The Uruguayan chef Hugo Soca presented this week a complete cookbook covering all our national recipes. Reading it, I remembered the story that I wrote for the magazine Gastronomica, published by the University of California Press, a couple of years ago about our national dessert: Martín Fierro.
Martín fierro, the masterpiece of the Argentinian poet, politician, and writer José Hernández, is one of the most famous examples of literatura gauchesca, gaucho literature. Yet, quite apart from its importance to Argentina’s belles lettres, Hernández’s epic poem also resonates with Uruguayans, for reasons more culinary than nationalist: Uruguay’s most popular dessert, Martín Fierro—slices of cheese and quince paste—is named after Hernández’s hero. José Hernández himself was so closely identified with his character that when Hernández died, local newspapers wrote that “The senator Martín Fierro has died.”
Hernández was born on the Pueyrredón family farm, outside Buenos Aires, on November 10, 1834, to Rafael Hernández and Isabel Pueyrredón; he was baptized in Buenos Aires on July 27, 1835. His mother’s family had Unitarian sympathies, and although a Pueyrredón cousin was Juan Martín de Pueyrredón, one of Argentina’s political leaders, Hernández’s father remained active in the opposing Federalist Party. Because his parents were involved in politics in the southern part of the province, young José was left in the care of his Aunt Victoria. Nevertheless, his parents’ activism seems to have predisposed him to an equally activist life.
When Hernández fell ill in 1848, he was sent to the pampas, the grassy plains, to regain his health. There he learned firsthand the ways of the gauchos, who at that time constituted Argentina’s peasant class. Hernández immersed himself in their daily lives and came to understand their rural system of values, an experience that informed his art and politics for the rest of his life. In 1851, in order to pursue his political ideals, he got a job as the Paraná-Entre Ríos correspondent to La Reforma Pacífica, a reformminded newspaper. Two years later he enlisted in the army.
By 1869 Hernández had settled in Buenos Aires, and on August 6 of that same year he printed the first issue of his newspaper El Río de la Plata. In its pages he advocated for municipal autonomy, abolition of borders, and the popular election of justices of the peace, military commanders, and education officials. With his knowledge of and sympathy for the gauchos, Hernández spoke out against the popular stereotype of the gaucho as a shrewd, immoral, near-criminal individual.
By the end of 1870 Hernández was fighting with the army of Lopez Jordán against Domingo Sarmiento, the president of Argentina. After the army’s defeat in Ñaembé on January 26, 1871, Hernández emigrated to Montevideo, Uruguay, where he continued to work as a journalist, writing for the newspaper La Patria. But under Sarmiento’s amnesty he soon returned to Buenos Aires, and there, in 1872, published the first part of Martín Fierro. This epic poem grew out of Hernández’s affinity for the gaucho way of life. The poem chronicles the gauchos’ sufferings and hopes, in particular those of its eponymous hero, a man of almost mythic character. Thanks to Hernández’s art, the gaucho became a symbol of the national conscience, and Hernández became famous.
However, when Lopez Jordán invaded Entre Ríos in 1873, Sarmiento’s government put a price on his head and on those of his collaborators. Consequently, Hernández was forced once again to seek refuge in Montevideo. On October 12, 1874, Nicolás Avellaneda assumed the presidency of Argentina. His policy of conciliation allowed Hernández to return to Buenos Aires, where he held a number of different positions in the ensuing years: official in the accountant’s office of the confederation; stenographer of the Senate in Paraná; secretary to General Pedernera during his vice-presidency; minister to Evaristo López, the Governor of Corrientes; legislator in Buenos Aires; and bookseller and printer. Nevertheless, he continued to write, and the second part of his epic, The Return of Martín Fierro, appeared in 1879.
In 1884 Hernández retired to Belgrano, where he remained until his death from a heart attack on October 21, 1886. His biographers claim that his last words were “Buenos Aires! Buenos Aires!”
Martín Fierro: The Book
In the nineteenth century the Argentinian countryside was terra incognita for the city dwellers of Buenos Aires, and until the railroad opened it up in 1870, the region remained largely undiscovered. The country dwellers—the gauchos—wanted to continue living as they always had, without fences, with free access to the pampas. As farmers began to settle the plains, however, the gauchos’ traditional world irrevocably changed. They had to choose between living according to the contemporary standards of society or moving inland, to the domain of the Indians. Unable to understand the nature of the new society, the gauchos—the traditional, legitimate denizens of the pampas—were defeated.
This reality underlies gaucho literature, which recreates the language and lives of the gauchos. The literature is distinguished by the recurrent use of metaphors, neologisms, and archaisms; it also privileges the folkloric as a form of cultural and social critique. Hernández’s Martín Fierro is emblematic of this genre. His hero became a nationalist symbol who represented the struggle of native Argentinians, as well as Uruguayans, for the freedom to live as they chose.
Hernández’s story begins when Fierro, a gaucho, is forced to enlist in the army to defend the Argentine border against the native Indians. He must leave his family and his peaceful way of life behind on the plains. Feeling persecuted, he deserts the army and heads for home, where he discovers that his house has been destroyed and his family is gone. Desperate in his search for his family, he kills an African slave in a knife fight and is subsequently sought by the police. But police sergeant Cruz admires Fierro’s bravery, and by the end of the first book, the two have decided to live among the Indians, hoping to find a better life. In The Return of Martín Fierro, Fierro finds his children and ultimately decides to live by the rules of modern society, thereby sacrificing much of his precious gaucho independence.
Martín Fierro: The Dessert
When José Hernández was exiled in Uruguay, he often visited a canteen in the northern Uruguayan province of Paysandú, a shop that sold groceries and also had a snack bar. He always ordered a certain dessert modeled on the popular Argentinian sweet known as Vigilante, which consisted of slices of cheese and sweet-potato paste. The dessert’s curious name derived from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century policemen who ate cheese with sweet- potato paste because it was cheap and easy to carry. However,
in Uruguay, quince paste, rather than sweet-potato paste, was eaten with cheese, and this is the combination that Hernández enjoyed. As a famous activist for gauchos’ rights and author of the beloved Martín Fierro, Hernández’s every move was observed. News of his preference for the Uruguayan version of Vigilante quickly spread throughout the country, and soon the combination of cheese and quince paste was named Martín Fierro in his honor.
The history of this dessert goes far beyond the borders of Uruguay and Argentina, however. The Spanish wanted to replicate the common pairing of Manchego cheese and quince paste that they enjoyed after meals. But they had to find a substitute for the Manchego sheep’s milk cheese made in the region of La Mancha. They chose to use Colonia, a cow’s milk cheese, instead. Colonia itself was an import to South America, brought to Uruguay in the midnineteenth century by Swiss immigrants, who were largely responsible for the development of the cheese industry there (the Spanish and Italian immigrants played a lesser role). A group of Swiss immigrants had arrived in Uruguay around 1850 from the port of Rosario in Argentina. Soon many of these families moved to the province of Colonia across the Río de la Plata. With their enormous knowledge of dairying they decided to continue their activities in their newly adopted country. In 1860 Juan Teófilo Karlen, from Bern, opened the first cheese factory in the area. Soon, another Swiss immigrant, Abraham Felix, did the same.
By 1891 one-third of the three hundred families in Colonia were cheese makers; all lived in an area called Colonia Suiza (Swiss Colony), a region still known for its vast prairies and quality milk products. Despite their skill, the Swiss had to adjust their recipes, because Uruguayan milk was far richer in butterfat than Swiss milk, and, according to the historian Sergio Borbonet Legnani, it apparently formed twice the amount of cream.
By 1883 the cheese makers were already receiving prizes in Holland for the high quality and variety of the cheeses they manufactured in South America. (Today, approximately two thousand establishments still manufacture and sell cheese, mainly in the provinces of San José and Colonia.)
But what about the fruit paste? The Swiss did not eat cheese in combination with sweet pastes, candies, or jellies, as the Spanish in the Río de la Plata area did. It was the merging of the two European traditions, the northern and the southern, that led to the creation of Martín Fierro, the dessert. In Uruguay, the original recipe, which appears on the menu of just about every restaurant, has been adapted many times. Martín Fierro is traditionally eaten plain. A rectangular slice of quince paste, placed on a small dessert plate, is simply covered with a rectangular slice of cheese.
Nowadays, with the explosion of haute cuisine and sophisticated diners, pastry chefs are devising new ways to present this native dish. For instance, some restaurants offer a cheese crème brûlée with quince syrup and quince slices, presented on a plate made of sugar and decorated with star anise. José Hernández could never have dreamed of such a thing.
Only in Uruguay is this particular combination of cheese and fruit paste called Martín Fierro. Uruguayans adopted this name for their national dessert in an effort to make the fictional Argentinian gaucho part of their history, since the entire region identified with his story and felt profoundly attached to it. Uruguayans realized that if the name became part of their culinary tradition, then all that Martín Fierro stood for would remain in their patrimony.
José Hernández’s life story, his sympathy for the gauchos, and the mixture of cultures that characterizes Uruguayan cuisine together explain the national significance and popularity of Martín Fierro, the cheese and quince-paste dessert that we Uruguayans so love.
Borbonet Legnani, Sergio. Historia de la Quesería en Uruguay. Montevideo:
Laboratorio Tecnológico del Uruguay, 2001.
Chávez, Fermín. José Hernández periodista, político y poeta. Buenos Aires:
Ediciones Culturales Argentinas, 1959.
Gramuglio, María Teresa y Sarlo Beatriz. Historia de la literatura Argentina.
Buenos Aires: ceal, 1980.
Pérez Amuchástegui, J.A. Mentalidades Argentinas, 1860–1970. Buenos Aires: eudeba, 1977.
+ Publicado por la revista Gastronomica, de la Universidad de California Press.