The Lonely Planet’s Wise Words.

 

LonelyPlanet1The people from Lonely Planet paid us a visit a few months ago while researching their newly updated guide to Argentina. We are delighted to report we have now received the first guests who have arrived bearing copies of this freshly minted and august publication. What good taste the editors have! They suggest us as one of the four best places to stay in Buenos Aires.

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Here is what they have to say about us;

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Thank you Lonely Planet!

Let There Be Light!

Film living roomThere are actually a few sad souls who miss this blog when its frequency diminishes. Perhaps they find assurance in the fact that there is someone madder than they are, someone who is prepared to take on Argentine bureaucracy and the unfathomable multiply unionised tradespeople, someone who believed that the Architects’ quote would bear a vague resemblance to the final cost or that, as everyone seems to be able to develop a property in London the same would apply here. Some poor deluded fool in other words. Always fun to watch from afar, as his enthusiasm diminishes as fast as his bank account.

Of course a handful of my handful of followers probably thought that now I am once again a workingman, combining this sad state of affairs with my regular cultural excursions and Buenos Aires’ lively social life, must have caused my literary lapse. Not true. Yes, La Doctora and I seem to be getting more invitations than ever but frankly we are too knackered to go out more than a couple of times a week. My greatly diminished waistline is a testament to rebuffing more champagne filled restaurant-opening invitations than I would have previously considered reasonable.

So what have we been doing to fill our fatigued spare time? Praying. Praying that the electrician would turn up, that the builders wouldn’t break the new glass the window guys had put in (they did of course), that the blacksmith wouldn’t ruin the paintwork (he did), that the painters had left enough time for the plaster to dry (they hadn’t), that the new painter could sort out the faults (he could as he is not a painter but a classical guitarist, tai chi master and wooden sailing boat restorer – don’t get a painter to do a painter’s job if you want it done properly), but most of all praying, grovelling and begging to it that must be obeyed, the all powerful granter of Light, the great God, Ede*n*r (name of Almighty Light Provider deliberately obscured to protect the innocent – i.e Me)

Now if you think this sounds a bit exaggerated, you clearly weren’t here last Christmas Eve with 45-degree temperatures and 70% humidity. Or you may not be aware that Light (Luz) means both light and electricity is Spanish. And while I don’t claim I have spent the last months living in obscurity without enough current to chill my fridge, the fact is that that The 5th Floor requires a lot more of the stuff than was previously available. Yes, we managed 30-degrees comfortably over the weekend due to the building’s solid walls and high ceilings, without the need to turn on a single air-con, by just allowing a gentle breeze to run through the establishment. But wait till the thermal effect of high humidity arrives. I don’t want to serve breakfast to sweaty, grumpy individuals who have spent the previous night wishing they had stayed at some generic, ugly establishment with fully functioning cooling. But these machines suck electricity; you can’t run them on single phase. Hence the petition to the all-powerful Utility, master of the local grid.

“Give me 3 phase please oh Great Redeemer.”

Of course Gods are generally cruel or at the least unhurried. They’ve got better things to do. Like drinking mate. But I know the system. We popped in the request a year ago, plenty of time for EdeGod to move in mysterious ways. Except a year later it still hadn’t. Maybe that’s unfair, it had sent an inspector round a couple of times, reported a couple of defects in the electrician’s work (reasonable) and then informed us that it couldn’t be arsed to connect the cable itself and we would have to do it. Even an electrician with balls of well-insulated rubber doesn’t take this lightly. This stuff kills you if the wrong thing touches the right thing. I eschewed this year’s Mr Popularity vote and demanded that the administrators cut off the whole building’s electricity, so no one died. Great, we had a connection but we were still not allowed to turn it on until the inspector called. And when would that be? And how much would he want??

So I got all modern on the problem. Put out a request on Facebook for my friends to put me in touch with their most distant relative, providing he worked for EdyThing. And I had a few “cousins in high places” responses. La Doctora took a more traditional Argentine route. Stressed, she went to see her psychologist. Obviously La Doctora is not mad but here a bit of help with uncertainty is no bad thing. Of course the fact that she remembered that the psychologist’s neighbour was a bigwig at a certain large electricity company might have motivated her. Moral of the story, forget the prayers. Get yourself down to see a professional. Take a box of mangoes (lovers of porteño slang will understand). Problem resolved. My guests will be as cool as cucumbers. And I don’t think I have slandered anyone or cast nasturtiums on the honesty of Argentine institutions.

