World's best barbecuers? Not in Australia, mate

"You're kidding!" Jase looked incredulous. "You must have heard of a barbecue. Surely you've got one."

Mike shrugged. "A what? Bar-be-cue? Not where I come from. What is it?"

"It's like ..." Jase was lost for words again. "A barbecue! Everyone knows what a barbecue is."

This was in our university days, sitting out on my patio with a couple of beers. Mike was a mate of mine from Scotland, over for a few weeks' holiday, and he'd just met Jase, my very Australian and very gullible flatmate.

"So, what do you do with these barbecues?" Mike asked, playing his part to perfection. "You put meat on them, right?"

"It's not just what you do with them," Jase said, edging forward in his seat. "They're a part of life here. It's like you're born and then there's barbecues. I grew up with barbecues. We have barbecue parties, just for barbecues. It's more Australian than anything."

A better friend would have jumped in and saved Jase further embarrassment, explaining that, yes, of course Mike had heard of barbecues and of course they had them in Scotland, even though it was rarely warm enough to go outside and use them. But I wasn't a better friend.

"Oh my God!" Jase said suddenly, inspiration striking him like a match. "We've got a barbecue! I can show you what it looks like!"

"Cool," Mike grinned. "Let's see."

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So off the two of them went to see our apartment building's shared barbecue, with Jase babbling the whole time about what an essential part of Australian life these barbecues were, and Mike just smiling and playing along. It took another hour for him to admit he'd known about barbecues his whole life. They have Neighbours in Scotland, after all.

Jase wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed back then but I could understand his passion. Barbecues really are a part of life here. There's something about that primal union of meat and fire that appeals to us. The humble barbie is a companion at footy games; a place of celebration; an excuse to gather and gab.

One of my earliest memories is of looking out the screen door of our old house in Western Australia, watching dad in his little footy shorts having a sneaky cigarette out by the brick barbecue. Jase was right, really; it's like you're born and then there's barbecues.

For that reason, I'd lived under the impression that Australians are the world's best barbecuers. Given it's such an ingrained part of our culture and living as we do in a climate that's perfect for its regular use, surely there's no other country that does it better. We're the kings of the barbecue.

Only, we're not.

I found that out in Argentina. My world was rocked. Rissoles and "bring a plate" won't cut it in this South American nation. There, grilling is elevated to an art form - the best cuts of meat, the best way to cook them.

Look in any Argentinian's backyard and you'll find a weird pyramid of bricks, more like a shrine than a barbecue. This pyramid - the parrilla - is a sacred spot, an area used far more often than any indoor kitchen. It's simple: it's just a concrete floor, a metal grill and a brick pyramid above; however, it's a science.

It has to be a wood fire. You never, ever use gas. You would cause less offence if you were barbecuing baby seals. It has to be wood and it has to be burnt down to glowing embers before meat is allowed anywhere near it. Like the Australian barbecue, the Argentinian parrilla is a male domain.

In Mendoza, out in wine country, I'm in a typical backyard late at night, gathered around the parrilla with a bunch of blokes. The meat has arrived and it's enormous: huge racks of ribs, long lengths of chorizos and Flintstones-size steaks. It's all carefully salted with "parrilla grade" sea salt, made specially for barbecuing.

As the fire dies down to embers, there's the universal argument about the perfect time to lay the meat on the grill but, eventually, the steaks, chorizos and ribs begin to cook slowly over low heat, the air instantly permeated with rosemary-flavoured smoke and the smell of cooking meat.

It takes half an hour or so for it to cook properly and there's another argument, predictably, about the perfect time to remove it. While that's happening, Nick, our host and "parrillero", chops fresh herbs on a wooden board and douses them in red wine. "Just to cut the meat on," he says when I raise an eyebrow. "Trust me."

He's right, of course. The meat is tender and smoky and his cutting technique gives it just a hint of red wine and herbs. It's amazingly good. And the Argies know it.

I only wish Jase were here to enjoy it, too. Turns out the two of us knew what barbecues were but we had no idea how to use them.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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