It's a wonderfully balmy autumnal morning in Buenos Aires. The downside is that this only serves to heighten the punishing stench of shit and piss expelled by the temporary inmates penned in at Mercado de Liniers.
I'm visiting Argentina's largest live cattle auction in the Mataderos (translation: abattoir) neighbourhood with Gastón Riveira. He's the owner-chef of La Cabrera, widely considered to be Argentina's best grill after ranking 19 in Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015, and he likes to reacquaint himself from time to time with the four-legged link in his restaurant's food chain.
The day starts well before the crack of dawn when dozens of lorries drop off their wards at Liniers, a village-sized market whose corrals extend as far as the eye can see. We, however, aim for a more reasonable 7 AM start, when the day's sell-offs begin. Blinding florescent lights from the shops lining the nearby Avenida Directorio road denote that the butchers are already at work. Business, it seems, is booming.
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By the time we arrive at Liniers' bullock blood-pink entrance, gauchos have already coerced livestock into corrals, dividing them by weight, breed, and colour. There's already a buzz at the vast 34-hectare site that plonks cattle onto Buenos Aires' doorstep four days a week. This may very well be a religious experience for hardcore beef fans, it certainly sounds like one: a chorus of bells rings relentlessly, each with a distinctive chime—a sign that bidding is about to begin for one of Liniers' 50 beef brokers. It's the start of the working day for some and the death knell for Daisy and co.
Let's clarify, though. There's no blood letting or tripe spillages here: the mercado only operates as an auction house for live produce and every steer leaves with breath in their lungs to undertake the next part of their journey: straight to the slaughterhouse.
Auctioning off cattle raised in the provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa, and Córdoba since 1901, around 25,000 heads of cattle passed through its corrals on a daily basis in Liniers' hey-day, supplying Argentine consumers' and export markets' blood-thirsty lust for grass-fed beef. These days, with domestic consumption at one of its all-time lows (59.9 kilos per capita in 2015 according to the CICCRA meat business chamber), that 25,000 figure is now just four digits. The day we visited, just 7,532 heads went to market.
With so many breed, origin, and weight choices under one open-air roof, it's no wonder buyers from Argentina's biggest meatpackers and supermarkets gather here to negotiate for the lot that best suits their respective needs. And with years in the beef-buying business, they instantly know what to look for, as does Riveira: it's all in the perfectly rounded rump and an empty belly.
The stench starts to hit as we pass through stringent security and, wrinkling our noses, we climb a flight of stairs to the labyrinthine walkways for a bird's eye view of all those curvaceous rumps hemmed into wooden fenced pens.
"This is a piece of Argentina's history," says Riveira as we weave through the elevated maze looking down at Hereford, Aberdeen Angus, and Brangus cattle. And history goes far deeper than sating appetites. During Argentina's economic boom at the start of the 20th century, ships would leave for Europe weighed down with beef and return with migrants ready to start a new chapter in their lives.
You can't just turn up at Liniers hoping to chance upon some auction action, so we've got a date with Carlos Colombo, a beef broker and auctioneer for the family business Colombo y Magliano—also Riveira's wife's cousin.
"These guys are imagining these bullocks naked," Colombo says, pointing at the 20 or so buyers who are inspecting Angus butts, branded with curious shapes for identification. Riveira nods in agreement, contemplating the 15,000 kilos of prime beef his parrilla grills up over the course of a month.
"I can see the fat levels as well as the final product, a bife de chorizo sizzling on the grill," the chef says. "It's really interesting to see who buys what."
There's a lot of bellowing, not just from the livestock but from auctioneers yelling out price increments through loudspeakers. Deals are cemented when a hammer firmly raps on the metal fence; the powerful group of purchasers then shuffles along the walkway to cop a look at the next lot's wares. Cigarette smoke wafts around, the banter is loud, and the ammonia shows little sign of easing up.
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Although Riveira doesn't come to market as a direct buyer, the meatpackers he works with purchase Angus bred in the south of Buenos Aires province with La Cabrera in mind. And the myth that all Argentine beef is still grass fed on the extensive pampas plains is dispelled by Colombo in a flash.
"About 80 percent of the heads that come though Liniers is feed-lot," he says. Riveira chortles. "Those idiots [from other steakhouses] swear their beef is grass-fed but the truth is, it isn't."
It's a good day for Colombo, sales-wise, with the per kilo price hitting 28.10 pesos.
"I've sold 43 animals today, and it's been better than yesterday," he says. With the hard work done, Colombo is keen to get on and eat his asado breakfast, a daily ritual for the auctioneer and his team.
Gazing down into Daisy's long-lashed eyes and knowing the fortune that awaits around the corner, a twinge of vegetarian awakening gnaws away at me—until La Cabrera's medium-rare bife de chorizo turns up for my dinner.