Chocolate and quite possibly Paradise, Found.

Chocolate 1

As regular readers of my blog will know, I spend a lot of time searching for things in BA, pretty much exclusively foodstuffs of course. Material possession wise I travel light. While some may crave the latest electronic gadget, clothing accessory or automotive experience, I ponder where to get proper bacon (Baines Best), a sausage acceptable at breakfast (Bratwurst Argentina), Norwegian Salmon (Pescaderia Mellino), smoked ribs to have on standby for a lazy feast (El Tejano), Biltong (Biltong in BA) or proper, strong flavoured cheese (I found both a spot-on English cheddar and a rocking, creamy gorgonzola at the food fair in Parque Las Heras on Saturday).

Until Sunday, Dia de La Patria, when any Argentine (including us recent immigrants) can expect the sun to come out and shed a little light into those obscure nooks that have been lacking it, I had not managed to find chocolate or indeed chocolates that ranked any higher than “acceptable”. And I hasten to add, this would not be an “acceptable” in the context of Geneva or Paris but an “acceptable” after 5 years of lowering my expectations and trying the over-sugared, adulterated, artificially flavoured rubbish, that has virtually led to my abandonment of chocolate eating but still admits to the occasional rush of faith on the back of the odd craving.

Hey, I’m not saying you can’t buy pretty chocolates here, you can. There are plenty of artists but they fall into the same trap as most of the molecular gastronomists. Technique over flavour, style over substance. They raise your expectations and then crush you with Cadbury-esque mediocrity. Think Milka with Malba on top.

chocolate 2

However, this sunny Day of the Revolution (I prefer to think of it this way as it was the Spanish that took the brunt not the Brits), I had the good luck to be invited to a celebratory Locrofest, 6 hours of eating, wine and music (but 6 hours of eating too – it was not sequential) and an opportunity to raise a goodly amount for charity (feeding underprivileged kids of course). It was organised by the Buena Morfa Social Club. For non-Lunfardo speakers, Morfar means to Eat or Comer here. And you have all heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, who doesn’t love their music?

Anyway, the members of the former are distinctly fatter than the members of the latter, but proud of it and only slightly less likely to break into song. The hardcore founders are more obsessionally foodie than I, and not above putting in several days of hard work (while cleverly extracting prime ingredients and beverages from every supplier they know) in order to provide a feast for the 55 people that congregated (not including the waiting list), knowing their bellies would be full, as would those of the kids we eventually raised 20,000 pesos for (did I mention it was 6 hours of serious eating, there is a reason that their logo included the Argentine flag, crossed forks and the head of a pig). If you need to know something about eating here or acquiring ingredients I suggest that you subscribe to their Facebook page immediately.

So finally we got to the “mesa de dulces”. A table of desserts showing off the talents of the various members of this hard eating group. And to be fair a delicious spread. But much was made of Diego, which was perfectly reasonable as he had organised the space in the building which made the whole event possible, and his handmade chocolates.

I’d just grabbed a coffee to stimulate my cardiovascular system against extreme, food-excess induced fatigue.

“Would you like me to get you some chocolates?” said the delightful young lady beside me. Well it seemed rude not to after the speech thanking him for being one of the major facilitators of the event. But my expectations were not high! Actually I felt a little depressed. Why? Because I wanted to like this guy, admire him, he’d made a phenomenal effort. It made me uncomfortable to think I was going to have another of those “he’s not even the runner up” moments. She came back with a selection, further adding to my anxiety.

chocolate 3

Until I tasted the first of course and was then un-remorseful that she might have nabbed more than our fair share. Let them eat cake! Or one of the other 20 delicious desserts. I’ve been living in the chocolate purgatory of the vaguely acceptable.

So Diego Armanini Chocolatier (https://www.facebook.com/diego.chocolatier?fref=ts), for my money the best in BA. Fresh taste, fresh high quality ingredients, no cloying aftertaste. Pretty enough to serve to a honeymoon bride, basic enough to satisfy a foodie. He doesn’t have a shop but you can visit him in Palermo Hollywood. He doesn’t seem to have any competition so maybe you should finance his shop! Or a small factory making this stuff? I don’t know the prices yet, but the odd good chocolate is priceless.

Disclosure: I haven’t been paid or in anyway bribed for this review, but hey, Diego, if your Facebook likes suddenly increase and lots of people with a poor grasp of Castellano but a craving for sophisticated sweetness turn up at your door, well, send me round a choccie or two!

