Saturday, September 30, 2006

Let There Be Light!

A hot topic on everyone's lips in Buenos Aires right now is if we would have an energy crisis this summer.
While the government is still in complete denial, on the radio yesterday, a journalist claimed he has been informed by reliable sources that Buenos Aires is going to experience an energy crisis in November, December, and March. January and February are saved only by the traditional exodus of porteños from their city.

According to this journalist, the Government, confronted by the likelihood of a crisis, has rejected the following suggestions:

Firstly, Argentina will not consider daylight saving as a measure to stagger and delay peak energy consumption in the evenings because that will imply our country does have an energy crisis.

Secondly, the Government will not intervene (shorten) the opening hours of shopping centres (heavy users of electric energy) during the summer months because that will also imply Argentina does have an energy crisis.

This sort of logic may drive even the most rational minded to bang their head against a wall. Head banging incomprehension aside, this bureaucratic mentality has probably played no insignificant role in the continuous brain drain from this country.

This year, Guillermo and I are joining the masses in their retreat from the city between January and February. We are not going to the porteño favourites such as Punta del Este, Carilo or Pinamar but Sydney. Unfortunately, we don't have to wait until November to experience a crisis; we are having one right at this moment.

For us, this crisis is more serious than not being able to turn on air-conditioning or watch television. We have no gas which means we have no hot water. Further, since I'm adamant in not cooking with spooky, health damaging microwave, my cooking has been severely limited by the size of our microwave cum electric oven. Brownies and cakes are lovely but do not make great dinner choices.

For the time being, we travel up to Belgrano for our hot showers at my in-laws'. The staffs at our local greasy spoon are seeing a lot more of us. This morning, we finally decided to buy a small gas cooker which runs on individual cans of gas (like those used for Chinese steam boats).

We have no idea when the gas is going to be back on. The minor leak on our street has been fixed since the week before last. There seems no reason for this drastic measure but I've been told that this is Metro Gas' standard procedure. They are sending someone to inspect every apartment to find non-compliant installation of electric appliances such as heaters and thermo water tanks. Only when every single apartment is in compliance, will they turn the gas back on.

There are 24 apartments in our block; at their snail's pace, it will take them a couple of weeks to finish inspection, and they have not even started yet. More worryingly, this is a historic building; many installations were done according to now out-dated regulations so they are bound to find non-compliance.

Many of my neighbours are retired professionals; while they still dress well and have fine, old fashion manners, they did go through a major financial crisis not so long ago. I'm not sure if all of them can easily fork out, in one lump sum, for brand new equipments and installation. If one says he can't afford it, all of us are screwed.

I'm in favour of getting everything right in the whole building but I'm sure there are better ways to go about it. Anyway, we are having an owners' meeting next week to find solutions. I think this would go down as another cultural experience.
Despite being told by others who had experienced similar, I am keeping my fingers crossed that the ugly C word I use often to describe the goning-ons in this country and among its politicians is not what the gas man is after.

Friday, September 29, 2006

My Sweet Life

More than a few foreigners have observed the unhealthy porteña attitude or their misconception towards food, their figure and health. Many eat little and replace sugar with artificial sweetener thinking that's being healthy. The polar oppposites refuse to change their life long habits to lose the necessary weight in order to lead a more active lifestyle which would lead to better health.

The highest concentration of skinny porteñas can be found in Patio Bullrich, Recoleta, and Paseo Alcorta, Palermo Chico; playgrounds of the moneyed few in this city. If you think their slimness is purely the result of exercise and good eating habits, you're wrong. Let's leave, for the time being, bulimia, anorexia and the liposuction, liposculpture or whatever those procedures are called nowadays. These ladies have not forgotten their sweet tooth; how could they when they've been brought up with too much sugar all their lives.

In this sense, the Argentines are very similar to the Italians. Most Italians I met poured a river of sugar into their little cups of espresso. If it was ristretto (a drop of very strong espresso) they were drinking, it turned into a brown sugary slush which they almost had to slurp down. Whenever I ordered caffè in Italy (an Italian coffee is always an espresso, our coffee is called caffè americano), some flirtatious barista would fiend surprise and say "No sugar? You life must be so sweet already. Tell me..." My standard reply was delivered with a big smile "Yes, it is very sweet indeed. Thank you and ci vediamo."

For this reason, Ser (a zero calorie line of sweet food and drinks) is very popular in Buenos Aires, so is artificial sweetener. In most cafes here, the waiter would only give you packets of sugar or sweetener when you order a coffee. They usually hand over 3-4 packets of the white dust. When Guillermo and I decline them altogether, the waiters are surprised. We always get comments like "Are you sure?" or "I'd have to take at least 4 packs myself".

Have you ever listened closely to the frizzing sounds of artificial sweetener when it touches hot liquid? It reminds me of my chemistry classes at boarding school. I remember reading an article in which a scientist looking at Splenda (a brand of artificial sweetener popular in the UK) said he couldn't tell exactly what it was but intuitively he knew he didn't want to put any of it in his body.

We don't get Splenda in Buenos Aires but to illustrate my point, I have in front of me a packet of some run-of-the-mill sweetener I took from a cafe; its composition lists hidratos de carbono 88.5%, ciclohexilsulfamato sódico 9.30%, benzosulfimida sódica 1.40%, and antiaglutinantes permitidos 0.80%. I don't think we need any translation into English to sense that none of them could possibly do our body any good.

Our tio (my mother-in-law's brother) who is overweight from too much good wine and food is dieting right now. He has lost 16kg so far with a company which sends him freezer meals. All he needs to do is reheat a portion at meal time. As a grown man, he consumes about 600 calories a day.

I personally think this company should be shut down immediately. No man or woman can possibly have a balanced and sufficient diet based on 600 calories a day. At this rate, he is losing muscles and water; his body is in a state of starvation. No wonder he looks tired and unhealthy.

Besides, he is not learning to make decisions about his food choices. When his food is no longer chosen and pre-portioned for him, he would probably overeat again. Also, how nutritious could this food be after freezing and reheating?

I've often joked that he should come and live with Guillermo and me for three months; he would loose weight naturally while eating well.

Of course, we too go through minor fluctuations in weight. If we have indulged too much, we eat light for a few days. Given the staple Argentine diet is pasta and pizza with loads of cheese; I have not only reinvented them with less cheese and sauce, but incorporated vegetables in them.

Guillermo loves my pasta primavera (light tomato sauce with vegetables) and pizzas topped with grilled aubergine or zucchini (combinations almost unheard of here). I also frequently make an open vegetable tart with wholemeal pastry; it is all sautéed acelga (chard) with a sprinkle of crumbled goat's cheese.

To curb any sugar cravings, I make cakes and other sweet treats with wholesome ingredients. It is better to have some natural sugar and butter than sweetener and trans-fats. Again, I frequently incorporate fruits (apples, pears or bananas) and vegetables (carrots or beetroots) into my cakes. We also enjoy a soft cookie made with tahini, walnuts, raisins and rolled oats, sweetened with organic honey.

Could I be thinner? Of course! But would I want to be much thinner than I am now? I don't think so. I eat well, walk everywhere as my daily exercise and I've a Body Mass Index of 21. I do not model clothes for a living and I don't feel I need to compete with pencil thin women. I wonder why our tio would rather listen to some quack nutritionist...

My yummy but healthy cookies:
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg (2 egg whites)
1/2 cup wholemeal flour (or spelt flour if you can find it)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup rolled oats (sometimes, I replace with sunflower seeds)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup dried fruits, chopped (apple, pear, sultanas)

Preheat the oven to 180C, Mark 4. Line the baking tray with baking parchment

In a bowl combine tahini, honey, vanilla extract and egg, beat well to combine.

Add dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Wet your hands to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers and palms. Roll the 1 tbsp of the dough into a ball and then flatten it slightly. Place on a baking tray, repeat the process until you have a batch of cookies.

