Tafí del Valle, Tucumán – You are in the foothills of the Andes in northwest Argentina, sitting on the covered porch at Las Carreras, an estancia that produces a cow’s milk manchego that is easily the best cheese you’ve tasted in Argentina. Full of fine cheese, tipsy from a full-bodied Tannat from Bodegas Nanni, giddy after watching the cows being milked for the second time that day, you and your new Canadian friend watch the fog roll into the Calchaquí Valley.
The sun has disappeared behind the foothills, you’re six thousand feet above sea level, and you dance to keep warm as you wait for Jesús, the taxista who’s promised to pick you up and take you back to town.
You and your Canadian companion (a traveler who is as impassioned by cheese and all things edible as you are) whoop with joy when you spot Jesús’s maroon Puegot bounce over the hill.
“Right on time!” you yelp in unison. You run up the dirt road to meet him.
Amused, Jesús asks if you had a good time at the estancia. You rave about the cheese.
“Yep, Las Carreras makes the best cheese in the area,” he agrees, “They sell all over the world! You know what the secret is? The grass. The pasto bravo (fierce grass) that the cows eat is what makes it so good.”
At that moment, you discover that this taxista is part of your strange and wonderful tribe of food fanatics. Confirming your suspicions, he admits that he worked as a professional cook for 14 years before getting burned out.
You are overjoyed. After two days of being steered to Tafí del Valle’s tourist strip for mediocre meals, you’ve finally found someone who can guide you to the good stuff.
“You can eat well at Lunahuana,” Jesús says in response to your plea for a good place to eat, “That was the last place I cooked before I started driving a cab.”
A few hours later, your cheese high wears off, and you’re sitting across from your Canadian food buddy devouring butternut squash sorrentinos in pink sauce at Lunahuana.
The combination of the fresh pasta, sweet squash, and rich sauce (flavored with wine and sauteed onions) is so satisfying that you take your time between bites.
You linger at your table after you finish your pasta. The elegant dining room – track-lit, wood-beamed, heat blasting from vents next to spotless windows – remains devoid of other tourists.
Your waiter surprises you with a bowl of ice cream smothered in dulce de cayote (pie melon jam), miel de caña (sugar cane honey), and walnuts.
“On the house,” he says, disappearing in the midst of your thank yous.
You dig in.
“This is awesome,” your Canadian friend says, “Dulce de cayote is usually to sweet for me. But the ice cream and the walnuts balance it out. I really like it!”
You demolish the dessert, stepping out of the warm bubble that is Lunahuana into the bracing cold of the mountain night. Thanks to Jesús, the sorrentinos, the ice cream and the dulce are already happy memories.
Av. Gdor. Critto 540 (across the street from the bus terminal, about 100 meters toward town)
Tafí del Valle (Tucumán Province)
(0) 3867 421-330/360
Note: Hosteria Lunahuana is the only restaurant in Tafí where I saw trout (trucha) from the nearby lake in El Mollar on the menu. If you go, it might be worth a try.