Oh, by the way he’s a nice guy and a genuine enthusiast.

 

Winter Warmer!

Ok, it’s not winter yet but I have lost all resistance to the cold.14 degrees C might seem surprisingly pleasant in London but I can assure you that after 5 years acclimatising to sunnier climes, 14 degrees here seems to herald the next ice age. I’m chilled to the bone and wondering what to eat. Warming comfort food is a priority.

Luckily brassicas are at their best and most robust at the moment. Time to celebrate that dish so maltreated by English dinner ladies thus despised by English school children and therefore largely ignored by the adult population. Cauliflower Cheese. And what could be simpler? A big cauli, cut into substantially sized florets (cut down the through the centre of the stalks of each floret to even up cooking times), blanch for a couple of minutes (or up to 4 if you really prefer little crunch from your cauli), whip up a bechamel (remember cold milk into hot roux or visa versa will ensure no lumps), lob in a nice sharp cheese (grated), dissolve whisking gently, pour over your drained and dried cauli and into a hot oven for 20 minutes.

BEFORE THE OVEN

image

Tips. I find roasting brings out the sweetness of cauliflower, so I roast in an steel pan at a very high heat (250 degrees C) for a shorter time. It doesn’t bother me that a few wisps above the sauce line blacken slightly. If you have thrown some raw tomatoes in at that point (halved cherry ones are good) it gives them a nice texture too. Full flavoured cheese is always a problem here but a mature fontina del campo does the trick. Save some lumpy slices to throw on top before roasting or some thick slivers of Parmesan or Reggianito. For something richer soft blue cheese also works. To make it a standalone dinner dish, add some crisped lardons of smoked pancetta before you bake. Finally, the cauliflower will always give up some liquid that waters down the sauce. Adding a cup of creme to the béchamel makes a sauce that will absorb / incorporate this liquid smoothly.

AFTER

image

So forget the miseries of your youth and give it a go. A big cauli, a litre of béchamel and quarter kilo of cheese will easily feed four.

Maybe we should start doing comfort food evenings at The 5th Floor? This would certainly warm the cockles of your average Argentine! Or include Bed and Breakfast in the package for the expat crowd who want to escape back to their own culture for a night or two? What do you think?

Perfect Prawns?

Gambas

Seafood in BA is frankly irritating! It’s not as though Argentina suffers from a lack of ocean frontage, a paucity of territorial waters. It’s just that until recently the Argentines only ate fish of religious duty and with somewhat less fervour than they follow the tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of the month. Why go to all the effort of pursuing slippery marine creatures when a decent and affordable dinner was happily chewing the cud not so many metres away? Why not just license out the fishing rights to the Japanese or Spanish or some other fish obsessed culture or if you really must catch it yourself be sure to export it rather than burden the local population with the chores of gutting, scaling and filleting.

The popularity of Sushi, despite its unholy pairing of fish and philadelphia (cheese) is beginning to change things, though there is still an incredible lack of quality and variety, think flabby Chilean farmed salmon or sea bass that should have indulged in a bit of physical activity during its short but greedy life. So other than the thrice weekly deliveries to China Town which provide the most acceptable supplies available, where else can one go to find decent product?

Last week we came across the Pescaderia Mellino, a fish shop in front of the venerable Mercado del Progreso in Caballito that seems to offer a very decent alternative. Here is their website http://www.pescaderiamellino.com. They are a pretty inventive business, offering various “packs” of nice fresh produce, the baseline starting at less (one peso less of course) than 500 pesos for 7 whole kilos of fishy delights. They call this the family pack but I can’t help thinking you will need a pretty big family to get through this lot in short order, so some of the benefits of its freshness will be diluted by the fact that you will have to freeze half of it. However, at around 4 of my Great British Pounds per kilo, delivered to your door anywhere in Capital and given the fact that they sell Norwegian salmon which has got to be better than the Chilean rubbish, it had to be worth giving a go. Not convinced? Well for those of you who are prepared to drag yourselves to Caballito on a Saturday morning there is another treat in store. Because on Saturday they apparently whiz the order that you placed during the week, up from Mar del Plata early in the morning and sell it to you at knock down prices. And as you will then get the opportunity to wander round the excellent Mercado del Progreso first and stock up on other hard to find produce, it has to be worth the effort.

