Jason Goodwin: When gaucho chic in Dorset becomes something ‘between instrument of torture and decommissioned nuclear reactor’

An attempt to bring a touch of gaucho chic to Dorset doesn't go well for our columnist.

My grandmother was born under the wide skies of the Argentinian Pampas, on an estancia that belonged to her father; he’d made, lost and made a fortune, as only Victorians could, by investing in cattle and land.

Back then, the Argentine, as my mother’s family called it, was close to being a British colony. Scottish engineers laid miles of track, British bankers laid out wads of capital, everyone in Britain ate corned beef and there was a branch of Harrods in Buenos Aires, the only branch in the world. (I inherited a linen jacket from the store and had it mended many years later by a tailor in Benghazi.) By 1939, nearly half of investment in the country came from the UK.

My grandmother was one of three girls. Outdoors, whenever the moon was full, they were told strictly to wear wide-brimmed hats to preserve their brains from its gigantic silvery rays so that they didn’t go mad and run away with one of the peons — my mother’s side of the family behaves oddly at full moon. They ate outdoors whenever they could. I treasure an old photograph of the Traills and their friends, picnicking among scrubby trees at the side of a river. It might be a touch of damp on the negative, but, seemingly, a skein of smoke hangs above a huge grill set firmly on the ground, loaded with steaks; beneath it lie the smouldering logs. On the back of the photograph someone has written the word ‘Asado’.

“The minor defect is so minor as to be untraceable. The major defect, on the other hand, is unmissable”

Asado is a magic word, I suppose. It is to barbecue what bouillabaisse is to soup. To Argentines, asado embraces the whole day. Asado is the choice of meats, the order of service, the wine, the chat, the scent of wood smoke and melting fat. It is cooking slow and steady over glowing embers and charcoal. The parilla, the grill, can be raised and lowered at will, with the turn of a wheel, and is set on a slope so that the fat can run down the V-shaped grooves in the grill bed.

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Flare-ups would upset the slow cooking and spoil the meat. First on, the ribs and other big cuts of beef, flank steak, hanger steak and skirt, that need the longest cooking. Throughout the day, smaller morsels join the beef: kidneys, sausages, sweetbreads. Fire and salt: these are the secrets of the asador, he being the man — inevitably a man — who wields the tongs.

I’ve never been to Argentina, nor have I ever assisted at an asado; but there’s always YouTube, and a film on Netflix, Todo Sobre El Asado, is devoted to the preparation of what Argentinians insist is the finest grilled meat in the world. So it was full in the pride of my Argentine inheritance that I approached a metalworker with a plan to make an asado of my own.

The task was to connect magnificent Victorian cast iron legs, which had formed the base of a lathe, to a stainless steel parilla that was going cheap. Some minor defect made the difference between paying several thousand pounds and a couple of hundred quid for the parilla, with a wheel and chain for adjusting its height. The minor defect is so minor as to be untraceable. The major defect, on the other hand, is unmissable. I introduced it myself, along the lines of that joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee.

Between me and the blacksmith, scribbling measurements and swapping sketches, we produced the camel of asados, not so much gaucho chic as monumentally, offensively, ugly. It broods, something between instrument of torture and decommissioned nuclear reactor; a freak, not of Nature, but of design. My asado is too deep for the coals, and too high for the parilla. Everyone hates it, except me. I am the asador. I love it.

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