Bake for 15 min or until golden.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

What's Your Fix?

The charming Dr. Miguel Cogorno (hijo/Jr.) had thoughtfully scheduled my appointment this week to avoid pregnant ladies. However, he probably had forgotten that he is a gynaecologist/obstetrician after all so I opened the door to his clinic yesterday to find a roomful of newborns and mothers.
The staffs are really personable just like the good doctor; one of them was helping a new mother to feed her baby. I tried to be unaffected; only when the older secretary came in from her lunch break and asked if she could hold one of the babies, tears started fogging my vision.
The mothers were rejoicing in young new lives and had brought their babies to meet the lovely man who delivered them. The last thing they needed was some miserable woman with a flat stomach and tears swelling in her eyes close by. I held it together, just about. To divert my attention, I kept thinking what treats I would get myself after the check-up.
What could fix me? Almost everyone's reflex is chocolate. I thought about it but I don't actually eat much chocolate anymore; I've miraculously grown out of craving it some years ago. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy it still but it is no longer a necessity.
I thought about ice cream but I've found the Argentine flavours too sweet. There are very few purely fruit or nut based ice cream like the Italian gelati. The flavours Guillermo and I stick to are banana split (banana, a little dulce de leche and chocolate sauce in a plain ice cream), tramontana (kind of like cookie'n'cream but crunchy), tiramisu, chocolate amargo (bitter) and mousse de limon (lemon mousse). I'd have some in the summer but none are flavours I crave such as fresh white peach, raspberries, mango or pistachio, hazelnut and almond milk.
Last year, Persicco had a limited edition helado named Prima Rosa (rose scented ice cream with meringue bits) which I loved. The taste was delicate and it came in hues of cream and soft pink. Apparently, it wasn't a hit with the locals so I'm not sure if they'd offer it again this year.
I've realised my tastes have changed so much that I can only think of savouries on my cravings list. Sushi and sashimi gets the crown. Pesto made with pine nuts (pesto here is made with almonds), basil, extra virgin olive oil and reggiano parmigiano paired with fresh pasta come close. The third goes to home made hummus and corn chips; Doritos would do me. No, I'm not that high-maintenance.
This is a disaster; I mean my cravings look almost too healthy. My list makes me look like a pasty faced sad bore. What happened!?
Just so I could regain some street cred here, I am going to write about the various kinds of chocolates available in Buenos Aires.
A lot of panaderías here sell chocolates; they tend to be very sweet so forget them. Tikal, named after the Mayan ruin in Guatemala, is a trendy little shop in Palermo Soho. Their packaging targets the AB demographics – young, high income professionals who like to ride the trends a little. Unfortunately, their chocolates are not to my taste either; same story, they are too sweet and have too much milk. Their fruit based ones are filled with fruit jam rather than real fruit. But I love the florist next door and don't let me put you off their chocolates because you may prefer milk chocolate to dark anyway. Guillermo certainly didn't mind them at all.
Since I frequently use chocolate in baking, I tend to look for bars. The obvious economical and decent choice is Aguila Extra Fino (60% cocoa solids). Aguila (Eagle) has recently introduced a single origin Costa de Marfil (Ivory Coast) dark chocolate, also with 60% coca solids. It is slightly cheaper than the original Extra Fino; they are all around 3 pesos anyway. Now taste test results: if you are eating it, you may prefer the new product (I'm still undecided) but if you are cooking I'd definitely say stick with the original.
For eating, I've found a great compromise. At 18 pesos (US$6) or more for 100g, I'd only get a bar of Lindt 70% or 85% as a treat. The rest of the time, I've found Salgado, made by Fenix, very edible (around 9 pesos/ US$3). They can be a little difficult to find and I've yet to see any shop stocks their full range. Try your luck in good delis, panaderías, cafes and online. I get mine from Diki on Libertad, entre Sante Fe y Arenales or an old fashion panadería named Progreso on Santa Fe, next door to my dentist.
I've experimented with a few of their single origin bars from various cocoa producing countries and have recently spotted a Gianduia flavour I'd like to try soon (hazelnut and chocolate, a classic Northern Italian combo). These are 70% dark chocolate bars with the complex flavour of a good chocolate and are not too sweet.
Of course, you can use them in baking too; your chocolate cake is only as good as the chocolate you use. There are many chocolate cake recipes out there, I've already too many. However, this fudge like chocolate cake is perfect when you want to spoil yourself.
200 g butter
200 g high quality dark chocolate
200 g sugar
5 eggs
1 tablespoon of flour
Grease the sides of a spring mould (mine has a size of 26 cm) with butter and line the bottom with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to a 190 degrees Celsius.
Break the dark chocolate in smaller pieces and heat it slowly with the butter in a bain-marie. When everything has melted, add the sugar, stir and let it cool down for about 5 minutes.
Now add eggs, one by one and stir well with a wooden spoon or a whisk after each. Finally add two tablespoons of flour and blend well.
Pour the mixture in the spring mould and put it in the oven for about 25-30 minutes. I prefer chocolate cakes, that are smooth, moist and fudgy - just melt in your mouth, so I'd watch it very carefully to not let it overcook.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

You Are Out! Auf Wiedersehen

Sometimes, I amaze myself by the amount of useless information I hold in my memory. A few years ago, Joanne Lumley (English actress of Ab Fab fame) went on some breakfast programme in the U.K.; she talked about how she lived in a haunted house in lovely Cotswold for some years.

The "House" and she didn't get on; it smelt foul because of lingering pipe problems, she was sick often, bizarre accidents happened to her and her family, etc. She fought on and wanted to prove to "House" that she was the owner. So she spent a few miserable years living in this lovely cottage in the picturesque land of Cider with Rosie.

Finally she came to her senses and decided to move. Before she stepped out of the cottage for the last time, she went down to the basement and said out loud to her surrounding "I'm leaving now, I hope you are happy". Doors banged a few times by themselves, as if in acknowledgement; Ms Lumley recalled how she felt as if the "House" had released a deep sigh of relief and suddenly she could smell the scent of roses.

OK, before you think I've gone completely loony; I'm only building up to my point which is I feel that cosmic forces of the Universe are giving me no subtle hint or a gentle nudge, but a loud and clear shout: "Get out of here, this country, however beautiful, is NOT FOR YOU".

Most expats have a few hitches here and there settling into a new country. I had more than a few; one actually serious enough to warrant Consular assistance and IDD phone conservations with an Australian police officer stationed somewhere within Latin American and police officers back home in Sydney.

More than one year on, despite being the esposa of an Argentine, I still do not possess an ID card (the DNI) which means I cannot work en blanco (legally). Even if they grant me one, it may not be of any use to me or anyone because they insist on using my Chinese name, the only name on my birth certificate, not my Christian name and Chinese initials on my passport. I had to make peace with myself that I might never work again as long as I stay in this country.

Just when we thought we had overcome most hurdles of settling in and started planning a family, it wasn't meant to be. To add insult to injury, for the past week when I was really in the thick of it (pardon the pun), our gas supply got cut. Due to some minor gas leak on our street, we haven't had gas since last Tuesday and we are not sure when it would be back.

I was sweating from all the intense pain and discomfort, there was mess to be cleaned, and no hot water; it was beyond black comedy. I would have understood completely if Guillermo had moved into the guest bedroom. Well, he didn't; he is my hero now.

His parents offered their bathroom and hot water but Belgrano was too far when I was in such condition. Besides, I would have been just too embarrassed; my in-laws are exceedingly clean and tidy and I would have dirtied their pristine bathroom beyond their wildest imagination.