Last Saturday, we went to see. I don’t know why it is so hard to find decent prawns here but it is. Fresh or frozen, they don’t seem to be very robust little creatures. They don’t seem to have much flavour either. So we booked Mellino’s special offer, 2 kilos of decent sized fresh ones for a mere 150 pesos. And they looked good, smelt good, we were hungry, so we rushed home to try them out. Recipe time?

Well, however good they were I knew they weren’t going to be some big robust indian ocean affair with superior musculature that could survive any serious cooking. Recipes that work here are those that heat them until they firm and colour, without any serious calorific challenge. Also, and I have no idea why this is, prawns here definitely need to be cleaned. Don’t even think about cooking them in their shells. And don’t go to a restaurant that does. These chaps have some serious intestines to deal with.

What could be easier than Gambas al Ajillo? Good olive oil, large but fine slices of garlic and chili, warm to infuse, heat up a little (halfway between poaching and frying temperature), in with the prawns and the moment they firm up and show the right colour tip the lot into a cold dish and serve with warm slices of baguette to soak up the sauce. Yes, that’s right, a cold dish. Don’t go with the lovely traditional spanish clay dishes that you cook in and then they retain the heat and keep cooking your prawns, unless you want Argentine prawn mush.

In the evening we had a couple of friends over for an impromptu dinner, and we still had plenty of prawns. Another simple and very tasty dish, which makes a great starter. Finely cube a few inches of a fairly fatty spanish style chorizo and fry until your pan is quite oily. Turn the heat up, bung in halved cherry tomatoes, then a few minutes later, turn the heat down, garlic and chili as above, a bit of white wine and then the prawns and some fine (and obviously recently cooked) pasta. A few fresh herbs and pepper and the flavours are remarkably sophisticated for such little effort.

And of course, having cleaned them, you still have the heads and shells. Fry them up with garlic and fennel and a tomato or two, cover them in some water and bubble for half an hour and you have a tasty stock (and from 2 kilos of prawns quite a lot of it), the perfect base for an asian soup or a French sauce. I used it in this Thai fish coconut noodle soup.

Thai Prawn Soup

So the prawns, quality wise? Pretty good actually. Sweet flesh, good texture, I’d go back.

And reasonably priced fish, delivered to your door in BA. Without cream cheese? You know it makes sense!

 

Another dreadful photo but a surefire way to cook chicken breast.

 

la foto-66

Should I even write about this? I mean what could be duller than a chicken breast. You know, those dry, chalky slices that leave you begging for more Cesar dressing when they turn up in your salad. Or the dehydrated lump in your curry that leads you to believe you are not the chef’s favourite person. But it’s leaner aka healthier, all chickens have them so it would be rude to throw them away, and while they will never live up to the succulence of the leg meat that can withstand lengthy cooking in a rich sauce without giving you that “eating cardboard” sensation, you have to do something with them. And as we all know they have less fat (aka less flavour) so my more health conscious brethren will continue to demand them…like a kind of penance!

Of course, any chef worth his salt will know that his entire clientele will instantly die if he doesn’t cook his chicken till the juices run clear. A hint of pink, say bye bye to your glorious career. What they don’t realise is that the juices can run clear (clients live to fight another day) while the breast meat can still retain a hint of pink. Chicken isn’t that dangerous. Let’s face it, even if you choose the worst quality chicken, it has probably taken more antibiotics over the course of its very short life than you will in your entire existence. Factory farmed chicken may have cured you of many diseases that you didn’t know you had.

While cooking the whole bird (preferably one that has lived a gloriously privileged free range life eating the finest comestibles), there are all sorts of strategies that can be applied to prevent “Sahara breast effect”. Basting, buttering, tenting with foil, or even hacking the bloody thing in half and starting the breast part later. But if you give me a pair of fillets, off the bone, what do I do? Well the only reliable advice is brining, but frankly that takes a lot of forethought, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

Then I came across a recipe (with its appropriate condiments) for Thai Chicken Rice. And she uses the breast (though this is not obligatory). And it provides the basic principle for cooking the perfect chicken breast. Basically get your preferred liquid up to maximum heat (I used my rich chicken stock), submerge breasts, boil for 4 minutes, slap on a tightly fitting pot lid, turn off the heat and WALK AWAY!  FOR 50 MINUTES. As cooking people do, she recommends various other steps, rubbing the thing in salt, cooking on the bone, shocking it afterwards in freezing water. Well you can play with these things afterwards but as far as I can see they make little difference. It’s all about faith. Four minutes seems to be enough for the residual heat to finish the cooking process while leaving the breast as moist as you can imagine, maybe with a tinge of pink, but definitely the juices run clear. 5 minutes was too much! And don’t even think about giving it a little warm up half way through the process.

