Photo by the author.
Buenos Aires is the largest port city in Latin America, and yet there are almost no rats to be seen on the streets, day or night. Don't worry, people aren't eating them—but they are eating something remarkably similar.The plains viscacha is a member of the chinchilla family, but for all intents and purposes, it looks like a large rat. A land-destroying rodent that feeds on newly planted seeds and grass, it has been hunted in the countryside for years by chacareros (local farmers). The large system of burrows it creates are dangerous to the chacareros, as their horses often trip over the hidden holes.
Besides the genuinely reasonable excuses for wanting to hunt this rodent, it's also surprisingly tasty. Viscacha meat is tender and much less intense than other game. It's flavour is to rabbit what turkey's is to chicken—unless you're told what you're eating, you wouldn't really notice the difference.My first experience of Viscacha was at El Baqueano in San Telmo, Buenos Aires' oldest neighbourhood. The restaurant is run by chef Fernando Rivarola and wife and sommelier Gabriela. For the past three years, it has been included in San Pellegrino's list of Latin America's 50 best restaurants.Fernando tells me that he likes to work with meats native to Argentina because of his upbringing in the small village of San Cayetano, some 500 kilometers south of Buenos Aires."My father fished and hunted as a means of survival, and among all of the things that he hunted, we ate a lot of viscacha. The strange thing about the viscacha is that it's considered a plague; and yet at the same time, [it] is a controlled, hunted species, protected by law. So it's a bit paradoxical." Fernando adds that this is also common for many other native animals."In my house, we ate viscacha prepared in the traditional manner—a la escabeche. Because of this, I knew it was one of the meats I wanted to work with when we opened El Baqueano."A la escabeche is a method of marinating and cooking a piece of meat or fish in a mixture of oil and acid, usually vinegar. The recipe was brought over to Latin America from Spain and adapted for use with indigenous meats. Fernando himself traced the dish back to its roots in Spain, where he perfected it by working closely with a family who specialized in escabeche.
Fernando's improved recipe includes white wine—any wine can be used, but he prefers the combination of flavours when adding a white—which helps tenderise the meat as well as balance the strong acidity of the escabeche liquor. He has also eliminated the process of marinating the meat prior to cooking. This was only necessary in the past, when hunters were gone for days at a time and meat would develop a much more intense taste and smell.When Fernando was young, his father went for two- and three-day hunting trips with a friend. "We never knew what they were going to bring back. When we heard the sound of the small car approaching—they didn't have a pickup or a 4x4—we ran out of the house to see what they had returned with. For us, it was like a game: running alongside the car try and get a glimpse of what treats were inside. The strong smell of game is something I remember to this day."Fernando's mother cooked out of of necessity rather than enjoyment. When it came to viscacha and other game, however, his father was in charge. "All of the recipes came from generations of hunters, and once my mother learned them, she cooked well, but my father always cooked with that little bit of extra passion."The fact that they were hungry and the viscacha was so flavoursome meant that they were easily able to forget that what they were eating was a large rodent, fresh from the burrow.Another way in which viscacha can be cooked is al disco. The name derives from the discs in which the meat was traditionally cooked—discs that came from retired machinery used to plough fields. Nowadays, it basically just means "braised"; the meat is jointed but left with the bones in when cooking to improve flavour.
At El Hornero, on the outskirts of Greater Buenos Aires in González Catán, it is possible to try some of the city's best braised viscacha. The restaurant can be accessed by a slow-moving train that transports you not just 30 kilometers outside the city but also 20 years back in time.
For the past 58 years, Hector Garcia and his sister Graciela have run this pulpería (a traditional countryside grocery store that doubles as a bar and restaurant) serving game brought in from all over the country. The salon serves as trophy cabinet for successful excursions; hides, coats and shells are among the many peculiarities that adorn the walls.Viscacha is offered with a variety of accompanying sauces, though first-timers should try a la portuguesa. The stewed peppers, onions, and tomatoes provide a sweet, rich bed for the viscacha to lie in, while the garlic and oregano help to bring forth the meat's ever-so-slightly earthy flavour."In reality, most recipes originate from what was at hand to cook, rather than what was thought would pair well," Hector explains. "Some flavour combinations were a success and are therefore still used to this day."
Finally, for a contemporary take on the countryside classic, head to Pulpería Quilapán, also in San Telmo. The owners spent three years renovating this 19th-century house before opening to the public in 2015, and their attention to detail is immaculate. Grégoire Fabre clearly wanted to make the experience as authentic as possible and has amassed an impressive collection of working period appliances, including the first refrigerator imported into Argentina.The menu is every bit as authentic as the décor, and here you cannot miss the viscacha escabeche, which is as good as any you will find in the city. Served with homemade sourdough bread, the viscacha pairs well with a full-bodied Argentinian malbec.Needless to say viscacha is the dish that you should be trying while in Argentina. Like so many other delicacies, this poor man's dish with humble beginnings has crept its way into some of the top kitchens in Latin America. It is a dish that unites this country, and like all other culinary classics, it has that intrinsic ability to evoke strong childhood memories.¡Viva la Viscacha!