Whenever Fernando Larroude goes back to Argentina, the first meal he has is an asado. “It’s also the last meal I have, and every meal in between,” he grins. But then, the asado is more than just a way of cooking meat. It is a social occasion, a ritual in which friends and family gather round to worship Argentina’s finest produce – its beef. In Buenos Aires, most blocks of flats have a purpose-built parilla (barbecue) on the roof.
The good news is you no longer have to travel 7,000 miles to sample an authentic churrasco, as the slabs of sizzling steak are called. The Gaucho chain of restaurants, founded in 1976, now has 14 branches across Britain, spread across London, Manchester and Leeds. As champions of every aspect of Argentine culture, from polo to tango, its latest initiative is a series of cookery masterclasses, held in the kitchen of its three-storey mega-restaurant at The O2.
Larroude is Gaucho’s charismatic “head of grills”. His job involves touring its kitchens, training chefs to make sure they’re perfecting the art of cooking beef, Argentinian style. Today, he is here to teach me the “Grill like a Gaucho” class, one of four offered. You can also learn how to make the Peruvian cured fish ceviche; make empanadas, humitas and choripan in the “street food” class; or prepare dulce de leche in the “sweet and sticky” course. As a regular visitor to Argentina (I’ve got family there) I have often wondered how something so simple as condensed milk could become the magical wonder spread that is dulce de leche. But in the end, it had to be the beef.
In Buenos Aires, it’s quite common to see a giant bonfire smouldering in the window of good restaurants. This is the parilla, the charcoal fire over which meat is grilled. Like Parisian rotisseries, they are quite a spectacle, all spitting fat and running juices. Before the arrival of Gaucho, Argentine restaurants in Britain tended to have a certain look. They went for a rustic feel, with chunky wooden chairs and wipe-clean laminate tablecloths. Gaucho has broken that mould, and is an altogether swankier proposition. The décor is decidedly urban: more like a nightclub than a chalet, and a parilla might look out of place amid the white leather chairs and pumping music.
It is here that you’re greeted, with a platter of cheese and mebrillo, and a glass of hearty Malbec or a Torrontes, Argentina’s trademark red and white wines. Though they produce some fine wines, drinking is a relatively niche activity in Argentina. Adults and even teenagers tend to binge on Coca-Cola more than anything stronger. But the cookery course takes a more English approach, and the cost of a lesson includes as much wine as you can drink. Four female friends recently got through seven bottles during a course. “You can come on your own, or with a friend,” says Larroude, “but everyone always leaves very good friends.”
And so, to the kitchen. Though this is the Grill Like a Gaucho course, I had begged to be taught how to make empanadas as well. Ostensibly a Cornish pasty, empanadas taste completely different. They are smaller, and typical fillings include: humita, corn in a bechamel sauce; verdura, which is Swiss chard; tuna; minced meat with chopped egg and olives; ham and cheese; cheese; caprese basil, tomato and cheese; and roquefort. There is also “carne a cuchillo” – chunks of steak in a sauce, which most resembles our Cornish pasty.
Like polo, the empanada came from Europe but was perfected in Argentina. Back in northern Spain and Portugal, it was a round pastry, made by sticking two discs of pastry together and inserting a filling. The story goes that in Argentina, people were too poor to afford two discs, so they folded one disc folded over and crimped it together, and the southern empanada was born. We make a beef and red pepper filling – see the recipe above.
For Grill Like a Gaucho, each person is given a whole vacuum-packed lomo, which would have a retail value of about £90. Fernando talks us through the various cuts: “Each animal has 13 ribs,” he says, using a fellow chef’s back to point them out. “Close to the first three ribs is very chewy, full of nerves, so it’s good for braising and stewing. From the third rib up to the rib number eleven, we have the rib-eye. From there to the buttock, we have the sirloin. Then here we have the rump. Then underneath the sirloin, hiding underneath and being protected, is the fillet, the least active muscle, and so the tenderest.”