In the midst of all this, Guillermo had an appointment with a management consultancy which claims they only work with clients at the CEO level in Latin America. They would like Guillermo to train their clients in cognitive skills. Nothing remotely concrete yet, although they have had a number of previous meetings. Since it was a very warm day and I could use some fresh air, I suggested that we set off together towards Recoleta/ Barrio Norte where their office is. The plan was I walked around until he finished his meeting and we would then meet up for coffee.

Within 30 minutes, he called to say he was done. We met up at a corner of Santa Fe. He told me the Managing Directors of this supposedly international consultancy firm had forgotten about their appointment with him and were all out of the office. I was speechless; I didn't quite know whether to laugh or cry at this level of ineptitude.

Guillermo needed to sit down and gather his thoughts; I mean I needed to sit down. We walked around and found some German beer house (clearly we weren't thinking). As soon as we walked in and sat down, some old geezer came over and said to me "We do not serve Chau Fan (he meant fried rice)". I was so shocked that all I could say was "Que?"

Guillermo was not amused but retained his composure and told the old guy we were just having coffee. My gentle lamb obviously had never walked out on waiter/ shop assistant with appalling attitude. I was too tired to give this greasy porteño a piece of my mind or a finger; I just told Guillermo I was walking out and I did.

When you think things couldn't get worse, my husband "casually" mentioned that AFIP (Inland Revenue/ Tax Office) is investigating him. This must be one of the country's greatest ironies.

Why doesn't the AFIP close down the famous Don Carlos restaurant in La Boca where a few scribbles on the paper tablecloth are as close to receipts as anyone would ever get? Or why don't they go and review the books of smiley Maria at El Rincon Organico and get her to explain why she wasn't issuing official tax receipts for most of the year until the time my post on her operation came out?

The reason for their suspicion is that the number of official tax receipts Guillermo issued over the past ten months, since he has been in business, cannot justify the amount of US dollars he has converted in the past year. Most of that money we converted into US$ before he started his business anyway. It was cash for buying the apartment which we brought with us from London (in £) and wired by my parents from Hong Kong (in US$). All real estate transactions are done in US$ and in cash.

The Central Bank forces money transfers in a foreign currency to be converted into pesos first and then, if you wish, to be converted back into US$ for your local US$ banking account. Needless to say the buy/sell spread for this two way conversion is unreasonable if you choose to do so, all at once, at your local HSBC (or any other bank for that matter).

In order not to be screwed twice in one go by the banking system, Guillermo spent days withdrawing pesos (no way of escaping being screwed the first round) from our peso account at HSBC and exchanging them back to US$ in the city centre where the peso: US$ rate was more reasonable. Doing so, he originated a paper trail from these exchange houses which cannot be traced back to the original US$ TT from my father in Hong Kong. So the AFIP thinks he is earning loads and spending more than he reports through his tax receipt book.

When I see other monotributos (self-employed tax payers) like Don Carlos, El Rincon Organico and many others in this city getting away with robbing the country blind of its tax revenues (of course they don't think it is theft, but it is); I sometimes curse that Guillermo should be so upright.
If this is how the country chooses to thank him for his honesty, it is obviously not the right place for either of us. I think we have been shown the door, we can take the hint.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

If I could, I would

I've been accused by many anonymous comment leavers who are ex-residents and expats in this town of trashing it. Inevitably, they end their message by telling me (or are they also telling themselves?) they love Buenos Aires and their buddies agree. I'm really happy for them and their buddies but they seem to forget that all of us come from different backgrounds and have different standards and priorities.

If I were an expat without family ties and concerns about the future of my sprogs, this is indeed a fantastic party town, all the more so because it is very affordable. Try living this sort of lifestyle in any capital city in the First World, one would have to have a job that pays seriously well. I would love it too if those were my priorities right now.

If I were an expat with a family, this could still be a fantastic town...I could suddenly afford to live how the other half lives; the maid, the nanny, the dog walker, private school for the kids, eating out regularly at trendy restaurants, weekly manicure, pedicure, hair appointment...the list goes on. I would love it too if living this lifestyle completes me.

If I were moving out here from a small town in the middle of nowhere in the U.S. or the U.K., I would love it too. So much more happens in a capital city, so little to miss back home. After a few years of living here, I probably would wake up one day and realise I have nothing and nowhere to go back to.

Sadly, I am none of the above. I had a job with a top Wall Street firm so I did all the partying when I was much younger with money I personally earned and paid tax on. I am also fortunate enough to have grown up and lived much of my adult life to date with domestic help; it is not a novelty or a thrill for me. Anyway, I had and can easily live without it.

Thanks to my parents' hard work, I attended private schools in Hong Kong, Sussex and Sydney. I learnt many useful things in these schools but I also pick up some deplorable values and priorities which I had spend years to unlearn.

To top it all off, I had lived in some of the most energetic and modern cities in the world and my parents have two bases, in beautiful Sydney and Hong Kong. What can I say; I have a very fortunate life which I am extremely grateful for. This may help to explain why I am not particularly enamoured with Buenos Aires.

On the other hand, I am seriously concerned that my Argentine husband would have to work until he physically can no longer. Defined benefit or defined contribution pension plans are almost unheard of here; when he could no longer work, we would then live on the little savings which survive the various crises we would have to endure in the coming years, plus maybe 100 pesos of monthly State pension if we are truly lucky.

We would live in a selfish society littered with dog poo and rubbish because the citizens couldn't care less. We may get hit by some projecting body from a car accident because the passenger exercised his civil liberty in refusing to wear a seat-belt. We would definitely be robbed blind by the politicians, the banking system, fellow citizens who dodge tax, etc. and that's all before starting a family.

The State school system is a reflection of this country so our kids would probably go to an average private school, like most middle class families, and learn to speak fluent Spanglish. Otherwise, with some help from my parents, they may go to a top tier private school where academic excellence still takes second place to whether we "summer" in Punta del Este which defeats the purpose of sending them there in the first place.

They would probably study to become a lawyer, a doctor, or some other professional. However, from the number of lawyers and architects who actually drive taxi for a living here, their future would still be precarious.

For the sake of my hypothesis, let's just say our kids become medical doctors. If they work in the public health system, they may earn between 2,000 to 4,000 pesos a month. Divide that by 3 and you get the grim picture in US dollar terms.

If they become successful private practitioners, say like my gynaecologist who has a roomful of patients waiting at all times? They may earn about 20,000 pesos (still less than US$7,000) a month based on an hourly rate, reimbursed by private health insurance companies, of about 30 pesos (US$10) per patient. Mind you, my gynaecologist's busy practice has been built for him and his brother by their father, el professor, a well respected gynaecologist who has long held a teaching position at UBA (this actually implies very few hours of teaching at the university but builds prestige for the practice).

Then our kids would have to work until they physically can no longer, just like their father. Meanwhile, they might marry their private school sweetheart, a mamamone (mummy's boy) or an anorexic with blonde hair from a bottle and silicon boobs. Our grandchildren would watch Barney all day while munching on dulce de leche laden alfajores...and this would repeat itself generation after generation.

Guillermo has lived a different life from his family to realise that he doesn't want this future for himself or his own family. I, needless to say, will never be ready for this. We have tried to fit in but it is clear that there is only one solution for us.

It was a truly sad moment for Guillermo's parents when we talked to them about our plans to leave within the next couple of years. It is not just that their son is leaving them; it is a judgement on their country.

In 2001, Guillermo came home for holiday from London. He witnessed porteños crowding the streets of Buenos Aires, chanting "se vayan todos" (equivalent to "out with all", referring to all that was corrupt in this country). Most people thought the 2001 crisis gave the country a clean slate. His parents chanted with the crowd from their balcony and urged their son to join in.

Guillermo told them things weren't going change unless the people, themselves, change; the country had so far failed to breed people with integrity to take over all.

