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The discovery of Uruguay

Originally we were going to start in Brazil. I was very excited by this prospect. I wanted a big beginning. The food, the culture and the sheer size and diversity of Brazil make it worthy of a bombastic start.  But things changed. Plans got tweaked. Brazil got pushed. I was okay with it.  After all, I’m a roll with the punches kind of gal (sometimes). So Laurent figured out a new route (that’s his department, by the way). The new route is perfect. I think it solves the Brazil visa issue (more on that later) and it hits all the places we want to be at almost the right times of the year. The only thing I was originally, slightly disappointed with was the start. Uruguay. Really? We’re going to start there? In this strangely, (almost ugly) named country? It seemed fine as an after thought, a fourth or fifth stop but our first destination?!  Who the heck goes to Uruguay?  People from all around the world go to Brazil but who plans a trip to Uruguay?!  Well, apparently we do. And you should too. I am a new convert to Uruguay’s awesomeness. Yes, it  really is! And hopefully I’ll convince you why.

So I dove into research about this unbeknownst (to me and probably you too) country. Gnocchi, European-like, beautiful cities and coast, peaceful and temperate. Are we in South America?  For those of you who are map illiterate, Uruguay is located in southeastern South America.  Just below Brazil and to the right of Argentina.  It borders the Atlantic Ocean with a good portion of the country being coastal.  This equals lots of beaches.  It’s pretty small too.  I’d give you the square footage but I can’t visualize that too well, so I’ll tell you that it’s the second smallest country in South America after Suriname.  3.3 million people live there and considering 12 million people live in Manhattan alone, this to me, seems like a sparsely populated country.  1.8 million of those people live in the capital of Montevideo which turns out, is a beautiful, vibrant city.

One of the first things I researched, apart from these facts was the food, of course.  I noticed things like gnocchi, ravioli and pasta appearing more often than not.  I was puzzled but it turns out there is a huge European influence in Uruguay.  Almost 90% of the population is of European descent.  Spanish, Portugese, Italian, British and even the French. Naturally, this reflects in everything.  The architecture looks European, the foods are European influenced and the people look European.  Hybrids of Italian-Spanish and Portuguese-Spanish were spoken.  Who knew?!

The other things that surprised me about Uruguay is how tolerant they are.  With the exception of Brazil, the majority of Latin America is not a gay friendly destination.  On the whole, South America is pretty narrow minded when it comes to that sort of stuff.  Uruguay was the first country in S. America to legalize same-sex civil union and allow for gay adoption.  It was the first country in the Americas to test for hemp cultivation.  Uruguay has no official organised religion and church and state are separate.  Politicians deem it the most secular nation in the Americas.  Go Uruguay!

As for practical things, Uruguay is a  pretty safe country to travel.  You should still take precautions against petty crimes (i.e. exhibit common sense) but for the most part, it’s not bad.  People are friendly.  Even the police (not so much in other S. American coutries).  The climate is temperate although it can get a little chilly in the winter months (June-September).  The geography isn’t all that interesting, no mountains, rolling plains and lots of beaches. The beaches are quite nice from what I’ve been reading.  Punta del Este is the Uruguayan version of an upscale Miami Beach.  Celebrities and other wealthy people flock there for the restaurants, the beaches and the nightlife.  Not really my scene, so I think Laurent & I will skip it.  It will be off season anyhow and there are so many other nicer beaches to visit.

If you want, you can read all about the history of Uruguay on your own, I’m just not that into history so I can’t really write anything to compel you with.  Sorry for you history buffs.  What I CAN tell you about is the food.  I was pleasantly surprised to find all the Italian influences in Uruguay.  It is some of my favorite food having grown up Italian-American.  I grew up with my paternal grandma living with us (golden grams, as I fondly called her).  She  could really cook.  I loved watching the pizza dough rise by the heater on the floor, smelling her escarole soup wafting in the hallway and helping put nonpareil sprinkles on her Easter cookies.  But I digress…..

Back to Uruguay.  Gnocchi, all kinds of pastas, pizzas, even polenta (but eaten as a main dish) and milanesa (fried chicken cutlets to us Americans) are the main Italian dishes.  You have your typical South American stuff like flan, dulce de leche, chorizo and empanadas.  Meat is a big player.  You will find asado as common here as you would in Argentina.  Asado is their version of BBQ and let me tell you, it’s freaking delicious and  huge!!   The chivito sandwich is like their interpretation of a hamburger but like 10 times better.  Keep reading for more on that.

And oh, I’m soo excited!  They have something called Fainá, which is made of chickpea flour, water and olive oil. It’s kind of like a thick crepe.  It doesn’t sound like much, I know.  But I assure you, It’s so much and then some.  I wish I could justly describe the taste.  It’s thin and a bit crisp on the outside and it completely melts in your mouth. A bit earthy on the inside and salty on the outside.  You absolutely have to try it!   It reminds me of socca, which is a specialty of Nice, France.  I first had it here and I immediately fell in love and yes, I’m a bit obsessed with it.  I promptly went out and purchased high quality chickpea flour and using a lovely olive oil I proceeded to have multiple disasters in my kitchen trying to perfect this.  I sort of got it right the last time I made it but it’s never as good as when I order it out.

