The Kitchen of the World, industrial heritage in Fray Bentos

In the classic 1865 Jules Verne novel, From the Earth to the Moon, meat broth “prepared from the best parts of the ruminants of the Pampas” was served for breakfast to the astronauts on their way to the moon. Made from a new process for concentrated beef extract, it was produced in a factory in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. To a British person of a certain age, the words Fray Bentos conjure memories, not of beef extract or a town in Uruguay, but of corned beef and steak and kidney pie in a tin. Both were ubiquitous during my childhood.

Invented by a German scientist called Justus von Liebig in 1847, the concentrated beef extract was produced by breaking down beef into small pieces before being boiled in liquid. The end product was a highly concentrated beef paste that was supposed to be a nutritious and cheap meat substitute. The problem was that it took around 30 kg of meat to make a single kilogram of the paste. In Europe the process was far from cheap, and this revolutionary new technique for feeding the masses never got off the ground.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Until, that is, someone realised that the process could be economical if it was done in South America. Already a place with many more cows than people, the region had a thriving leather industry. The problem was that cows were killed just for the leather, the rest of the carcass was often wasted. In a world without refrigeration, the meat from the carcasses could now be used by the new process and be shipped around the world in glass pots.

This was traded under a brand name that would go on to become a household name in many parts of the world, Oxo. In 1911, another invention would allow Oxo to be sold in small bouillon cubes, which are still manufactured today, although no longer in the Fray Bentos factory on the banks of the Rio del Plata. In an era of industrial change, Liebig’s meat process changed the world and made a lot of money in the process. London’s Oxo Tower was bought by Liebig’s company in the 1920s as a cold store.

The Liebig Extract of Meat Company began manufacturing in 1865 and soon had a global market. Initially it was German owned and British financed. This led to the odd situation during World War I that the factory provided food to both the British and German armies. That changed between the wars when it became fully British owned as the Frigorífico Anglo Del Uruguay. Anglo, as it was better known, produced around 200 animal and vegetable products, and every day 1,600 cows, 6,400 lambs and hundreds of pigs and turkeys were slaughtered.

El Anglo’s productivity hit an all-time high during World War II. The factory had 5,000 employees from over 50 countries, and cattle were being slaughtered at the alarming rate of 400 per hour to meet demand for corned beef and bouillon cubes. Millions of famed trapezoidal-shaped cans of corned beef were exported to Europe yearly to feed civilians and soldiers alike. They used to say that the only part of the cow Anglo didn’t use was the moo.

The Anglo Meat Packing Plant was more than just a factory, it was an entire community known as the Barrio Anglo. You drive past its English-style cottages on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage industrial complex that was once said to be the “kitchen of the world”. Filled with machinery imported from the industrial cities of England – even the coal to power them was imported from England – it is a glorious reminder of the historic links between Europe and South America.

So important was the factory that it houses Uruguay’s first electricity plant, evidence that the workers and managers of Fray Bentos had electricity long before the citizens of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. Our tour around the plant was guided by two new guides from the local town and was fascinating. One of them even recalled a visit to the plant as a child on a school trip, her overriding memory was of the smell – given the vast scale of slaughter, it’s a surprising place for a school trip.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

The modern tour takes you on the route that tens of millions of doomed cattle, sheep and pigs would have travelled on their one-way journey towards a metal can. It sounds a bit grim, but is an eye-opening place to visit for its international social history. There are original photos of the working factory illustrating the functions of the buildings. You end the tour in the vast slaughter house before visiting the entrance to the even vaster refrigerator building, lined with Portuguese cork for insulation. On a roasting hot day you can still feel the cold coming from inside.

It was absolutely brilliant and, for me, this should be a must see on everyone’s South American itinerary. We loved it so much we lugged a souvenir tin of corned beef around Argentina and then back to the Netherlands. It now sits proudly in the kitchen cupboard.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Electrical plant, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Electrical plant, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Refrigerator, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Refrigerator, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Don’t cry for me Inglaterra, football history in Colonia

They say travel broadens the mind, and there is definitely something mind expanding about people wearing 19th century clothes in a well preserved European colonial town in South America. This is doubly so when they’re dressed as British Redcoats who are marauding and harassing the locals. Either we had arrived in Colonia de Sacramento during a bizarre anti-British protest, or someone was filming a comedic dramatisation of the British capture and swift surrender of Buenos Aires in 1806. It turned out to be the latter and the action ranged all over the historic centre of Colonia.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia’s historic centre isn’t that big, and wherever we went we seemed to bump into actors and extras filming or resting in the shade. We stopped at the corner of the Plaza Mayor and watched a scene being filmed in which a group of British soldiers on horses charged up a street and then menacingly pinned one of the town’s residents against a wall. This scene left us in no doubt, the British were definitely the bad guys, in a vague pantomime villain sort of way. The main British character was wearing an eye patch for goodness sake.