If you want to go traditional (Thai), you then cook the rice in the stock and make a range of lovely sauces as per her website. http://highheelgourmet.com/2013/07/20/thai-chicken-rice-khao-man-gai/

Once I’d mastered the technique I just bunged all the flavours I wanted into the stock, soy, sweet vinegar, ginger, garlic and mirim, and once I had extracted the perfect chicken, reduced it down to a thick dip.

So have you got this? Cooking time for a chicken breast is 4 minutes! No more, and only less if you are feeling adventurous. Use the liquid of your choice. Make a nice sauce from it afterwards. But don’t bloody touch it for 50 minutes! No longer will you inflict sawdust chook on your unsuspecting guests and as the thing is only tepid when it comes out of the water bath you can use it in salads and sauces with impunity. Just don’t cook it any more.

So simple I am embarrassed to write about it….but then why are so many restaurants still getting it wrong?

Punch up the flavour!

 

1__#$!@%!#__unknown

Every now and then I have a desire to cook really strong tasting food. You know the type, reduced, spiced, seasoned, a blunt instrument though hopefully in a velvet glove…the sort of food that makes an Argentine swoon and not in a good way. Yesterday was one of those days. I have decided not to make another curry until my terrace based chili farm comes to fiery fruition but was pondering other flavours that could be intense or intensified…and with inflation and import restrictions truffles were off the menu. I settled on playing with garlic.

And yesterday was stock day, a monthly event that happens when I peer into the freezer and find it empty of flavoursome frozen liquid and have to resort to a cube. The fact is that chicken carcasses are thankfully not in huge demand so if you spend as much time at home as I do, buying as many kilos as will fit into the biggest pot you own, roasting then for a bit and them throwing them into said pot with a couple of onions, some ginger (for warmth) and a bit of star anise (and lots of water of course) makes perfect sense. 20 pesos and you have the base for umpteen meals (and don’t forget to make the heavy stock from the first few of hours of bubbling and a light stock from subjecting the carcasses to another round – after all sometimes you need something more flavoursome than water but not definitively chickeny).

So the heavy, brown, creamy, roast chicken stock was the velvet glove (though in itself it would have made a Jewish mother proud), now I needed the blunt instrument. And a little trawl of the internet provided a lot of suggestions. I finally settled on a roast garlic and potato soup. Using LOTS of garlic, but roasted for an hour and something to melt and sweeten it. Easy enough, hack off the top of 4 heads of garlic, plenty of oil on some foil on a roasting tray, cut side down, tent the foil, roast and cool, and most of the succulent cloves will stick to the foil and extract themselves as you pull back on the skin (videos of this luscious event are legally available on Youtube). And as for the spuds, well it seemed a shame to leave them naked and cubed while the garlic was transforming itself from strident to mellow, so I roasted them with a load of fresh rosemary thinking that the difference in texture and crunchy bits would make stuff more interesting when blitzed in the blender.

Ingredients done, time to put it together. Cook a couple of finely chopped onions preferably in the chicken fat you skimmed off your stock (if not in olive oil). Once translucent throw in your garlic and smooch it up a bit over high heat. Sprinkle over a palm full of flour (you don’t need much as the potatoes do the thickening) but cook till nicely browned stirring all the time and then a good glug (ok, half a bottle) of white wine of dubious quality. Bubble like you hate it and are trying to do it harm. Then turn the heat down a bit and add the spuds and a couple of litres of stock, ladle by ladle, or just throw it all in if there is something good on TV, though you will need to stir in the commercial breaks which seem conveniently frequent these days. How much stock do you really need? Well that depends on how much garlic you can handle. 4 heads seem to go a long way. Keep the tasting spoon handy and be aware that once blitzed it tastes stronger.

Cool, liquidize, realise you have a lot of soup, ring more friends, make some croutons, realise that the bacon you still have in the fridge will be delicious on top once blasted with heat and crumbled on top, heat up again, understand that your best friend’s girlfriend is going to refuse to eat it fearing her breath won’t be of celebrity status in the nightclub later, tell the girl with the impending cold that her health problems are sorted (unless she send a lot of time in the bathroom “powdering” her nose), and enjoy!

Let me know if roasted garlic and potatoes has a taste reminiscent of globe artichokes? In the best possible way though??

If you want to get fancy, pair it with my beetroot, feta and roast cashew recipe and call it “Pungent Tastes from the Earth”. And it’s strong so it goes a long way!

Or just make a little fresh Oregano crouton (what, you don’t have a bush of the stuff on your terrace – shame on you, it grows like a weed), and keep the rest to eat during the week. It’s got no cream or fancy stuff so shouldn’t go off.

Like it or hate it, you won’t tell me its dull (although the photo is).

 

Death and Life

Death and Life

The wonderful Martin Miller died yesterday. A true renaissance man, I was proud to count him as one of my closest friends even though we were not the sorts of mates to conduct a long distance relationship. However he was my first call on arriving back in England and the pleasure of chewing the fat over a glass of the Gin he lovingly crafted (Millers Gin of course) had lost none of its allure. His mind, like his filing cabinet, was always brimming over with new projects, business plans or literary plots. He was the ultimate conversationalists and lavished his time generously on his friends.

Sadly, I didn’t even know he was ill; he wasn’t a guy who broadcast his problems. I hope his amazingly active brain and ready wit sustained him through to the end. What upset me more than anything is the fact that I never got to show him The 5th Floor, for which he was largely the inspiration and certainly one of the main reasons that I had confidence that a not very successful but reasonably socially adept ex-investment banker, could create a slightly strange niche within the hospitality industry.

I will always remember the first time I was invited to one of the frequent cocktail parties at Miller’s Rooming House, his Notting Hill Bed and Breakfast. Situated over an Arab restaurant, you entered through an unmarked door and climbed a narrow staircase, attempting to avoid incinerating yourself on one of the hundreds of candles that Martin always insisted gave the best light. You wondered if you had come to the right place, until you arrived in his capacious sitting room, with its eclectic mix of antiques and brocade, sculptures and knick knacks, which always gave the effect of looking sumptuous and homely at the same time. Of course Martin knew what he was doing. With his first wife he founded Millers Antique Guides, one of the world’s most successful antiques publications. I once asked him if he worried about these treasures being damaged. Not at all he replied, as antiques they are all fatally flawed, cheap. But he certainly knew how to dress a room.

And so I met the man, hosting an equally eclectic mix of people, by now squeezed somewhat tightly into his living room. He was the consummate host, but not someone who flitted from group to group. No, if he was having an interesting conversation he had the ability to draw you into his crowd, so you never felt ignored but neither was the conversation interrupted. We soon became firmest of friends and it wasn’t long before I started suggesting to my more open-minded clients that they might like to stay at a little Bed and Breakfast in Notting Hill rather than the Lanesborough or the Savoy. They loved it, especially when they ended up having breakfast with Mario Testino or Marian Faithful (regular habitués), or had spent the night drinking with Eric Clapton’s ex or some famous rock band.

So I have tried to take a leaf out of Martin’s book and create a place with the same “onda” (as we say in BA), where intelligent people will feel well looked after and hopefully feel fast-tracked into the social and cultural life of Buenos Aires, possibly the world’s greatest city. We have been open six weeks, appear to be getting busier and busier (though it is high season) and have so far exceeded our expectations. Maybe this a suitable time for a bit of reflection on our new life?

Well both Veronica and I come from backgrounds completely unconnected with the hospitality industry, so we don’t really know what we are doing. We have to make it up as we go along. And the first thing we have noticed is how incredibly supportive people have been. Not just our friends but also potential competitors, suppliers, journalists. Buenos Aires is truly a place for offering something a bit different and fresh.

And so far our clients have been charming to a fault. We were about to sign up to an electronic booking engine but at the last moment it didn’t feel right. We want to know that our clients will like our other clients. You can’t do that by allowing easy access for every random stranger. How do you know they have even read your website? That they understand what you offer and what you don’t? Yes we might be busier, but with who? So we binned that idea and now if clients want to know our rates they have to scour through our website which hopefully makes the above pretty clear. We have also been running Puerta Cerrada (closed door) restaurants about once a week. Vietnamese, Vegan, Texan BBQ, and my own Ugly Food, dinner party style.  All stuff that is not easily accessible in BA. As we are in learning mode we have been doing them at cost. Obviously that leads to a big waiting list!