Which means OFFICIALLY WE CAN NOW OPEN!!!

Yes now I can take people’s money without the risk of having to send it back due to the risk of foreseeably high temperatures. I can honestly say you will be very comfortable here, come sun (always a shady and a sunny terrace) or come rain (plenty of living space) or come global warming style prophecies (though the energy used on the AC may contribute to the latter).

And it has to be said, while no one here understands the concept of delivering on time, the final job is pretty impressive. It’s not a design hotel; it’s a restored 1940’s home.  Golden Era Buenos Aires. From the time the expression “As rich as an Argentine” was in common usage. It’s definitely an urban experience but we are in the best part of town. And it is an Argentine experience; it’s not a touristy area.

We do need your help however. We are massively over-time and have missed the early bookings for prime season. While we may not be every businessman’s cup of tea (proper breakfast starts at 9.00), we know how to have fun in this great city. And we know how to help our guests have fun, whether through exploring the intricacies of the Ministry of Culture’s impenetrable but ultimately very rewarding website, extending invitations to all the private events we are invited to, or simply pointing out where quality lies in the gastronomic realm here. So this is the time to help me by sharing my little blog and facebook page with all your mates who are wondering where next to sally forth and who will look after them when they get there!

We haven’t got the professional photos done for the website yet as we are still waiting to hang the art, but we have stuck our amateur efforts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/the5thfloorba.

So come, enjoy, change money at the blue rate. Marvel that your enormous meal is once again cheap, that BA really does have a Ministry of Fun, that the weather is delightful, that Porteños still have a zest for life and that you can tell if it is chilly outside by how the dogs are dressed. Buy yourself a fragrant peach in one of the veg shops that still grace every couple of blocks, or a charcoal grilled chorizo from some illegal looking BBQ. Go to listen to some music or to a dance event or some art opening that you wouldn’t normally bother with because of the high risk of it not being very good. If its bad, so what? It’s mainly free, transport is cheap, and you can leave and just move onto the next thing. And the truth is sometimes you surprise yourself and trip over something you like.

Above all come (and send all your friends), to The 5th Floor. We guarantee you won’t regret it!

Jesus creates, the fish and chip shop decorates!

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As regular readers of this blog will know, I was intelligent enough to choose an architect whose name suggests he is God’s right hand man, a handy thing in a relatively religious society when you need to get notoriously laid back Argentine suppliers to deliver on time! One presumes that if there is a real problem, we can get Francis to intervene. After all, what self respecting new Pope isn’t going to take a call from Jesus? A further advantage is that Jesus is a very good friend, the sort of guy that I can ring late in the evening (I call this praying) to discuss some entirely vital design feature that has just occurred to me, and he will actually reply. This never happened to me in all the years I was obliged to pray to Jesus in a cold chapel under a gothic abbey, at my resolutely uncomfortable Benedictine monastery boarding school.

But it appears that even Jesus has his limitations (no hate mail please). I wasn’t entirely convinced about his colour schemes. I was even less convinced about my own. Jesus is a structural guy. I have no visual imagination. What to do? Obviously go and eat somewhere to ponder the quandary. And fish is good for the brain and I had heard about Chipper, a new traditional fish and chip restaurant, and the sun was out, so off I trotted. And as I have previously mentioned in this blog, the fish and chips was excellent and the place was quiet as I had arrived well after the lunchtime rush, so I got chatting to Susan the Irish co-owner. And obviously, given the commercial chaos that is running a business in Buenos Aires, especially for a foreigner, I soon asked the question, ” So how the hell did you end up here?”

It turns out that Susan’s vocation has not always been to stare into the oily depths of the deep fat fryer. I might have difficulties with the very defined God thing, in the form of old man with beard etc, but I do have a feel for synchronicity. When Susan explained that she had been an interior designer working in New York, who had come over to work on a hotel in Recoleta, during which period she had fallen in love with The City and more importantly with Marcelo who was making all the furniture for said hotel, I knew I was onto something. “So you know about colours?” I asked.