Fast track to today, 2006, the positive feeling of "se vayan todos" has pretty much evaporated completely. The economy has recovered and people have gone back to their old ways. In a macro sense, this Argentine story is also going to repeat itself generation after generation. Even Guillermo's parents have realised that now. Who could blame them for being sad?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wisteria Lane in Buenos Aires

Since I've been spending a lot more time at home lately, usually in reclined position, I have had more than my normal dosage of television.

While I've not warmed to the Desperate Housewives, I do watch it if there isn't anything interesting on. So when the local network advertised the Argentine version starring local actresses, I was keen to find out how well the Latin scriptwriters would adapt the North American culture of white picket fences to the Barrio Cerradas (gated communities with their own clubs, imagine Stepford) dotted all over the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires.

The first episode of the Argentine version was a laughable attempt. It was lifted straight from the North American series without regard to cultural differences. The scene of the wake after a neighbour's funeral when the domestic goddess character came in with baskets of baked goods was a classical black comedy moment in the original version. However, there is no tradition of a wake in the Argentine culture. It was a classic case of lost in translation.

I remember Guillermo used to look confused whenever he saw such scenes in movies; he always asked, in disbelief, if there was a party whenever someone died. You see, my husband was puzzled; where was the required melodramatic anguish reserved for such occasions? Cake and champagne after a funeral? That ain't Latino at all!

Last week, I came across this Argentine programme again while I was zapping (surfing channels); it is still running in the same unrealistic mode. Few people living in suburban North America could afford maids but that is not the case here. Buenos Aires is full of very affordable dog walkers and mucamas (domestic helpers). Almost everyone has someone to help out at home, at least a couple of hours a week if not everyday.

The scriptwriters seriously need to do some field work in the country clubs to make their programme realistic. Suburban desperate housewives in the Argentine context are more similar to the Footballers' Wives (an OTT trashy yet hilarious, if vulgarity makes you laugh, programme in the UK); those housewives are also desperate, but for very different reasons.

Unlike their counterparts on Wisteria Lane, most middle class porteñas have no time for house work; they are too busy keeping their hair just that shade of fake blonde, their alligator skin just toasted enough and their body trimmed through exercise or other means.

When these already insecure ladies move into the burbs, they go into overdrive; the pressure is on for them to fit the Stepford ideal more than ever. And then, they need to be just a little more blonde or more tanned than their neighbours to stand out from the other identikits. It is a serious competition, they need to stay focused. Now you understand their full and busy lives, how could they possibly not delegate housework and the kids to their maids?

No, I'm not turning blonde but I'm busy I'll leave you a few quintessentially Australian recipes, courtesy of an authentic blond, Bill Granger.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Mind & Body

I have no intention in turning my blog into a Baby Center bulletin board or more appropriately a grieving post. I am staying positive; Guillermo and I are getting over our loss with much love and support from our families and friends so that's that.

However, what I would like to share with you is my own roller coaster change of opinion regarding the post diagnostic procedure based on the invaluable medical advice from my gynaecologist, Dr Miguel A. Cogorno.

Guillermo and I like the kind doctor very much; he had always been keen to explain the more scientific or biological aspects of the pregnancy, and later the miscarriage, to us even when he had a roomful of patients waiting at his reception area. He is also very willing to speak in English which I've heard a lot of doctors won't although most of them speak it fluently.

When we visited him for our first ultrasound, he encouraged us to read in English on the subject of pregnancy because local resources are not as comprehensive. He also reassured me that he understands that patients from an Anglo-Saxon background tend to ask more scientific questions, unlike his porteña clients, and he would help to ease any doubt I might have.

While he didn't necessarily agree with my concerns over ultrasound, he respected my view and apologised when he had to refer me to have another one done at the Medicus Centre. It has always been very clear that he has none of that old-school "Doctor is God" attitude which is still common in this country.

So when he advised me to wait for a natural miscarriage to occur, I was puzzled. While I usually prefer that nature takes its course, I couldn't understand why a simple dilation & curettage procedure was not scheduled in this case. Evidently, I had been reading too many postings on the Baby Center bulletin board full of grieving mums comparing their D&C experience.

Ironically, I am a very healthy person so I had to wait for more than two weeks before it happened. It was a difficult two weeks in limbo; one wants to move forward in life and waiting around for physical pain is not exactly morale enhancing. During those weeks, I became quite angry at times. I talked myself into thinking D&C was the best way to move forward. Looking back, it just shows how our decisions are often influenced by others' experience.

With this frame of mind, we went back into Dr Cogorno's office on Thursday. He was really gentle and supportive; he checked my blood test result and told me everything looked encouraging. He then proceeded to an ultrasound to determine when the miscarriage would happen. He was thorough in explaining what was happening and what I was to expect in the coming days.

Then, we questioned him about the D&C, why it is common in the U.S. or U.K. and not here, etc.

This was when he thoroughly impressed me. He explained that they used to go straight to the D&C and in later years realised that it is actually better to have the least intrusion in an already traumatised body. He added that this change in approach seems to work in cases where the woman would listen and could control her emotions. He assured me that if nothing were to happen by our next appointment the following week, he would definitely schedule a D&C. The good doctor even made sure my appointment will be on the day he has the least pregnant patients, bless him.

Just like clockwork, I started miscarrying as soon as I got home. Reluctantly, I took painkillers per manufacturer's instruction every few hours. It was the most excruciating 10 hours of pain I had ever experienced. Friday was not much better although the pain came and went, leaving me a few hours to get some rest. It was physically exhausting to say the least.

I am really glad that my doctor insisted I waited; I feel weak at the moment but otherwise, fine. He has always said that the body heals faster and better with a natural miscarriage; and now, I am truly convinced. I've also learnt that researching on the internet is great but keeping an open mind and commonsense is much more important.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Daily Bread

If you have just arrived in Buenos Aires from an artesanal (artisan) bread culture such as that of Europe, Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco, etc. brace yourself for some major disappointment. Forget supermarket breads, they are the same plastic, airy slices you have left behind years ago. You would think a people who so desperately cling onto their European roots would have retained some of their ancestors' bread making skills; the answer is a sad "no".

Plain loaves from most bakeries are either quite salty or sweet. The texture varies but if you are after sourdough, dark rye or spelt, your best bet is to purchase an air ticket and get out of here. The organic grocer I no longer patronise out of principle once delivered to me a tiny light brown loaf no bigger than my palm with green woolly growth underneath which they imaginatively called pumpernickel and shamelessly charged me 6.50pesos.

I discovered the city, like most other new arrivals, according to the Time Out Guide. Firstly, I went to La Esquina de Las Flores on Cordoba y Rodriguez Peña and then Lotos next to them. Both are health food shops with a canteen and bakery. La Esquina also has a branch in Palermo.

The Corner of Flowers stocks a range of organic flours and legumes. One has to keep one's eyes peeled because all their products come in very similar packaging in various colours but NOT all are organic. Some of them just say free of chemicals. The manager claimed that the reason being organic certification is difficult and costly. In order to keep the products affordable, they sometimes have to go with producers who are a step away from being certified. I'm ok with that but you should draw your own conclusions.

They also offer a range of breads, pastries and cakes. As a health conscious baker myself, I find their offerings very ordinary. Almost everything comes in the same drab brown colour and tastes like sweetened or salted cardboards.

Lotos next door has a vegetarian restaurant upstairs. Friends who have eaten both next door and there claim Lotos is much better in quality and taste. I have only gone downstairs to the shop; the range of products on offer is much wider than La Esquina de Las Flores. Guillermo and I tried a few of the breads and budines (pound cakes) from their bakery too. While they were better than their neighbour's, Guillermo wasn't too impressed. I've clearly spoilt him with my organic wholemeal banana bread and wholemeal pear cake.

