Some Observations on Uruguay
|Having left Uruguay almost a month ago, here are my most vivid impressions of the country:
Travelling round Uruguay you feel like you have entered an American 1950s movie. All around you are vintage Ford pick up trucks and cars, most of them in pristine condition and still being driven. The most seem to be in Colonia, which feels like one big outdoor car museum.
I believe that maté is drunk all around South America but nowhere does is seem quite so ubiquitous as in Uruguay. Everywhere you go you will see people sitting on doorsteps or park benches with a flask beside them and a wooden cup in their hand. It will be filled with herbs (which look a bit like someone´s lawn cuttings), a few drops of hot water and a silver straw, which allows the recipient to enjoy the brew without getting annoying bits of dried herbs in their teeth).
Maté is a very social activity with as accompanying etiquette surely as strict as any Japanese tea party. Having placed the maté in one side of the cup, you add the straw and fill the cup with boiling water. Then you hand it to your drinking friend with the straw facing them. They sip until the water is depleted (which is only about five sips), making sure not to move the straw, as this stirs up the maté leaves. He hands it back and the master of ceremonies tops up the cup and either hands it to another amigo or drinks it himself. He will alternate between all the drinkers until his friend says ´gracias´, which means Í´ve had my fill, thank you very much´. Maté is an acquired taste so if you are ever invited to share some, be share be polite because you will keep getting it handed back to you until you say thank you!
If the Uruguayans aren´t drinking their brew they will be spotted walking around with the cup in hand and a flask tucked under their arm. It seems terribly inconvenient and extreme, as crazy as if the English starting walking round with a teapot in our hands. You would think that someone would open up a maté drinking hole just to save them the bother. But it seems that maté drinking is a very personal affair; you will rarely see it on the menu in restaurants or cafés. So, should anyone wish to start up a business in Uruguay I certainly don´t recommend opening a café. Like camels, the Uruguayans prefer to carry their own.
A parilla (pronounced ´parisha´) is the ultimate barbeque. As well as laughing in the face at any English attempt at cooking over an open fire, it will even outshine any Ozzie barbie. At first sight it looks like some form of primate torture instrument. A huge wire rack that a person could easily stretch out on, is lowered with a winch over a fire of charcoal and wood. Unlike Argentinian parilla grills, which are generally horizontal, Uruguans seem to like theirs at a right-angle with the fire placed at one end, underneath the highest part of the grill. I suspect this must have been designed by a man as a deliberate attempt to make barbecuing even more of a challenge, as the higher you place the meat the further it is vertically from the fire and the more chance it has of sliding down the grill to the lower end, where it won´t even get a tan.
But somehow it all works because we have eaten some very tasty steaks and chorizos cooked on various parillas, including one in the living room of an estancia where we stayed; one in a very simple ´parillada´ restaurant packed with locals and, the ultimate place: Mercado del Puerto. This old meat market near the harbour of Montevideo is a lively place crammed with parilladas - each one vying for your trade by cooking steaks the size of plates before your eyes. While you await your steak, entranced by the fire and salivating at your piece of prime beef, you can request a ´Medio Medio´ - a mixture of half-sparkling and half-still chilled white wine. Though very refreshing, don´t get too fond of it, as it is apparently unique to Mercado del Puerto. If you ask for it elsewhere in Uruguay you may find yourself being served a whisky concoction instead! It was imperative that we had our own attempt at cooking on a parilla, and the opportunity arose at a lovely little hostel just outside Punte del Este. We waited in vain as the meat gently blushed before us. Eventually some fellow hostellers took pity on us and suggested we spread the hot ashes underneath the lower part of the grill.