It's not new that Argentinians are really crazy about meat: they are the second world's biggest beef consumers (the first one is neighbor Uruguay). It is estimated that approximately 4.5 million tons of meat were consumed in Argentina in 2018 - up from 4.4 million tons consumed a year earlier. It is an average of 50 kilos per capita. More than a habit, eating meat is a tradition in this carnivorous South America's country. A tradition that is now being questioned.
More and more, local chefs and restauranteurs are trying to change these numbers by showing Argentinians that it is possible to reduce the amount of meat consumed in search of a more conscious diet - more in line with the sustainable values that have taken the gastronomy today.
It is not a matter of convincing people not to eat meat, but to encourage them to do it with more awareness, by seeking quality above all - a quality that begins in the field.
Over the years, Don Julio, a traditional Argentinian steakhouse transformed into a meat Mecca in Buenos Aires, has been looking more closely at the Aberdeen Angus and Hereford beef that serves for its customers.“Today, we work only with small breeders who we visit constantly, so we know how they do their job: with the same commitment as we have with quality because their work is their way of life, and they love what they do”, says Pablo Rivero, owner of Don Julio, one of the most sought-after places for a steak in the Argentina’s capital, and No.6 on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018.
“We know that they work sustainably, in lands where cattle roam freely, which gives us the opportunity to serve healthier and more flavorful meat,” he adds. Many of the cows served in the restaurant are bred in green pastures in Patagonia, such as in the region of the city of San Martin de Los Andes.
According to him, embracing sustainability is the only way to create a better chain for the future of meat consumption (and for the restaurant itself). “Many cows are kept in tie-stalls, which involve severe confinement, what sounds devilish and unsustainable for me”, he points out. Don Julio only works with pasture cattle.“I think it is always better to eat meat of excellent quality, healthy and wealthy, even if we do it less often. It is the only way to maintain our well-being, to take care of the environment”.
At Don Julio, customers are encouraged to share the large cuts and have a variety of vegetables in the menu to choose to complete the meal, all of them harvested on a farm maintained only to supply the restaurant. “It was impossible for an Argentinian to have a meal with less than 300 grams of meat. Today, this has changed, people are more likely to share the large cuts, such as a standing beef rib roast or a bife de cuadril (rump steak)”, he explains.
Another important thing is that, at Don Julio, the focus is on using every part of the animal, so that nothing is wasted. Rivero says they take advantage that Argentinians love achuras (how they call the offal a offered alongside the cuts of meat, such as sweetbreads, kidney, and liver) to cook every part of it. “It is the best way to honor an animal's death and the most sustainable way to serve it”, he concludes.
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Steakhouses and other local restaurants have also seen in the vegetables a way to innovate in meals since the meats are invariably served in the same way in most places: made in the parrilla, seasoned only with salt and few condiments. The chef Narda Lepes, TV host and owner of Narda Comedor in Buenos Aires, wants to change the Argentine mindset of 'the more meat, the better' by redressing the balance between proteins and vegetables in the meals.
In her restaurant, she highlights the vegetables to the foreground, elevating them as the protagonists of her recipes. "People in Argentina feel that if they did not eat meat at a meal, they did not eat at all. What I try to do, taking advantage of the credibility that I have with people, is to offer tasty dishes, vegetarian or not, in which the meat appears in the background, only to bring flavor”, she explains.
Lepes cooks it in sauces and in accompaniments to plant-based dishes. It is the case of a potato cream served with broth meat or the anchovies that Lepes includes in salads and other recipes. "I want vegetables to be visible on the menu, and that people can really enjoy a meal with less meat, "she says. For her, more people in Argentina have embraced vegetarianism as a lifestyle - even though it is still a niche. This means an important transformation in the country.
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Many vegetarian restaurants are opening in Buenos Aires, proving that local food behavior has been transformed. Sacro is one of the representatives of this new wave: opened at the end of last year in Palermo’s hip neighborhood, the restaurant serves dishes influenced by cuisines from various parts of the world but using only vegetables.
“Although Buenos Aires is a city with high consumption of meat per capita, there is a growing openness to enjoy more and more meals without animal derivatives,” believes Damián Harburguer, a partner of Sacro. “We try to do our best to demonstrate that a kitchen free from animal products can be as sophisticated as delicious”, he says. In Sacro, it’s not only vegetables, but cereals, mushrooms, and nuts also shine in the menu, opening a world of options to create unique flavors.
He explains that he is convinced that restaurant concepts free from animal products is a trend already set worldwide, even though Argentina maybe advances slower than other countries in this theme. “I have no doubt that here we are also heading in that direction. We have already welcomed many tourists in the restaurant, but now we have to conquer the Argentinians” he concludes. One step at a time…