Montevideo Out Of The Shadows
Uruguay once inhabited the shadows of its neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, but as travellers gradually gained sophistication, this small but bighearted country stepped boldly into the limelight. While numerous factors triggered Uruguay's growing popularity as a vacation and relocation destination, food played a key role, for just as the stomach is supposedly the way to a man's or woman's heart, it so influences an explorer. Soon, the hungry stomachs of intrepid travellers guided them to Ciudada Vieja, Montevideo's old city.
Here lives the distinctive Mercado del Puerta, or "port market.
In 1885, a Spanish merchant named Pedro Saenz de Zumarán bought 3,500 feet of retail space on a tract of land in downtown Montevideo. He called the new building called "Mercado del Puerto." This Art Deco structure houses an airy market space, where vendors sell crafts, jewelry and artwork. Travellers gather in droves, but not until they have a meal at one of the many parillas or grills that populate the market.
A Miasma of Meat
Travel Channel writer Anthony Bourdain and his brother ate at Estancia del Puerto, and described it as "Meatopia." Enter this Meatopolis, take a seat at a counter and observe, as the chefs prepare thousands of cuts of meat, grilled over coal and perpetually replenished wood. Each course consists of a different cut of meat. Chimichurri sauce-- an enticing blend of olive oil, parsley, oregano, salt, spices and garlic- embellishes the flavor.
While Argentina once dominated the spotlight for meat production, a 2009 article featured in the New York Times reports that droughts and economic crises caused Argentineans to fatten their cattle with grains like corn and oats in over crowded feeding lots. In contrast, Uruguay still has three cows to every human, reported Bourdain, so cattle shortages are not an issue. Grass-fed and hormone-free, Uruguayan cow graze on pastures the size of two soccer fields, keeping them lean, healthy and tasty.
While meat is obviously the specialty, non red meat eaters and even vegetarians need not fear. The restaurants also grill poultry, fish and fresh vegetables. If you're dining with a larger group, some restaurants offer table service, but sitting at the counter provides a far more authentic experience. Once you finish your meal, burn off the calories by exploring the rest of the market. The Uruguay Carnival Museum provides an excellent starting point.
The World's Longest Carnival
Uruguay's Carnival celebration begins in January and lasts through March, but if those dates are inconvenient, visit the Carnival Museum. Located across from the Mercado del Puerto at 218 25 de Agosto de 1825 Promenade, a chronological history of carnival events and costumes. Notice boards explain the African origins of the Uruguayan Carnival, along with its distinctive music and dance forms.
The Carnival Museum, the Mercado del Puerto and other historic sites make Ciudada Vieja an engrossing daytime destination, but some local guides warn that evening visits might require added safety precautions. Save Old Town for the afternoon, and visit other neighborhoods in the evening. You might discover that beef is not the only thing that's for dinner in Uruguay.
Gnocchi: Uruguay's Italian Influence
The early 20th century brought a flood of Italian immigrants into Uruguay. Their food traditions came with them, particularly the custom of eating gnocchi, a potato pasta, on the 29th day of the month. Some scholars believe that the practice honors Saint Pantaleon, an 8th-century Italian pilgrim whose blessings brought prosperity to the peasants who shared their food with him, but others suggest that the tradition dates to less prosperous days, when potatoes and flour were all that was available and sustainable by the month's end. Uruguayans adopted the custom of placing a coin under the gnocchi plate, as a means of enhancing prosperity.
Many Montevideo restaurants produce their own variations of the gnocchi recipe. If you want a Mercado del Puerto lunch alternative in Old Town, for example, Corchos serves a gnocchi with a tomato, spinach and ham sauce, and all sorts of gnocchi stews. This restaurant also pairs different meals with different types of Uruguayan wines.
Location, location, location alone makes Francis an interesting place to eat. It sits within the Punta Carretas Shopping Mall, which once housed Montevideo's major prison. In fact, former rebel leader and current Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica was once one of the prison's star "residents." The Francis restaurant has a gnocchi with cheese sauce on its menu.
The hip and trendy Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo also has some interesting restaurants that serve gnocchi. Tandory, one of Uruguay's few Asian-influenced restaurants, makes a stuffed gnocchi, as well as a variety of vegetarian entrees. A recent guest described his hot swiss cheese risotto mixed with fresh cold cantaloupe as "the best meal in his life."
Making New Friends
Unlike its neighbours in Argentina, most Uruguayans do not speak English. Fortunately, a group of English-speaking expats meet every Sunday at noon at a restaurant called Fellini Ristobarreto. No reservations necessary. Most of the group members are expats, who can tell you anything you need to know about Uruguay. Fellini's also makes a big deal about Gnocchi Day.
While high-calorie dining potentially causes significant weight gain in Montevideo, this pedestrian-friendly sits provides ample opportunities to walk off the pounds.
Montevideo Practical Information
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Currency: Uruguayan peso
Time Zone: GMT -3 Hour
Population: 1.33 million