Monday, July 03, 2006

Who Moved My Cheese?

Cheese and charcuterie items are unavoidable staples in Buenos Aires but the longer I have been here the more I try to avoid them; at least, I rarely buy them anymore.

If I no longer consume much cheese or cured meat, it is not because my love for them has waned or I am watching my figure (I have never let such trivial matter stand between me and good food). I simply have not found good cheeses or cured meats that do not cost a bundle. A rare treat would be a couple of etti (Italian measurement, etto = 100g) of Italian prosciutto or a ball of mozzarella di bufala from Valenti (a good deli which stocks imports).

Since cheese forms an important part of the Argentine diet I am surprised by the limited variety and the lack lustre quality. The most common local varietals being queso cremoso (creamy cheese), muzzarella (similar to a cow's milk mozzarella), reggianito (similar to parmigiano), a hard cheese named Mar del Plata (similar to a cheddar) and a Roquefort style blue cheese. All of them are very salty; with the exception of the blue, they are yellow and tasteless with texture ranging from play dough to Lucite.

Lavender ewe's milk, Jindi triple cream brie, fresh ricotta cut from a wheel or Fior di Latte...are all hazy, distant dreams, until my next trip home to Sydney.

I have always wondered what happened in this country that was so different from that in Australia. Both are sizeable, rich in natural resources, with a long history of agriculture. With La Pampa lying in the middle and Patagonia in the south, one could argue Argentina is indeed the luckier country.

Each took in a large European population after WWII. In those darker days, Australians labelled the newcomers as "wogs"
and the national food was meat pie. That didn't change until the '80s. Meanwhile, Argentina already enjoyed European sophistication and their food, a legacy of the Spaniards.

Twenty years on, Australia supplies her locals and the world with mangosteens, lycees, golden raspberries and much more. Zucchini flowers, radicchio di Treviso, lemon thyme, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and galangal are found in Italian and Asian grocers, fresh, daily. The Australians, old and new, have finally put their enterprising heads together; the exciting local food scene has exploded and the whole world is watching with interest.

I feel sad and puzzled that the people of this country, with all their natural advantages, do not seem to be able to make better use of their blessings. I have encountered a number of older porteños who told me, not without a hint of longing, if the British, not the Spaniards, had been successful in their invasion; this country could have been another Canada.

You see, I am not convinced. I don't think it is that easy, leaving one's destiny in the hands of others. If the citizens do not take ownership, what is left of the country? The society is but a concept without flesh and blood, the government but a building without citizens, voted by fellow countrymen, running it.

Even if it were a British creation, there is still only one Canada, one Australia, one Hong Kong, one India. Each jewel on that crown was unique because the local people of each land made it so.

Kasutera is the name for those preciously gift wrapped sponge cakes, uniquely Japanese, found in the food hall of up-market Tokyo department stores. It is a speciality of Nagasaki but traces its roots to Europe. The name ka-su-te-ra is believed to derive from Castilla.

During the 16th century, a Portuguese ship went to Nagasaki, which used to be the port of Japanese commerce. The Portuguese brought the Japanese many unusual things such as guns, tobacco, and pumpkins. Kasutera was also one of the many things they brought. The sponge cake was able to be preserved for a long period of time for the sailors who were out at sea for months.

In the Edo era, it was a precious sweet that was reserved for the envoys. Later, Japanese people started making kasutera, and the cake's taste slowly changed to fit to the Japanese palate.

Kasutera comes in many forms nowadays. The most popular two are honey and green tea. If you do not like the distinctive flavour of Matcha (the Japanese word for green tea) just leave it out of the recipe and you get a honey sponge cake.

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt 7 large eggs, separated
1 cup plain flour, sifted
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1 tbsp Matcha powder (optional)

Preheat oven to 160 C. Use parchment to line the bottom of a 10-inch tube pan, preferably with a removable bottom or 2 (8 x 4-inch) loaf pans. Grease the parchment.
In a large bowl, whisk 1 cup sugar, honey, vanilla extract, and salt into egg yolks. Place bowl in a large pan of hot water. With an electric mixer, beat about 5 minutes on medium-high speed until pale yellow and doubled in volume. Gently fold in sifted flour.
In a large bowl, beat egg whites with electric mixer for 1 minute, then slowly increasing speed to medium-high. When foamy, sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar and cream of tartar in the whites. Beat until stiff but not dry. With a spatula, fold the egg whites in thirds. Pour batter into pan. Tap gently on the counter to remove air bubbles.
Bake on the middle rack for 35 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. When done, the sides will pull away from the pan slightly; top will be flat and feel spongy when pressed with finger.
Cool for 20 minutes. Run a small knife between edge of cake and pan. Remove from pan carefully. Pull off parchment and cool completely. Serve or store in airtight container.

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