Buenos Aires, Argentina: The grill master seasons the cut of beef with salt that will be cooked over an open fire before being served to a hungry family.
It is an age-old ritual for Argentines to get together over a jaw-dropping “asado,” but one that has grown increasingly out of the reach of many of them.
“Aside from being nourishment, beef is the center of the whole barbecue culture we Argentines have,” said Emmanuel Lapetina, president of La Pena meatpackers.
“It is the get-together; it is the Sunday barbecue, and it is the excuse to get together with the family on weekends.”
However, because of poor purchasing power, all those heart-warming, stomach-inspiring moments of glory that folks here experience with their grass-fed beef are in jeopardy.
Despite high international prices, the cost of beef has risen by a staggering 65 percent due to local inflation.
The government is eager to find a means to assist more people in affording what appears to be a birthright.
However, a pricing dispute between President Alberto Fernandez’s center-left government and livestock producers prompted the latter to impose a nine-day production stoppage.
“Nobody wants to stop eating ‘asado.’ It is in our culture to eat beef, that’s why so there’s so much tension when it gets very expensive,” said Lapetina.
Argentina is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of beef and is known for producing top-quality grass-fed cattle. In 2020, it sold 3.4 billion dollars of beef, with much of it going to Russia and China.
Beef has become a hot black market product due to the locals’ fondness for coveted cuts.
Furthermore, meat producers are wary of government participation. When Nestor Kirchner was president and Fernandez was his chief of staff in 2006, a six-month ban on meat exports was extended to ten years.
According to the Chamber of Commerce of Meat and Derivatives, 12.5 million head of cattle and 19,000 jobs were lost during that time period and have yet to be regained.
A fondness for meat
Gustavo Caballero, 34, has worked as a grill master at Don Julio in Buenos Aires for seven years, and the restaurant was named the finest in Latin America by the famous 50 Best Restaurants rating in 2020. It had an average of 500 diners every day before the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What I like, what I am really passionate about, is to see every time someone comes and eats a good barbecue. When they leave happy, that is something very special for me,” Caballero said, as the tables placed on the terrace outside for health reasons began to fill up.
The restaurant goes to considerable effort to obtain the highest quality beef. It has a refrigerator manager who goes to the market early in the morning to get the best cuts, and it has operated its own butcher shop in the Palermo area, one block from the restaurant, since last year.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Argentina in 2018 for the G20 conference, she made a point of trying Don Julio’s grilled meats.
According to legend, there were cows in Buenos Aires before there were any people.
The city’s founder, Juan de Garay, traveled from Asuncion with cattle that reproduced readily in the River Plate region, where he discovered a seasonal European-style environment.
Martin Vivanco has dedicated his life to producing breeding cattle in San Antonio de Areco, Buenos Aires province, carrying on a family legacy tied to the land, which he believes should be preserved since “that is what the world appreciates.”
“I do genetics with the Aberdeen Angus breed, I breed improved animals. I try to get my clients to incorporate the best possible genetics so that the meat continues to have the qualities for which it is most appreciated in the world: tenderness, taste, those things which have made Argentine beef famous,” he said.
“The cows are always outdoors, in the field, in the rain, in the sun. That gives them some characteristics that are very good for the breed, which is rusticity, the ability to adapt to adverse climates,” he said.
On the economic front, Vivanco has it clear in the ongoing local struggle over beef supplies and accessibility.
“The problem is not whether the beef is cheap or expensive. The problem is that the consumption capacity of Argentines has decreased due to miserable wages and inflation,” he stressed.
Argentina has 54 million cattle in a land of plains and Andean peaks with a population of 45 million people. It is one of only two South American countries (the other being Uruguay) where more people are derived from Italians than Spaniards.
According to the most recent numbers available from the Ministry of Agriculture, 1.1 million heads were slaughtered in March, resulting in meat production of about 261,000 tonnes, with 73,400 tonnes destined for export, primarily to China.