Alfonsina and The Sea

All too often, we lose special people before their time. Such is the tragic story of Alfonsina Storni.

Born in Switzerland in 1892, Alfonsina moved with her parents and siblings to Argentina when she was four years old. She endured a difficult childhood, marked by her father's alcoholism and subsequent death as well as her family's precarious financial situation, which forced her to leave school to go to work at the age of ten.

In spite of her troubled upbringing, she later found success as an educator and author. Alfonsina Storni's prose, plays, and poetry—much of which focused on feminist themes—received literary awards and Monument to Alfonsina Storni, Mar del Plata, Argentina by Martín Gardeazabal, on Wikipedia [used under Creative Commons license]critical acclaim, and she's considered one of Latin America's most respected female poets of the 20th century.

Haunted by demons throughout her life, Alfonsina was frequently wracked by bouts of depression, paranoia and anxiety. After unsuccessfully battling a diagnosis of breast cancer and losing several close friends to suicide, she fell into a deep, intractable depression.

Alfonsina wrote her final poem Voy a dormir ("I'm Going to Sleep") just a few days before her death. In the early hours of October 25, 1938, Alfonsina threw herself from the jetty at the Club Argentino de Mujeres in Mar del Plata, meeting her end in the waters of the Atlantic; however, many prefer to believe that Alfonsina calmly walked out into the embrace of the sea, slowly disappearing into its depths.

In 1969, Ariel Ramírez—one of Argentina's greatest composers of folk music—wrote the song Alfonsina y el mar as an homage to Alfonsina Storni. Inspired by images from her last work, lyricist Félix Luna's words beautifully evoke the ill-fated poet's suicide through touching and evocative metaphors. This moving tribute to Alfonsina never fails to give me goose bumps, especially when sung by the incomparable Mercedes Sosa.

[Click here if you're unable to view the embedded video of Alfonsina y el mar]

Alfonsina and The Sea
By Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna [original Spanish lyrics]
English translation by Jean Peccei

From the soft sand lapped by the sea,
Your little footprint will never come back.
A path full of pain and suffering
Reaches the deep water;
A path of silent grief
Leads to the waves.

Only God knows what anguish you had,
What ancient pains silenced your voice.
Lying down, lulled by the song
Of the conch shells,
The songs that the conchs sing
In the dark depths of the sea.

Alfonsina, you have left with your loneliness.
What new poems are you seeking?
An ancient voice of the wind and the sea
Breaks off your soul and carries it away.
And you follow, as in your dreams,
Asleep, Alfonsina, clothed with the sea.

Five little mermaids will take you
Along paths of seaweed and coral,
And phosphorescent sea horses
Will swim around you.
And the creatures of the water
Will soon play at your side.

Dim the lamp a little more for me.
Let me sleep in peace.
And if he calls, don't tell him that I'm here.
Tell him that Alfonsina will not return.
And if he calls, don't ever tell him that I'm here— 
Say that I have gone.

Alfonsina, you have left with your loneliness.
What new poems are you seeking?
An ancient voice of the wind and the sea
Breaks off your soul and carries it away.
And you follow, as in your dreams,
Asleep, Alfonsina, clothed with the sea.

[Photo credit: Martín Gardeazabal]

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Foods of Argentina: Vizcacha (Viscacha)

Vizcachas by The Wild Image Project, on Flickr [used with permission of photographer, all rights reserved]

With a thud, Tío Roberto plunked down a large glass jar before me filled with hunks of meat, onion, carrot, parsley, bay leaf and garlic suspended in a cloudy bath of vinegar. He unscrewed the jar's red plastic lid and invited me to fish out a piece of meat and some vegetables.

The jar, I was told, contained homemade vizcacha en escabeche or pickled viscacha. After trying to determine the mystery meat's identity through an elaborate game of 20 Questions with my husband's family, I still couldn't form a solid mental image of this critter. Ultimately, I decided to do what any open-minded foodie would: eat first and google later. The viscacha's meat was tender, lean and white with no trace of gaminess. Whatever it was that I'd just eaten, it tasted decidedly delicious.

Vizcacha (Lagostomus maximus) by Edwin E. Harvey, on Flickr [used under Creative Commons license]As it turns out, the plains viscacha (spelled vizcacha in Spanish) is a rodent and member of the chinchilla family native to South America. At home on the range here in Argentina, viscachas live together in groups of up to 50 in a system of burrows known as a vizcachera.