Given my previous disappointments, I was simply overjoyed when I tried another place recommended in my trusted guide –
Haus Brot. They don't make claims about being 100% organic and I appreciate their honest approach. Most importantly, at least to me, their wholemeal medialunas, bocaditos (baked sweets), wholemeal pita bread, and seeded loaves are probably the best balance of taste and texture in this city.

As a shrewd consumer, I'm also really pleased that the good people at Haus Brot haven't priced their products much higher than a normal bakery. Since this important discovery, who needs mouldy "pumpernickel" even if they were truly organic?
Speaking of organic shopping, the choices are still very limited compared to more affluent capital cities but it is improving noticeably and continuously, Bio, a restaurant and a deli, in Palermo is a great spot, Jumbo, the most price competitive, is becoming more hit than miss and Tallo Verde is fair and square with prices listed on their on-line shopping website.
After thoughts:
The whole organic or natural food movement is gathering strength due to several factors: economic recovery of the country, increasing health awareness of the locals through international media and increasing number of foreign, more health aware, residents in the city. There are new shops opening all the time and the quality is also improving. Most of these shops are clustered around the more affluent and residential neighbourhoods such as Palermo, and the northern suburbs. If you find a good place you would like to share with the rest of this blog community, please email me or leave a comment - we warmly welcome your input ;-) A big thank you.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Party Goes On

I have received a fair few comments on my recent posts namely, my refusal to put Barney and his friends on my creation and the actual "birthday" party for my young nephews. Friends, in my real life, have also actively participated in this discussion.

I am relieved that most of you voted against Barney. To further my understanding on the subject, I kid you not, I tuned into a couple of children's channels so I could give Barney and other cartoon characters a fair go.

I must admit, at least Barney talks which is way better than those Telly Tubbies - the dumbest show for kids ever. Telly Tubbies videos should come with a warning for parents: The content of this video seriously set back intellectual development of your child. However, I am still not convinced Barney would become my friend in the future.

After much on-field investigation, aided by my six Argentine nephews and nieces, I have mentally drawn up a list of characters, some with their own television programmes, I would definitely avoid as a parent. I am sure my list has not comprehensively embraced all the rubbish out there but it is a start...

Telly Tubbies
Frutilla (Strawberry Shortcake)

I would definitely not mind young children viewing, once in a while, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Bob the Builder. If you think my choices are too masculine, I must confess my niece in Sydney, Madeleine or Maddy, loved Bob the Builder very much when she was younger.

More importantly, it is never too early to start reading to and communicating with young children in a normal tone of voice. They are just young, not stupid; goo-goo-ga-ga is only going to make adult look stupid in the eyes of the child and others. In fact, prolonged exposure to baby talk hinders development of the child's intelligence.

There are a lot of good children's books for all ages. When my nephew in Sydney, Liam, was about 2 years of age, he loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Each Peach Pear Plum read to him more than few times a day. Spot and Buster are also good series for the younger ones.

In Buenos Aires, I've found and bought for Tomás, the eldest in the Barney loving family, Nacho and his grandma going on a plane. I like all the books on Nacho, a little boy, and his adventures. The stories relate to our daily lives and the colours are vivid and interesting.

Then, the subject turns to what to do at kids' parties. Last summer, Guillermo and I thought we walked into a nightmare when we attended our nephew from the other Spiderman and Barbie loving family, Felipe's birthday party. It started at 8:00p.m and ended way after midnight; the boy was only turning 3.

A long table was set up for the kids; the beverage, the only option, was Coca-Cola and the food was reconstituted meat or what manufacturers prefer calling frankfurters. In the middle, there were plates of sugar puffs in deep red, green and purple (one can find them in most supermarkets here, especially the down-market ones).

The adults had sandwich de miga (thin sandwiches) of ham and cheese and deep fried empanadas. We could choose between Ser (an artificial tasting zero calorie drink) and Coca-Cola. I had a few sandwiches and smelly tap water for dinner that evening.

An MC was hired for the occasion. She asked Felipe, in front of all the kids, who his girlfriend was. The poor little boy looked lost and pointed to his elder sister. The MC corrected him and suggested he pick a girlfriend from the girls in the crowd. Later, his parents came out dressed as clowns to administer some game involving balls being thrown into their over-sized pants. Guillermo and I were abhorred.

At around midnight, after all the play things were cleared away, lights were dimmed and loud Latin music was blaring through the system. In no time, there were multi-coloured strobe lights and to our horror, a smoke machine pumping smoke into the already stuffy room. The children, mostly age 3-5, all high on the little sugary or salty food and litres of coke they had for dinner, were grinding their hips towards each other to tunes such as Lambada and La Camisa Negra. Given the average age of the participants, it was the sleaziest party I have ever attended.

At around one, the kids left looking like they had been to a rave party. Considering none of them were even school age yet, what were the parents thinking? Guillermo and I came out feeling really sickened. Later that same night, our abuela suffered a minor stroke.

I don't mean to come across as a party-booper but I'm more than sure there are appropriate and fun ways to host a children's party. Our generation has fewer kids and therefore, they have become a lot more precious. Children parties are the thing now and no parent can avoid them; domestic goddess like Donna Hay puts a kids' issue of her magazine out every year. Treats should be enjoyed at parties, after all these are celebrations but there are many ideas which are a bit more balanced.

A fellow food blogger in Sydney has recently hosted a children's party on her blog with cute photos and wonderful party food ideas, see

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


For a country which consumes a meagre 8kg of fish per capita per year, the sudden popularity of sushi definitely needs some explaining.

I suspect this socio-culinary phenomenon has more to do with projecting a certain image than porteños' genuine fondness of any food other than beef, potato, and refined carbohydrates. Maybe the desire to be "de moda" (fashionable) can really conquer their innate unadventurous palate; we are not just talking about fish after all, we are talking about raw fish.

There are a few passable Japanese restaurants in this town but the most disturbing sign is the numerous items on their menu with Philadelphia Cream Cheese. It gets my blood boiling; the Argentines have already bastardised the Italian pizza with too much cheese, now they are at it again!

I remember meals at Dashi, Osaka and Gaijin (the most authentic of the three) in which we had to carefully wade through the menu to find combinations without the offending item. Most of the time, we ended up with sashimi combinations – no cheese, no rice, just raw fish.

At Saturday's party, Guillermo and I sat with his St. Catherine's and St Brendan's educated cousins. These privileged guys and girls who wouldn't even go near cooked fish before were asking me how to make sushi at home.

They have already stocked up on seaweed sheets, mirin, rice vinegar, wasabi and the right type of rice. The obvious reason for their previous failed attempts is the absence of a piece of vital equipment, the electric rice cooker. Judging from their keenness, I believe I have boosted the sales of rice cooker at supermarkets in Barrio Chino.

Out of curiosity, I asked them what they put inside their maki (rolls). I wasn't surprised when avocado, cream cheese and tinned tuna were rolling off their tongue. Why bother eating sushi if it is not sushi they really want to eat? It is no different than putting a slice of ham and cheese, plus a dollop of queso blanco on some rice and seaweed then call it sushi!

Since we have a rice cooker at home, I have offered to make them futomaki (太巻き) with more traditional ingredients. It'll be interesting to see if they still like sushi so much after that.

In the name of research, I lunched at a sushi chain named Sensu yesterday. This outlet has branches in the more up-market shopping centres such as Village Recoleta, Alto Palermo and Solar de la Abadía. They also deliver to your home. I ordered a combination set of maki and nigiri sushi. Since green tea wasn't even a choice on the menu, I had mineral water.

The nigiri sushi of salmon and pescado blanco (white fish) were not as fresh as they should be. I am skeptical of menus which do not specify the fish they use; even fish with white flesh has a name. Of course, it was useless asking the waiter what was the white fish.

If the nigiri were underwhelming, the maki were worse. I couldn't believe people think those were sushi at all. The norimaki were made with low quality reconstituted crabsticks and cream cheese in the centre, simply diabolical. And it wasn't that cheap if you think it was just a restaurant chain, my very modest portion of sushi and water came to 30 pesos.

