It has often been said of Argentina that it maintains the traditions of Europe before the war. If proof were needed, a visitor to one of the fine hotels around Cordoba, where one can enjoy the very special dove hunting of the region, would find it here. The quality of the hospitality and the food is like something out of the 19th century.
Dove hunting is likely what would bring you to Cordoba. It is justly legendary, for the swarms of doves that the hunter can shoot from early morning to sunset. After shooting doves in a morning, the guest is typically brought to a campsite where he or she is offered a hunter’s meal. This, make no mistake, need not be ever so humble. Cooking over the fire in Argentina means grilling meat of a quality that does not exist elsewhere.
Now the doves may, or may not, be prepared. There is a fine art to cooking the doves from the shoot, but many chefs simply eschew it. It may seem odd to the hunters to not even eat a single one, but the chefs argue that the greatness of the grilled meats overshadow anything that a chef might do with a dove.
At the asado, the traditional barbecue you will be offered for lunch, you will find a selection of cuts of beef, chicken and pork. Some will be marinated, but some will be simply seasoned.
The great flavor of the asado comes from the quality of the meat. Argentina has the best beef in the world. The reason for that is because the cattle feed on grass of a special quality. Contrary to other countries, the majority of Argentine cows are not fed on grains in feedlots but are raised eating luscious grass, principally in the humid pampas, the biggest open plains of the country.
The grass of the pampas has less saturated fats than grains and more of the healthy omega three fatty acids. And although production results of free roaming cows are harder to control than in feedlots, most experts agree that natural conditions, in which the cows don’t consume antibiotics or growth hormones, are a principal factor in the final quality of the beef.
So what makes the pork and chicken so good too? The same kind of free-range production with careful attention to the feed. This is why a slab of pork belly carefully cooked in the center of the grill will amaze you at the asado. Obviously the chef’s skill will have much to do with it.
The meal finished, and a short siesta accomplished, you will want to get back to shooting doves. But, when you are done, you will return to an absolutely remarkable hotel and dining experience.
There are many great “estancias” to choose from at which you can hunt doves around Cordoba. But, for the great pre-war luxury that we spoke of earlier, you should look to El Colibri, set on the crest of a hill looking across to the Sierra Chicas mountains, rooms filled with fine antique furniture, superb swimming pool, Jacuzzi, etc. If you appreciate real class in a hotel, you will find it at El Colibri.
The same may be said for the dining. Chef Juan Sienra is an expert at cooking the great meats of the country, although he is not one for cooking your birds, apparently – we asked the hotel and could not get an answer.
Typically, Chef Sienra will offer you a choice of 13 different cuts of beef, each one superb in its way. Grilled to perfection, along with vegetables from the hotel garden, this does hark back to the way our forefathers lived before “the lights went out all over Europe.”
Another estancia, not far away, is the Estancia Corralita, owned by the family of that name. This is a less pricey alternative. There, Chef Carolina makes traditional gourmet meals with the same quality meats. This is the place to sample the empanada and the traditional stews as well as the grilled meats.
With dinners, when your hunting is done, you will have the chance to sample the wines of the area–which are very fine–and perhaps some of the other great Argentine wines. Cordoba is known for its malbec, a varietal that gives deep, red and tannic wines. The pure colors and intense aromas of these wines go very well with the rich meats. Let your host suggest the right one for your meal, or ask for one the greatest Argentine wines: The Enrique Foster Limited Edition Malbec 2003, or a hubert weber cabernet sauvignon 2006, or perhaps even a red blend like Norton Privada. All of these are great, original and very unusual wines that you should take the opportunity to taste, as you may not get the chance outside the country.
But what about eating the doves? Ask your chef to make one in an empanada, deliciously spiced with onion, or grilled with local spices, or even in salmis, stewed slowly in wine with garlic and onion. All of these recipes will bring out the delicate gaminess of the bird. Frankly, it seems a shame not to eat at least a few after you’ve spent the day in such a great bird shoot. But the temptation of the great Argentine meats–we admit–is not one to be ignored.–Andrew Rosenbaum