Later, filming moved to the city walls and the original 18th century city gate. A Union Jack flew from a building and a few British soldiers seemed to be making a last stand against overwhelming odds. Not only were we the bad guys, apparently we were also losing. The story of the film is based on real events, and shines a light on the global nature of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806, Spain and France were allies (Nelson fought a combined Spanish and French fleet at Trafalgar) at war with Britain. Argentina was still a Spanish colony.

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

The British sought to control the River Plate and trade between Argentina and Europe. In June 1806, a force of around 1,500 British troops arrived from the British Colony in South Africa to seize Buenos Aires from the Spanish. Things went well at first. They captured the city and excited newspaper editors in London reported that Buenos Aires had officially become part of the British Empire. This heady state of affairs came to an abrupt end a mere six weeks later when the British surrendered to Santiago de Liniers, a French officer in the pay of Spain.

This is the backdrop to the film which, imitating the hit song from the musical Evita, is called No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra (Don’t Cry for Me England). The ‘real’ story of the film though is how football (soccer, if you prefer) arrived with the British and became the national sport of Argentina. In the film, the British organise a game between two rival areas of the city to distract the people of Buenos Aires and stop the growing opposition to the British invaders. Another game between the British and Argentinians ends in riots – obviously.

It was fun to watch the filming and to be reassured that the British are routinely made the bad guys in Latin American cinema. Most Hollywood villains seem to be British, so why not? One outcome of this incident, and another failed invasion by the British in 1807, is that it weakened Spain’s hold on Argentina and made independence far more likely. I’m not saying Argentina can thank us for helping them achieve independence, but it’s nice to know that clumsy British empire building had a legacy of sorts.

We spent the day exploring the historic streets of Colonia, it really is a very beautiful place. We walked down ‘the most photographed street in Uruguay’, the Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), a cobbled street that dates from the earliest Portuguese era and which leads to the waterfront. We made our way along the front to the Rambla Colonia Del Sacramento in the newer part of town, before making our way along the string of beaches on the Rambla de las Amèricas.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Bull ring, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Bull ring, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Our goal was one of Colonia’s more unusual sights, a huge derelict bull ring designed in Moorish style and capable of holding 10,000 people. It opened in 1910 and featured some of the most famous bull fighters of the time, including Spain’s Torres brothers, Ricardo and Manual, better known as Bombita Grande and Bombita Chico. It was built by a group of Argentinian and Uruguayan businessmen after Argentina banned bull fighting. Two years after it opened the Uruguayan government also banned the ‘sport’ and the building has been slowly decaying ever since.

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Across the Mar del Plata to historic Colonia de Sacramento

It’s may only be 50 km by boat from the bustling city streets of modern Buenos Aires, but arriving in Colonia de Sacramento is, almost literally, like arriving in a different era of history. The picturesque old town of cobbled streets and colonial-era houses dates back to 1680, when it was founded by the Portuguese. It still has enough of its original 17th and 18th century stone buildings to feel exactly like the European colonial town stranded on a far flung shore in the New World that it once was. One of the reasons it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

We landed in Colonia de Sacramento, or Colonia as it’s better known, after a week in Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the sudden change of pace. Colonia is not a big place, walking around the entire Barrio Histórico at a leisurely pace is unlikely to take you more than half a day. Once you’ve had lunch it would be reasonable to ask yourself, what now? That though is the wrong approach, because tranquility is one of Colonia’s charms. To call Colonia sleepy would do a disservice to sleep, three relaxing days later and I didn’t want to leave.

If the influx of tourists with every boat that arrives from Buenos Aires and the empty streets at night are anything to go by, most people visit Colonia on a day trip from its more illustrious neighbour across the red-brown waters of the Mar del Plata. A lot of the town is geared towards tourism, but despite a couple of tourist trap restaurants it still feels authentic. Spending a few days here meant we got to enjoy the relaxed pace of life. We also got to eat at Pizzería Don Joaquín (only open in the evenings), surely Latin America’s tastiest pizzeria?

Colonia’s history is the history of European colonial expansion and a global trade in goods that arrived in Europe on ships from many European nations: Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. It brought back strong memories of other Portuguese and Spanish colonial towns I’ve visited in the past – Cidade Velha in Cape Verde, Ibo in Mozambique, El Castillo in Nicaragua, Galle in Sri Lanka, to name just a few – and was another reminder of the extraordinary and brutal history that connects these different places, and which has shaped modern Latin America.