I suppose the moral of this story is to forget about going mass market when it comes to Japanese food in this town. If the so-called Japanese restaurants, the worst offenders being those in Palermo Hollywood, commanding top dollars cannot get it right, there is little chance for anyone else.

The change in weather has prompted my cravings for Japanese food which is light and fresh on the palate when executed well. One dish I particularly miss, though not all that traditional, is fantastically easy and luxurious at the same time.

Soba with sea urchin dressing was introduced to me by a gourmand friend and his Japanese wife. He simply took a wooden slab of uni (sea urchin) and whisked it with light soy, extra virgin olive oil and a dash of mirin to form a thick dressing. Cooked soba coated in this golden richness with a sprinkle of salmon roe and bits of toasted seaweed would take you to fast food heaven in an instant; I guarantee it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

First Sight of Spring

The weekend was all clear blue sky and sunlight in Buenos Aires; this first sign of a new season seemed to have helped Guillermo and me see our future with increasing clarity.
Beside hatching exciting plans for the future, we were quite busy; our young nephews' party was on Saturday and we were invited to lunch at our close friends' the following day.

The party on Saturday, at a recreational club in Villa Martelli, was a real eye-opener. Not only did I realise there is a big market for plastic Barney's tablecloths, the experience also shattered various myths such as the much touted beauty and slimness of Argentine women, only the Japanese are inseparable from their cam-recorder or digital camera, and a licensed nutritionist should know better than to push junk food on her guests.

If you think outdoor parties hosted by Argentines are all asados, you are wrong, just like I was wrong. At this party, we had pizzas coming around every 5 minutes until Guillermo and I asked "when is the meat coming?" only to realise that pizzas were all we were having.

It was a steady procession of cheese pizza, cheese and tomato sauce pizza, cheese and onion pizza, more cheese pizza, then cheese and actual tomato pizza. When our stomachs were about to split they brought out one more topped with rocket leaves and ham. Although I could barely eat, I asked for a slice just so I could have the couple of green leaves on top.

Unlike most other guests who were young parents glad to be leaving their kids in the company of other kids so they could turn their backs and enjoy themselves, Guillermo and I decided to kick a football around with a couple of the young boys. It was a beautiful day to be out in the sun and running after a ball helped us digest all that clogging fats and refined carbohydrates.

The club was obviously a family place packed with grandparents, parents and their kids having a day out in the fresh air. I looked around, not one yummy mummy in sight. All the young mothers were just like any young suburban mother one would see anywhere. So to all the insanely biased porteñas telling those expats who would listen to their self-perpetuated myth that Argentine women were the most beautiful in the world; I say only this, these ladies obviously have not seen much of the world.

Once the pizzas had been cleared, ice cream was served and giant alfajores (corn flour biscuits sandwiched with ducle de leche) were passed around with Nescafe and Coffee Mate. It was also piñata time for the kids. All of them gathered around a paper drum filled with boiled lollies, lolly-pops, multi-coloured soft chews (caramellos). Each had to pull an attached ribbon to release the spoil.

As if the kids didn't get enough rubbish throughout the day, the nutritionist hostess went around afterwards, offering everyone even more compounded chocolates (chocolate-coloured rubbish packed with sugar and hydrogenated vegetable fat), bright red lolly-pops and some diabolical and brown soft chews named Holanda. Then out came the cakes, all meringue and dulce de leche, with Barney and the cars perched on top. We sang happy birthday three times, two Argentine versions and a Mexican one, although it really was no one's birthday.

A man, who was definitely not a hired photographer for the day, had been shooting everything in sight with a digital recorder as well as a digital camera throughout the entire party. He finally caught our attention, or more accurately, our fascination. Guillermo's brother mused that this guy probably couldn't recognise his own kids outside the frame of a recorder or camera. I was simply in awe of his agility which would have out-manoeuvred the most able and determined Japanese tourist.

We left the party early, at around six in the afternoon. Both Guillermo and I felt physically uncomfortable from all the greasy junk food we had eaten. As soon as we got home, we had to have some soothing jasmine tea. We skipped dinner altogether. Guillermo still had no appetite for breakfast the following morning.

Sunday lunch was a completely different affair. We had been looking forward to this lunch. Miguel and Paula are great friends with Guillermo and I've grown to love them just as much. In addition, their two young daughters (age 2 and 3) are absolutely adorable angels. I won't be far wrong in saying these two girls are probably the most well brought-up kids in Buenos Aires. There is no magic to it; the parents are loving yet disciplined with them. The girls eat a balanced diet packed with fruits and vegetables, have plenty of sleep and are intellectually engaged by their parents.

Spending time with this family is a real treat for Guillermo and me; especially this Sunday as it helped to wash away the vulgarity of the previous day. Our gracious host and hostess cooked a delicious meal of roast chicken and potatoes. I brought along a dark chocolate mousse made with nothing else but chocolate and organic eggs.
During the entire lunch, the girls never wandered off the dining table and ate more or less independently. They enjoyed a reasonable portion of dessert; then, although reluctantly, kissed us goodbye, brushed their teeth and went for their routine afternoon nap. In this land populated with kids drugged up with sugar and coke by their ignorant parents, let me assure you just how rare this family is.

Guillermo and I came out of our friends' home feeling refreshed and positive. It was a warm spring day; Colegiales, where they live, is close to Palermo so we decided to take a long walk through Colegiales, Chacarita and Villa Crespo, all the up and coming suburbs surrounding the original Cinderella barrio of Palermo Hollywood and SoHo.

By the time we reached Palermo SoHo, we were ready for a coffee. As if by reflex, we ended up back in a cafe we found when it first opened last year. It is literally the size of a car space, no more than 2 metres wide.

El Federal is a down home place which serves honest good food in big portions. Lunch ranges from 8 pesos to 12 pesos, including a soft drink and coffee. There are always a good selection of breads, savoury and sweet tarts.

We chose a lemon ricotta tart (4 pesos), a lemon curd filled biscuit or rellenito de limon (2 pesos). Both were really very tasty, not too sweet, and the portions were generous. However, it was a real pity that the coffee didn't match in quality.

It was an interesting weekend and I think one that we would reflect upon in the future as a watershed moment.

El Federal, Serrano 1507

Friday, September 15, 2006

Information Management

When I first became part of La Familia, I was flying blind as far as "house rules" were concerned. However, I quickly learnt that no information which an individual pass on to another would stay private between the two for very long. La Familia doesn't "do" privacy or discretion.

Further, whatever goes on in our little sub-unit, Guillermo's mother feels she should be the first to know and the designated one to dispense such information to the other sub-units (Guillermo's siblings) and of course, the headquarters (los abuelos/ the grandparents).

After the initial months of us settling in, Guillermo had to ask his parents not to call us as often as five times a day. That was extremely up-setting for them because they felt we were cutting off the information chain.

My mother-in-law was in tears after La Familia's first visit to our apartment simply because our tia (aunt), her own sister-in-law, had known about the new curtains we were putting up before she did. Our tia's cousin, a talented seamstress, made our curtains. Just like in our family, this cousin felt at liberty to tell her cousin that she felt our choices of curtain fabric reflected our good taste, etc.

Our tia then felt obliged to tell her mother-in-law, our abuela, about her cousin's favourable opinion and approval of the newbie, you see how this information had gone over my mother-in-law's head straight to the headquarters – che brutta figura (Italian for bad form) for her! The tears were well justified.

Guillermo and I discussed at lengths whether to share our recent loss with his parents. I felt Guillermo should share it with whoever he wanted because he was grieving as much as I was. However, both of us were worried about his parents telling everyone within the extended family and most worryingly, beyond.

