I’ve always thought that if you have the opportunity to stay with friends or family in far-flung places it’s really good to try learn how to cook some of the local dishes. After all, food is part of people’s culture and history and, like her cousins in England, my granddaughter in Argentina likes to do a bit of cooking with me.The problem is that her mum and dad also like her to keep up her English so I’ve gone and brought out a couple of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipe books. The recipes are things like ‘Boiled Sloppages’ and ‘Bruce Bogtrotter’s Cake’ and my granddaughter loves them. Of course, ingredients are not the same here so things turn out a bit different. Last time, we concocted a pink fudge confection from Charlie’s Chocolate Factory and I didn’t notice that the condensed milk already had sugar in. I should’ve known better by now – everything in Argentina where humanly possible has sugar added. So we chucked in the 450gms (or c.16ozs in real money) as per the recipe. Success of sorts – at least the fudge had the fluorescent pink glow of the picture. My granddaughter thought it fantastic (and granddaughter 3 in Essex would’ve done too) and took it to school where her school friends scoffed the lot, no problem..
This time she chose a recipe entitled Doc Spencer’s Pies which looked like spring rolls so needed a pack of filo pastry, for god’s sake. Well, I asked everywhere in my best Spanish – nada, nichts, zero. ‘Don’t worry,’ said my daughter-in-law. ‘She likes making ñoquis. It’s very easy, you just buy a packet and add water.’ Hurrah, I thought, an authentic Argentinian dish and my granddaugher was excited at the chance to be my teacher. Good people of Great Britain, in case you don’t know, ñoquis (gnocchis in Italy) are big in Argentina. They.travelled here with Italian settlers in the middle of the 19th century and actually have one day each month (the 29th) dedicated to them! Apparently, if you leave some pesos for the poor under your plate after eating them, you are guaranteed prosperity. For those of us, like me, who have never been face-to-face with a plate of noquis before, they are a kind of pasta, fashioned from potato, eggs and flour – like people here, my granddaughter likes them with cream poured all over them and parmesan cheese grated on top. Good thing I remembered to bring the cholesterol tablets.
So, a real national dish – no pressure then – it was packet ñoquis after all and I had my granddaughter to help. But she had other ideas. I had just introduced her to a Magic Flute cartoon courtesy of Youtube and she was captivated (Oh yes she was, granddaughters 1, 2 and 3) in spite of my son making screeching noises pretending to be Queen of the Night. ‘With mummy, I don’t do the mixing bit,’ she said, turning on ‘Pa-pa-pa-pa-papageno’ for the zillionth time. I peered at the packet, varyfocals in place. Ok, so how much water is 550cm³? I’m not hot on centimetres prefering good old pints. I put some water in a jug and tried to imagine a cubed shaped amount of water. ‘Do you have a ruler with centimetres on it? I asked my granddaughter, thinking I could measure the height of the water and then multiply by 3. ‘No, but mummy has one somewhere,’ said my granddaugher. But we couldn’t find it. Well, I could add the water bit by bit and see what happened, but I’ve not studied noquis in their natural habitat or tasted one even so this could be a bit risky. ‘Mummy uses one of these,’ added my granddaughter helpfully, taking a plastic jug out of the cupboard with numbers on it. Aaaah I thought, something familiar – the numbers were in cc’s. Well, the penny, or should I say, the peso, dropped. Eureka! 550cms³ = 550cc’s!
I squinted at the packet again. You have to mix the mixture for 1′ and leave it for 2′. Not in feet then, I thought. ‘Does it mean a minute or an hour?’ I asked my son. ‘Ninguna puta idea,’ he said – so his language skills don’t extend to packet recipes then – indeed usually people here including him (he makes a mean pizza using yeast etc) – make things from scratch. In a fleeting flash of clarity, I plumped for one and two minutes.
Now I really needed the expertise of my granddaughter. She produced a little wooden thing with grooves in it, like one of those butter thingies we used to make butter pats with in the olden days. ‘Ok, gran, you make a little bolita like this.’ She rolled the squidgy dough into a large marble shape. ‘And then you do this’. She stuck the ball on the wooden thing and poked a hole in it with her index finger, rolling it slowly over the grooves and it sort of half-heartedly curled a bit. Oh dear, my arms were suffering from paper plane thrower’s paralysis from hours of fun with my grandson and I already have a bit of arthritis in my old fingers. Well, do the math – we had a football-sized lump of dough.
Everything was a bit sticky so I chucked some flour about. My granddaughter was in her element teaching me how to make a plato particularly de Argentina and I developed a sort of rocking and rolling method to make my ñoquis groovy and they looked very authentic to me. Well, we’d made about 20 when mummy came back. She looked at us both – we were rather floury, but also very proud. Then she saw the ñoquis. ‘They’re rather big,’ she said reprovingly. Well, to accommodate my larger index finger making the hole, I’d had to make the ñoquis bigger. ‘Let’s cook the ones you’ve made for the children’s supper’, she said. So at least she thinks they’re edible then. I dropped them into the boiling water where they lurked sullenly in the bottom of the pan. ‘They’re cooked when they float to the top’, she added.. She took a miniscule amount of dough between her thumb and index finger, gently rolled it into a ball, applied it to the wooden thingy and with her thumb dragged it over the wooden grooves. It curled up most accommodatingly. I really did try quite a few times, but they just looked like blobs with a hole. But in minutes my daughter-in-law had sculpted rows of delicate shell-like shapes from the sticky mess in the bowl.
Meanwhile back in the pot our ñoquis had decided to rise to the occasion. My granddaughter tested one. ‘It’s a bit chewy,’ she said. Well, my two brave grandchildren chomped doggedly through a few, but even doused with cream, they remained remorselessly rubbery like small lumps of dunlopillo. And tomorrow is the 29th, National Ñoquis Day. But here in this little corner of Argentina somehow I don’t think we’ll be celebrating with gran and granddaughter’s homemade, handcrafted ñoquis….