Using a sharp knife, Fernando expertly demonstrates how to divide the meat into its various cuts, using a slicing motion, and to trim off the fat. As he does, he gives a brief history of Argentinian beef. Apparently, the first cows came in Christopher Columbus’s second trip. The flat, grassy plains of the Pampas, with its temperate climate and lush pastures, makes for ideal cattle-grazing. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the Aberdeen Angus was introduced from Scotland, thanks to Don Carlos Guerrero, who brought his bull, Virtuoso, and two cows, Aunt Lee and Cinderella (no, really). Now, of the 60 million heads of cattle in Argentina, roughly half are Aberdeen Angus, all descended from Virtuoso.
Fernando teaches me how to clean, prepare and cook three different cuts: fillet, sirloin and rib-eye. Cutting the meat is much harder than it seems. “You’re not going to pull, and you’re not going to saw,” says Fernando, noticing my hesitation with the terrifyingly sharp blade. “A sharp knife is safer than a blunt one,” he says. “If the knife is blunt, it’s more likely to slip and cut you.” You can’t flaw the logic.
Slicing fillet steaks is quite simple. The tail of the lomo, which tapers away, provides more of a problem. Because of its uneven shape, one end will cook faster than the other. So Fernando scores it in three places, enough so that it can be rolled over into one uniform-sized steak.
The most skilful knife-work is required for the rib-eye, which contains the most fat, roughly 12-14 per cent. We might think a fillet is the most desirable cut, having the least fat. But for a meat-lover like Fernando, the rib-eye is the most prized. “Fat is flavour, fat is love for me,” he explains. “The fat content, the marbling, is what gives flavour to the steak, from the fat melting as it cooks.” The rib-eye has two different muscles, and two different textures, with a lot of inter-muscular fat, which provides the marbling. Fernando performs what’s known as a spider cut, making incisions only so far and then unravelling the meat, and then slicing again, to create a kind of belt of equal thickness, the “tira de ancho”.
Finally, we come to the grill. Sadly, this is not an outdoor charcoal affair, but a professional hardcore grill. Parts of it are cooler than others, and it’s on the less hot part than we slowly cook the rib-eye, letting it get black and crispy in parts, with globs of yellow fat oozing out the sides. You let it cook for slightly longer on the first side, Fernando explains, because normally the meat will come from the fridge, so it takes slightly longer to heat up. Turning the steaks requires a decisive action: they are large, and the heat is powerful, and the meat can stick to the metal. Contrary to what you might expect, Argentines prefer their meat well cooked, and it’s a while before we remove them altogether. Just before serving, we slather the churrasco with chimichurri sauce, a simple combination of finely chopped parsley, garlic, red pepper, oil and red wine vinegar, and a few flakes of dried sweet chilli.
It’s worth the wait. Three hours after trading the dining area for the kitchen, we’re seated once again, before a platter of sizzling meats. We treat oursevles to a large glass of red, and for a delicious few moments, we eat and drink in silence, transported to the Pampas.
Recipe for beef and red pepper empanada
Makes 40-50 empanadas
2 red peppers
300ml beef stock
300g sirloin steak
A small bunch of spring onions
2 hard-boiled eggs
A dozen green olives
Salt and pepper
Shortcrust pastry (mix the 1 kg of flour, 300g of beef fat and 200ml of water)
To make the filling, finely chop the onions, and fry them in some beef fat. Add a little beef stock, for added flavour, but don’t let the mixture get too liquid (you might not need all the stock). Make sure the onions are thoroughly soft, as the finished product will only be baked for 10 minutes.
Next prepare the meat, slicing a piece of sirloin into finger-width ribbons. These are added to the onions, and when the meat has sealed and cooked for a few minutes, add grated hard-boiled egg and roughly chopped green olives. At the last minute, add a handful of finely sliced spring onions, to add freshness, and lastly, the chopped red peppers. Season. Allow to cool before placing on the pastry.
Roll the pastry as thin as possible on a cold, floured surface and cut out small discs. Spoon a small amount of the cooled mixture in the middle, and fold the pastry over, sealing the two edges together. To achieve the authentic crimping, start at one end and fold a finger’s width of pastry over, repeating to the end. Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes and eat immediately.
For information on this and other Gaucho classes, visit gauchorestaurants.co.uk