If we were ever to have reached a gastronomical pinnacle, then our time in Mendoza was surely that. It could be summarised as the tale of the three greats: food, wine and company. Despite hearing mixed reviews about the city beforehand - great on the culinary front, but perhaps lacking elsewhere - we were leaping in with our typical open mind and were suitably rewarded.
After arriving at Hostel Empedrado in late afternoon - our digs for the duration of our time there - we did what many others do on their first day in Argentina and sought out some steak. The hostel staff pointed us in the direction of a local butchers, who sold us two thick 'lomito' cuts for less than £2 each - an absolute bargain for what we unanimously declared the best we've ever had.
Back at our base, we took advantage of the free wine hour and started chatting to some fellow travellers: Laura, who's originally from Humberside but has moved down to London, and Christina from San Francisco. We swapped travel stories and in no time, about 6 others joined and the night moved into the early hours.
Going with the flow (of wine)
Regrettably, the next day was a write-off, as Anne once again found leaving her bed difficult in such a hungover state. However, we did manage to get out one hour earlier than when incapacitated in Santiago, so we're gradually improving - at least we have that.
As productivity was low, we put our names down for our hostel's 'asada' BBQ night, but were later told that it was cancelled due to lack of interest. So, with our plans wide open, Christina invited us along to a 'closed restaurant' supper that she had booked onto.
Now, a closed restaurant is generally just someone's home that, from the outside, looks just like a normal house, but on the inside, it's a fantastic hybrid between a lah-di-dah dining venue and cosy living quarters. Generally, these places thrive solely on word-of-mouth recommendations and are very popular both in Mendoza and Buenos Aires. I hear that there's a big scene in the USA too, especially in New York.
Despite being of a higher standard than most normal restaurants, some of these underground venues aren't actually legal, although I'm not sure whether the authorities are too arsed. However, considering that Christina received the address by text message and was sworn to secrecy, I'm guessing that our place might have fell under this category.
Oh, and It's probably also worth mentioning at this point that it wasn't technically laid out to us as a 'supper' either; I just wanted to give the impression that it was a fancy affair and 'supper' was the most apt word I could think of - 'tea' or 'dinner' just wouldn't fit.
OK, so moving on: Laura had also decided to join us and the four of us arrived at the secret location at around 9pm.
Our host for the night was a chap named Gonzalo and he worked in the wine industry. Around three years ago, he invited friends over to pair wines with food. They then spoke with their friends and before he knew it, he was entertaining Mendoza's high society. This is when he realised that he was onto a winner and he continued expanding to what it is today. He now has the capacity to host 45, although he prefers to restrict it to 25 to make it a more comfortable experience for everyone.
After schmoozing with some of the other guests - including the first Luxembourgian that I've ever met - we were shown to our table by Milagra, our very knowledgeable waitress. We enjoyed five courses and their wine pairings: Prawns with Campari; a Corn Soup with a Sauv Blanc; Empanadas with Rose; Filet Mignon - which totally put the previous night's steak to shame - with a Malbec; and finally, Argentine Bread & Butter Pudding with some Bubbly.
There was some 'pallet-cleansing' sorbet at some point, then some coffee for afters and for a cost of around £40 each, we felt that it worth every peso. Also, despite our initial fears of it being rather pretentious, we actually found that everyone else was just in the same boat as us; all they were after was a unique dining experience too.
Our brief exploration
As one of our favourite things to do in any city is just to walk around and get a feel for the place, we spent our last full day doing exactly that. Well, for a couple of hours anyway. Everybody had warned us that there wasn't much going on in Mendoza in the day, unless you were heading to the vineyards, and to be fair, they were right.
It doesn't mean to say that it's a bad place, we did find some cool food markets and pretty plazas, but there was nothing really unique that stood out for us. Perhaps we needed to explore further or we should go back at some point and take a second look.
A tour with a difference
To finish off Mendoza in style, we booked a wine and bicycle tour for the day that we were leaving. Our bus to Bariloche wasn't due to depart until 8pm and as the tour was scheduled to finish at 6pm, we decided that there was more than enough time to fit it in.
We were picked up early on by Raul (I actually can't remember his name, but considering that we kind of looked like my old Spanish teacher, Raul, I shall call him that), who was our guide and 'Shark', our driver. Raul said that Shark earned his nickname from his nightlife exploits and so I began to wonder whether he was in a fit driving state. I felt around for my seatbelt just in case but to no avail.