Viscachas are primarily nocturnal animals, beginning their period of activity in late afternoon. The group's dominant male pops out of the vizcachera first to check for predators, and if all is well, the rest of the colony follows.

The viscacha is prone to some rather curious habits, which include hoarding sticks, small bones, wire and other objects at the entrances to the vizcachera. In a nod to the animal's propensity for collecting trinkets and baubles, people who do the same are sometimes referred to as vizcachas.

For a number of reasons, Argentine farmers and cattle ranchers consider viscachas an agricultural pest. They strip the ground surrounding the vizcachera bare, leaving little to nothing for grazing animals to munch on. Viscachas also have quite a taste for vegetables and grains, causing significant damage to farmers' crops. In addition, their burrows present a hazard for horses or cattle that may accidentally step in the holes. As a result, the government strongly encourages hunting as a method of population control.

Vizcachera by Ostrosky Photos, on Flickr [used with photographer's permission]

According to Daniel's family, the flavor of the animal's meat depends a lot on its diet, and given that the vizcacha is an herbivore, its meat retains a "clean" (i.e. non-gamey) flavor. Honestly, I found the taste and texture of viscacha to be quite enjoyable, and I wouldn't hesitate to sample it again in the future.

Vizcacha en escabeche [photo] is usually enjoyed at room temperature as part of a picada—a selection of meats, cheeses and other finger foods. If you're in Argentina and looking to try the dish, shops with a selection of specialty foods often carry pickled viscacha. In the country's Cuyo region, viscacha marinated in a mixture of garlic, parsley, onion, wine and spices and roasted in the oven or on the grill [photo] makes the occasional appearance.

Have you ever dined on rodent, viscacha or otherwise?

[Photo credits: Daniel Fox/The Wild Image Project, Edwin E. Harvey and Ostrosky]

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I Love a Parade

October 12th marked the 130th anniversary of the founding of Necochea. Along with my chorus, Coro Alta Mira, I participated in the city's parade to celebrate this special date. This year, inclement weather forced the cancellation or postponement of a number of events, but fortunately, this colorful and chaotic display of civic pride went off without a hitch. Most of these photos were snapped before the parade got underway.

La Guardia [Majorettes] by katiemetz, on Flickr[Majorettes preparing to strut their stuff]

Murga by katiemetz, on Flickr Murga II by katiemetz, on Flickr
[Kids participating in a murga, a street dance troupe backed by percussion]

Coro Alta Mira [Group Photo] courtesy of María Nelly Merlo

Coro Alta Mira by katiemetz, on Flickr Coro Alta Mira - Desfile 130º Aniversario de Necochea, courtesy of María Nelly Merlo
[Coro Alta Mira with our flags and banner for the Coraliada, the multi-day, international choral event that we organize annually in Necochea]
Colectividad Vasca by katiemetz, on Flickr Colectividad Calabresa by katiemetz, on Flickr

[Several colectividades (ethnic clubs and organizations) were represented including the Basques (left) and the Calabrians (right).]

And last but not least, it wouldn't be a parade without some gauchos!

Dos Gauchos by katiemetz, on Flickr Dos Paisanos by katiemetz, on Flickr

Una China by katiemetz, on Flickr

Big Gaucho & Mini Gaucho by katiemetz, on Flickr Gaucho by katiemetz, on Flickr

Waving Gaucho by katiemetz, on Flickr

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Coconut and Dulce de Leche Tart | Tarta de Coco y Dulce de Leche

In celebration of World Dulce de Leche Day, I was invited to contribute a recipe featuring this rich caramel spread. Visit the World Dulce de Leche Day blog for more delicious links to recipes from bloggers around the globe.

Tarta de Coco y Dulce de Leche | Coconut and Dulce de Leche Tart by katiemetz, on Flickr

While Argentina certainly cannot claim exclusive rights to dulce de leche, it's undeniable that this tooth-achingly sweet yet addictive caramel spread is inextricably linked with Argentina. A staple ingredient in Argentine desserts, dulce de leche makes frequent appearances in ice cream, as a topping or filling in cakes, cookies and pastries, and in candies.