“I like to think interior design is a little more sophisticated than that,” she replied.

“And Marcelo (who I had already worked out was a thoroughly good bloke), can make the furniture that I am having some difficulty finding?”

“Yes of course.”

Great, problem solved, consign all the responsibility to the guys at the local chippie! Who wouldn’t? I just hope that their fish and chip empire doesn’t take off too rapidly and that they deliver on the marvellous deco designs that they have come up with.

If they don’t, I know where they live!!!!

So some before and not quite after photos, as in more work in progress…..And with few lights in place all the illumination is natural.

Passage leading to the dining room, Before:

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And now, waiting for the floor to be polished:

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Dining room leading to terrace, Before:

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Now a sage green which should look great when the green marble floor gets polished:

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And look at the Andalusian terrace! Can you already imagine yourself feasting on asado from its parilla?

The Master Bedroom, Before:

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And Now:

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Master Bedroom, view to balcony, Before:

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And Now:

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The Living Room, Before:

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And Now (wait till the 75 year old oak parquet is polished up):

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The Bar and its terrace, Before:

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And Now (lacking the amazing bar/library that Susan has designed of course):

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And finally the biggest change, the old workshop which will now be the Studio Room, with its own deck for sun lovers, Before:

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And Now:

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So the decorating should be finished by the end of the month, God (currently in the bodily form of Sebastian, the Jefe of the painters) willing. The furniture should arrive a few weeks later. Of course this is Buenos Aires, so I didn’t bother to negotiate a penalty clause. As I mentioned I know where my designers live but more importantly I know where their restaurant is. If my hotel has no furniture, then I have no income, no money left and not much to do. But I like fish, especially their octopus dish (Pulpo a la Gallega -Pulpo is very expensive here). And being an Irish chippie they serve Jameson’s, which I also like, as do my friends. So rather than than sitting miserably in my unfurnished hotel, I intend to set up shop in their restaurant, at least for lunch and dinner. And invite friends, on my tab of course! Which I won’t have any money to pay.

Sounds like a penalty clause to me! What’s the betting they deliver on time?

Besos to Susan and Marcelo and if you are over here and suffering from meat overload go to their restaurant, Chipper.

If they look nervous and there is a drunken Brit in the corner with a bunch of friends you will know why…

Battles and Bloody Mary

Yesterday was a special holiday, a one-year-only event to celebrate the glorious victory of General Manuel Belgrano in the Battle of Salta, two hundred years ago. As the from-then-on national flag (the celeste y blanca) flew for the first time, the Spanish colonialists and their Peruvian minions were routed and Argentina’s independence asserted. The only way I know to rout my Spanish flatmate is with cocktail creations that cunningly disguise their alcoholic potency. And given we are celebrating a battle, blood was in order, so the only thing to start the day with would be some kind of Bloody Mary. And then I realised that the holiday fell midweek so few people would be scampering off to the country side and the weather was likely to be awful, so a long, late, lunch was in order. I rang a dozen people and a dozen people said yes. I decided on a Spanish theme, a kind of last meal for the vanquished.

The only trouble with making a Bloody Mary here in Argentina, is that you can’t buy tomato juice. Pasata, puré, tinned tomatoes and tomato concentrate are all locally produced, juice no. Most bars simply dilute the puré but it doesn’t work. You end up with a claggy, uncooked tasting (but needing to be cooked), strangely textured brew. When I first got here I tried selecting the ripest tomatoes and simply liquidising them. That doesn’t work either. You end up with a foamy, innocuous, light pink solution that starts to separate five minutes after making your drink. I was served this recently at a restaurant with brunch-time pretentions and while I knew where they were coming from, I still had to send in back. So how do you create a fresh, zingy, flavour rich juice that won’t separate into anaemic layers, from the plethora of natural, sun-ripened ingredients available from your Bolivian brothers?

