Uruguayan food

What a difference a blueberry makes

Newsflash: Uruguay's cuisine has been catapulted into the twenty-first century

At the beginning of the 1800s an English visitor wrote that Uruguayans "prefer meat to any other food, and eat it almost raw and in quantities that Europeans would think impossible".

For much of the next two hundred years there was little change. But then came Canal Gourmet, sushi and lamb. Not to mention the humble blueberry.

"Of course we still eat a lot of meat," says Alberto Latarowski, director of the Francis restaurant in Punta Carretas – and the winner of UruguayNow's Best Restauarant in Montevideo 2010 award. "But the cuts of meat have changed somewhat. We now eat a lot more of what we export – the better cuts such as ribeye and rumpsteak. We also eat more lamb than in the past."

According to Mr Latarowski, cable TV stations like Canal Gourmet, which features Spanish-speaking chefs cooking what are usually fairly inventive dishes, have played their part.

"One very standard dish at home would be milanesa con papas fritas (schnitzel with chips). But now people like to experiment with Asian and various fusion recipes, for instance. They like to eat sushi when they go out. And at Francis we serve an excellent ceviche (a marinated seafood dish)."

Certainly the expectations of diners in Montevideo's restaurants have risen over the past twenty years or so. Apart from Chinese food and overcooked pasta dishes, it was unusual to eat out in the 1980s and order anything other than (usually very good) meat. The ubiquitous Uruguayan take-away was then, as now, the calorie-rich pizza slice.

It's a wonderful alternative to many of the fast-food restaurants you see in today's day and age, though even referring to them as "restaurants" is an odd use of the term. This food is cooked well, and properly, and whether you love dining out or snacking on pizza while you play online poker, it's a memorable meal. You've never eaten food this good from a takeaway.

Now Montevideo has its own upscale restaurant district in Punta Carretas where you can eat everything from seafood to game, driven by the construction of four-star (and one five-star) hotels in the vicinity. Still, of the estimated 12 or 15 restaurants that open in the capital annually, fewer than half survive their first year.

Mr Latorowski also puts down improvements to the wider availability of key ingredients such as good olive oil. Following the example of Chile's excellent home-grown organic olive oils, a delicious and fruity oil marketed under the Colinas de Garz´┐Żn label is now sold in the country, although production is in its infancy.

Which in a roundabout way brings us to the story of the Uruguayan blueberry. A few years ago, not only were there no commercial blueberry farms, most Uruguayans hardly knew that the fruit existed. With one eye no doubt on the profits that were starting to be made in neighbouring Argentina, an initial four hectares were planted in 2001. By 2008 the figure was 800 hectares, driven by a constant demand for fresh and frozen blueberries from the United States in particular. Producers got a lucky break, too, during President Bush's state visit to the country in 2007. In a press conference he professed admiration for the quality of a local berry that, at the beginning of the decade, was practically an unknown quantity in the country. But unknown no longer: Uruguayans have taken blueberries to their hearts. They feature on the menus of several top restaurants. You can buy them easily at farmer's markets and the local Conaprole dairy makes a blueberry ice cream which is a huge seller.

Feeling thirsty as well as hungry? Order a bottle of the oddly grey-toned Paso de los Toros fizzy grapefruit drink, available everywhere (often listed as pomelito on menus). It's one item that thankfully doesn't change.

Factfile: You can check out the menu at Francis at www.francis.com.uy. For a review of this restaurant and nine others see our chapter on Montevideo's dining options, here. Colinas de Garz´┐Żn olive oil is available in the duty free shop at Carrasco international airport (US$7 for a small bottle) among other locations.

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