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How the layers of the country’s northwestern Calchaquí Valleys shape its flavors.
IT IS JUST before 7 a.m. in the city of Salta, located in the Northwest Argentine province of the same name, and a procession of men yawn while they dolly crates of fruits and vegetables in and out of the Mercado General Paz. There are mesh bags of purple onions, stacks of corn as white as ghosts, and bushels of swiss chard and spinach that leave trails of leafy greens in the crowded passageways. I’ve flown across the country to explore the food and wine of the nearby Calchaquí Valleys, and it’s in this sleepy market that I get my first taste of the ways that the worlds hidden within the valleys collide.
Outside, the sky is musky gray, and the market is surprisingly quiet. Women in pastel aprons jot down the morning's numbers in wide-ruled notebooks between sips of yerba mate steeped in styrofoam cups. The sun slowly creeps into the skylights until the windows are ablaze, and without warning, a jolt of energy erupts: The vendors begin to shout, the vegetable crates load into trucks with a bang, and music (from where exactly is a mystery) cranks all the way up.
“By 10 a.m., this place is gonna be dead,” explains cook Ana Mellado. She scans the market’s stalls for bone-in beef jerky called chalona, stopping to taste from wheels of fresh goat cheese and marvel at a bag of purple beans. She gathers her goods and gets ready to head to a sprawling property on the edge of the city that houses Arumi, a small kitchen where she hosts culinary experiences for curious locals and travelers alike.
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Today, she is preparing frangollo, a pre-Colombian ground corn stew that tastes like paprika-dusted popcorn and becomes more quotidian the deeper you climb into the surrounding mountains, where many still grind corn hunched over a stone and pestle. Mellado is one of the few cooks in the capital to offer ancestral cuisine. “City people have lost the custom of making traditional Andean dishes. They require time that life in the city doesn't allow.”
Mellado's comment takes me by surprise. The streets are full of people, but nobody looks particularly hurried to get anywhere. Everyone seems to have time — for an empanada, at least.
On my way out of the market, I grab a jugo de pelón, nectarine juice that tastes like a fruit horchata, and stop on the side of busy Avenida España and Almirante Brown, where people are gathered on plastic chairs that encircle a bright red food stand. Two young women spoon chopped meat into empanada shells — made fresh and never bought, they boast. They fold over the dough, braid them quickly, and dip them into a vat of oil. Their diners are bent forward with their legs spread open to avoid having any drips stain their pants. A juicy filling is the mark of a proper empanada salteña. The scene is repeated all over the city.
Everyone I spoke with in Salta had a favorite empanada shop to recommend. Many mentioned El Buen Gusto, where the braid (or repulgue) is so perfect that there are hushed rumors that the owners have secretly invented a press to make them. Marta Saravia sells more than 1,500 empanadas every Sunday from her home, where you can pick up or dine in on her patio.
My favorites are at La Salteñeria, where a wood-burning clay oven in the central patio radiates heat 10 feet in every direction and spits out charred empanadas in less than 90 seconds. Beef, cheese, and chicken empanadas make up the bulk of the menu. The chicken empanada, called a Potosina, is wrapped in a sweet yellow dough and is so juicy it’s served with a spoon. No matter where you are, drench your empanada with llajwa, a hot sauce made with grated tomato and rocoto chile that wraps around your throat.
As the day climbs into the afternoon, the sun’s rays beat down against the city’s stout, colonial buildings and cast such crisp shadows that it feels like I'm walking through a South American film noir in color. As the heat rises, the city grows noticeably still, and then suddenly at around 2 p.m., the shutters come down, and everyone retreats inside for their daily siesta. A few hours later, it starts all over again — the city awakens twice daily.
The cycle of quiet, followed by bursts of life, is in the city’s DNA. The province has always had a back and forth of growth and conflict. Salta was founded in the late 1500s by Spanish colonizers to connect the political center of Lima, the opulent silver industries of Sucre and Potosí, and the far-flung Atlantic port of Buenos Aires. An alliance of Indigenous tribes called the Diaguita Confederation controlled the adjacent Calchaquí Valleys of Salta and southern neighbors Tucumán and Catamarca since approximately 800 CE, and beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, they successfully displaced and dismantled colonizer settlements during 100 years of war.
By the eighteenth century, Salta was the golden child of the viceroyalty — the population ballooned as it grew into a strategic commercial center between Alto Perú and Buenos Aires. But the nation’s War of Independence left the city in ruins for most of the nineteenth century until a new railroad system brought immigrants from Italy, Spain, and the Levant.