This brought me back to the Spanish theme and given the date, a Monty Pythnesque “What did the Spanish ever do for us?” Answer, they gave us Gazpacho, the fundamental, no cooking involved, dish of peasant Spaniards with too little money and too many tomatoes. And in my experience it can be served thick or thin, textured or smooth, spiced or not…. Thankfully the only point of the Internet is to fulfil ones private fetishes and one man’s porn is another man’s food porn. I spent a happy couple of hours researching Gazpacho.  Naked of course as the humidity was terrible!

After my unsuccessful fresh tomato liquidising experiment, I was looking for something that would guarantee redness, not just of the juice but also of the drink once colourless vodka had been added in copious quantities. And a strong flavour that would dominate the cheap Smirnoff I was going to use! Basically, this was to be a Breakfast Bloody, vitamins aplenty and with a disguised Vodka kick that would assist with the integration of my disparate group of invitees.  I settled on a roast tomato and red pepper recipe to bastardise in my own special way. I write about it because it is spectacularly easy, tasted excellent, takes little time and I doubt that I will ever buy tomato juice again, even if it becomes available. With the addition of garlic, and a bit of white bread it would also be an excellent Gazpacho, to which I would still add a slurp of Sherry at the end.

To the recipe: Buy a kilo of the best (reddest) tomatoes you can find.  Slash a cross in them and squeeze a little to open up. Yes they look a bit anaemic inside, don’t they? Pour a tiny bit of olive oil into the opening and roast on a medium heat until they feel quite hot. Cover and stick in fridge overnight (I have no idea whether this makes any difference, but I was ready for bed. The next day there was lots of delicious juice in the bowl). Char a red pepper or two and peel (the only time consuming thing). Peel a couple of cucumbers and cut up (I peeled because I didn’t want a green tinge). Cut up tomatoes but don’t bother peeling if you are going to whizz this into a juice (you may wish to for a very refined Gazpacho, but you can always stick it through a fine sieve). You will notice that they are strangely much redder inside. Throw everything (probably two batches for the average size blender) into the liquidizer and whizz adding cold water until you get to desired consistency. Salt and lemon to taste. Chill for as long as possible for the flavours to meld. Makes 2 to 3 litres. Serve as a spiked Gazpacho (it can absorb a lot of vodka without the flavour altering – dangerous) with a bit of black pepper and a light sherry float, or just use it for a trad Bloody Mary mix.

As I use my blog as an aide memoir about what people really liked (if they fight for the last piece of something or demand refills until the supply ends I am a happy guy), a couple of other observations. The BM’s went very well with tostados (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and tomato) with some good Serrano Ham, which is surprisingly cheap at San Francisco (Thames and Corrientes).

Also, as it was a Spanish meal, we had to have something fishy, always a problem here. I bought the biggest raw (in reality shocked in boiling water to facilitate the removal of their shells) prawns I could find. Not an outrageous price. Made the simplest of dishes, gambas al ajillo; warmed a lot of great olive oil with a copious amounts of large slices of garlic and chilli until the flavours infused. Heat up, and two minutes cooking. The feedback? One of the best dishes of the day and plenty of dipping in the infused oil was done. The secret? I think that frozen prawns have to be defrosted really slowly to retain their texture and cooked very briefly (and don’t bother with the traditional hot clay dishes, they look great but the prawns will continue cooking and turn to mush), and excellent olive oil, which I bought in an unlabelled bottle from Bodega Amparo (Darwin and Gorriti) from a shelf with a hand written sign saying “Excellent Olive Oil.” I presume they buy it in bulk and transfer it into bottles.

Of course there were a number of other dishes and copious amounts of excellent pinot noir (the unheralded star of the Argentine wine scene) but thank God everyone was stuffed by the time we got to the paella, because the rice was a disaster!! Ah well, back to cooking school in March.

Death of the High Street?

Reading the English press a few days ago, I found myself particularly irritated by an interview with the Boss of one of the major supermarket chains. He was claiming that the proprietors of the small, specialist shops that used to inhabit British high streets were largely to blame for their own demise, a situation that has left our towns and cities colonised by identikit corporate clones selling junk food, junk coffee and apparently horsemeat burgers, to a “Public” left with little option. The prevalent opinion of “big business” is that it was the failure of such minnows to grasp modern marketing, provide “what the Public wants” and run lean, efficient businesses that led to their extinction. Just being an expert in selecting vegetables or repairing shoes or running up a pair of curtains is not enough. You have to be a businessman before you are a butcher.

