Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Beginning

On the day of our arrival in Buenos Aires last autumn, Guillermo and I moved into a sparsely furnished apartment he bought "unseen" while working in Europe.

After a gruelling transatlantic flight, with transit in Frankfurt, the last thing either of us needed was to move into a new home but we decided to do it anyway.

The two of us needed to set it up to a liveable condition very quickly because we had to focus on finalising the details of our wedding which was looming in 10 weeks. We also had to arrange accommodation, entertainment and side trips for our overseas guests. I had only some basic Spanish in those days, so Guillermo had to take care of everything which included accompanying me to my first hairdresser's appointment and meeting the florist.

My introduction to this city was neither through the beautiful historic sights nor cafes in Recoleta and restaurants in Palermo. Beside the wedding venue, a beautiful building, on the quiet end of Quintana, Recoleta; I saw little of the beauty travellers often rave about. Instead, we were dashing all over the city to interview photographers, DJs, florists, etc. in whichever barrio (district) they happened to operate from. The furthest we travelled, I recall, was to the rather grim looking Villa Luro, and by bus we did. I saw the "real" Buenos Aires.

Neither of us knew where to go for household items, not even groceries; I didn't know because I had never set foot in this country before then and Guillermo's reason was that he had been away for five years and the couple of times he visited, he stayed with his parents who live and work in Belgrano, far from where we were.

With an extensive immediate family of almost twenty, somehow no one mentioned to us there was a Jumbo, Disco, or Norte supermarket. I didn't know any good greengrocer in the area we lived; I remember vividly the ones I found had their strawberries laid out right in front where buses drove pass, blowing black fumes. I was so horrified that we went without our otherwise daily portions of fruit & veg.

For almost two weeks, we ate nothing but medialunas (brioche in the shape of a croissant) or cheese and ham sandwiches, lunch and dinner. Both of us lost much weight we didn't need to lose through this most unhealthy diet.

Finally, during one Sunday family afternoon tea, my sister-in-law asked if we went to the Abasto Shopping Centre often. In the same breath, she talked about the big supermarket behind. She had little idea how she saved us.

With daily greens and fruits temporarily sorted, we embarked on finding a permanent home. Guillermo's family thought I was absolutely barking mad to be multi-tasking when my big day was moving so close. They were quite incapable of understanding why I wasn't in a pink candy-floss daze, counting down to what they see as the day which every girl's life long dream is fulfilled.

Both Guillermo and I were really looking forward to our wedding day but we also knew we wanted to settle down in a comfortable home and office as soon as possible. Little did I know property hunting and buying are more stressful than I had experienced due to unexpected reasons...

We found the apartment in which we are now happily living and working quite quickly. In fact, it was the third apartment we inspected on the first day. But we were dissuaded by the family; we should at least look at a hundred, we were told. More importantly, they felt that it wasn't in the "right" barrio.

Neither of us had the patience to find and view a hundred apartments, especially when most places we saw were, for the lack of a better word, ghastly. The modern phenomenon of fixing up, or at least cleaning up, one's home before selling has not made much of an impression in the secondary market except those targeting foreign buyers.

We viewed more than a few unforgettable houses of horrors but the one which took the crown was a PH (propiedad horizontal, sub-divided house with separate entrance for each floor) in Palermo Viejo; the whole apartment was carpeted in a smelly, mushy, shaggy dark olive green. The walls were all wood panelled. The kitchen sink piled high with dirty dishes and a half eaten biscuit was on the grotty breakfast bar for all to view. Our shoes were sticking to the floor as we took each step. The owner vendor asked proudly but rhetorically "What is there not to like about my home."

We were told repeatedly by our agent that we had to use our imagination and that we had to gut the whole place almost anywhere we bought. What if we didn't have the time to "gut" it? Further, a building survey is neither required by law nor is, indeed, common here; so what if, lurking behind all that junk and filth, there were problems with the pipes or the structure? Most of my questions were met with blank stares when I was expecting professional and reassuring answers.

After close to fifty viewings, both of us were tired and demoralised. Guillermo and I agreed that the third property we saw was not only of another league but was a perfect fit for our purposes.

Once we made up our minds, an eye-opening buying process thus unfolded. After I understood the differences between Civil Law and Common Law, in this matter, through Sñr Rebasa, our good escribano (notary), the procedures required to own a property here is really not as complicated as some agents who target foreigners have made out. The only snag is that the transaction has to be completed face-to-face, and in cold hard cash.

Our vendor was an impressive Argentine gentleman in his forties, working in Vienna. Through his father who was overseeing the house inspection process, he told us he was very comfortable with and had been accustomed to settlement via a bank transfer and separate signings, like how things are done in many countries. Upon hearing that, however, our agent and his became extremely worried. Trust, not only in the vendor or the purchaser but the protection offered by a sound legal infrastructure, seems fragile.

In the end, we carried all those bank notes in a briefcase from our bank to the vendor's bank. The vendor flew back from Vienna for the closing. We met in a private room; he brought along two friends to help him count the money. I joked if it were an expensive mansion he was selling, he and his friends would have had to rent a hotel room to count through the night.

Since we only had to carry out some minor restoration and paint the walls, Guillermo could focus on his work and I on settling in. Despite, the family's initial reservations about this area, they have since grown to admire the building and love our apartment. I have also made friends with the local butcher and a couple of greengrocers, all within an easy walking distance. What we appreciate most, however, are the quiet evenings and weekends afforded in this part of town.
During the summer, a couple of fruiterers in the area carried figs. They were those luscious black ones which spilled nectar when one bit into them. Neither Guillermo nor his family had tasted fresh figs so I bought some and made them a fig tart (crostata di fichi), a popular Italian pastry. They were absolutely intrigued by the caramelised figs; needless to say, the tart disappeared rather quickly.

For the almond pastry:
70g blanched almonds
100g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
100g caster sugar
1 whole egg plus 1 yolk
200g plain flour
Pinch of salt
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups cream
Zest of 1/4 orange
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
6 fresh figs, quartered
For the almond pastry:
Preheat oven to 180C. Whizz almonds in a food processor until you have coarse crumbs. In a mixer, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add egg and yolk and mix in. Combine flour, salt and almond meal and add to the bowl, mixing until just incorporated and the mixture comes together to form a dough.

Transfer dough to a floured work bench and gently knead to a smooth ball. Do not overwork the pastry. Press down to form a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Grease a 24cm loose-bottomed tart tin. Roll out chilled pastry to about 5mm thick and line tin. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork 2 or 3 times and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Blind bake for 12-15 minutes or until pale golden in colour. Leave to cool. Reduce oven to 175C.

For the filling:
In a pot, boil cream and zest. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes or until the cream has reduced by half. Remove from heat, stir in sugar and strain into a bowl. Allow to cool. Whisk egg into cooled cream mixture.

Line pastry base with figs, carefully pour over cream mixture and bake in oven for 25 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

Note: For a healthier and quicker version, use 250g ricotta cheese, 2tbsp sugar and 1 egg as the filling.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home