lions sound like a cross between a whiny old man and bleating sheep. These guys played less ball than the southern right, but I got to snap a playful pup who corkscrewed up and down in front of me, wondering why this human seal was so awkward in the water.
Master Divers

When 153 Welsh immigrants disembarked in Puerto Madryn exactly 150 years ago next Tuesday, they were expecting to find fertile valleys and choristers in Little Wales. It wasn’t quite so. After making friends with the Tehuelche indigenous folk, it was business as usual for the Welsh. Sheep farms abound in Chubut and visitors can check out Estancia San Guillermo, which is dedicated to breeding said sheep. Catch some shearing action before tucking into a tender rack of lamb cooked on the cross, a view of the Nuevo Gulf in the distance.
Estancia San Guillermo

This little lamb went to a benefit lunch.
This little lamb went to a benefit lunch.

Around 60 local producers set up shop at Madryn al Plato’s fair, selling goodies such as handmade cheese, jams, liqueurs, craft beer, olive oil and of course Welsh cakes. While it was only open for the duration of the festival, you can browse wares at Club Social y Deportivo Madryn craft market on Roca and Sarmiento opposite Hotel Pirén. Here, you can pick up dried wakame flakes, harvested by hand by Facundo Ursino. Last year he collected 2,000 kilos of wet wakame, which translates to a piffling 30 kilos of dried goods for Jono, his seaweed brand.

It’s easier to watch these guys interact from land, and pretty funny they are too. Grumpy old men trying to beat the crap out of bright young males, pups hanging out together or clambering on top of grumpy old men, and plenty of aqua frolicking. Check them out at Punta Loma. The Peninsula is known for its orca activity; these toothed whales practise beaching on land to grab an unsuspecting sea lion-shaped snack before wriggling back into the water.
Punta Loma

Bivalve molluscs.
Bivalve molluscs.

Besides giving masterclasses, guest chefs lent a hand with Madryn al Plato Solidario, a benefit lunch to raise funds for the local children’s ward. Teaming up with local chefs and we journalists, it was all hands on deck from 8am last Sunday, in full view of the Gulf next to Piedra Buena pier. While the Petersens took charge of 250 kilos of prawns, sautéeing them in batches with garlic and extra virgin olive oil (I was part of the packing production line along with El Gourmet editor Tomás Linch), Team Bella Italia oversaw a vast fish stew featuring white clams, razor clams and king crab. The true highlight for madrynleneses, however, were 15 lambs barbecued on the cross that were first to sell out. Attracting 1,000 diners, the benefit raised 50,000 pesos for the intensive care unit at Andrés Isola Hospital.

Buenos Aires Herald, July 19, 2015
Ph: Adolfo Antonini and me

Where did I got last week? To Cassis in San Carlos de Bariloche.

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