As we went around and picked up the other tourists, Raul pulled out some mate (pronounced mah-tay), which he described as Argentinian marijuana that you drink like a tea. I wasn't too sure whether his hallucinogenic claims were true, as I hadn't heard about the stuff at all, but I watched on as Shark necked back four or five hits in a row while weaving in and out of the Mendoza traffic. I had another feel for my seatbelt - again, I was out of luck.
Raul proceeded to offer the mate around, and thinking down the lines of 'if you can't beat them, join them', I took a hit to see what the fuss what about. It seemed to only provide a calming sensation, but perhaps the hallucinations came after the second or third hits? I jest.*
As we left the city, Raul divulged some interesting facts about irrigation in Mendoza and how a whole system was implemented after a devastating earthquake in 1861. The Andes mountain range was next on the agenda and he pointed out Aconcagua to us - the highest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres. This then led onto the big rivalry between Argentina and Chile, which started over quarrels about the borders and territory. He described their neighbours to the east as 'someone who lends a cup of sugar from you and then poisons you at the market', whatever that means.
Let the tasting begin
The first destination was the Tapiz winery, a mid-scale operation. We were talked through the process from grape to glass by our rather hilarious guide, Juan. He was obviously very passionate about their wine, but his presenting style still seemed a bit over-animated. He would also unnecessarily pause half-way through sentences, which made it a bit hard to follow, but his antics kept his audience's attention nonetheless.
After sampling Juan's Sauv Blancs and Cab Savs, we were cycling 10km to our next stop, the large-scale and very corporate Norton. Here we enjoyed lunch in the gardens accompanied by a few glasses of the good stuff, before being taken around the site and talked through their processes.
As Norton's guide seemed to just repeat the same spiel we'd heard from Juan, but on a larger scale and with less enthusiasm, I began to switch off and lose interest. Instead of swirling, sniffing, sipping and swilling the wine, I'd resorted to just necking the samples back and trying my luck with seconds whenever possible.
I could sense that a few others were rebelling alongside me - Anne was on board, of course - and as the second tour was coming to a close, the group had definitely split into the wannabe connoisseurs and the slightly tipsy dissidents.
The final Norton tasting was in this dimly lit cellar and we were asked to compare two different reds. After picking up my first sample, I accidentally stumbled towards the wine buffs, who were harping on about 'long oaky finishes' and 'vanilla aromas' or something. I lingered for a second as I tried to pick out Anne, but then realised that the buffs were all looking at me for my opinion. Or at least I thought I were, they could have just been looking at me in disdain. Either way, there was that awkward silence that needed to be broken and so feeling very much on the spot, I panicked and blurted out 'quite velvety'. They continued to silently stare, so I finished my glass and went back for the second.
The final stop was the family Carbrini winery that has ties to the Catholic Church and has actually provided the wine for a mass conducted by the Pope. The buildings were like old Mediterranean style farm-houses and it was, without doubt, our favourite of the three (and not just because the tour only lasted for two minutes before we were straight onto the sampling).
As we were half-cut by now, us rebels kind-of pushed our luck and started throwing back the 17% Pope Juice, which was quite like a fine port. I'm not sure whether it was actually that great but Anne and I purchased a bottle anyway whilst continuing to push for refills. After throwing back half a dozen glasses and finally bringing most of the buffs over to the dark side, we were ushered back onto the bus for the return journey to Mendoza.
Raul encouraged us to stop off for some beers and so the journey back had a party atmosphere about it; a complete transformation from the rather subdued morning.
Back at the hostel, we said our goodbyes to Laura, Christina and the others and made our way to the bus station. It's a shame that the two girls were heading in different directions as they were both great company, but this is the traveller's way, I suppose.
We were also quite sad to leave Mendoza, as it had been an excellent first taste of Argentina. If the rest of it was in any way similar, then we're no doubt in for a treat.
*Disclaimer: I have been advised by my mother to inform you all that I didn't actually partake in any drug taking during this chapter. Mate is simply just a hot tea-like beverage, enriched with antioxidants as well as several vitamins and minerals. Apologies for the previously misleading information, I was merely describing how it was laid out to us at the time.