Coca vs tea leaves

After trekking (in a car) to pass the 4,100-metre point, frantically sucking on coca leaves, in order to be at one with the hugely obscure yet hugely fascinating salt flats surrounded by mountains in all directions, then freewheeling in neutral back down the Cuesta de Lipan to Purmamarca, in Jujuy province, for a lazy, siesta-inducing lunch, it was back to the relative modernity of Salta city.

In fact, stepping into the El Lagar bed-and-breakfast had the immediate opposite effect — a delightful time warp despite being built 35 years ago, the former family home which remains in the hands of the winemaking Etcharts certainly has more than a touch of the colonial about it. Step behind those secretive green wooden doors, and if you can walk through to the mature garden without stopping to gaze at one of the many pieces of religious art, or the lift rescued from Tucumán fit for just one passenger, or the patio decorated by lusty creepers and a trickling Andalusian fountain, then guests have found a perfect sanctuary to while away an afternoon accompanied by a cup of tea.

Although the leaves are not ordered by Her Majesty herself, sugar does come in a three-legged circular silver bowl complete with miniature shovel, bottoms are perfectly cushioned on the garden furniture, while blooming jasmines and magnolias provide an essence no man can ever replicate on a fancy stick placed in a jar. The grass most certainly is greener on the other side of the low hedge next to the swimming pool and its diving board. After an injection of adobe constructions and coca saliva, dust-free colonial arches accompanied by a cup of tea and a moody skyline with the threat of rain stopping play frankly hit the spot. If only the owners would let we grape-loving guests take real advantage of the wine cellar, which seats six and comes complete with a barrel table and a pictorial history of the family’s winery…

Picky Busy fantasizing about who would make my wine-tasting guest-list and what cuts of cured meats would be on my picada line-up, I had a crude awakening that it wouldn’t be happening, not this time. (Plus I only have two friends in Salta, and that, does not, a table fill.) Fortunately, Horseman High came to the rescue and suggested we go to Casa Moderna and make my picada fantasy a reality.

Owner Ernestina also runs a small winery (who doesn’t, in Salta?) and sells a fine Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 under the Los Morros name, which I likened to a ripe goat’s cheese for its creamy nose. A delicatessen and restaurant, Casa Moderna gets busy, so service can be a little numbing. However, the cured meats that come out, certainly those which form the classic meat-and-cheese combo (see photo), are really worth the wait. The bread, a mixture of brown and white, is freshly baked in house and there is ample of everything for two people to dine and leave full. A dreamy camembert was the cheesy star of the wooden board, while the Italian-style Parma ham was equally delectable from a pork perspective. In order not to miss out on trying some other delicacies, I asked for some smoked boar and trout to be thrown into the mix, and the house was happy to oblige.

What’s great about a picada is first, there’s no threat about it going cold so wolfing it down isn’t necessary. And second, it really is a social meal, as each person dips into and rips apart bread, cuts of meat, and hunks of cheese. The chatter continues, the wine keeps flowing, and the next thing you know, all the chairs are stacked on tables and the lights have been turned off.

El Lagar, 20 de Febrero 877, Salta (guests only).

Casa Moderna, España 674, city of Salta.

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