When the welcome party is a single cow tethered to the grassy roundabout next to Asunción’s Silvio Pettirossi airport, this trip will inevitably prove to be a fruitful beef fact-finding mission.
The task: to find out how an Argentine steakhouse rolls out its concept in neighboring Paraguay. The challenger? Buenos Aires’ legendary La Cabrera, which already serves classic cuts such as bife de chorizo in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, and Manila. The key difference in Paraguay, however, is that chef patron Gastón Riveira has worked intensely with a local meatpacker to ensure this isn’t just a copy-and-paste parrilla.
That’s right, Paraguay produces beef, masses of it, and people love it: in 2008, Paraguay entered Guinness World Records for the largest outdoor asado in the world, for example. And, the industry has been going through ‘a renaissance’, according to the UK’s AHDB Beef & Lamb organization. Herd numbers grew 47 percent between 2005 and 2014, resulting in 270,000 tons exported last year – just 25 percent of total production was devoured at home. Now the world’s eighth-largest exporter, the landlocked nation even outsold Argentina to beef-consuming powerhouses China and Russia last year.
Thing is, asado paraguayo is radically different to Argentina’s as bovine banqueters only get emotional over costillas (ribs), vacío (flank), and possibly cuadril (rump). There’s no flirtation with chorizo, morcilla, or sweetbreads, there isn’t even a warm-up picada; it’s mate, then straight to the meaty main game. Weekend barbecues kick off early, around 10am, with meat seared slowly using the grill or cross spit methods for at least three hours. With luck, there will be a token salad to encourage chewing speed rotations.
Given the intense cattle consumption culture, it made sense for La Cabrera Paraguay in Asunción to look local rather than import so Gastón’s initial mission was to find a producer. (Tax, a piffling 10 percent, probably comes into it too.) He and the team selected Frigorífico Neuland, a Mennonite co-operative located around 450 kms from the capital in Colonia Neuland. This meatpacker manages 200,000 heads of cattle on 1,200 German-named farms such as Neu-Halbstadt and Schöntal across 400,000 hectares of pasture in the Chaco region. An average 650 heads are slaughtered every day.
To counteract the heat, the co-op is actively reforesting with carob, eucalyptus, and other species to provide essential shade for sweaty, sleepy cows (and farmers in need of a siesta) as well as balance the ecosystem. The only physical similarity with Argentina’s pampas – besides cows – is its epic flatness.
It’s been a tailor-made undertaking, according to Bibiana Costanzo, La Cabrera’s operations director. “We sampled a lot of beef to find the right supplier! But Neuland’s dedication to the local market, quality and flexible attitude to produce the cuts of beef we needed won out. They also gave us our own refrigeration chamber at the plant.”
That quality starts with great pasture – you are what you eat, after all – and while the Mennonite community deforested some of their ‘new land’ in Central Chaco in the late 1940s and 1950s to carve out a living as the wheat farmers their DNA dictates they are, they realized it was a bust-or-bust scenario thanks to searing average 45ºC temperatures in summer. They swiftly moved on to peanuts and sesame farming. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the co-op realized cattle was a bigger money-spinner and planted gatton panic grass on the sand and clay land. Highly nutritional, that pasture thrived, as did the livestock, and today Frigorífico Neuland ranks as one of Paraguay’s top-five meatpackers.
That said, Chaco ain’t exactly a walk in the park when it comes to obtaining successful agricultural results. There’s those daily 45ºC temperatures, rain is scarce eight months of the year, giant saguaro cacti dot the horizon yet somehow Neuland’s pasture is fertile enough to sustain 200,000 heads of cattle. To counteract the heat, the co-op is actively reforesting with carob, eucalyptus, and other species to provide essential shade for sweaty, sleepy cows (and farmers in need of a siesta) as well as balance the ecosystem. The only physical similarity with Argentina’s pampas – besides cows – is its epic flatness.
Another difference is breeds themselves. Argentina’s classic livestock includes Hereford, Aberdeen Angus, and crossbreed Brangus while at this co-op, Brahman, Santa Gertrudis, and Gelbvieh – with respectively Zebu, Texan, and German roots – rule the roost (Brangus is also popular). While the end product on the table might not vary substantially, climate adaptability or the ability to avoid certain illnesses depends on the choice of breed.
Out in Colonia Neuland, some 1,200 co-op members – whose first language is German – manage their respective farms, an average hectare allocated to each ungulate. And while the feedlot fattening concept exists – La Cabrera’s ribs are sourced from feedlot beef as the team considers it tastier – intensive farming is the exception rather than the rule.
Gerhard Harms, a 67-year-old farmer, never has more than 130 Gelbvieh cattle on his 130-hectare farm, while the Franz brothers, Heinrich and Willy, are obsessed with their heads of 170 Santa Gertrudis on 170 hectares. The first thing Heinrich says is: “I sold 45 heads yesterday and they’re going straight to La Cabrera.” His pride is obvious. He knows his product’s value, knows exactly where it’s going; likewise the parrilla knows its beef’s origin because it’s field selected. Thousands of hours have been spent whizzing up and down the holey Ruta Transchaco single carriageway that links Asunción with Neuland for meetings, meatings, and tastings to ensure the very best beef reaches the steakhouse. Once livestock reaches its final destination, the slaughterhouse an hour from Asunción, the captive bolt pistol meets its mark and a team of butchers processes a half beef in 35 minutes. Blue tags indicate which sides are destined for the Las Lomitas-based steakhouse. This farm-to-table cycle is certainly personalized.
Tweaking, however, also forms part of the process, says La Cabrera manager Fabián Carrizo, to ensure the Argentine-Paraguayan marriage works. Both parties have given their input with regards to fattening fine tuning so as to obtain the best possible quality. And while cuts go beyond Paraguayan ribs and flank staples to incorporate Argentine classics such as ojo de bife (rib-eye) and bife de chorizo (sirloin strip), lomito – the Paraguayan term for lomo or fillet – has been added to the menu as a concession.
But it has been a baptism of fire getting Paraguayans and their meat-eating habits (remember those three-hour-grilled ribs) to adapt to the Argentine – and La Cabrera – way, says Fabián. “Serving beef à la carte, cuts large enough to share, cuts cooked medium-rare instead of well-done, cuts grilled for 20 minutes, cuts with fat. It’s been challenging to get Paraguayan diners round to our way of doing things. But I think we’ve managed to convince them you can consume beef differently in the three years we’ve been open.”
Step over the threshold, narrow your eyes and you could almost be at Cabrera 5099 or 5127 in Palermo: the converted family home, the cattle paraphernalia and posters, a prominent grill, the tiny side dishes, black-aproned waiters bustling around. The air of familiarity is strong, the branding present.
The menu: sides include chipa as well as corn-based breads sopa paraguaya and chipa guazu, as well as manioc as a reminder of our location. Wine is sourced from Chile as well as Argentina, thanks to Paraguay’s liberal importing culture (that would never happen back in Palermo). The rib-eye is delectable, the cuadril (rump) extremely flavorsome, the 250 gram kobe steak has less shimofuri (marbling) than its Argentine counterpart but is spectacularly tender regardless, the ribs are flavorful if chewy.
This is definitely a dual-nation, joint venture: Argentina’s finest gastronomical concept reaching the table with what is becoming Paraguay’s most enviable product. Argentine purists will disagree but this match is well on its way to reaching heaven.