We are open with our friends and family, but we really wouldn't like our private lives served on a platter by others. We could envisage the emergency call tree being triggered once the information is in the hands of my in-laws.

Anyway, we decided to try our trust on them. Guillermo was emphatic that they should not tell anyone themselves; we would share this information with others if and when we feel it is appropriate. Upon hearing the news, my mother-in-law's immediate reaction was that we won't be going to the kids' birthday party tomorrow; what is she going to tell Guillermo's sister and the rest of the family?

Her reaction really doesn't bode well for our concern. I asked Guillermo, a tinge rhetorically, why does she feel she has to be the one who comes up with all the answers? If we do deicide we won't go tomorrow, which we haven't, we shall tell Guillermo's sister ourselves.

To answer my question, Guillermo's dark humour then made its rare but precious appearance...He said the Spanish/ Argentine information model is centred around the mother or the grandmother, horizontal communication is not promoted nor encouraged. In particular, his mother's generation which grew up during the dictatorship years, horizontal communication was viewed as dangerous even.

Since my gynaecologist has suggested a natural miscarriage (instead of a controlled and scheduled medical procedure, the D&C), I am to anticipate, quite soon, a lot of pain and discomfort over a period of time when the miscarriage chooses to take place. For this reason, I had thought about not going all the way out to this club in Villa Martelli for the birthday party. However, my mother-in-law's words have literally scared me into sheer determination to internalise any physical pain coming my way, I'll be there for sure!

I thought you might be interested in the recipe for the cake I am so not making for this birthday party (hooray!!). It is my adaptation from Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Cloud cake. I prefer the cake to be lighter in texture so I changed Ms. Lawson's method slightly. I have also cut down on the amount of cream on top, it is still ample so don't worry. This cake serves 6-8; you can increase the ingredients by 50% and bake it in a 26-27cm cake tin.

Chocolate Cake:
250g dark chocolate, 70% coca solids
125g unsalted butter, softened
6 large eggs, separated
175g organic caster sugar
2 tbsp liqueur of your choice

The Cloud:
1 tub of cream (mine comes in 360ml)
1 tbsp of liqueur
1/2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180C, Mark 4. Line the base of a 23cm springform cake tin with baking parchment.

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large heavy based saucepan or in the microwave. When the chocolate mixture has melted, let it cool a little.

In a bowl, beat yolks with 75g/ 6 tbsp of the sugar. Then gently add the chocolate mixture, and then liqueur. In a clean, dry bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the remaining sugar while continue whisking. You are basically making meringue.

The cleanliness and dryness of the bowl is of vital importance, otherwise the egg whites would not fluff up into a meringue. Whisk until glossy and the mixture holds its shape but not too stiff.

Now, the most important and slightly tricky step is folding the chocolate into the meringue without disturbing the air trapped. It is important because the airy white mass is what gives the cake its lightness. If you stir too vigorously, the air bubbles will burst and you end up with a flat cake. So the trick is to add one big spoonful of the meringue into the chocolate and stir really well, this will loosen the chocolate mixture and makes it easier to be folded into the meringue.

Pour the combined mixture into the cake tin and bake for 35-40min, or until the cake has risen. You can also check that the centre is no longer too wobbly.

Leave it to cool completely in the tin; the cake will sink in the middle upon cooling. Don't be alarmed, this is the effect you are after because this gives you a cavity to pile on the whipped cream.

Just before serving, whip the cream until it is soft, now add the liqueur. Only add sugar if you prefer it. Now pile the cream loosely in the cavity of the cake. Sprinkle cocoa powder on top using a tea strainer.

I prefer serving the cake the same day it is made so no refrigeration is needed and the cake keeps its light texture. You can, by all means, put it in the fridge. The cake will still taste gorgeous, just a bit fudgier.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Coping with Loss

Some of you, the more perceptive readers, had noticed my occasional reference, in the past couple of months, to food cravings and queasiness. It was strange and yet exciting for both Guillermo and me. Guillermo even joked that he was going through it with me, minus the queasiness.

We both couldn't quite believe it, at first, that 8 weeks into this wonderful new phase of our lives, we have become part of a set of common statistics. We have gone back to square one.

Guillermo and my family have been wonderfully supportive. My 85 year-old PoPo (maternal grandmother) was particularly strong although I knew she had been most looking forward to me stepping into motherhood. I am also extremely fortunate that I have close friends around me with whom I can share this disappointment.

Guillermo and I have gathered our emotions and reviewed whether we would handle the earlier stages differently next time.

We were too excited to keep the fantastic news from my parents and grandmother so we told them pretty much as soon as we found out ourselves. However, we decided not to breathe a word to Guillermo's family until it was secure to do so.

A friend and her husband guessed and bingo-ed, so they knew. My close friend in Buenos Aires, Madeline, a wonderful acupuncturist, was the next to know. Then Diana, our masseuses cum Chinese nourishment expert, had to be told so she could determine whether it was appropriate to continue my bi-weekly sessions.

I don't think we would do any of that differently. I am actually relieved that I am free to be sad among people I love and trust. All of them have been wonderfully understanding; Madeline and Diana, in particular, shared invaluable professional knowledge in how to recuperate and nourish a traumatised body.

The same cannot be said about the medical care side of things though. We are covered by private health insurer Medicus which has a GP and specialist referral system. My GP is a very sweet lady, about my age. We went to her after I tested positive at home. She was excited for me and told me I was almost 8 weeks into the first trimester. That was completely off the mark; I knew I was 5 weeks at that point. She scheduled a blood test and an ultrasound to be performed immediately.

I have to come clean that I am not one who embraces medication or medical technology unless and until absolutely necessary. Having medical doctors and surgeons in my family actually make us consider even more seriously the merits of a holistic approach to life and health. I have not had more than a couple of Panadol in the past 10 years; mild fever and flu were warded off by bed rest and plenty of fluid.

I was reluctant to have an ultrasound too early; not only because it doesn't achieve much at that stage but it would mean a few more intrusions in the 1st trimester. My 1st ultrasound that afternoon confirmed the error of my GP; I was indeed only at week 5.

The following week, we went to see my gynaecologist/obstetrician. He is a wonderful man and a reputable doctor. He wanted another ultrasound at his office straight away because he said the first was taken too early. He is confident that ultrasound is completely harmless and told me pregnant women in this country love having them and have at least 5-6 throughout the 40 weeks.

I was concerned, especially after reading an article on CNN.Com as recent as 7th August last month which has since been pulled probably because it quoted doctors' criticism and concern over Tom Cruise's own sonogram machinery and another article both expressed concerns over the potential harm in the excessive use of ultrasound on a developing foetus.
I felt railroaded into my 2nd ultrasound which again showed very little at week 6. My doctor apologised and had to schedule another, my 3rd, ultrasound at week 8 at the Medicus Centre. I came out of his office feeling upset, stressed and worried about the interferences we were putting our young pea in a pod through.

At my 3rd ultrasound a couple of weeks later, the lady doctor conducting it actually made me feel like a piece of meat and when we didn't see the embryo, she almost bolted from the room immediately. Guillermo managed to ask her before her hasty exit what was wrong and she just said the result was bad and we should go to our own doctor. Both of us were so stunned and traumatised by her abrupt attitude that we weren't quite able to speak for some time.

Next time, we have decided, we would actually wait until week 7-8 to contact my gynaecologist directly. I think I would also be a lot more direct in communicating my concerns and firmer in what I wish done on me.

We are trying to look at this whole experience as a valuable lesson for our future, and we have no reason to believe that it wouldn't be a bright one.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Learning to say No

My fledging baking business is gaining a solid reputation among our circle of friends. On the occasions I baked for La Familia, they enjoyed my cakes despite them being very different from the tastes they are accustomed to.
The idea of my one person cottage industry sprung from Guillermo. Once we settled into our apartment and my real kitchen, we started entertaining frequently. He was most surprised by my baking. In London, I used to make him the odd half dozen of blueberry muffins or an apple crumble but never a proper cake. There were only two of us; a generous slice of cake I love but neither of us had the appetite for half a round each.

