Food & Drink, Travel

An Argentine asado, a Brazilian banquet and a side order of meat-guilt…

Is it time to reconsider how we eat meat not just at home, but abroad as well?

Are environmentalists waging war on culinary traditions?

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I love meat. I’m a sucker for an all-you-can-eat BBQ, I’m part of a new ‘Burger Thursdays’ tradition and my great South America meat-binge tour is fresh in my memory. However, last week Leonardo Di Caprio told me that the carbon footprint of an individual hamburger leaves the same carbon footprint as leaving your air conditioning on for 24 hours. A feeling of meat-guilt rekindled within me. It has been clear for a long time now that high meat consumption contributes significantly to global warming. Is it now time to reconsider how we eat meat not just at home, but abroad as well?

For many people, food and drink is one of the primary reasons why they travel – to learn about a culture and to immerse themselves in a different way of life. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, claims that ‘food history is as important as a baroque church’ and that ‘governments should recognize cultural heritage and protect traditional food.’ Can this be true even if a country’s culinary habits are toxic for the environment? To what extent should culinary habits be protected in the name of culture?

‘Food history is as important as a baroque church.’ – Carlo Petrini

Unfortunately for Earth, meat is delicious. And meat sandwiches are delicious. I’m fascinated by cities that have tied a particular sandwich to their identity: the Philly Cheese Steak is described as a ‘civic icon’ and ‘cultural obsession’ by the Philipelphia’s official tourism website; Porto has the heart-attack-on-a-plate monstrosity that is the Francesinha’; and the Municipal Market of São Paulo is teeming with people gobbling down ‘mortadella’ sandwiches. Hundreds of eateries benefit from the reputation of these indulgences as tourists strive to live and eat like locals.

These sandwiches add to the charm of a city, keep culinary traditions alive and help fuel local economies, but at what point does this meat consumption become excessive? Two of the biggest consumers of red meat in the world are Argentina and Brazil. Argentina is famous for its thick, juicy steak and asado tradition. Brazilian all-you-can-eat rodizio  restaurants are heaven for meat-lovers; you watch as much as twenty different types of steak are sliced onto your plate fresh from the grill.

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Beef eating and the asado are deeply engraved into Argentina’s culture. The gaucho (cowboy) way of life, the rearing and trading of cattle, has been in existence for hundreds of years and is romanticised across the country. Beef formed the basis of the gaucho diet and the asado evolved into a Sunday family tradition. I don’t envy the environmentalists who seek to change this. Argentines will possibly feel that their history, culture, economy and way of life are under attack.

Whilst it’s possible to defend the asado as a cultural tradition, the danger is that meat obsession can spiral out of control. It’s harder to argue that Argentina’s fast food industry is anything but excessive. Whilst Burger King’s new ‘Stacker Cuádruple‘ equates to 96 hours of air conditioning use, it has nothing on the ‘Mega Torre Extrema’ available for a mere £8.

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A restaurant I stumbled across in Mendoza, Argentina.

The ‘Mega Torre Extrema’ would be right at home on ‘Man v Food’ whose food challenges certainly do not promote responsible meat consumption in the US (4th in the table of red meat consumption). Such challenges have seen a surge in popularity since the show first aired. Charlie Brooker writes that presenter Rickman ‘may as well lie down, open his gob and let a herd [of cattle] stampede directly into his stomach.’ Interestingly, the show is categorised as a travel show – the producers clearly feel that food challenges are a fun way of exploring local American culture (the catalogue of ‘pig out joints’ can be found here). The unfortunate truth is that this isn’t a sustainable attitude at a time where red meat consumption needs to drop.

The somewhat obvious conclusion is that moderation and balance are needed.

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Carlos Petrini wants you to be responsible

Returning to Carlos Petrini, he argues that ‘if you love food but aren’t environmentally aware, you’re at best naïve, and at worst, stupid.’ His argument, which surely everyone can get behind, is that celebrating gastronomic traditions and being environmentally responsible and are not mutually exclusive – that, whilst its hardly rock and roll, we can continue to travel and experience other cultures so long as we do it responsibly.

Education, Travel

Coping with the highs and lows of learning a language

How a visit to a bizarre Welsh town in Argentina encapsulated the peaks and troughs of studying Spanish

About half way down the coast of Argentina there’s a town called Gaiman where people speak fluent Welsh. It turns out that Welsh immigrants moved to the area about 150 years ago to escape religious persecution. They also wanted somewhere remote to preserve their language from the increasing influence of English.

Despite the 1 hour 30 min journey (on two separate buses) the locals insisted that going to this typical Welsh town – along with its afternoon tea house – was well worth the visit. I think the concept of afternoon tea is considered to be a bit exotic here.  It turns out that Princess Dianna went there in 1995 so with a shrug we decided to give it a shot.

After a long, uncomfortable journey we jumped pe5avjj2zimgznbwwk8yoff the bus and began following a huge sign which read ‘Casa De Te Galés -260m’. Despite the area only having 14.8mm of rain per month, the experience was made all the more realistic with some truly Welsh, persistent drizzle. After a 30 minute walk through muddy paths fighting off farmyard animals it became clear that the tea house was not 260m away. Growing more and more frustrated (and wet), with the help of a lumberjack, we eventually found our way to the front door and rang the bell.

A poe-faced Professor McGonagall lookalike poked her head around the door and glared into our souls. The question, ‘Esta arriba?’  (it is up?), asked by my girlfriend, helped set the tone for the ensuing confusion. Those who have attempted to learn a language will be forgiving of the mistake as – if they’re anything like me – the ability to speak fluently deteriorates when feeling flustered/ stressed in any way. After failing to understand most of what she was saying, we did grasp that they weren’t open until two. She proceeded to shut the door in our face thus leaving us to wait in the cold and rain in the full knowledge that we were in the middle of nowhere – I’m guessing Princess Di didn’t get this treatment.jjplhnn77vwhqcx2oclv

It’s at times like this I curse myself for not having the language or quick thinking to sort the situation. Why had this role play not been covered by our Spanish teacher? Even when they eventually took pity and served us early we couldn’t understand a word the waitress was saying. I found it difficult to appreciate dainty little Welsh cakes when feeling damp, embarrassed and frustrated. Even when I asked how to get back to the bus station she looked at me like I was a maniac.

At this point everything changed. A couple next to us overheard we were going back to Puerto Madryn and offered us a lift back. The prospect of an awkward, hour long car journey with our fleeting Spanish initially put us off. However being spared a taxi ride and two buses was far too tempting. The couple – both from a rural area of the Santa Fe district – spoke to us slowly, clearly and we exchanged pleasant small talk for the entire journey back.

This was a timely reminder about why learning a language was great. We were able to discuss sport, travel and culture, however basic it may have been, with a rugby-loving sheep farmer and his wife from the other side of the world. I was indebted to the couple not only for their altruism, but for teaching me that persistence pays off; don’t fret when you hit a trough because you never know when a peak might be around the corner.