Posted in Serious Eats
July 19, 2022

My Journey Into Gran Chaco’s El Impenetrable

Beef ‘pulpa’ being hung to dry under the intense summer sun to make charquiSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

“Your trip doesn’t really begin until we make our way to El Impenetrable,” Alina Ruiz said with a giggle as we walk around her farm on the outskirts of Juan José Castelli, a small city in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco. I looked at her, dumbstruck: I had already taken a two-hour plane ride, a five-hour bus, and a private car—with an overnight layover in between—to get to her farm and restaurant. And I was still a hundred kilometers away from Paraje La Armonía, a village shrouded by dense, dry forest where Ruíz leads classes in cooking, nutrition, and hospitality. 

“Just how impenetrable could this place be?” I prodded. 

She excused herself to her kitchen to finish setting up for the night’s dinner service before I could get an answer. It was a Saturday in early February, and the sunset cast pink and yellow hues over fields of mandioca shrubs that surrounded the farm, extending as far as I could see. Ruíz had a small crowd of guests in attendance, waiting to dine on a five-course meal prepared almost exclusively with ingredients from the farm: eggs with smoky pork escabeche; lamb ravioli made with an arugula dough; sweet breads made from the fruit of indigenous chaná and carob trees; and a trio of empanadas stuffed with crisp, pan-fried goat, smoked surubí—a local river fish renowned for its fatty meatand beef jerky sautéd with sweet onion sofrito.

Graciela Cavana fills homemade empanada shells with pan-fried goat
Graciela Cavana fills homemade empanada shells with pan-fried goatSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

To me, it seemed like an exercise in abundance, and I said as much I struggled to sample the dessert, a tangy guava granita. “This isn’t an unusual amount of food. Chaqueños expect this,” explained Ruíz. “People eat with their eyes and don’t consider a meal without meat to be a real meal.”

Juan José Castelli sits on the southern end of the Gran Chaco, a sprawling dry forest that covers nearly 800,000 square kilometers and spreads across Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. The city is the entryway to El Impenetrable, a section of the forest known for its forboding ecosystem of tightly packed wilderness and razor sharp thorny shrubs, which is subject to suffocating summers and regular occurences of both drought and floods.

During Spanish colonization and well after Argentina’s independence, the wild acted as a natural barrier, hence the name. The colonizers were kept out and the autonomy of the indigenous hunter-gatherer Qom and Wichi communities remained intact.

Today, El Impenetrable remains largely isolated from the rest of the country. From Castelli, the small village of Paraje La Armonia is only accessible by a disheveled dirt road that must be navigated with a vehicle capable of 4-wheel drive—although quite a few locals brave it with motorcycles. During the rainy season, the estimated 60,000 people that live in the surrounding area are frequently left completely cut off, with no running water or internet access, and unstable sources for electricity.

Graciela Cavana fries goat empanadas in her outdoor kitchen
Graciela Cavana fries goat empanadas in her kitchen. Rural homes in Chaco have kitchens outside and residents cook with live fireSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

Although indigenous communities across the nation were demolished by the Argentinian military following independence from the Spanish Crown, the far reaches of northern Argentina contain the country’s most diverse mixture of native, Criollo, and European populations. El Impenetrable is home to indigenous communities and rural Criollo families—peoples of Spanish or mixed descent whose culinary heritage is deeply tied both to ancestral knowledge and foods of the colonies, particularly livestock, dairy, and wheat.

The morning after my meal with Ruíz, we packed up a pick-up truck and drove two hours to Paraje La Armonía, where I spent a long weekend cooking traditional family meals with three local women. In rural, isolated villages like La Armonía that means hearty, pastoral dishes that are intimately connected to the bounty (or scarcity) of the surrounding land. Everything is cooked over a wood fire outdoors—smoke and embers are as crucial for imparting flavor as the ingredients themselves—including dishes that in other cuisines might be cooked on a stovetop or in the oven, like thick, rib-sticking stews made with meat butchered from free-grazing goats or cattle in a cast iron pot set over a live fire, and zapallos al rescoldo, hollowed-out pumpkins stuffed with chicken, vegetables, and fresh, homemade cheese, roasted over burning embers. For refreshment, you might be served cups of aloja, a drink made with fermented carob pods, typically enjoyed with bite-sized empanadas filled with tender, re-hydrated beef jerky heavily seasoned with white pepper and chives picked fresh from the garden.

