Asado: The Secret Argentinian Polo Tradition

gallery-1440168799-006Pablo Calandroni tries to start his fire about an hour before he cooks. He chooses the best wood he can find, preferably cherry or oak, because it gives off high heat and adds great flavor to the meat.

He learned to cook asado, or barbeque, at age 10 in Argentina when his father taught him how to butcher a lamb and cook it for the family ranch. By 16 years old, Pablo was working with polo horses.

He’s now the lead horse trainer at the Greenwich Polo Club, one of the U.S. Polo Association’s few high goal clubs in the United States. “High goal” means the best teams play at the 34-year-old club. Calandroni has significant duties to care for the horses, and as he says, “It’s all about the horses.” It’s easy to understand his perspective.

Polo was brought by the British to the Pampas region of Argentina in the late 1800s. The area is known for its gauchos, horses, and barbeque. With their excellent horsemanship, gauchos took to the sport. Perhaps more importantly, they began training horses to play polo. According to Calandroni, the traditional way to prepare a horse for polo was to let gauchos use the horse for herding cattle for two years.

“Today’s polo ponies are too expensive to train that way,” Calandroni says. “But that was the traditional way.”

The British began bringing the Argentinians to England to care for and train polo horses.

According to Peter Orthwein, patron (owner) of the Airstream team, one of the high goal teams based in Greenwich, “The Falkland Islands War made polo in the U.S. better because the Argentinians couldn’t go to England anymore. They started coming to the U.S.”

He should know. He started playing polo at six years old and is the only American to have played against Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Prince Harry—three generations of royalty.

He points out that he didn’t win any of those matches.

“Polo is a little bit like heroin,” said Orthwein. “It takes all your money and it is addictive.”

Whether in Great Britain or the United States, the Argentines brought a bit of home with them. They brought asado, a meat lover’s fantasy.

Based in the traditions of ranching life in Pampas, the entire animal is cooked to feed everyone working the ranch. Here, the animal is cooked to feed the polo teams after a match.

No polo fans are around, no press. This is just for players and the crew. Asado has blended into the tradition of polo in the United States.

Kris Kampsen, a six goal player on Greenwich Polo Club’s team Shreve, Crump & Low, said,

“This isn’t for the crowd. We compete hard during the games, leaving it all on the field. We forget it at asado. Anyone who comes with an attitude left from the field gets teased.”

Christopher Brant grew up with the sport. He is the son of Peter Brant, the owner of the most successful polo team in the U.S., White Birch, and at one time the highest ranked amateur player. The younger Brant says asado has become almost a part of the sport of polo, though he admits that he could never be the chef. “No way,” he said laughing. “They are so good, I would never try!”

There can be only one asador, or person in charge of the asado. Calandroni has been the asador since he came to Greenwich Polo 18 years ago. A certain touch is needed to masterfully cook everything from blood sausage to short ribs using only fire. For large cuts of meat, sometimes the entire carcass, a traditional metal “cross,” also called an asador, is set up near the flames. Shaped much like a metal cross with notches to allow cooking flexibility, the lamb or beef is hung first bone side to the fire. Bones can burn, though, so careful attention is necessary. Argentinian-style sausages filled with garlic, parsley and salt, are also hung on the cross so the fat drips onto other sausages, building flavor.

The asador is placed next to the flames, but the coals from the fire are used under a large, flat mesh grill to cook other options, such as chicken, sweetbreads, blood sausage and flank steak. The skill of the asador is in pulling just the right amount of coals from the fire to place under the grill and knowing when to increase the heat. Calandroni is an expert. While carrying on conversations with the players and crew, he continually shovels coal and checks for doneness. At just the right moment, he pulls each cut from the heat. The sausages came first, with grilled French bread to make a sandwich.

Chimichurri sauce is served at an asado. Calandroni said the base for the sauce includes a head of garlic and a bunch of chopped parsley, a pinch of salt and equal parts vegetable oil and white vinegar, just enough to cover the other ingredients. From there, he says you can add whatever you like. He adds a little crushed red pepper to his.

Normally in Argentina, everyone would bring their own knife. Not just any knife, but a cuchilla, a single-edged steel blade with notches in the thick spine and often featuring elaborate handle designs. Calandroni prefers the knives made by Argentinian producer El Cerro. Tradition is to give a young boy or girl a knife, protected by a handmade leather case. These are knives for working and a gaucho takes it everywhere. No one would show up at an asado without it. Otherwise, they’d go hungry.

Cuchillas aren’t common in Greenwich, but Calandroni has a collection and uses them regularly to cut the meat into bite sizes. After the horses and players have finished the match, everyone is hungry. Calandroni’s full grill empties quickly as he slices food and brings the competitors together at his table.

Editor’s Note: Greenwich Polo Club is offering the public a unique opportunity to attend an asado at the polo match on the grounds of the club as part of the East Coast Open on August 30th. Polo matches are open to the public every Sunday from August 23 through September 13. The season culminates with the best players in the world coming to Greenwich Polo Club to compete in the East Coast Open in late August (sponsored by Town & Country).


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