Friday, February 26, 2010

Submarines in Southern South America? The Coffee Connection

In the age of Peets and Starbucks, one of the things than most concerns people when they vacation in distant lands is whether or not they can get good coffee. People who go to countries such as Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil, which are tropical coffee producers, count on fresh brewed caffeine, but sometimes they’re not so sure about the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

In reality, there’s never been much to worry about in Argentina where with few exceptions, the Italian influence has made espresso the default option even in remote Patagonian hamlets. The simplest “café chico” is a dark thick brew in a tiny cylindrical cup; diluted with milk, it’s a “cortado.” “Café con leche” is a latte or cappuccino, while a “lágrima” (literally a tear, as in crying) is steamed milk with just a little coffee. Uruguay is similar.

Chile is a different animal since, not so long ago, the only thing available was instant Nescafé, and it’s still the default option throughout the country. That started to change in the 1980s, though, with stand-up bars that became famous for “café con piernas” (coffee with legs), with espresso drinks served by long-legged waitresses in very short skirts and low-cut blouses (favored by a mostly male clientele, places such as Santiago’s Café Haití are open to the street, but some others are thinly disguised strip joints). Nevertheless, Starbucks and their Chilean clones now offer genuine coffee to a more general audience.

In both countries, tea is also a common drink at breakfast and throughout the day. The Argentines, of course, also have their signature “yerba mate,” a relative of the common holly that’s an acquired taste - though it has made some headway overseas as an herbal tea. Sipped from a gourd through a metallic straw, the bitter-tasting “mate” is also popular in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, and even some parts of Chile.

Argentines are almost unique, though, in taking hot chocolate in the form of a “submarino,” a small bar of semi-sweet chocolate dissolved in steamed milk from the espresso machine. In the process of dissolving, the one pictured above even sports a periscope.

Meanwhile, in the South Atlantic, real submarines have been in the news, as the British government has been rumored to have ordered one southward to protect an offshore oil drilling rig in the Falkland Islands. Argentina, which claims the Islands as the “Malvinas,” has protested the British action and decreed that any ships proceeding there from Argentine ports must have permission from local authorities.

In reality, there’s not likely to be any military confrontation over this issue, but there could be escalation on a rhetorical level. One sardonic radio commentator in Buenos Aires suggested that “If the Brits send a submarine, we will send a submarine AND a cappuccino!”

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