The National Festival of Cheese

This post is disjointed and rambling, but if I do not post it now, I will edit it to the tone of a business memo and you will be deprived of my overpowering wit.

I mentioned that the 50th annual Fiesta Nacional del Queso was underway when we arrived in Tafi del Valle this weekend. We had not expected a festival this weekend and had just assumed we would encounter normal weekend conditions. The first we heard about it was from our taxi driver who advised us that our hostel was on the outskirts of town, but it is close to the main celebrations of the Fiesta. We found out later that “close to” means within 250 yards.

Paula had read about this Festival and was under the impression it had already happened for the year. She was disappointed, but I could not, for the life of me, understand how to make a five day festival out of cheese. “How much can you celebrate cheese?” I asked. Hearing that there would be all sorts of cheese from cows, goats, llamas and alpacas did not do a lot to pique my interest.

As we walked to the hostel from our earlier quest for cash (see yesterday’s blog), we took a shortcut along a narrow, circuitous road. We encountered a flat bed truck driven by a man who was also seeking a shortcut, and the truck appeared to be a parade float. The driver advised us that there would be a parade outside the festival grounds at three o’clock. We are suckers for parades, though I have tempered some of my enthusiasm agreeing to go to parades only when it is not an election year. This fortuitous encounter seemed an invitation that could not be ignored, so we walked directly to the sports field and bought tickets.

We did not immediately enter the grounds, preferring to wait outside the gates along the appointed parade route. We noted a significant lack of evidence of anyone waiting for a parade. A woman told us the parade would be at 5 o’clock so we went to the hostel and freshened up. We returned to the fiesta grounds a bit after 5 and since there was still no evidence of a parade we entered the fiesta grounds to see what was available.

Touring the grounds it was clear that there was plenty of cheese of many varieties. As we were to find out later, substantial cash awards awaited many of the cheese makers. It soon became clear that the festival was only nominally about cheese.

The festival is a celebration the unique Argentine culture that emerged from the same economic and cultural conditions that gave it its cheeses. It is a celebration of the gauchos and the estancias. It is about horses, cattle, sheep, wine, music, dance, family and community. In the course to two evenings we witnessed, and in some ways shared, this celebration.

Immediately inside the gates we entered the area where the competitors in cheese making were set up.

It was difficult to get a good photo since the stalls were actually much more packed than the above image. After tasting a few items we went deeper into the park, past the amusement rides and came across an Argentine rodeo, where men dressed in traditional costume competed in riding and roping in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Around the perimeter, people sold beverages from coolers as young and old cheered the exploits on the field.

We enjoyed watching the show for quite a while and then decided to see what else was happening. That was when we noticed the parade was underway. It was a very slow moving parade, since each of the floats had a five minute demonstration for the judges at the grandstand. Each of the floats had active demonstrations of aspects of their heritage. Some were passing out food to the observers, including one float where an asadero was slicing generous servings of ribs right off the asador. We chatted with one woman who was planning to pass out servings of minced meat, pastry and other treats on behalf of a wedding party that was in the parade on horseback. We had met the newlyweds on the earlier portion of the route and were invited to a sip of a very flavorful spot of distilled spirits.

A few samples from the parade:

Nearly every float had a mujer vieja screeching a traditional song accompanied by an out of tune guitar and receiving wild applause. The emcee was enthusiastic, constantly calling on the crowd to show their appreciation, continuing to remind me about applesauce (aplausos).

As the parade neared its conclusion, the sound techs continued to set the stage for the main event for the evening –a music concert with local and national stars. Music is to start at 9 PM and as we waited we walked checked out the many asadores, wine and beer stands and other food stands.

As we surveyed the many options available, it was really clear that there was much more available than conceivably be consumed in the evening. We did our share, of course, but it did not seem there was, or would be, enough people in attendance to even make a dent.

That was before we understood the importance of the musical portion of the event. The concert began fairly close to 9, consisting of traditional music on traditional instruments. The performers were quite talented, and as the evening progressed the music, while retaining the traditional rhythms and cadence, took on a more contemporary feel. Around midnight the group we assumed were the headliners played a very powerful set. After about a half hour Paula and I began to succumb to the nearly 45 hours we had been on the move and decided to return to the hostel and get some sleep.

We were curious about why there were large lines at the ticket window when we left, with hundreds of people waiting for admission. Young mothers with baby carriages pushed their way through the growing crowd.

Our curiosity about why so many people were waiting to enter a concert so late in the evening was satisfied later. At 2 o’clock the music was still blaring into our window. As it was at 4 and 5 and 6. The concert ended about 630 AM Sunday morning. (for sake of brevity let me say the same thing occurred on Sunday night, though the music lasted until 730 AM this morning).

We returned to the fiesta Saturday night determined to last into the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say, we didn’t. In the effort we were amazed to find the attendence to reach levels we could not previously conceive. As we left the area about 1:30 the ticket windows were crowded and a line of mothers with baby carriages waited at the gates.

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