The following is a true Irish culinary tale about an “Argentinean” sauce called chimichurri, as well as the strange true-crime mystery of the theft of the recipe – and of a pair of teeth from a South American general, decades after the military commander’s death.
Let’s start with the chimichurri. It’s a sauce usually served at room temperature, and it’s tangy, herby, garlicky and green. Think of it as an Irish answer to Italian pesto, or to salsa verde or sauce tartare.
And like I said, it’s Irish. You heard me.
It goes amazingly well with grilled or roasted meats, steak, poultry, fish, prawns, or even just a fresh baguette.
So what does this amazing amazingness consist of?
- Olive oil (plain, not extra virgin)
- White wine vinegar
- Fresh parsley, oregano and coriander (cilantro) leaves
- Cloves of garlic, roughly sliced
- Chili flakes (a pinch)
- Cumin or paprika (a generous pinch)
- Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt, to taste
Blend, blitz or pestle-and-mortar the whole lot, spoon into jars, making sure the herbs are well submerged in the oil, store in the fridge for a day to let the flavours mingle, and that’s all there is to it. Cue the first YouTube video we came across…
Or you could always buy the readymade, but the jars of stuff from a faraway factory can look as jarred as a Fianna Fail backbencher – and as dull or tasteless as an Irish banker. A homemade chimichurri tastes and looks a zillion times better.
The true source of the sauce
Legend has it that the sauce comes from Argentina, where it was invented in the early 1800s by an Irish adventurer, one Jimmy McCurry.
Jimmy had heard via his “social network” (obviously back then it would be a few mates blathering on over pints in his local hostelry rather than an Interwebby thing with state-of-the-art 4G phones) that Argentina was fighting for independence from Spain.
So Jimmy flew off (not literally but you know what I mean) to the opposite end of the planet to join the national liberation struggle, as you do, ending up fighting alongside General Manuel Belgrano.
(Quick historical aside: no space here to mention a hugh long list of famous Irish Argentines, from Admiral William Brown – aka Guillermo Brown, who founded the Argentine navy – to Che Guevara and Norma Nolan, aka Miss Universe 1962).
Anyway, one evening as Jimmy and the General and the rest of the lads were putting up their tents and updating their social media (checking for new likes and follows in the camp, if you know what I mean), General Belgrano took young Jimmy aside and said (I’m paraphrasing here), “Hey Chimmi, we’re getting a bit pissed off with all this Fray Bentos muck from Uruguay. Is there any Irish nosh ye can rustle up for us tonight for a change?” Or words to that effect.
Jimmy said “Hold on a mo, Manuel” (or maybe “I’d be highly honoured, Generalissimo”), popped into a food tent, mixed together a few bits and bobs, and returned five minutes later with his latest take on an old family favourite: a couple of “shtakes” (steaks) drizzled with some good old Jimmy McCurry sauce.
The rebels loved it, the locals loved it, Argentina was liberated, the sauce took off, and the marketing guys and everybody started calling it Chimichurri rather than Jimmy McCurry. Which is far easier to say, or so they say. And the rest, as they say, is obscure Hiberno-Argie culinary history.
An alternative history
One other story has it that Jimmy came from Limavady in Northern Ireland, and after his South American adventures he ended up as a blind fiddle player, who’d play his own tunes at the local market outside the Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office.
The same theory goes that he wrote “Danny Boy” – or the “Londonderry Air” as it was first called – and received the unprincely sum of one florin for his tune.
But hold your horses right there. Blind Jimmy McCurry, aka The Blind Fiddler from Myroe, was born in 1830. The Argentine War of Independence was fought from 1810 to 1818, 12 years before he was born, and General Manuel José Joaquín del Corazón de Jesús Belgrano died in 1820.
So while Blind Jimmy may indeed have played “Danny Boy” to a song collector in the mid 19th century, no way could he have written the ancient air, and this Limavady Jimmy would have had to have been a time traveller to be able to serve up steak and chimichurri several decades before his birth.
The crime angle
At the start of all this I mentioned a crime angle. Here goes.
General Belgrano’s body was exhumed on 4 September 1902, in order to be moved into a mausoleum. The following day there was great consternation after the newspaper La Prensa reported that Minister of the Interior Joaquín V. González and Defence Minister Pablo Riccheri had stolen a pair of teeth from the coffin.
What the newspapers didn’t mention at the time was that in addition a scrap of paper had been found in a tobacco tin in the coffin, and that this handrwritten note had also disappeared.
Before its disappearance, an official at the exhumation – a John McGoldrick who happened to be from County Mayo – had earlier recognised the handwriting as Irish. Although he didn’t have enough of the Irish to do a full translation, the note was widely believed to be Jimmy’s recipe for his chimichurri sauce.
While Belgrano’s missing teeth were recovered the next day, Jimmy’s original recipe never was.
Another alternative theory
There is a further alternative alternative theory though. A theory about the name of the sauce I mean. That it came not from an Irishman but from Argentina’s 19th-century Basque settlers, because the name was derived from the Basque term “tximitxurri”.
This would be loosely translated as “a mixture of several things in no particular order”. Or what we in Hiberno-English would describe as “thingummajigs” and “whatchamacallits”.