More importantly it has also led to a random pair of tourists who came to dinner ending up with a whole bunch of new friends in a city that they had just arrived in. They sent me a tongue in cheek email complaining that with all these people to see, they had no time left to see the sights. Hopefully they will be back and the next time staying at The 5th Floor???

Can you really pick your guests and have a successful business as well? That I still can’t answer. It certainly seems that the extra effort required to find us and book with us, is attracting people whose expectations have already been conditioned by our public information. They seem to be people who would be pretty comfortable having dinner together. Generally people substantially more intelligent and better educated than me. Which is a bloody relief…I hate being bored!

My biggest cock-up so far? I need to put more salt in my roast tomato juice (probably celery salt too – hey I listen). My Bloody Mary may be the best in BA but it can still be improved on. Mexicans know about this stuff! So not fatal unless I have some fussy Mexican capo in the house.

I’d like to finish with a huge thank you to all the guys who have supported us, including all our initial clients. This is my life now. I’m no longer some self-important financier. I’m the guy that cooks you breakfast. But you have all been so nice and such good company. If my friend Martin could come now, he’d have a great time with my guests and I think he would be proud of the fact that we have ignored most of the ABC’s of marketing, to try and ensure a more pleasant experience for our clients. Actually, I doubt he ever considered marketing in his life. He was a brand in himself.

So goodbye to a great friend but forward with the life he helped inspire.

Rest in Peace my friend.

 

 

It Just Got Serious.

So we opened! And obviously that involves having guests and seeing whether the fantasy hotelier within bears any resemblance to the real one that now needs to spring into action. And of course we didn’t start with just any old guests but very important ones. A journalist and her boyfriend, a journalist that writes about hotels, stays in hotels, eats in hotels and is intending to write about us….in other words, the sort of person that might notice if we are entirely clueless or have failed to attend to some basic necessity. And to pile on the pressure we had a friend over from Peru and she decided to stay too. That meant 2 rooms to prepare, 2 sets of breakfast to do.

You might think that, for a man who started his working career in front of blinking screens with 3 telephones scrunched between shoulders and ears, screaming down a microphone to the dealing floor, making a couple of beds and frying a couple of eggs should be plain sailing. And its not as though I have to do it all myself, we are a team here. Four people to look after three people. Pretty good odds. But in my days of strange sign language (you youngsters who have never seen a real life and now largely obsolete trading floor may not understand), colourful jackets, and million pound bids to nick a couple of points, it was never my money. It wasn’t personal. And later when I was raising money from venture capitalists for risky technology start ups, well they were big boys and knew the market and anyway it was the managements responsibility to deliver. I just had to bring the money in and count the commission.

Now its different. This is my life and the culmination of a year’s restoration project which quite frankly turned out to be jolly hard work. And I have to make it work as frankly I haven’t got any other means of making a living if I wish to remain in this fair city. Which I do of course because, in case I have failed to mention it incessantly, Buenos Aires is currently the best city in the world.

Anyway, as it was sunny when we were organising said journalist’s stay and Esther Marie was only in the country for the weekend and frankly we haven’t done much entertaining recently, I had the bright idea of an Opening Asado. What could be easier? Knock up a few salads, bung a bit of meat on the grill and have plenty of time to chat to the guests while it sizzles smokily. But then it wasn’t sunny, it was pouring for several days and the asado idea seemed less wise and there was still a dozen people coming for Saturday dinner. No problem, we’d bring it inside, my kitchen caters for 40 so this would be an easy trial run.

Friday was Bacon Panic day. I am intent on offering a proper breakfast at The 5th Floor and that involves bacon and no, this cannot be replaced by Argentine pancetta which shrivels to a fatty nothingness the moment it makes contact with heat. I had ordered early and Larry said it would be no problem and then someone died and Larry the Texan was on the first plane to the lone star state…leaving me bacon-less! Now you might think that a man suffering a recent bereavement would have more important things on his mind than my pending cooked breakfast and quite reasonably so. In England a sympathetic “Sorry about your uncle but what about my porcine comestibles?” would likely be met with either derision or the hard end of a clenched fist. Larry however is a proper friend and realised this small thing was important to me. He was on the blower the moment the wheels hit the tarmac and worked out a delivery solution.