Strangely he forgot to mention high street rents inflated by chains such as his, landlords inclination to rent to corporations that can reasonably guarantee a ten year income stream or the ability to squeeze suppliers’ margins in return for promised volume, until the pips in the un-ripe lemon squeak or someone comes up with the bright idea of fobbing them off with a lasagne that runs faster than Shergar. Certainly, as an eight-year-old boy walking home from school, the contents of the old fashioned (even then) sweet shop on the corner was definitely what this public wanted.

Luckily in Buenos Aires, other than the streets of clothes shops, the high street has never really existed. Small shops pepper each block; the commercial and the residential intermingled. There are few areas where you cannot find a deli, a baker, a greengrocer, a pasta maker, an ice-cream shop and a butcher within a 2-block radius, making your evening constitutional a purposeful and sociable event. Some of these make a vague stab at looking modern but most simply don’t bother. When getting a pair of shoes repaired recently, I had the choice of two locations. One was a zippy, open plan one-stop-shop offering a range of other services such as shortening your trousers while cutting you some keys. Possibly what the public want? The other was a hundred years old and just did shoes. I went with the latter, figuring that if it was so old and all it did was shoes, then it must be pretty good at it. And it was excellent at it!

The relevance of all this was bought home to me yesterday. Early morning and my builders ring. They can’t open the door to the property. Can I come with the spare key? I did but to no avail. Even though of fine German construction, the seventy-year-old lock had finally failed. Kaput! So what to do? In England you would have one choice, to ring the experts (the ones with the biggest presence on the internet of course), who will send someone round on a bike in an hour (if you sign over your first born son) or in a van sometime that day (if you only feel inclined to part with a pound of flesh). And that charge will just be for the consultation, because how are they going to replace a 70-year-old lock while leaving the lovely brass fittings intact? And how likely is it they have the right inventory on their bike? And by the way, your whole door closing system is obsolete and needs to be replaced with the latest Korean security device! But don’t worry about the fact that you have to take out a second mortgage to pay for all this because it is now considered semi-respectable for your daughter to pay her way through university by working in a lap-dancing club.

Here you just walk round the block, find a shop with a sign that says “Locksmith, established 1940,” that looks as though they haven’t repainted in the meantime, has no air-con so is roasting inside, and guess what? They only do locks. So you explain your situation to the nice woman inside and while reluctant to hand her full scrotum leverage by admitting that you have 15 idle builders waiting outside, you try and instil a little urgency into the conversation. And she asks for your address and then the key and squints at it and says no worries, I think my husband’s father or possibly his grandfather installed that lock. That’s when you know this is going to turn out alright.

So she grabs hubby from the workshop and he’s ready, willing and able. He brings a tiny box of remarkably unsophisticated tools. You get him on site and the first thing he says is “what beautiful door fittings, you have to preserve them, don’t change them, comprendes?” So you know he’s your kind of guy. And he unscrews and jiggles, and does locksmith stuff that doesn’t involve any of your worst-fantasy power tools and gets the door open and your building work springs back to life. Then he gives you the bad news, couched in admiration about the fine German mechanism that he officially pronounces Kaput. But don’t worry; they still make a copy of this mechanism in Argentina.

“Really? How long will it take to get one?”

“Give me an hour or two, I’ll have it fixed by the end of the day.”

Which he did and without balls-in-the-vice price negotiation! So he is now my locksmith. He is responsible for the smooth functioning of every lock in my little hotel. He is responsible for re-coating the brass door furniture with nickel to restore it to its 1940’s glory. And as I walk down the street I will always give him or his wife a wave. I won’t care if it costs me a few more pesos than the next guy might charge. He understands the history of my place. He will do a quality job and if something goes wrong he is just round the block. But he is never going to have a search-term-leading Internet presence, or indeed any at all. He will probably never be much of a “businessman”. He is just a guy who knows about locks and has a sense of history and continuity.

Possibly small things, but important to me.