As local legend tells it, the birth of dulce de leche can be attributed to a culinary accident that occurred in 1829. With the hope of ending a period of civil war in Argentina, the leaders of opposing political and military forces, Juan Manuel de Rosas and Juan Lavalle, decided to call a truce. Rosas invited Lavalle to sign the Cañuelas Pact at his headquarters on a sprawling estancia [ranch] called La Caledonia. Tired after his journey to the estancia, Lavalle decided to rest a bit before meeting with Rosas. He lay down on a cot in the tent where Rosas normally slept and tried to grab some shut-eye.

Meanwhile, one of Rosas' servants was busy preparing the lechada—hot milk with sugar—that was drunk as an accompaniment to mate during that period. When the servant went to take some mate to Rosas, she found Lavalle in Rosas' tent and panicked. Unaware of the planned meeting between the two leaders, she alerted the troops to the presence of the "enemy," leaving the lechada unattended on the stove in the chaos. When the servant finally returned, she discovered that the contents of the pot had turned into a thick, sweet, gooey spread—what we know today as dulce de leche.

Una Cucharada de Dulce de Leche | A Spoonful of Dulce de Leche by katiemetz, on Flickr

In honor of World Dulce de Leche Day, I decided to make a coconut and dulce de leche tart, one of my favorite ways to polish off a jar of dulce de leche. As anyone who's sampled a Samoa cookie from the Girl Scouts can attest, the combination of coconut and caramel can't be beat. Here in Argentina, bakers masterfully pair these two ingredients in this simple tart with a shortbread crust. A slice of tarta de coco y dulce de leche with mate, coffee or tea will surely put a smile on your face.

Of course, to make this recipe, you’ll need to procure some dulce de leche! If you're feeling adventurous, check out my previous posts about how to make homemade dulce de leche [stovetop methods] and crockpot dulce de leche. No time to whip up a batch from scratch? No problem—you can also order dulce de leche online.

Ingredient Notes

Dulce de leche repostero
With a thick consistency similar to that of peanut butter, dulce de leche repostero is primarily used as a filling for desserts and pastries. It's difficult to find this type outside of Argentina, so go ahead and substitute regular dulce de leche if unavailable, preferably with a brand or homemade version that leans toward the thicker side. Regular dulce de leche might ooze a bit from your tart, but it will still taste decadent!

This recipe calls for finely-shredded, unsweetened, dried coconut, a product widely available here in Argentina. Do not use the sweetened coconut flakes typically found in American supermarkets, as they will alter the texture of the tart and make it overly sweet. Look for finely-shredded, unsweetened coconut at natural food stores, ethnic markets or purchase it online.

Coconut and Dulce de Leche Tart | Tarta de Coco y Dulce de Leche by katiemetz, on Flickr

Tarta de Coco y Dulce de Leche | Coconut and Dulce de Leche Tart
Adapted from a recipe by Norali on Mis Recetas
Yields 1 deep-dish 9” tart

For the dough:
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ c. sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1 stick butter, chilled and cubed
1 whole egg + 1 yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the filling:
2 ½ c. finely-shredded, unsweetened coconut
2 whole eggs
½ c. sugar
1/3 c. cream
16 oz. dulce de leche repostero

Equipment: Deep tart pan [9" x 1.5"] with removable bottom

Place the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to combine ingredients. Add the butter, and using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the whole egg plus the yolk and the vanilla extract, and mix until the dough begins to come together [the mixture will look dry and crumbly]. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead just until combined [do not overwork the dough]. Shape the dough into a disc, and cover in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of the tart pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the coconut, eggs, sugar and cream for the filling. Set aside the mixture.

Remove the disc of dough from the refrigerator. Pat the dough out into the pan, gently pressing and spreading it evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan.

Spread an even layer of dulce de leche over the dough. Next, place heaping tablespoonfuls of the coconut mixture over the dulce de leche, creating small peaks all over. Do not smooth out the top.

Bake the tart on the bottom rack of the oven until the top turns golden brown and the dough is fully cooked, about 35 to 40 minutes. Cover the top loosely with aluminum foil if the coconut begins to brown too much. Remove from the oven, and allow the tart to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before unmolding it from the pan. Let the tart cool completely before serving.

Coconut and Dulce de Leche Tart | Tarta de Coco y Dulce de Leche by katiemetz, on Flickr

Check out my other recipes containing dulce de leche:
Alfajores Marplatenses
Panqueques de Dulce de Leche

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