As Odysseus was nearly drawn to his destruction on the rocks by the enchanting song of the sirens, so your hardy WANF voyagers were almost powerless to resist breaking themselves on the plentiful tables of Uruguay. However, unlike Homer’s hero, for whom women were the main weakness throughout his epic peregrinations, during our recent travels in South America, we found that grilled organs, specifically sweetbreads, are the likely source of our eventual ruin.
A comparatively short (by Odysseian standards) three-hour Buquebus ferry ride from Buenos Aires across the Mar del Plata – the enormously wide and constantly brown estuary of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) – lies Uruguay’s capital and largest city, Montevideo. Arriving by water feels delightfully old-fashioned, and it allows the visitor to get a sense of the lie of the land in a way that a plane ride cannot. Rather than the confusing meander through a city’s outskirts on the way in from the airport, the city slowly revealed itself to us as we approached it by sea, face-first, so that we could see the way it had been built, outwards from the port.
Centered on the port is Montevideo’s cuidad vieja (old town), which with its faded colonial glory and salty night-time reputation, is immediately charming to the visitor. Only the giant ultra-modern cruise ship towering over everything prevented us from wondering if the ferry hadn’t also been a time machine. The hub of the old town is the Mercado del Puerto, a magnificent Victorian-era market with a skylit roof supported by wrought iron pillars, where the air is thick with the thwack of cleaver on meat, the cries of competing vendors and the sooty warblings of its resident pigeons. It no longer serves as a venue for trading fresh produce, a fact that might be sad if it weren’t now a giant parilla (grill/barbecue) serving all manner of traditional Uruguayan meaty preparations.
More accurately, there are actually a bunch of different parillas within the mercado all in friendly and typically laid-back Uruguayan-style competition with one another for the title of best in the city. We spent a good fifteen minutes cagily circling the mercado trying to figure out some way of discerning which might be leading this contest. After inspecting rack upon similar rack of sizzling meats, we decided to let demographics be our guide and plumped for Estancia del Puerto, the place with the fewest available seats (2), and the most drunken dudes with guitars serenading the patrons (1).
We had left Buenos Aires on a very early morning ferry and, having eaten nothing on the journey, arrived in Montevideo in a terrible, bleary-eyed state of hunger. The only way out of which seemed to be robust servings of charred beast. Happily then, the menu was the most extensive of its kind we have ever seen, containing more than eight choices of steak, five of sausage, 3 or 4 matambres (stuffed beef rolls), chicken, pork, and an intimidating selection of organ meats, not to mention a full range of pasta, salads and sides, in both full or half portions. Understanding, by this point in our carnivorous odyssey, that servings tended to be of a generous nature in this part of the world, we ordered half portions of mollejones (sweetbreads), morcilla (blood sausage), lechon (suckling pig), the potentially gruesome chotos/chinchulines (guts), and a bottle of typically Uruguayan tannat (red wine), in the hope that this might save room for further sampling of the menu.
Since, like all good grills, only certain sections of this parilla were used to actually cook meat, with others functioning as warming areas for ready-to-serve meats, we were presented with our choices within seconds, and what a presentation! No garnish, no sides of vegetables, no wasted real estate at all, just meat on plates and silverware wrapped in a paper napkin, with deep, communal tubs of chimichurri and salsa criolla scattered around the bar. We dived in recklessly.
The star of the show was the lechon, or milk-fed baby pig, which was heavenly. So good in fact, that were it not for the perfectly crispy skin overlying a thin-layer of incredibly sweet fat, and the moist, almost milky-tasting, flesh of unweaned piglet, it would truly be a barbaric dish. But our pause for reflection on the plight of young pork was brief as we tore into the golden beauty of the sweetbreads, the complex spices of the morcilla, and the (surprisingly) wonderful crunchy texture and minerally-tasting joy of the chinchulines. It all tasted to us like no meat had before, even the condiments had a singular tang and freshness to them that we found a step-up from those we’d had earlier in the week. And it seems we were not alone in this.
Glancing up at our surroundings and fellow diners as we approached fullness, it was comforting to see that everyone else was head-down and going full-bore into their lunches too. And who could blame them? Like the irresistible song of the sirens, the evocative combination of wood-smokey atmosphere, beautiful Victorian architecture, and the surround-sound effect of wall-to-wall sizzling would surely stir the soul of any meat-lover and be ruinous to the anti-meat resolve of even the most hardcore vegetarian.
- 1lb veal sweetbreads, cleaned
- 4-6 cups water
- 4 tbsp white vinegar
- 1tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1tbsp vegetable oil
- Boil the water and add salt and vinegar
- Place sweetbreads in water and simmer gently for 12-15 minutes
- Remove from water and pat dry well.
- Slice sweetbreads into 4 large-ish chunks and season with salt and pepper
- Rub lightly with oil
- Heat your grill or barbecue to medium-high
- Wipe grate with an oiled rag
- Grill sweetbreads, turning occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, or until golden-brown and crispy on all sides
- Serve just with lemon slices or as part of a typically Uruguayan tablita parillada, or mixed grill.
Mercado del Puerto
Rambla 25 Agosto de 1825 y Perez Castellano,
Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo, Uruguay
Mercado del Puerto online