So when I started making cakes for our tea parties or for family occasions, Guillermo discovered that brownies could be very gooey or chocolate cake could taste intensely of chocolate. He also encountered, for the very first time, almond meal in place of flour in a cake.

My idea is to provide baked goods using good quality ingredients such as dark chocolate with high percentage of cocoa solids (70% or more), nuts, organic sugar and free range eggs in generous quantity. More importantly, my goal is to fill the gap in the local market with choices that are not found. My flourless chocolate cake, gluten free almond & orange blossom cake and the Connaught's carrot cake have since become huge hits.

I love the smile a simple slice of good cake can put on a person's face. Good food is a cause of joy but a special cake is a real celebration so I am responsive to my clients' tastes and needs. Besides, I reckon if I put myself out there as a baker, it is my responsibility to satisfy my clients.

My orders are usually for birthdays when a special treat befits the occasion. So far, I have only had happy clients and I never had to say no to anyone's request. I didn't think that situation would arise because those who come to me for their cakes come knowing my creations are different from the typical offerings in this city. However, one lives to learn never to say "never".

When Guillermo's sister and her family arrived from Mexico couple of weeks ago, they were determined to make up for all their birthday celebrations which they spent away from their family here. We had an asado lunch to celebrate hers and her husband's birthdays passed. They then planned another party for the kids whose birthdays were in May and August.

They had heard about the cakes I make and based on everyone's enthusiastic feedback, they decided they would like a flourless chocolate cake topped with whipped cream for the older boy and a chiffon cake for the younger.

The chocolate cake is one of my most popular so I just described the look and they OK-ed it. The chiffon cake is a little trickier. My signature chiffon is an Earl Grey scented cake which I leave plain. Other times, I bake it with orange zest and orange blossom water. That one, I usually decorate with a simple drizzle icing.

I know my subtle chiffon cakes wouldn't be to their liking, given my sister-in-law and her husband are both very Argentine in their tastes. Of course, she told me to add some dulce de leche and meringue, maybe some strawberries and cream too...I sensed immediately that they were looking for the typical Argentine Merengue de Frutilla which comes with all of the mentioned components.

It is not what I normally do but I agreed to it, suggesting that I sandwich the cake with dulce de leche, cover the entire top with whole strawberries and the cream and meringue pieces could go around the side. They approved the design and I was game to take on the typical Argentine offering.

The party will be this Saturday and they decided they would pick-up the cakes on Friday. We agreed all the details and I went about ordering the ingredients. Tuesday morning, I was surprised when my husband told me of an email he received, with photo attachments, from his sister on the design of the cakes.

Both of us were shocked by the photos of Barney, almost a foot in height, and his friends plus other bits and pieces, all to feature on top of the strawberry chiffon cake. The other one was a bunch of cartoon cars (modelled after a recent cartoon movie) intended for the cream topped flourless chocolate cake.

I burst out laughing; if I were elsewhere I would have thought she was pulling my leg. She could only be joking. However, I suspected that she meant business when I saw Guillermo shaking his head at the tacky figures with gravity. My suspicion was confirmed when he apologetically told me he had forgotten about their earnest liking for kitsch.

I overcame the initial shock and hot-headed impulse to say "I work with ingredients not toys". I started thinking about the technical possibilities of plonking all these frills on top of their cakes.

The flourless cake is essentially a soufflé. The middle sinks upon cooling creating a cavity perfect for dollops of cream. A fine dust of cocoa powder then goes on top. The disc supporting the cartoon motors would sink into the cake and the texture is not sturdy enough to support the tall stick holding a glittering hat and a big number "3"

Needless to say, the strawberries on top of the other cake leave no space for Barney and his friends. However, there is a possibility of another tall stick with the same glitters and number "1" staying in place.

I tried explaining the situation to my sister-in-law. This is a woman used to getting her way, so I had to enlist my husband's persuasive power. It was futile; she told me to serve the cream on the side of the chocolate cake to make room for the cartoon cars and put some dulce de leche and a fondant icing on top of the chiffon instead so a whole zoo could sit on top of the other cake.

I do what I do because I know what I do is good; I can't promise to do well what I don't do and I don't do fondant icing. It is edible play-dough made almost entirely of icing sugar. Further, I am now being told how to make a cake by someone who made a cement-disc of a brownie topped with a jar of dulce de leche and Italian meringue which looked as appetising as shaving foam. I am in uncharted territory.

I feel I have to say no. I am positive that they will find exactly what they are looking for at their neighbourhood bakery and they could stick cartoon characters on top to their hearts' content. It is their kids' party; I would like all of them to be satisfied customers, by another baker, if that is more appropriate.

This is what I think but convincing her it is her decision to drop me as her baker may take a lot more work. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Food Glorious Food

Since I spend a good part of the day, most days, working at my desk, my mobile phone doesn't see much action. When it rings it is usually from Guillermo or my friends, so when I received a call from a "withheld" number last month, I was a little surprised.

A man on the line started telling me about his magazine so I told him he had the wrong number. He went quiet then started over by asking me if I were the lady who gives classes in modern Australian and Asian cooking. "Si, si" followed and I found out that he had call to arrange for an interview with me on Australian food and wine. He asked for my address and the same day some guy came by with issues of the magazine, Club del Vino.

Food and wine; my favourite subjects but all of a sudden I felt ill-qualified. If I could be so bold as to quote Nigella Lawson "my qualification is in eating." I love good wines, so I've tasted a fair few First Growths. I love to eat well and therefore, I have learnt to cook well. That is all. I am not professionally trained to speak on the subject; I am no Stephanie Alexander or Jill Dupleix and this magazine seems like a quality publication.

From the couple of issues lying on my desk, the subject matters it covered puzzled me somewhat – one issue talked about Grand Cru from France and another ran an article on what the famous Argentine Polo players prefer drinking. Who buys this magazine in Argentina? How much do they charge per copy?

I became curious so I agreed to the interview. I said I prefer the interview to be conducted in English – I like to be very descriptive when it comes to wine and food so I prefer to have a safety net. That settled; all I needed to do was to prepare two dishes to be photographed.

I decided to forego pudding since it tends to look less interesting in a photo. I opted to go with a starter and a main course instead. Starter is a stack of beef salad with tomatoes, avocado, sautéed beef, mizuna leaves and wasabi mayonnaise. A mixture of tantalising colours and textures; the flavours of wasabi, mirin and the richness of mayonnaise and avocado somehow work beautifully.

I want to feature seafood in the main course because it represents the spirit of modern Australian cuisine. No such luck as to finding lobsters and king crabs in this city so it is pan-fried salmon with Cajun spices on a bed of mash potato. I intend to have the creamy potato balance the discreet heat of my spice mix.

We agreed to meet this lunch time at my apartment. The photographer was prompt; he quickly got to work on the props and lighting. I left him alone to shoot the salad while I cooked the salmon. When he was almost done with the main course, we both started thinking where could the journalist be after an hour?

Well, he turned up, Argentine time, more than an hour after the appointment. He was a charming young lad but gave no excuse for being late. Anyway, we went straight into the interview and the photographer started shooting me. I was surprised but it was useless protesting since neither of them could understand why a woman wouldn't jump at the chance to have her photograph in a magazine, so I just braved through it. Anyway, once I got going on my favourite subject, I forgot about the lens and the clicking sound around me.

We had a good chat about how modern Australian cuisine evolved from the multicultural food scenes of Sydney and Melbourne and how the general public has become a lot more sophisticated in their tastes in wines. I feel I have covered a fair bit of ground and hopefully it comes out well in ink next month.