Here’s a secret that I bet many of you don’t know about me. I have always wanted to be a baker. I love the process of blending all the ingredients together, the smells and the textures, and of course, the melding of the flavors makes the final products irresistible to eat. So, with that in mind, it should be no surprise that for one of my volunteer positions, I sought out a job in a bakery. Here in Villa Angostura, Argentina, I found the place of my dreams.

Villa Angostura is a little touristy village set in the mountains of the Lakes Region, only two hours from my other volunteer position with the family in Villa Meliquina. The profile that advertised this position told me only that I would help cook and clean in a professional kitchen, but I didn’t really know what to expect. However, when I arrived, I was lovingly welcomed by the nicest workers and volunteers who run Almacén Don Zenón Ramos Generales. “Almacén” is Spanish for grocery store, and I spent the first afternoon helping stock the shelves with basic goods that you’d find in a little country market. But the main attraction for this little shop is the yummy breads and bakery specialties that emerge from the kitchen. After that first day, I spent all my work hours in the back learning how to cook up favorite Argentinian foods.

First, there’s the Tartas, or quiches. I loved the creativity of designing new combinations and producing so many each day. Ham and Cheese, Onion, Pepper and Cheese, Tomato, Roasted Vegetable, Spinach and Squash, and Vegetable Curry were some of the favorite combinations we created with a white or wheat crust. People stopped in to buy a slice heated for their lunch, or took the whole pie home for dinner.

Then, we used the same fillings to make giant empanadas or calzones. Next we made batches of small empanadas using all kinds of different meat, cheese and vegetable fillings. We froze those to sell by the dozen and customers cooked them at home. In addition to this, we made pizzas, and a variety of sandwiches and salads for carry out as well. Finally, we churned out oodles and oodles of sweet pastries, doughnuts, and bread every day to the waiting customers.

Argentinians eat a lot of bread – homemade bread- and flaky, buttery pastries like the kind you imagine eating in European cafes. But while the Croissant might be considered the emblematic pastry in Europe, here in Argentina, the Medialuna steals the show.

Medialunas, or crescent moons, could be considered the national breakfast for Argentinians as they are offered on every corner, always served in a pair with a cup of coffee. Light and flaky with a syrupy sweet coating, they are the reason to get up in the morning. Each day I worked in the bakery with either Roberto or Karen, and there was always some task related to the production of the perfect medialuna- a process which takes at least four days. 

Day 1 – Karen would often spend the morning mixing the flour, sold as “medialuna flour”, with the butter, powdered milk, sugar, water, salt and yeast. She kneaded the dough lightly and divided it into sections to rest in the refrigerator.

Day 2 – Roberto spent some time rolling out the dough and pounding an additional 250 grams of butter into its layers. He would fold it up again and let it rest for another day in the refrigerator.

Day 3 – Karen would take the layered dough, roll it out again, putting it through a machine to flatten it to a perfect thickness. Then she would cut the flat dough into triangles, weigh each triangle to ensure the perfect size medialuna, and roll it into its infamous crescent shape. She would then put the crescents on trays and return them to the refrigerator.

Roberto would come along in the evening and transfer these medialunas to a larger tray and set them out overnight, allowing them to come to room temperature and begin to rise.

Day 4 – First thing in the morning, Karen would bake the medialunas. As they cooled, she brushed them with a sugar syrup and arranged them in a basket to sell in the store. 

If any medialunas did not get sold on Day 4, they were bagged up overnight.

Day 5 – Karen or Roberto would take the left-over medialunas from the day before, slice them in half horizontally, and fill them with the other national sweet of Argentina- dulce de leche, or caramel sauce. Day-old medialunas always got a new life with sweet fillings and powdered sugar sprinkled on top. 

So, there you have it. The 4-5 day process for the perfect medialuna. Every day we needed to do something with all the batches in each of the different stages. I never got tired of the process, or the yummy product!

As much as I love the opportunity to learn new skills in these volunteer positions, it always ends up being the people that make the experience super special. Working in this store and bakery was no different. Most of the time I worked with Roberto, who loved to sing lines from English songs and then ask me what they meant. He has worked with so many volunteers that he had a great way of breaking down processes into small tasks and making the work relaxing and fun. It’s not uncommon for him to be managing two or three different volunteers in the kitchen all working on different tasks at the same time. He’d get us all lined out with ingredients and instructions, and then he would say, “You do this, I go smoke”. That always made me laugh. I really enjoyed our time in the kitchen together. 

Some of the other workers included Ana, Tini and Facu who live locally and were always dancing and singing around the store and kitchen. Santiago and Cande are new employees from elsewhere in Argentina who were just brought on for the summer season. Lucas is also an Argentine transplant using the dining deck of the restaurant to start his own bar business. And, in the two weeks that I was here, the conveyer belt of volunteers included Paulina from Russia, Laura, Julio and Elisa from Spain, Enrico from Italy and Vincente from Brazil.

As a volunteer, I worked for four hours a day in exchange for three homecooked meals and a bed in a funky little house next to the store. During my free time, I hitchhiked to various communities, beaches and hiking trails to hike and camp in the surrounding mountains. I also spent my time watching Argentina win World Cup fútbol games at the local bar, and relaxing with the other workers. Everyone was always up for fun.  

The first night I arrived, we were all sharing a bottle of wine and passing around a cellphone opened to Spotify. Each person picked a favorite song from their country and pulled up the lyrics with it too. We all had fun trying to sing karaoke in different languages and the laughter really ensued when we attempted to sing in Russian! 

On another night, Tini was rapping in a hip hop concert with her band, so we all headed out into the night to support her passion. 

When Paulina left, we had a small “despedida”, or goodbye party for her. I looked around the table and realized we represented four different continents, all finding a common love for homemade brownies and red wine. 

And when it was time for me to leave, it was decided that I should have a real Argentinian Asado. This is a very traditional family affair where a variety of meats are cooked on a spit or a grill over an open fire. I have no idea who paid for all that meat, but an Asadero, or grill master, showed up and cooked an amazing meal for us all. We sat around the campfire afterwards sharing our phone numbers and travel plans so that we might meet up again further south. Many in the group passed around a guitar and sang favorite Spanish songs. I looked at the stars and the southern constellations -still completely unfamiliar to me- and thought about how much I really loved this work experience, these wonderful people, and my life so far in Argentina.

New friends from Spain, Brazil, Italy, and Argentina gathered for my goodbye feast!

But for now, I must move on. Based on my original travel plans, I will return to Argentina in a month to explore a region much further south. In the meantime, I will cross into Chile to discover a completely different country, meet more beautiful people and live out new experiences there. 

I can’t wait to see what’s next!