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  • Day19

    El Zanjon

    March 6, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 21 °C

    As I was getting ready for my trip to BA, my pal Jean Hyams told me that I “must visit” El Zanjon in San Telmo. She described it as a house, in which there had been archeological excavations, revealing tunnels underneath. While this description is 150% correct, I don’t think that I really understand what she meant. But, confident in her recommendation, we put it on the agenda.

    We arrived at 2:45, for a 3 pm tour. We rang the bell. A few minutes later, someone cracked the door open and told us to return at 2:55. Really? It seemed a little odd, and made me think of the Wizard of Oz turning away Dorothy and her pals. But, ok. So, we strolled around for 10 minutes, bought some candy that we were told was yummy, and returned at 2:55. At that point, there were about ten people gathered for the tour. The door opened, and we stepped inside to a large brick structure. We paid for tickets and waited for our guide.

    At 3:05, a guide arrived and began telling us the history of El Zanjon.

    The land originally sat just off the port, but had routine problems with flooding. To remedy the problems, the owners of the property on which the mansion was built, and the owners of the adjacent properties, built a series of tunnels and cisterns below the properties, into which the water collected. Over these tunnels and cisterns, huge mansions were built.

    The house called El Zanjon was one of these mansions — two stories, with high ceilings, and plenty of space for family and servants. The house was occupied by a single family from the mid 1800s until the late 1800s, when the family left to escape the cholera and yellow fever epidemics that spread across BA at that time. After the family left, the house became a conventillo, in which approximately 200 people lived with two bathrooms and a single kitchen. The structure continued as a conventillo until the 1960s, when it was abandoned due to crumbling.

    The structure sat abandoned until the 1990s, when a local wealthy businessman (whose family had made millions through owning a tannery) decided to buy it and renovate the building for a restaurant. At the time, San Telmo was still a poor neighborhood, but there were hopes for its resurgence. The restaurant would have been part of this move to gentrify the neighborhood. As the rebuilding of the structure began, the tunnels and cistern were discovered. Eventually, the gentleman who bought the building decided not to build the restaurant, but to instead engage in a private archeological dig, which would allow exploration of the history of El Zanjon and the surrounding area. Obviously, this project has taken decades, and has probably cost millions of dollars. The result is one of the first privately owned archeological dig, which has given us a fascinating look at the history of BA, not to mention a gorgeous building in which to wander. We all really enjoyed the tour.

    For our last evening in BA, we went to a much lauded restaurant called El Banquero. The chef, who worked at El Bulli in Spain, favors molecular gastronomy, in which each dish showcases the marriage of cooking and science. While the results were sometimes confusing, and never straightforward, many of the dishes were fantastically interesting. The first course was a trio of bites, which included a gyoza filled with alligator. One of the courses featured stewed llama meat, on a bed of three kinds of crispy quinoa — this was Arie’s favorite. My favorite was a riff on prosciutto and melon, where the prosciutto was made from cured llama meat and the melon was actually a sorbet. For one of the dessert courses we were presented with a “beet” on a bed of chocolate dirt. You used a spoon to crack the beet, and inside was a beet sorbet and creme fraiche — the taste was ok, but the presentation was fantastic. (I even got them to tell me how it was made, which involves using beet juice which is used to coat the inside of a balloon. Once it solidifies, the balloon is removed and through a hole in the bottom the chef inserts the sorbet and creme fraiche.). Kelly was a super good sport, as the meal — even for Arie and I — was at the edge, and we all got a great story and good meal.

    Hard to believe that we leave tomorrow.
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