Of course, I’m a guy who likes to be assured. I had already gotten on the phone to Heath, the founder of Baines Best, proper bacon in Argyland. Heath turned out to be holidaying in Mendoza but obviously recognised the urgency. He had a packet at home (out in San Isidro) lurking in the back of his fridge. He rang home with orders that nobody eat it, ordered a reliable taxi driver to deliver it and problem solved. The result, well a bit more streaky than I normally like my bacon, but combined with the Germans’ excellent sausages, some free range eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes, possibly the best English breakfast you will get to eat in BA. The lesson for me? I may be leading a different life but I have amazing friends who will really put themselves out to sort out something that could justifiably be seen as trivial.

Saturday arrived. I decided on a fairly simple menu, relying heavily on my herb garden to wake up the marinades and flavour the sauces. I prepped early, everything under control, ready to cook. And then a nice woman who edits the Lonely Planet guide to Argentina arrived. She said she only had ten minutes but she was interesting and informative and we spent an hour and a bit, so then I needed to get on with things. But I couldn’t because Frank had kindly offered to bake a couple of apple pies and I hadn’t realised that this would involve turning my entire kitchen into a fat enhanced replica of the sahara desert. Not a space anywhere for further gastronomic endeavour! I was told it would be sorted in 40 minutes and retreated. Important journalist arrived with boyfriend. We did the tour and got them settled in. They said they were looking forward to dinner. I didn’t mention that they would be lucky to eat much before breakfast (which would be fabulous of course).

Time to see if my very expensive and frighteningly professional kitchen worked, which it did. Heat cranked up, we soon made up for lost time. And I have to say that the mountain of roast potatoes (what else are you going to feed an English journalist that hasn’t been home for some years) came out to Delia Smith perfection. A starter involving warm brie, confit tomatoes and a severe haircut for the basil plant, pork and oriental cabbage dish, some chickens with roast veg, caramelised onions and the spuds and the now famous apple pies. All good.

And the fact is the place works. Not just the comfy rooms, but the fact that the sitting room really is a place to share a glass with friends and that with the awning extended and the heating on we were comfortable outside into the chilly early hours. Important journalist seemed happy and gave us good to hear feedback.

Breakfast was later completed on the terrace on one of BA’s finest spring days.

So what was I worried about? It all worked out fine. Well the fact is I worry about hundreds of dollars (room rates) now, not millions. I worry about the quality of my ingredients and my ability to deliver the desired product. And if I didn’t worry then I would be unlikely to provide my guests with what they want and if I don’t do that then my enterprise will wither on the vine.

But to sum up, it felt more satisfying to see happy diners and guests out the door knowing they had genuinely had a good time that it ever did simply filling up my bank account. The 5th Floor is open and we will do the worrying to ensure you have the experience of this fine city that you deserve.

A final note, I owe huge thanks to the people who have been so supportive in getting this endeavour off the ground. The idea came to me after some visiting friends stayed at one of the highest rated B&B’s in Buenos Aires. I’d already (in my former guise as presumably rich banker) been introduced  to the property that is now The 5th Floor, but the guys at Abode B&B opened my eyes to the fact that ( a now poor ex-banker with strong views on hospitality) could make a perfectly acceptable living offering just that; Proper hospitality. They went so far as inviting me round to speak to their clients, so I could understand what people were really looking for, and then started sending some of their overflow to us. Obviously helping your competitors start up would be frowned upon in the world of high finance, but they are established. They don’t think of us as a threat, they are established, we are the young cousin making his first few pennies.

And there are many more people who deserve my thanks. They know who they are! All I can say is that you are the reason I made the decision to abandon my former life and reinvent myself as a budding hospitality provider. And so far I couldn’t be happier, though this getting up to prep breakfast is still hard! Especially after extending hospitality until ridiculous times in the morning!!! And of course there is my lovely partner, who ensures that it is a team effort, brings the feminine touch, and cares as much as me.

So thank you guys. Without your support I wouldn’t have the same life and let’s face it, it could hardly be better.

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!

