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Breakfast: two plain scones with butter and dulce de leche; Nescafé
Snacks: halva bar; banana
Lunch: three beef empanadas; grapefruit squash
Snacks: ice cream; walnuts
Dinner: steak with chips (Will) or salad (Ruth), or pasta with indeterminate sauce; small beer

The nutrition pages of cycling magazines turn food into chemical formulae, with capital-p Performance as the desired outcome. Eating while cycle touring, though, is a different kettle of marine-based protein. First, touring cyclists seldom have much control over their food supply; the menu above represented a not untypical day’s eating in Argentina if we weren’t cooking for ourselves. Second, their – our – riding is a daily routine, rather than a one-off event for which it’s possible to programme a diet. And third, crucially, if you see food only as fuel, you risk exploring the world without allowing yourself to taste it as you go. 

Of late, in rural Argentina and coastal Chile, we’ve been eating road food. Sure, in the larger cities there are such luxuries as brown bread and health-food shops. But in the roadhouses, petrol stations, kerbside grills and knock-on-the-door stores by the highway, we’ve been cramming fat and calories. It’s got to the stage where we think that the local equivalent of HobNobs is a healthy choice rather than just the least worst option. Happily, it hasn’t all been like this.

 


 

cholas2-1280Food in Argentina is pretty good, often very good in bigger cities, but variety isn’t its forte. The national preoccupation with grilled meat is wonderful when a good-value, tender sirloin from the parrilla (grill) or a sausage in a white bun (choripan) is what you fancy, which is often, but not when it’s the only choice. It’s a similar story in Uruguayan restaurants: eat meat or go hungry.

The influence of Argentina’s many Italian immigrants is invaluable for touring cyclists in the pastas, widely available in larger towns. Ice cream is another Italian borrowing and a national obsession; pizza, too, though it’s usually saturated in bad cheese and as thick as a brick. And then there are the unsubtle charms of the ubiquitous milanesa, a bashed-out steak fried in breadcrumbs (and sometimes topped with a fried egg; milanesa completa).

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As we travelled north, the generally bland food became hotter and we encountered more pulses and corn variants: tamales, for one, and more notably the delicious humita, a mash of fresh sweetcorn with a core of local goat’s cheese steamed in a cornhusk parcel. But here and throughout the country, we learned to be wary of the word casero on menus; essentially, ‘home-made’, most commonly in pan casero (home-made bread) and pastas caseros. Sometimes, casero is born from necessity: there aren’t any shops. It doesn’t mean the stuff’s any good.

 


 

It was easier to eat both enjoyably and usefully in Brazil, where the standard main-course accompaniment of rice, beans and farofa (toasted manioc meal) powered us up a lot of coastal hills. If we couldn’t find it, we had to make do with the deep-fried savouries beloved of Brasilieros, which were often the only lunch options away from big towns. Nutrionally hopeless, but hopelessly moreish.

cake-1280Not that we always needed a big lunch. Unlike Argentina, which doesn’t really bother with the first meal of the day other than in Buenos Aires’s obsession with viennoiserie, Brazil glories in breakfast. At hotels, we could expect to find fruit, fresh juices, granola, breads, warm pão de queijo (cheese puffs), cheese, ham, guava jam, eggs, yoghurt and at least one cake, sometimes half a dozen. Cakes were a revelation: the flamboyant offspring of Italian torta, German kuchen, plentiful fruit and 500 years of sugar-cane plantations. From grandmotherly lemon loaves to licentious banana and dulce de leite cheesecake, every bakery, hotel and home cook has a stuffed recipe book and a sense of competitive pride.

Brazil’s fruit found its way into our snack pockets in the form of dried bananas and fruit jellies, ubiquitous at roadside stops. We’d sometimes find sweets home-made from local ingredients: candied sweet potato, say, or dried figs. Ruth’s favourite energy snack is usually whatever grows locally, in preserved form: raisins in wine country, hand-shelled walnuts, dried peaches.

 


 

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Generally, then, we’ve been eating what we feel like eating, riding to eat rather than eating to ride. We’ve found from experience, though, that the biggest determinants of a strong and enjoyable day’s riding are a good night’s sleep and some hearty carbohydrates for dinner. For particularly difficult days – long distances, tough climbs – we seek out a good breakfast and sensible snacks: bananas, nougat, granola bars, Snickers. In heat, something to suck to keep our mouths from going dry; at altitude, snacks rather than full meals. And always lots of water.

We know that we could, in the words of the cycling magazines, be eating more technically. We could, for example, make more of our own food on our little stove. But in the end, we’re just not convinced that ‘eating’ and ‘technically’ should belong in the same sentence. Now, how would you like that steak cooked?

Tomorrow: drinking.

from Cuya, XV, Chile