Throughout the 17th century, colonial competition between Portugal, who controlled Brazil, and Spain, who controlled pretty much everything else in South America, often erupted into armed conflict. Modern-day Uruguay was a bitterly contested frontier between the two empires. Built in a strategic position on the Mar del Plata opposite Buenos Aires, Colonia was a direct challenge to Spanish power. Frequently the scene of fighting, possession of the town seesawed between the two counties for 150 years.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Ironically, the fighting and bloodshed on the Mar del Plata was a sideshow to what was happening in Europe, and the two countries swapped colonial possessions in a series of European treaties. All that changed when Argentina became independent from Spain in 1816. The Portuguese Empire seized control of the region only for Brazil to declare independence in 1822. Naturally, Argentina and Brazil went to war for control of the region. Known as the Cisplatine War, three years of fighting ended in stalemate in 1828 with the formation of an independent Uruguay.

This violent history is never far away as you wander Colonia’s peaceful streets today. We were staying on the Plaza Mayor (once the military parade ground) in a converted colonial-era house, now the lovely La Posadita de la Plaza B&B. It was the perfect place from which to explore the historic centre. The Brazilian owner gave us the lowdown on the sights, best cafes, restaurants and bars, not to mention the background on why we kept seeing people wearing 19th century clothes … of which, more later.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Mar del Plata, South America

Mar del Plata, South America

Back in the barrio, a trip through Argentina and Uruguay

Argentina often feels more like a state of mind than a country. It is an enormous place, a land of extremes that requires some mental gymnastics to truly grasp. Drive from La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, and you’d cover a distance of 4,987 km. On your journey you would encounter just about every climatic zone, from subtropical to subantarctic; you could visit its lowest point of -105m, and its highest of 6,962m; or dip your toe in the ocean along any of its 4,989 km of coastline.

The world’s 8th largest country only has a population of 43 million. A third of whom live in and around the capital. Most of the rest live in a handful of smaller urban areas. There are vast tracts of the country with virtually no people at all. If our experience driving through Patagonia is anything to go by, you’re more likely to encounter sheep than people. You can find some of the continent’s most extraordinary natural wonders amongst these big spaces and, in Buenos Aires, one of world’s great cities and the birth place of Tango. It’s a country like no other.

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Floralis Genérica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Chacarita, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cementerio de la Chacarita, Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s been a few years since I was last in Argentina, this was my fourth visit, but such is the scale and variety of the country that it’s almost impossible not to find new places to explore, as well as revisiting old haunts. Everything revolves around Buenos Aires, and we spent a week in the city, as well as passing through several times en route to other destinations. The city has changed a lot since my first visit, but it’s a place that always feels welcoming, despite the air pollution and rush hour traffic.

A few days in Mendoza, and few more wine tasting in the nearby Uco Valley, were a good start. The Lake District around Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes were eye-opening with their magnificent Andean scenery. In central Patagonia we came across legendary Welsh communities and an abundance of wildlife, including extraordinary encounters with whales. Further south, the glaciers of El Calafate were breathtaking. Even further south you reach the end of the world in the Land of Fire. The waterfalls of Iguazu leave you short of adjectives.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Seals, Patagonia, Argentina

Seals, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Whale watching, Patagonia, Argentina

Uruguay, on the other hand, squeezed between its two giant neighbours of Argentina and Brazil, appears almost like a geographic afterthought. It shares lots of similarities with both, yet being the permanent underdog seems to have helped define a national ‘character’ in defiance of its more famous neighbours. Including a reputation for being laid back to a degree that even Argentinian’s find too much at times. This was our first visit to the country, and we didn’t have much time to spare, but it was an introduction that left us wanting more.

We took the boat from Buenos Aires across the murky brown waters of the Mar del Plata to the World Heritage Site of Colonia de Sacramento. Coming after Argentina’s buzzing capital, we felt like we’d been transported back in time. A feeling helped by the shooting of an historical film while we were in town. People in 19th century period dress kept appearing on the streets and in the squares. A platoon of British ‘Redcoats’ would occasionally ride past on horseback. It was a lot of fun.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Vineyards, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Vineyards, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Street Art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street Art, Mendoza, Argentina

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay

As was my main reason for coming to Uruguay, a visit to Fray Bentos. This small town on the banks of the Rio del Plata has played an oversized role in modern world history, all thanks to the immense tinned meat processing and packaging factory that was built here in 1873. It may not sound like much of a tourist attraction, but this is a unique piece of industrial heritage and was rightly recognised as such by UNESCO two years ago.

After leaving Bolivia five years ago, it was good to be back in South America, especially during the northern hemisphere winter.  I hope you enjoy the trip…

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina

The Lake District, Argentina