In South America there’s a tradition of throwing the most badass meat + fire cooking events called asados. This week, six American pitmasters are traveling throughout Uruguay to learn the finer points of the process. Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s will be documenting the action for Food Republic.
Day two began slowly. The toll of international travel had gotten the best of everyone. We slept late but when we awoke our first genuine asado was at hand.
What’s taken for granted in my mind has been what the asado really means. It’s a style of cooking to be sure, but genuinely it is the heartbeat of this land. Just like we rely on pork and cornbread as Southern sustenance, people here don’t really understand what cooking means if it is not over live fire. What we witnessed at the Belcampo farm was the essence of this.
When we arrived on the farm a lamb was being splayed on an iron cross, as was a suckling pig. The fires were ready and it was primitive and beautiful. Norberto, one of the chefs, showed me with his hand how many hours it would take to cook the animals by the distance from the fire. It was quite incredible because he spoke in very accurate time, not in approximates. In addition to the animals that rested on crosses high above the fires, there were also beef short ribs placed on grills directly over very low coals. The fat that dripped slowly into the coals produced smoke that penetrated the meat.
Another amazing dish created by the chefs was lamb confit. Shoulders were packed into cast iron ovens that were loaded with butter and placed directly above the fire to poach slowly and produce tender, succulent confit. It was pretty spectacular to see this done outside over an open fire. The chefs were resourceful and didn’t allow the environment to hinder their creative spirits. Once the animals were placed where they needed to be, the asadors positioned themselves patiently to wait, then observe and adjust as the fires demanded. The beauty of the simplicity was breathtaking.
With time at hand we toured the farm, which totals around 3,000 acres. Looking out over the land you feel like you are seeing the American West before it was developed. Railways and the interstate system cut part of the life out of our country, but here life seems to be as it has been for centuries. There is an appreciation for what people have at hand that seems to prevent the need for what is not at hand. We toured the farm gardens and tasted vegetables and fruits that were alive with the most intense flavors. Chicories, berries, tomatoes, herbs and fennel were all available to us and so intensely delicious. This was food for our minds too.
When the Fatback Collective cooks for the South Americans Friday my task, shared with Ashley Christensen and Chris Harrigan, will be to prepare vegetables in our own style and tradition. The three of us ate our way through the garden with nothing but the excitement of possibility in our minds. Considering things deeply, it was time to move again.
After the farm tour we returned to the site of the asado to watch a local butcher from Manolo (an artisan butcher shop in the town of Jose Ignacio) break down a side of beef. The beef was hanging from a tree near the cooking space. It was beautiful just to observe the sight in a natural setting. The butcher worked quickly, and using the hanging weight of the animal, easily produced primal portions of meat to be used at a later date. There was an intimacy between the butcher and the animal. He obviously had a deep respect for the cow that grew on the land here and he conveyed that in the traditional style of butchering he used.
After the butchering display, it was hog killing time — a suckling pig, to be specific. The pig’s short life was sacrificed for us, and some of us appreciated the magnitude of the event, saying a silent prayer for the animal in gratitude. The knife moved from its throat to its heart; its legs kicked and from the back of an old Nissan truck blood stained the earth. This was important to us because if you can’t handle death then you should not be permitted to taste its fruit. Death, like life, produces so much, and over the fires of the asado we would be allowed to share reverently in its reward.
In celebration, we ate. Lamb, beef and pork — it was gorgeous. The meats were all wonderfully tender and smoky and complemented simply with some chimichurri. What I’ve come to love about chimichurri is that it seems to cut through the grassiness of the native animals here, which is interesting since it is made up of so many grassy, herbaceous flavors.
As much as I enjoyed the meats, I really enjoyed the vegetable preparations. The preparations were relatively humble: greens dressed lightly in oil and vinegar, beets, carrots and zucchini that were roasted in cast iron were all very simple and perfect accompaniments to meats so full of flavor from coal and fire. We dined late, which seems to be very customary here, and then finished the evening by the fire. It was all perfect and left us very excited for the coming day, when we could share our food with these wonderful chefs.
Read more about Drew Robinson’s asado adventure in Uruguay: