A HOLIDAY FOR ALL: ÑOQUIS DEL 29

One of my favorite things about travel is getting to experience new holidays and indulge in local traditions. The unlimited number of unique holidays around the world allows visitors to immerse themselves in the culture of a city or country in an entirely new way.

In Valencia, Spain the week-long celebration of Las Fallas culminates when hundreds of huge wooden structures around the city are burned in the streets as crowds of people watch, drink, dance, and enjoy. In town of Tübingen, Germany, citizens celebrate an annual rubber ducky race. Over 6,000 yellow rubber ducks float along the city’s river, all battling to win a grand prize holiday voucher.

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Of course, Buenos Aires cannot be outdone, and has thus come up with a holiday to rival all others. Gnocchi Day is the monthly celebration of all that is good in life. And by that I mean pasta and potatoes, or really anything related to carbohydrates for that matter. Mmmm bread, spaghetti, french fries, potato dumplings [Cue Julie Andrews: “…these are a few of my favorite things…”] Ok, sorry, getting back on topic.

If you haven’t tried gnocchi (or ñoquis in Spanish) you are severely missing out and I suggest you remedy the situation ASAP. Gnocchi are small potato dumplings that are turned into pasta and covered in your choice of sauce — alfredo, marinara, rosé, bolognese, pesto. Is your mouth watering yet? Though it’s definitely a meal that will have you unbuttoning your pants at the table, it’s a beloved food that has become an event here in Buenos Aires.

On the 29th of each month restaurants across the city prepare this tasty mountain of carbs and wait for the crowds to shuffle in. A rather interesting affair, it’s the only day that gnocchi is available on the menu at many restaurants. Known as ñoquis del 29, this holiday of sorts is not only a good excuse to stuff your face with delicious food, but it also has a rather interesting history. To be fair, there are several different theories about the origins of Gnocchi Day, so I’ll give you a quick run-down.

Some say that the gnocchi celebration originated because at the end of the month people were at their poorest and couldn’t afford expensive meals. So, on the 29th day of the month — the day before payday — they chose to indulge in gnocchi, a filling and tasty food that is also quite cheap to prepare, since it’s mostly made from potato. Over time, the ritual stuck, and now porteños and visitors alike flock to restaurants to enjoy this time-honored local tradition.

Another theory takes a dig at the city’s “ghost payrollers.” The word ñoquis doesn’t only refer to the yummy dish, but also to a city worker who only appears on payday to collect his check. These lazy dudes — like ñoquis in Buenos Aires — only show up once a month. While some name this as the origin of the holiday, it seems more likely to me that the once-a-month food gave these workers their name.

Yet another theory pins the holiday’s origins on the gnocchi industry. An Argentine version of a “Hallmark Holiday,” this hypothesis suggests that Gnocchi Day was contrived by a large pasta-making company in hopes of increasing sales.

And of course, we could always blame the Italians for a day based around pasta. Due to the large number of Italian immigrants in Argentina, it is a likely possibility that the tradition was carried over as a celebration of the patron saint of Venice, San Pantaleon, which falls on the 29th.

Whatever its origin may be, ñoquis del 29 is one celebration in Buenos Aires that I anticipate sticking around for a while. And I am more than happy to oblige… I mean, what’s better than a holiday that comes once a month AND includes my much-loved carbs?

Oh, and if you do have the pleasure of indulging in this tradition, be sure to place a coin under your plate while you eat – a ritual which is said to attract prosperity and luck.

¡Qué aprovechen!

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This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.

THE BANDONEÓN, TANGO'S BREATH OF LIFE

Experiencing the bandoneón for the first time was a defining moment in my understanding of tango. Like many newcomers to Argentina and the tango scene, at first glance I recognized this contraption as an accordion. Yet there was something pressing the back of my mind: I had never been so captivated, so enchanted by an accordion before. In fact, there’s something about the accordion that tends to grate against my ears. But this was different. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the four men on stage who held on their knees and in their hands one of the most legendary pieces of tango history.

The bandoneón is not only an instrument. The bandoneón is the intangible, raw passion of tango encapsulated in an inanimate object. It’s the lungs that fill and empty in cadence with its dancers.

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The bandoneón was invented in Germany around 1840, and later made its way to Argentina with the influx of German immigrants in the late 19th century. At first, local musicians attempted to integrate the instrument into the emerging style of music known as milonga, which was a fast-paced hum produced by flutes, guitars, and violins. When the slow and undulating pace of the bandoneón couldn’t keep up with the quick step of the milonga, the music slowed, and tango as we know it today was born.

So, how to do you distinguish a bandoneón from an accordion? Well, for starters, they are in two different families of instruments. Though both are free reed instruments, unlike the accordion, the bandoneón is a part of the concertina family. It also does not the have piano-like keys found on the accordion, but instead buttons on both sides of the instrument. Each button plays a different note depending on whether the bellows (the main folding section) is opened or closed. What’s more, the bandoneón is a two-voice instrument, meaning each note played also plays one octave higher at the same time, creating a much richer, more pleasant sound than the accordion. With over 70 buttons in total, the range of sounds that the bandoneón can produce is astonishing.

Throughout the last century, the bandoneón has kept its central role in the orchesta típica, the traditional tango orchestra. While some orchestras have only one or two bandoneónistas, some have up to four or five, which produces a sound so complex and powerful that it transforms the show into something spectacular.

Much like watching a great pair of tango dancers, to see a bandoneón player in action is to truly feel the emotion of tango music. You can often physically see the passion he feels for the music move through his body and the bandoneón in a rhythmic undulation. It’s as if a mini orchestra resides within the bellows of the bandoneón, and only with the help of a dedicated – and not to mention, incredibly talented! – musician can the notes be set free.

Am I sounding a bit too love struck? Maybe so, but I’ve found that this instrument is one of my favorite discoveries about Argentine tango. Whether you’re a music buff or a simple layperson who likes to hear a good tune every once in a while, I suggest you get to know the bandoneón. You may just fall in love, too. Just don’t count on taking one of these puppies home as a souvenir – they cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 and are quite difficult to find these days.

If you have the opportunity, I also highly recommend checking out the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro. This surprisingly young tango orchestra boasts several bandoneón players, and puts on an energetic, distinct show.

Happy listening!

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This article first appeared on LandingPadBA.com in December 2009.