Uruguayans are big on sweets too.  Lots of dulce de leche,  (don’t you dare call it caramel especially while in S. America!), milhojas which is a riff on a Napoleon (mille-feuille for you Frenchies out there), alfajores which are cylinders of shortbread goodness filled with things like honey and almonds and sometimes even dulce de leche.  Yum.  And yay for more Italian influence in the form of gelato!  And why was it that I didn’t want to start the trip in Uruguay?! 

They are huge drinkers of mate, similar to Argentina.  You will see everyone carrying around a thermos filled with hot water and hollowed out gourds and small metal straws called bombillas.  And as with every good nation, there is a national alcoholic beverage.  Grappamiel is alcohol and honey and it’s common to drink this when it’s colder out to help warm up the body.

Well, all of this had me more than excited, to say the least.  Who knew that Uruguay had all this great stuff?  I was eager to try the food after reading about it, so I looked up Uruguayan restaurants nearby my house.  Of course, living in the NYC area, there were more than a few to choose from.  Fortunately, there was a decent sounding one, very close to my house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Tabaré down on the south side.  Just this past Thursday, I recruited my friend to join me and off we went for a taste of Uruguay.

We walked in from a damp, chilly night and was instantly greeted with a place oozing warmth and candles.  We sat down in a cozy nook and perused the menu. The server came by and informed us it was happpy hour.  Well, that’s a way to start the meal!  $3 beers and 1/2 price on all wine.  Nice.  I was happy to see Uruguayan beer, which my friend ordered.  It was a pilsner called Pilsen.  It was served ice cold with a bit of a bite for a pilsner, yet it was smooth.  Refreshing.  I ordered a Malbec from Mendoza, which was not the wisest choice in retrospect.  Uruguay does produce their own wines, so I was kind of dumb not to try one.  I saw the Malbec and wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the wine list.  Oh well, next time.

The server came by and asked if we would like some bread. Sure, why not?  They brought over a small crusty loaf, nothing extraordinary but warm and chewy inside.  It was served alongside a tapenade that was less like it’s usual thick paste and instead was very thin.  Mostly olive oil (a rather fruity, bold variety-very tasty) with finely chopped green and black olives.  Delicious and a nice start to the meal.  We decided to try the empanadas because I really like empanadas.  We got the cheese & the chicken.  The pastry on the empanadas was so light and it completely melted in your mouth. The pastry really elevated the empanada to an exceptional status. The fillings were both decent.  I prefered the cheese to the chicken due to the slight dryness of the chicken.  Both were well seasoned.   So far, so good.

My friend & I decided to share our entrees, as we often do.  We settled on the gnocchi special which was served with meatballs and the chivito sandwich, which is a specialty of Uruguay and I was anxious to try.  It sounded so heavy!  Like it would send you into cardiac arrest with one bite.  Grass-fed filet mignon steak sandwich with bacon, mozzarella,onions green olives, tomatoes and lettuce & topped with a fried egg.  Whew!  Really?!  All of that on one sandwich?  I was a bit afraid of it actually.  And I was skeptical of the gnocchi.  What do Uruguayans really know about making perfect gnocchi?   They would probably be dense masses instead of the light, pillow-like variety that I adore.

Our entrees were brought over and I took one look at the steak sandwich.  OH. MY. GOD.  Oozing goodness in the form of cheese and perfectly cooked steak stared back at me and in that one look, I was not afraid.  I couldn’t wait to try it.  VERY messy sandwich but absolutely delicious.  I thought there was too much going on (flavor-wise) for it to come together.  It came together in a burger sort of way but even better and surprisingly, lighter.  Even my friend agrees (and she eats like a bird) that the sandwich was surprisingly light!  Burgers tend to leave me with a heavy feeling but this sandwich was perfect.

Onto the gnocchi.  I was very worried when I saw the gnocchi sitting in a tomato sauce with tiny meatballs next to it.  I usually prefer my gnocchi in a light sauce. A light cream sauce or a simple butter sauce.  I took a bite and my worry was replaced with deep satisfaction.  Perfectly light pillows of potato with a simple tomato sauce.  The meatballs were tasty but nothing special.  Fortunately, the gnocchi was a surprise.  We were too full for dessert.  But it is most certain I will return. I highly recommend this restaurant to any readers in the area.

Aside from a full, happy belly, I feel like I got a taste of Uruguayan food and I’m more excited than ever to start the trip there.  From my research thus far,  I am expecting a laid back, friendly, temperate country full of beautiful cities that ooze European influence. The food a pleasant mix between typical S. American fare mixed with Italian (especially) as well as other European dishes.  Beautiful beaches and cities and due to its compact size, it should make visiting a few of them easy to do.  I’m sorry I thought you were ugly Uruguay! I’ll review Uruguay again when I visit and we’ll see if my expectations were met.  Stay tuned!

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