MONTEVIDEO – The soaring temperatures of the Southern Hemisphere summer do not keep people from enjoying quantities of grilled meat during the Christmas season in Uruguay, the most carnivorous country in the world and one that celebrates the holiday season, like its ancestors, with festivities around the flames of a barbecue.
“We have many traditions from European culture that don’t exactly suit the temperatures in Uruguay over Christmas,” says Maria Ines Magariños, who works for a catering company in Montevideo. She adds that “grilled meat, tripe and offal” are the most popular eats at this time of year.
So in a country that consumes an average of 101.2 kilos of meat per inhabitant, more even than its neighbor Argentina, grilled suckling pig and lamb reign supreme on Christmas tables.
“We eat the same as in countries where the weather is cold,” the directors of the culinary Web site Uruguay Cocina told Efe, adding that they are “slowly” introducing fish and seafood into their Christmas menus.
Products from the sea definitely do not form part of the “basic menu,” Magariños agreed. She said that over the holidays they get a lot of demand for cold cuts, tapas, salads and tarts.
But “more than anything else, the Uruguayan is a carnivore,” said this gastronomy expert, since the barbecue is always an excuse to celebrate social occasions and family reunions.
At these meals “there has to be a fire,” said Uruguayan cultural authority Willy Martinez, for whom all the South American country’s Christmas traditions revolved around the flames of a barbecue.
Martinez called it “madness” and out of place in the summer heat, but it is a complete “ritual,” run by the man of the house who, armed with a bottle of whisky, tends for hours the slow cooking of meat on the grill, and so makes the barbecue “patriarchal territory.”
What’s more, many families buy a live lamb, kill and butcher it, then cook the different cuts on the grill, he said.
There is, however, another movement afoot.
“This will be my seventh vegan Christmas and I don’t miss the violence on my table at all,” said Virilica, a manager of the vegetarian catering service Libres y Hermosas.
This Uruguayan firm offers alternative Christmas menus, from starters to desserts, without any animal products included.
Dishes that substitute meat with protein-rich vegetables and dressings made of tofu, carrots, spinach, nuts, peppers and cherries are some of its specialties.
Despite the rise of vegetarian recipes, this year again sees meat at the center of Christmas dinners and suppers in a country where its consumption is linked to traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the gauchos lived on livestock and the wild animals they hunted.
Turron, a sweet Christmas treat imported from Spain, and the traditional Italian panettone recall Uruguayans’ immigrant roots and put the finishing touch on the gastronomy of these hot summer days.