Arrive uninitiated to an asado at Estancia Belcampo and you would be forgiven for thinking that a pagan cult had chosen Uruguay’s sleepy bucolic dreamscape as the staging ground for a sacrifice. It is not so much the grotto of ancient oaks filled with blue smoke, the medieval looking candle lit chandeliers, or even the altar-like table that point to something primal (although the eerily beautiful setting is suggestive enough). Instead it is the somewhat unsettling site of whole animal carcasses dangling from branches and hunks of meat nailed into a cruce (literally crucifix) hovering above glowing embers that could more immediately unsettle nerves. Though it may appear very odd indeed, this kind of elemental celebration of flesh and fire is not out of the ordinary in the land of gauchos, a place where storied grazing pastures roll into dunes that in turn roll into the Atlantic. While an asado (barbecue in Spanish) feels more rustic than refined, don’t be deceived, in its purest form it is a nuanced story of slaughter, salvage and the sovereign mastery of the most mercurial element of all, fire.
Considering Uruguay, and for the matter Argentina’s history, it is hardly surprising that what has become to be known as ‘an asado’ is a cornerstone of that region’s culture. Both ‘new world’ countries that remain powerful livestock producers and exporters, their economies have been built on the trade which then follows that meat is central to life. The accrual of knowledge around how to tame flame, embers and ash comes directly from the stewards of these livestock, the gaucho, South America’s enigmatic cowboys. Endlessly herding animals across the immense plains known as ‘pampas’ necessitated sustenance via the slaughter of a steer that then needed to be cooked on an open fire, from here the system of using every part of the animal and harnessing each stage of the life cycle of fire developed. This complex understanding of heat and meat has gradually become innate. The Australian male must relent to the superiority of their South American brothers when it comes to barbecuing prowess. In Uruguay and Argentina, the finer points of meat cuts, temperature of embers and the choice of burning wood are as hotly contested as football and make up something of a national pastime.
Truth be told, while asados are common across the whole region, it is a stretch to proclaim that the kind of spectacularly hedonistic event that Belcampo hosts is something remotely everyday. This is a glamour asado. A showcase of tradition, technique and outrageously good quality meat aimed squarely providing something distinctly regional and authentic to the international jet set who make the nearby seaside hamlet of Jose Ignacio a chic, bohemian playground during Summer. Ironically, this most typical of South American experiences is being championed by an outsider. She may not look like a grizzled gaucho but Anya Fernald, an American sustainable food activist turned CEO of Belcampo is the equal in terms of determination and guts to the toughest of her herdsmen. With financial backing she aims to make Belcampo and its projects in North and South America models for sustainable, place-based agriculture. What does that mean? Farms of integrity, strong local food economies and a healthy bottom line that benefits all. Estancia Belcampo’s asado is the first public facing activity for Fernald after several years of directing the farm activities to support sustainable practices, particularly unusual in the export driven Uruguayan livestock industry.
The work begins long before the guests arrive, led on horseback through the pastures of the farm that has raised the meat that now hangs from the trees in preparation for cooking. Fires are lit 8-hours before and as the oak becomes embers different cuts see the heat. A whole fatty lamb is drawn, butterflied, fastened with wires and allowed to slow roast al asador. Beef ribs are placed close enough to the fire to experience an excruciatingly gradual cooking process that has the meat seem as if it will literally melt from the bones. Sweet breads are slow-cooked then crisped on the parilla and seasoned with lemon juice and salt. Morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, assorted innards and tallow crackers called galletas de campo (cakes of the field) share the chapa ready to be served as the kick-off to the meat marathon.
As the meat cooks the lure of the smells becomes impossible to resist and guest after guest is drawn down a steep path to a natural cathedral of 400 year-old oaks framing the dramatic proceedings. It seems proof that our senses are hardwired to respond to the sight, smell, sound and of course taste of food cooked over a wood fire. The depth of flavor that smoke imparts to the flavor of food, the range of textures that unmoderated heat gifts and the seductive lure of deep caramelization cannot be replicated synthetically. This is food that indeed, reaches somewhere primal in us all. So fond of barbecuing as we are, there is much to learn and much that is applicable from the unique experience of gaucho grilling.
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup chopped fresh oregano
1/3 cup chopped fresh thyme
4 fresh bay leaves
6 chopped cloves garlic
1 tablesoppon course ground pepper
2 tablespoons hot ground Aji*
2 cups Olive Oil
1/2 cup Jerez Sherry or Red Wine Vinegar
Salt to taste
Chop all cleaned fresh herbs, add finely chopped garlic, aji, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Mix and add the vinegar and olive oil. Prepare an hour before serving. Re-make for each asado you have!
*Aji, as you probably know, is a typical pepper of South America.
© Vogue Living, March 2012, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora