Uruguay: Who made all the pies? Welcome to Fray Bentos

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The Independent Travel

Needless to say it was the name that drew us to this place. As far as names go Fray Bentos is right up there with Intercourse, Pennsylvania, and Nowhere, Ukraine. Even though we're here I find it difficult to believe that the town, home to the original "frigorifico", or meat-rendering and cold-storage plant, exists.

Needless to say it was the name that drew us to this place. As far as names go Fray Bentos is right up there with Intercourse, Pennsylvania, and Nowhere, Ukraine. Even though we're here I find it difficult to believe that the town, home to the original "frigorifico", or meat-rendering and cold-storage plant, exists.

We had expected an industrial setting, the South American equivalent of Bolton or Hartlepool, but we couldn't have been more wrong. The town is a delight. It is laid out along the banks of the river Uruguay, there are palm trees and willows everywhere and there is even a replica of the Crystal Palace bandstand in the middle of the main square, a gift from the old factory to the town. We arrived at lunchtime and the place was deserted, with only a faint melody from a radio to disturb the tranquilo on which Uruguay prides itself.

Saturday night was a different matter. You may think you go mad for it in Manchester or Brighton, but they do it just as well in Fray Bentos. The main street is transformed into a huge dining hall, where couples and groups, old and young, sit out and enjoy their own equivalent of the craic. Just to complete the feeling of well-being, the cars stop for pedestrians and most drivers wear seatbelts, practices that tend to be frowned upon elsewhere in South America.

Although Fray Bentos pies live on, the meat factory closed 20 years ago. We decided to take a tour of the old site, run by a woman called Diana, who has the most remarkably specialist English vocabulary covering the minutiae of the mass slaughter of anything with four legs. We now know more than anyone could ever need to know about the production of meat in Uruguay. The plant was founded in 1859 and was originally German-owned, feeding their troops during the First World War, before being sold to the British in 1924 and enjoying a heyday during the Second World War, when it supplied meat to the Allies. At this time "throughput", as Diana put it, was 6,000 animals a day and every bit of the cow was used. Among the by-products was corned beef.

It's an eerie place to wander around, with huge, voluminous slaughterhouses, gates swinging on the wind and derelict mess halls. The canteen still works and turns out a good pasta dish, apparently, but no tinned pies. Unesco has given World Heritage status to far less. Although the town grew up around the plant, the name is thought to originate from a Jesuit missionary, Friar Bentos, who arrived here in the 18th century and set up home in a nearby cave.

Apart from mass producing meat pies, the town also breeds moths on a similar scale. The river location doesn't help matters, but even given the sultry weather the town does seem to be home to a disproportionate number of fireflies, many of whom elected to spend last night with us. The hotel was a converted colonial affair with high ceilings and equally high, out-of-reach, open bedroom windows. We spent the night watching an endless stream of moths and bugs fly in one window and out the other, the insect equivalent of the M25 on the evening before a bank holiday. This morning, three of the hotel staff were up early, sweeping them up by the bucket load. The manageress (the hotel seems to be run by a strange sisterhood co-operative) correctly pointed out that the moths didn't bite but they do rather like to fly into your mouth when you sleep.

Despite their best efforts the moths will not stop us loving Fray Bentos. We head north tomorrow but tonight there is a classical-music concert in the bandstand – presumably featuring music by Rachmanimoth.

Mark Rowe's accommodation in Uruguay was organised by Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315).

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