An appetite for the Andes

UTE JUNKER
Last updated 11:05, August 18 2014
NO TIME FOR SLUMBER: Bariloche Lake, Patagonia, Argentina.

NO TIME FOR SLUMBER: Bariloche Lake, Patagonia, Argentina.

Bariloche is not a place for sleeping in. The moment you wake up and draw back the curtains, you'll be itching to get outside.

Here in the Patagonian Lake District, the magnificent landscape is rich with sparkling lakes, thick forests and, surrounding it all, the snowcapped Andes. That gives visitors a head-spinning array of outdoor activities to choose from.

You can hike through forests and cool off at a pristine waterfall; climb mountains to gaze upon glaciers, or kayak from one lake to the next, drinking in the startling beauty the whole way.

Culinary odyssey: Sopitas - small soup amuse-bouche.

Culinary odyssey: Sopitas - small soup amuse-bouche.

They say any time is a good time to visit Bariloche. Each season has its own highlights, from sailing and swimming in summer, to skiing and snowboarding in winter.

So how did we end up with this weather? During our entire stay in Bariloche, the rain pours down in heavy sheets. Locals peer up at the sky with a perplexed frown, muttering worriedly, "It's not usually like this."

The sky is a shade of grey best described as "nuclear winter". Occasionally, when the rain lightens to a gentle drenching, the sky brightens to a slightly paler shade of grey. At night, it's slightly darker. Mostly, it just buckets down.

Chefs at Cassis Restaurant.

Chefs at Cassis Restaurant.

We're feeling pretty sorry for ourselves, but I also have some sympathy for our guide. He was all set to take us mountain high and river deep. Instead, he now has to find a way to entertain a bunch of petulant Australians.

Fortunately, he's a wise man, who quickly works out that the one thing we love even more than complaining is eating. And so begins our culinary journey around Bariloche.

We start with an albatross. The name of our first restaurant - Il Gabbiano, Italian for albatross - makes us smile, as our original program for today had us hiking from Los Juncos Lagoon high into the mountains to see the nests of condors - a rare opportunity to watch the world's largest birds soaring high on the thermals.

Tapa verdadera at the Cassis Restaurant.

Tapa verdadera at the Cassis Restaurant.

Apparently our guide has decided to stick with the bird-watching theme.

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Housed in a pretty stone cottage, Il Gabbiano is divided into three intimate rooms. There are cosy touches such as candlelight, checked tablecloths and small jugs of flowers on the table.

The owners, Mimi and Guillermo (she does the cooking), have run Il Gabbiano for decades.

The food is a cut above your average Italian, with superb home-made pasta and delicious mains that make the most of super-fresh ingredients, like trout caught just a few hours earlier. My rabbit, simply dressed with herbs and lemon, is delicious.

The next day, I consult our itinerary just to remind myself what we're missing out on.

Ideally, we should be hiking the shores of one of Bariloche's seven lakes. There are plenty of routes to choose from, such as the half-day Circuito Chico, which winds around the Nahuel Huapi lakeshore and crosses the San Pedro and Llao Llao peninsulas.

I'm wondering whether our guide is going to continue the thematic approach. He doesn't disappoint. Today's destination does indeed include a lake.

Perched on a cliff on the edge of Lago Gutierrez, Cassis restaurant is a welcoming place with wooden rafters and a fire crackling in the corner. Its panoramic windows frame a view that is stunning even through sheets of rain.

At the helm is another local couple, Mariana and Ernesto - again, she's in charge in the kitchen, giving European classics a Patagonian twist.

The menu changes seasonally, but might include rib-eye, saturated in its own juices and port wine and served in short crust pastry, or Mariana's signature lamb strudel.

The wines are Ernesto's department. He has more than 200 labels in his cellar, which he cleverly matches with the food.

Make sure you leave room for dessert, one of Mariana's specialties. If you're not up for a Patagonian chestnut puree with whisky and chocolate sauce, the lighter options - such as cardamom ice-cream served with oranges - are just as good.

By the third day of the deluge, we're concerned we might be running out of culinary options.

Today we were planning to hike the terraces over to Brazo Tristeza, known for its superb views, before walking further to admire the seven glaciers of Cerro Tronador. Can our guide come up with something to divert our minds from what we're missing out on?

Of course he can. Today, he has a special treat in store: an introduction to the local micro-brewery scene.

We're familiar with Argentina's wineries, of course, but craft beer is apparently booming, particularly around Bariloche. We pay a visit to Cerveceria Berlina, run by three lovely brothers, Bruno, Guido and Franco Ferrari.

As the company's name indicates, they make a range of German-style beer, including my personal favourite, rauchbier (smoked beer).

Unfortunately, there's no rauchbier available today, but we try a couple of different options, including a wheat beer and an India pale ale.

My favourite is a lovely Altbier, made with three kinds of caramel malt that give it a lovely smooth flavour.

Cerveceria Berlina is not the only brewery in town. Later that day, we head to one of the local brew pubs, Cerveceria Blest.

This is where the locals go to cut loose: there are long tables, busy bar girls who never stop moving, and a tradition of writing a note on a coaster and affixing it to the wall - the collection already stretches to hundreds of coasters, steadily marching up to cover the ceiling.

We drink beer, eat peanuts and listen to the rocking soundtrack. Who needs the fresh air?

The writer travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and Abercrombie & Kent. See lan.com and abercrombiekent.com.au.

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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