Zulma Argañaraz, a cook and longtime resident of La Armonía, hopes to build a small restaurant for travelers on the side of her home. The village sits at the entrance of a new national park, and she hopes to build a business with her daughters and the help of Rewilding Argentina, the foundation that runs the park. With Ruíz as her teacher, she is learning to select and toast carob pods to grind into flour for breads, pastries and drinks—mixed into hot milk or water, it tastes vaguely of vanilla and warm chocolate.

Charqui empanadas ready to be popped into the oven
Charqui empanadas ready to be popped into the ovenSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

But her specialty is empanadas. More specifically, her specialty is empanadas de carne al cuchillo: Small cubes of tough meat cut from the round, or hind leg, stewed until tender with tomato sauce, parsley, paprika, and nearly three times the meat’s weight of slowly sautéed onion, stuffed into a lard and flour pastry shell and baked. To cook a dozen, rather than build a fire for her clay oven, she grabbed a metal trash can with the bottom sliced off and a grill fitted to it on the inside and placed it on top of a few bricks. She then shoveled hot embers from a fire pit underneath the can, placed the rimmed baking pan with the empanadas on the grill, and then finally put a sheet of metal on top to seal the can and then shoveled more embers on top.

“The oven would cook the empanadas really fast but I’m not going to waste that much wood for two dozen empanadas,” Zulma said, and while using the trash can was evidence of the pragmatism that confines the cuisine of this region, the technique also produced one of the most surprising empanadas I’ve ever eaten: the smoke embedded itself into the empanada dough like a pork shoulder cooked in a barrel smoker all day long.

Down the road, Graciela Cavana and Jorge Luna live on a sprawling property with five of their ten children and a grandchild. Their home is surrounded by the omnipresent monte, the untamed wilderness where cows, hogs, goats, and horses roam freely. The terrain makes it difficult to maintain even the smallest of gardens, so livestock that grazes in the wild make up the bulk of every meal.

Jorge Luna carries a freshly butchered goat
Jorge Luna carries a freshly butchered goat. A small goat will feed the family of 8Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

While Cavana built a fire, Luna butchered a chivito, or kid goat. One feeds the entire family: the shanks are stewed and served with starchy rice and potatoes; the central rack is butterflied and grilled until the skin turns golden and crisp; the tenderloin is cut into cubes and pan-fried before being stuffed into lard-injected empanada discs. This would be our menu for the day, Cavana explained, and I was reminded of the abundance of food I had eaten in Castelli a few nights prior. But here in La Armonía, the generosity was punctuated by the fact that this food was the product of resilience—of respecting and caring for one’s land, no matter how harsh it is in return; of honing the skill and wisdom it takes to feed a family on fresh, local ingredients, no matter how sparse they are.

“We are pretty self-sufficient. Except in times of drought, we live mostly off of our land,” Cavana explained. Nothing goes to waste, and that’s evident everywhere you look. In the distance, animal skins baked into leather under the intense sun: Essential clothing to search for livestock amongst shrubs with thorns that are as long as an index finger. Even the fire she used to make our meal was built using fallen trees or invasive species that asphyxiate the soil.

Jorge Luna carves goat to cook on the parrilla
Jorge Luna carves goat to cook on the parrillaSerious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

In the shade, Luna finished quartering the kid meat and set the skull aside. “The next time you come, we’ll eat soup and barbecued goat head.”

And all I could think was that I would gladly take another plane, bus, and car ride for the occasion.

Kevin Vaughn July 19, 2022 at 02:45AM

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