Green Fingers and Fresh Herbs.

la fotoI’d like to be able to say that I lovingly nurtured the pictured greenery from seed, cooing and gurgling at them like Prince Charles until they accelerated the growth of their tendrils in a vain bid to escape. However the truth is I bought a garden. The lemon trees were looking a little lonely on my terrace. The view, though typically urban BA, needed softening.

image

And I have to admit I didn’t get the best deal. Yes I bargained a bit, got them to throw in some additional shrubs, but finally I went with the nursery around the corner. After all what could be more intimidating than an Englishman that lives a block away, who is likely to pop in and see you on his morning constitutional and talk loudly and in excruciating detail about plant mortality, specifically his plants, specifically your responsibility. You see where I’m coming from?

Sometimes price isn’t everything. Dying plants look pretty sad. These guys may have made a good sale but are very aware of the long tail of the care chain that it involved. So the plants arrived, big healthy looking specimens, carefully chosen for an exceedingly sunny existence, probably prayed over the night before. Possibly blessed by the Papa?

Plants are all very well of course, they lend a bit of colour, homeliness, encourage bird-life, refresh the atmosphere but you can’t eat them. So level 2 is my wall mounted herb garden. Don’t put your cigarettes out in these chaps! My lower layer is all-comestible. Cuban style urban gardening! Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Mint, Chives, Cherry Tomatoes.  A veritable house party of flavours. And a big pot of Basil to move around in order to dodge the sun.

image

So, it all needs a bit of time to settle in, to meander its way down the walls, to get over the shock of moving and accept its first harvest. But Daniella is cultivating a few chillies and some decorative varieties and she is German so you know they will do as they are told!

Hopefully the end result will be fresh herb enhanced food at The 5th Floor. Let me just pop out to hug my lime tree and play it a little Mozart!

And the lemon trees are looking happy with the company!

 

 

 

 

Exterior Comfort Control

You may think from the title that I have just invented a new sports bra or a garment to discipline and smooth your wobbly bits, but no. What I am referring to is the finally completed installation of the devices we have purchased to enhance, my supposed future guest, your appreciation of the good airs of Buenos Aires. The 5th floor is the proud possessor of 5 terraces, but the most prized is the Andalusian patio, which will shortly be verdant with plants and herbs to complement its cheerful Spanish wall tiles and its new lemon trees (whose numbers are threatening to reduce themselves as one is rather sickly and I may have to put it out of its misery).

If the sun is out, then it’s shining on this terrace and warming it to at least 5 degrees above street level. And of course the patio sports the traditional ample parrilla for family and friends style BBQ’ing and due to its positioning there is rarely any wind so we have enjoyed regular open air asados throughout the winter.  But of course the wild outdoors can be just that. Savage. I foresee problems. 5 degrees above a sunny spring day equals the best an English summer has to offer, 5 degrees above a hot Buenos Aires summer day and you may well expire with heat stroke. So look at this.

la foto-47

At the top of the picture is what we call a Toldo here (I’ve forgotten the English word), whose electrically driven, remote controlled blackness will silently slide out to cover half the terrace and protect you from the killer rays. And as we have ensured the wifi signal is suitably strong in this area, the toldo will also save you from that other modern frustration, wanting to be outside but having too much sun to see your computer screen.

But what I hear you ask is that brutal looking object hanging below the toldo? Well that is the latest and most effective equipment for exterior heating, because yes even in BA occasionally it does get cold, sometimes into single digits celsius, occasionally for several days at a time and as any porteño will tell you slightly hysterically, “el frio te mata”. The cold kills you, its as simple as that here. Furthermore, by near consensus we have banished smoking from the interior of the 5th floor. But we are not discriminatory, we love smokers as much as non-smokers, we want them to share the same level of comfort. And understanding that more smokers now die of weather induced pneumonia in London caused by huddling outside their buildings in inclement conditions, than of the previously common smoking related illnesses, we wouldn’t wish that on our valued clients. After all, where am I (I obviously mean you) going to sip, my evening gin and tonic while partaking of its accompanying nicotine, without having the embarrassment of watching my long suffering partner, swathed in woollens, shivering while accompanying me.

Fear not, at the 5th floor we just crank up the 5 metre gas tube, strip off out protective layers and warm ourselves to the degree that we need more ice in our drinks. And luckily, I have purchased a nice ice making machine to provide for this eventuality.

So, if like me you are a fan of the great outdoors, as long as it can be partaken of within the confines of a suitably large and cultured city and has immediate access to comfortable facilities, then our terrace will certainly fill you with joy. Stick a big juicy hunk of cow over the smouldering embers on the parrilla and you will feel as close to raw nature as you ever need to!