Much of the city’s central Plaza 9 de Julio was finished at that time: The Cathedral of Salta with its pink facade that blends into the sky at sunset; the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology with its extensive collection of figures that date back to the Inca Empire (and even includes three cryofrozen mummies); and the plaza’s transformation into the city’s garden with the planting of ceibo and orange trees, jasmine shrubs, and rose bushes. Today, the province is experiencing a rebirth from tourism and is one of the most visited places in the country.
It’s a three-hour drive through a sea of otherworldly red and pink rock formations to the town of Cafayate, home to more than 20 wineries. Over the last few years, the town has transformed into a wine and food destination, and although it is still crowded with old-school dives and traditional wineries, there are ever-more-visible new and innovative culinary arrivals.
At Pacha, a restaurant right off the town’s main plaza, husband-wife duo Tomás Casado and Soledad Garcia pull from years of fine dining gigs across Mexico, Bolivia, France, and Spain. The menu constantly changes in favor of local ingredients purchased directly from small farms from across the valley, many of which Casado personally picks up himself, sometimes from as far away as 500 kilometers. My table was filled with earthy peanut stew, a salad made with three varieties of native potatoes, and crispy roast chicken with bittersweet brown mole made with seven local chiles.
On the edge of town, I am greeted at the gates of Utama by Sacha Haro Galli, a second-generation natural winemaker and ceramist. When he isn’t busy tending to his quarter acre of Torrontés, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon that taste like the red peppercorn tree that looks over his vineyard, he is in his workshop sculpting figurines and murals out of clay he makes himself with rocks that he picks from the surrounding hills. If you pay enough attention, you’ll spot his work all over town.
Farther up the road is Vallisto, a biodynamic winery that has an impressive list of lesser-known varieties, like a fresh and choppy ugni blanc and riesling blend; or local Criolla and Torrontés, wines that are the culmination of grapes brought by immigrants from all over Western Europe which, generation after generation, created something totally new — a fitting parallel for the cross-over of Indigenous, Spanish-Criollo, and European cultures that make up these lands. “There is a unique energy here,” explains sommelier Emilce Leyes. “This land is filled with artifacts from Indigenous peoples, and you can really feel that in the soil. There is something special about the way grapes grow here.”
A few kilometers outside of town, the pavement stops and the main route begins to spiral outward, leading to far-flung wineries and towns as big as mosquito bites. Buried behind a small hillscape is Tacuil, a green oasis where sixth-generation winemaker Raúl Davalos continues the legacy of his family, who were responsible for founding the country’s oldest operating winery in 1831, in nearby Colomé, when Doña Ascensión Isasmendi de Davalos introduced French grapes to the valley.
As I drive to the next town, I’m amazed by the idea that grapes sailed from across the Atlantic Ocean, were hauled in from Buenos Aires, and taken deep into the hills by mule and buggy. Today, there is Wi-Fi and cars but a sense of being lost in time is omnipresent all the same.
Farther up the road is the one-street town of Seclantás. At Casa Díaz, father-son duo Pio Senior and Pio Junior prepare traditional Indigenous dishes like chuchoca, a smoked corn stew that takes two days to make, served with glasses of homemade mistela, a sweet liqueur. Across the street is the workshop of Guiso Morales, a weaver since the age of 12, who makes everything to order for clients as far away as Buenos Aires. “I’m sorry that I don’t have a showroom, but I work slowly and everything sells quickly.”
An hour farther is Cachi, a composite of everything the valley has shown me. Sleek hotel El Cortijo offers the right mix of twenty-first century comfort in an old mansion built of stone and adobe and decked out with cacti and local artwork. Down the street is the Mercado Municipal, where you can purchase artisan-made crushed pepper made by the town cacique, Doña Dora Siarez, and have an empanada appetizer from the stand run by Doña Sara Tolaba before devouring a plate of roast lamb across the street at El Zapallo.
“The land is harsh, but it gives you everything you need,” explains Sylvie Bonnal of Isasmendi as she pours a glass of her Malbec Reserve. “The grapes here love to suffer. They have to work hard to survive, just like the people who live here, but that’s why they make such unique, complex wines.”
Bonnal’s patio offers a perfect view of the sunset. Clouds hang in the air like cotton balls over jagged hills that look as sharp as a gaucho’s knife pulled from its leather holster. From afar, the landscape is rough as sandpaper, yet if you look long enough, the beige tapestry begins to pop with yellow and emerald patches of grass and prickly lime green cacti that dot the ground like pimples. The more you observe, the clearer becomes the beauty of its harshness, the life hidden in its silence.
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Kevin Vaughn is a writer, cook, and tour operator based out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the last decade. All of his work connects a profound interest in the intersection of food, community, narrative, history, and the sociopolitical.
Laura Macías is a Colombian photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, specializing in commercial and editorial food photography. She is passionate about telling stories of food, drinks, people, and culture through her photos.
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