Photography: James Fisher
Words: Shane Mitchell
“Give them guns?” Jean-Jacques von Bonstetten asked incredulously. “My God, do you want a revolution?” We bounced along a dirt track in his pickup. “No patrón would be that stupid. It’s hard enough for me to get a gun permit in this country.” He muttered something about Che Guevara before climbing out of the cab to open a steel cattle gate. My inquiry was fuelled by a steady diet of pulp Westerns and naiveté about the right to bear arms in a distant part of the Americas that had an unstable history of democracy. Bonstetten, a middle-aged banker turned rancher, was born in Switzerland. His family emigrated to Uruguay at the start of the Cold War, just when insurgents were about to make life uncomfortable for an oppressive regime secretly backed by the CIA and not averse to torture or disappearances. Growing up on the frontline of Operation Condor, a clandestine campaign of state-sponsored terror in South America during the 1970s, could make anyone nervous — regardless of political leanings and social class — about a hot-blooded breed who relished fighting with knives normally reserved for castrating bulls. “The facón is used for three things,” he continued, referring to the gaucho utility knife. “Work, decoration, and defence. There are a lot poisonous snakes in the campo.” Bonstetten’s 25,000-acre property was once part of a much larger estancia bordering the Uruguay River outside the port of Fray Bentos. The town began as a meat-processing depot for the cattle raised in western and northern Uruguay; in 1899, a local canning company first produced corned beef for export. “Did you know there is a tin of Fray Bentos beef in The English Patient?” he asked. Jean-Jacques turned into a field as thousands of doves streaked across a green sea of soy. “Now the ground is covered with this shit,” he grimaced, waving disdainfully at the crop engulfing his grasslands. “The soy is for the Chinese. Corned beef was for the Americans. Before that, we had a half-century alone and were starving. We are close to the end of the world here.” The first gauchos were mestizo (mixed blood) descendants of early Andalusian settlers who landed in the New World to search for gold during the sixteenth century. While they didn’t fit in — the Quechua word huacho, meaning orphan, is the root of “gaucho” — these bastard sons swiftly found a purpose herding the feral cattle and horses that spread across the plains east of the Rio de la Plata.
From the beginning, gauchos were shaded closer in temperament to cattle rustlers than more law-abiding cowboys. And the moody republic of Uruguay, a tiny buffer state between Argentina and Brazil, seems uniquely suited to their independent spirit. More cattle clustered around the next gate. When Jean-Jacques drove up, they spooked. The animals shoved over the post-and-wire enclosure and stampeded. Jean-Jacques shut off his engine and, on foot, paralleled the cattle, now placid in the honey-scented grass. He spoke quietly, and advanced slowly with his arms held wide, until they turned together to move back across to their proper pasture. Back at the hacienda, a pack of dogs greeted us, leaping up from their siesta on the courtyard patio. Jean-Jacques’s sister Christine, a stocky blonde with a wide smile, called us into the dining room. The ranch cooks had prepared puchero criollo, the gaucho version of chuckwagon chile, which simmers on stoves at estancias throughout the Southern Cone. It is a characteristic meal for orphans, thrown together from meat scraps and vegetable ends, its ancestry rooted in Italy’s bollito misto. Christine offered me a bowl. The broth was rich with yellow beef fat. “Do you think gauchos are disappearing as agriculture changes?” I asked. Jean-Jacques snorted. “The younger generation are just gauchos in blue jeans,” he replied. “Now, they want to be tractoristas. No one wants to be on a horse looking for a cow.”
At a weekend criolla on the edge of the pampas, one of the gauchos preparing to ride knelt in the grass and cinched his spurs. Gauchos are working horsemen, but they also test their skills at informal county fairs, where riders throughout el Uruguay profundo — or the great interior — gather and compete. Up on the bandstand, a payador (gaucho poet) strummed his guitar, reciting improvised verses in rapid tempo, underscoring the mounting tension when a blindfolded bronco slipped sideways in its bindings at a hitching pole in the rodeo ring. It took several men, all slapping, shoving, punching, and kicking, to force the straining beast erect again. The gaucho climbed into the saddle and dug in his spurs so the horse bucked wildly when handlers released its trusses. Eight seconds later, he was at on the ground again; the frantic steed crashing through the gathered crowd.
The asador raised his axe and killed the cow with a blow to its forehead. The animal slumped, no longer straining desperately against the rope that bound it. Then out came knives as long as swords. Surrounding the rodeo arena was a tarpaulin encampment: makeshift bars, traveling salesmen hawking spurs and saddles, crated pigs, portable toilets, and this blood-soaked pen where gauchos were butchering for an asado. Raw sausages were heaped on a table waiting for the grill; cooks raked hot coals from a wood pyre and shovelled them under butterflied haunches of beef spitted on iron crosses. Complete with the matted hides still attached, asado con cuero is barbecue with major macho attitude. The history of asado parallels that of the gaucho. It has evolved from a primitive grilling technique to feed hungry cattlemen on the pampas into a protein-centric social event involving huge cuts of beef, lamb, or pork. No criolla in Uruguay would be complete without at least one pit surrounded by men tending the res. Later, a drunken gaucho leaned against the bar and quietly advised, “The meat is better at other stalls.” It would have been wise to heed a correlation between the violent, frightened end of an animal and the sour turn of its meat, but who paid attention to glassy-eyed men stinking of horse sweat and sloshed beer?
This article is an adaptation from the recent book “Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World” Published by Ten Speed Press. James Beard Award-winning journalist Shane Mitchell and photographer James Fisher have traveled the world on assignment for food and travel publications such as Travel + Leisure, Australian Gourmet Traveller and Saveur. Along the way, they have encountered the fascinating people who are keeping some of the world’s oldest food traditions alive, such as taro farmers in Hawaii who have never left the islands, Maasai warriors in Kenya, and Icelandic shepherds who still use the techniques of their Viking ancestors. Full of compelling photography from far-flung locations, Far Afield profiles these people, sharing their unique and captivating stories along with forty recipes.