A vacation in Argentina might require you to reset your biological clock, especially if you are accustomed to eating dinner at 6:00 in the evening. Argentinians rarely eat before 10:00 p.m., often later. The merienda, or late afternoon snack, fills the hunger gap. It is one of the many traditions that stem from Argentina’s historical ties to Great Britain. In a sense, the merienda is the Argentine version of the British high tea, but it has also played an essential role in the political, social and intellectual structure of the country.
The Confiterias of Buenos Aires
A love of sweet confections and lively conversation triggered a vibrant cafe society in Buenos Aires. Confiterias, as they are called, appear on every street corner, and in late afternoon, portenos gather to snack, chat and debate. Most of Argentina’s important historical events and literary works were, at some point, discussed within the walls of the confiterias. In fact, throughout the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983, the government planted infiltrators among the cafe crowds to monitor discussions. Since the confiterias served as gathering places for dissenters, they were often subject to police raids.
The confiterias occasionally hosted the taller literario, or literary workshop. Famous writers would advertise these workshops in the local papers, and aspiring writers, wishing to hone their skills under the auspices of one of the masters, would gather to study, while enjoying a coffee and a pastry.
El Cafe Tortoni
Located on Avenida de Mayo and founded in 1858, El Cafe Tortoni is the oldest confiteria in Argentina. Albert Einstein, Jorge Luis Borges and Federico Garcia Lorca, were just some of its regular patrons. A French immigrant, whose last name was Touan, founded it and named it after the Parisian Cafe Tortoni, which was a prominent 19th century cultural gathering place. Its Tiffany lamps, stained glass windows, marble counters and photos on the walls maintain the Belle Epoque ambiance.
Three of the Cafe Tortoni’s most prestigious patrons were immortalized in wax. Their figure’s maintain an eery presence in the rear corner of the main dining room. They include Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer, tango singer/songwriter Carlos Gardel and feminist poet Alfonsina Storni . Storni frequented El Cafe Torino during the early 20th-century – right around the time when the confiterias were first becoming accessible to women. The openly erotic nature of her work was no doubt cause for heated conversations.
El Cafe Tortoni also has a small theater in the basement, which hosts tango shows a few nights a week.
Las Violetas opened in 1884. It was declared a Buenos Aires’ Heritage site in 1998. Throughout the decades, Las Violetas boasted an esteemed clientele, which included political, literary and cultural giants such as Carlos Pelligrini, who eventually became President of Argentina, tango master Osvaldo Pugliese and Uruguayan jockey Irineo Leguisamo, who actually has a cake named after him. The “Leguisamo” combines dulce de leche with meringue and almond cream. Some of the activities at Las Violetas were not so sweet. The abuelas, or grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo used Las Violetas for clandestine meetings disguised as birthday parties, which were formed to plot the retrieval of their “disappeared” grandchildren.
The history of the confiterias provides food for thought, perfect to enjoy while savoring your dulce and cafe.