Tuesday, June 20, 2006

All that Glitter is Not Gold


George Negus, a well respected Australian journalist, took a working sabbatical in Italy with his fellow journalist wife and their two sons. His year away from home resulted in a book hailed by the Melbourne Age as genial and thoughtful "...the local people are not reduced to...suit the author's poetic view of the country as a kind of sun-drenched Eden."

I am sure Frances Mayes' Cortona and Peter Mayle's Provence are all the more agreeable to the authors since they have amassed a fortune through paddling a dream - we can all leave the Rat Race, just "pick up" a new language, renovate a house, make blood brother-like local friends, all accomplished while drinking Barolo or Grand Cru. Most of Europe is, indeed, very pretty, but I also can vouch from personal experience that even The Tuscan Sun doesn't shine everyday.

Most foreigners who flit through Buenos Aires love the city. Inevitably, they are charmed by the European legacy and the overall impression of sophistication. Many do not stay long enough to prise this veneer or may prefer not dig too deep, after all why should they; they are here to have a good time and take advantage of their hard currency. I too thought places such as Turkey and Morocco breathtakingly beautiful and romantic; judging by how many Turks and Moroccans currently residing outside of their country, I suspect they may hold a slightly different view.

When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I was immediately struck by the gross social inequality. While we were lounging in a cafe in Recoleta, children as young as 4 came in to beg; before the waiters could shoo them away like flies, they had gone around each table to collect the leftover little biscuits that come free with the coffee. The ladies of leisure at these tables barely took notice.

I didn't limit my activities to the more affluent areas such as Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano; I wanted to see the real Buenos Aires. In retrospect, I think I have seen too much...on my way to Spanish class, I used to drive pass a ramp, a family had taken permanent shelter under the eave of this structure. There was a torn and soiled mattress on the pavement; the bare feet kids, hair caked up with dirt, were playing with rubbish collected in the neighbourhood. This family is not alone, I see too many like them if I care to look.

What strike me even more than these heart wrenching sights is the antipathy from the better-off porteños. My Spanish teacher was an attractive, well travelled lady who qualified as an abogada (lawyer, fem.) and spent her idyllic childhood in Belgrano and her weekends in the Country (the term for private country clubs among the wealthy gated communities). I was stunned that she had little sympathy, even for the little ones who should have been in kindergarten. Her frequent referral to the clase baja (lower class) and the morenos (literally brown people; the indigenous and various ethnic groups from the Mercosur countries) at first puzzled and later disgusted me. I fled and searched for replacement, only to find varying degree of the same attitude common among clase media (middle class) and above.

Politicians may not be deemed trustworthy in any nation but we can still rely on our government, as a whole, to keep law and order, carry out justice, etc. In Argentina, however, it seems dealing with corruption is a reflex ingrained in every citizen. People, in general, seem most concern about knowing the right people to fix their "situation" or out smart their fellow countrymen.

I have sat and listened to educated professionals and successful businessmen, otherwise referred to as pillars of society, talked about the importance of having a valuable contact in the right places. Few were bothered that the notion of corruption itself is wrong. Obviously, knowing the right people is easier than setting up the right system. However, don't we all know from playschool what happens to our skyscraper when we put the wrong sort of blocks as pillars!

When I need to get away from it all, I build my Gianduia Stack. With a melting chocolate ganáche sandwiched between each layer of hazelnut meringue, my pillars are sturdy and reliable, my stack deservedly glorious and proud.

Hazelnut meringue:
80g hazelnut meal, toasted
1½ tsp corn flour
6 large egg whites
240g golden castor sugar
2 drops red wine vinegar
a pinch of cream of tartar
3 drops vanilla extract

Chocolate ganáche:
275ml thickened cream
300g dark chocolate
20-30g toasted nuts to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 140C.

Mark 3 x 18cm rounds on baking parchment, flip it over and place on baking trays. Set them aside.

Combine hazelnut meal, corn flour and ¼ cup sugar in a bowl. Whisk egg whites with the remaining sugar in a separate bowl until stiff. Fold the dry mixture into the egg whites.

Divide the mixture and pipe 3 discs on baking parchment, using the mark as a guide. Spread the meringue evenly. Bake for 30min and move to the bottom of the oven for a further 30min.

When cooled, make chocolate ganáche, spread evenly on top of each disc, sandwich them together. You should end up with a layer of chocolate ganáche at the top. Sprinkle toasted nuts on the top and serve.

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