One of the most important responsibilities of motherhood is surely to introduce your children to the delights of the table. So when the Boy was around seven (though he may have been younger) our favourite place for weekend lunch became a glorified shack in Chelsea Farmers’ Market called El Gaucho. Here, he tasted for the first time the piquancy of hot sauce (chimichurri), the irresistible sweetness of dulce de leche and, of course, that unique slab of meat, the Argentine steak.
So, what is it about Argentina that produces this quality of beef? Is it simply that the cattle lead a carefree life scampering about on the pampas? Well, yes actually. They don’t get fed on pellets that are hard to digest. Come to that, they don’t get needlefuls of antibiotics on a regular basis either. So healthy, happy cows taste better, right?
It’s also how you cook ‘em. Beef is cut differently in Argentinian cuisine. Ancho is rib eye, tira de ancho is a spiral cut version. Chorizo (no, not that chorizo) is sirloin and it has a spiral cut, too, churrasco de chorizo. There are more – cuadril (not a dance but a rump steak), lomo (a fillet) all with different permutations of marinades and sauces and garnishes.
Sadly, the Boy’s childhood favourite in Chelsea has long disappeared but there is now Gaucho instead. Its restaurants are scattered across London and we went along to the one in Piccadilly for a spot of nostalgia and to see whether Argentine steaks really do taste that good.
It turns out they do. It’s partly down to the way they’re cooked. Asado may look like barbecuing but it’s much slower and the beef is smokier. We had ancho (the rib eye) that came not only with chimichurri but a peppercorn sauce, excellent chips (no holding back here) and humita, a sweetcorn and pumpkin puree served in a cornhusk that was just delicious. We went with the flight of wines so we had a Malbec, Bressia ‘Crystal’, grown in the cool climate close to the Andes and suitably robust. Before that we had a truly wonderful tuna ceviche that zinged across the tongue served with a white Pinot Noir.
And then there was the dulce de leche cheesecake. Now, I don’t eat puddings. No, not ever. Except when it involves dulce de leche. When the concept of dulce de leche was explained to me many years ago – evaporated milk, surely not? – I swore nothing would induce me to try it. Then one day I weakened and I was forever addicted. This one was perfect, hot, slightly salty and it even came with toasted marshmallows with.
We weren’t there, though, merely to eat. Gaucho has occasional events and this one was a humdinger. After the dinner, there was an hour of opera with the soprano Samantha Crawford and Finnegan Downie Dear accompanying her on the piano. Samantha appeared in a suitably sparkly dress (Gaucho décor is big on reflective surfaces alongside plenty of leather and hide) and not only sang but talked about the strange life of sopranos.
It is an unusual privilege to be in such close proximity to the power of a high-octane soprano and she was absolutely glorious, kicking off with “Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and delivering a fabulous letter scene as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Onegin. Then there was “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and she finished up with a crowd-pleasingly flirtatious “My lips’ fiery kiss” from Lehar’s Giudetta. Quite a range.
We were informed at the start that after the singing we could, as a small audience in such an intimate setting, ask questions. Barely had Sam’s last notes died away to tumultuous applause than an Italian strode towards her gesticulating wildly and complaining about her Italian pronunciation. At this point, the table of well-lubricated bankers behind us started to jeer and asked him (not quite this politely) if he wouldn’t mind leaving. “Narcissist,” muttered the Boy. We left ourselves some fifteen minutes later and discovered the narcissist and one of the bankers outside about to brawl. Opera certainly can elicit some passion.
Quite the memorable evening indeed.
Gaucho Piccadilly, 25 Swallow St, Mayfair, London W1B 4QR. For more information please visit the website.