Busted in Argentina: Traveling with Bags of Flour and a Baking Scale Was Almost a Recipe for Disaster at the Airport

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina. Francis Mallman's 1884 Restaurante

The Outdoor Woodfired Kitchen Francis Mallman’s Michelin-rated 1884 Restaurante

Secret Mission

Since the last two blog posts have yielded so many encouraging replies, I was trying to figure out how I could follow them up. It seems like so many of my virtual pizza class students and professional pizza consulting clients are somehow intrigued and even titillated by how I got my start…and, maybe more importantly, that I started out just like them. Whatever the case, I was thinking back recently to the two early trips I made to Argentina and how much fun my wife and I how pizza shaped my travels.  

On each trip, I had a not so secret mission. You guessed it: pizza. The first trip was mostly about eating pizza but the second trip was more about making it.

I discovered two wood-fired ovens during my second trip and I took full advantage of the situations to make pizza in both of them, as I had had no professional experience at the time with wood fired ovens in the States.  

I actually wrote a lengthy blurb about my experience following  the second trip to South America, not because I ever expected to publish it or do anything with it really, but mostly because I didn’t want to forget too many of the details. I recently dug it up, dusted it off and set to work to cut it up and edit it down to the abbreviated excerpt below.

There are so many more fun travel-related stories, experiences and insights where this came from but I thought I would try to pump it out as part of my new mission to try to publish one new blog post per week.  So here goes…

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza food shopping in Argentina. So fun!

Taking Off

I’m going to continue to hit some highlights from my baking journey this week and share a couple lessons I learned along the way. One lesson is good advice for everyone, the other is a tad more specific.

After dragging my wife Anabella to New York and Italy, she needed a vacation from two things: baker’s math and carbs.

Anabella hails from Argentina; Argentina is pretty great, and Anabella generally gets what she wants, so that was that. Obsessed with my craft as I was at the time, I forgot that on our last trip, American Airlines had pummeled my reliable old suitcase to submission, so the morning of the trip I had less than 90 minutes to get to Target, get a new bag and pack. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish in an hour with a justifiably angry wife giving you “The Look.”

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina. An outdoor kitchen at a cute Bed & Breakfast in Mendiza

A photo of the outdoor kitchen at our hotel.

You Burn, You Learn

I was all ready to take a mental and physical break from home bread and pizza making…until we got to our charming little boutique hotel in Mendoza. Walking past the hotel restaurant, I noticed three rather large flames roaring roaring outside. I found my way to the outdoor kitchen and was pleased to discover a well worn kitchen being set up for meal service by a small team of chefs. There was a large hearth which housed not only a wood fired grill but also a small traditional clay oven and I inched closer to have a better look. 

At that time, I only had a tenuous grasp on Argentine Spanish (mostly I speak “kitchen Spanish” in the US) but that didn’t stop me from pestering the hotel chef and his team with questions. How hot does it get? What woods do you use? Why do you have three separate flames? Do you share wood between the three? For the pros reading this, I was that guy. Luckily for me the chef was great and offered to let me take the oven for a test ride if I wanted to make my own dough.

And this is where I learned lesson number one for the trip — always be ready to learn.

And that means always have your tools. A half-hour later, to Anabella’s dismay, I was wandering the streets of Mendoza looking for any glimmer of a baking scale and thermometer. I got lucky! And then I headed over to the local version of a supermarket in search of the holy trinity: flour, salt and yeast.

I whipped up a batch of “emergency dough” and was ready to go. My first experience with wood fire went as well as I could have expected. The hotel chef, amused by my tenacity and that he finally had a guest who was excited about his custom oven, volunteered to stay late that night to supervise a midnight baking session. He re-built the fire for me and taught me a technique or two to speed up the rising process so that my pizza dough would be ready to bake just after the fire had peaked. 

The baking session may have yielded some of the driest, hardest pizza of my career, but anytime you try something new, you must be prepared to fail on some level (or every!). 

At least I got some reps in and learned a few tricks for cooking with fire.

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina. The tiny oven at our Bed & Breakfast

The tiny hotel oven. Definitely not ideal for the pizza of my dreams but you never know until you try, right?

One Kilo Bags from Mendoza

So then Anabella finally got her baking-free trip, right? The issue that pops up when you get into pizza-making is that your baking horizons open up.

You eat a woodfired pan pizza, a sourdough boule, or some delicious little mystery bite of something delicious and you think…I could do that.

And one of my favorite things that I discovered during that trip to Argentina besides my mother-in-law (Hi Analia!) are these addictive little Paraguyan “cheese balls” she makes — ChipaChipa are these biscuit-like balls of heaven commonly made of butter, cheese, eggs, milk and some hard-to-find kind of flour which may or may not be called Mandioca (depending on who you ask and which country of origin they are from) that doesn’t show up much in the States.

But during my quick trip to that supermarket in Mendoza, I stumbled upon an entire shelf of pristine one kilo bags of the pearly white stuff, picked some up to stash in my luggage for the remainder of the trip, and made plans to perfect my very own Chipa recipe when I returned home to Los Angeles.

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza food shopping in Argentina. So fun!

Food shopping in foreign countries is one of my not so guilty pleasures in life. Even supermarkets, which I rarely visit in the US, can yield unforetold treasures.

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza food shopping in Argentina. So fun!

One of the wonderful things about travel is that it broadens your mind. For example, who knew there was already a line of tomatoes with my name on it?  See that Chris Bianco and Rob DiNapoli?  I’m big in Argentina! Are you? 

Back in Buenos Aires

And finally Anabella got her vacation after that mighnight bake-off in Mendoza. Even the craziest bakers of us must relent at some point. And the break ended up being good for me, too. But as I boarded the plane to return home to Santa Monica I was already ready to get back to work in the kitchen.

Anabella did her preflight ritual of visiting the restroom and then I heard the flight attendant say something I didn’t understand in Spanish over the loudspeaker that seemed to end with, “Noel Brohner.” That was weird. Then another message over the loudspeaker, this time in English:

“Can passenger Noel Brohner please come to the front of the plane”?

I didn’t know if it was related to Anabella or what, so I ran up to the front, pointed to myself and said too proudly in Spanish “Soy Noel Brohner.” The flight attendant pointed back at the terminal and said something with the words “problema” and “suitcase.” I was initially relieved it wasn’t a problem with Annabella, but then I got annoyed. How many more airlines are going to ruin my luggage?

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza travels to Argentina

Trouble at the Airport

In less than a minute I found myself off the plane and in a small room where my bag was and it looked…just fine? That’s when I realized who wanted to see me — the two customs officials hovering above my bag. Oh man, were there issues with a prescription in there? Or worse, did someone put something in my bag?! I begged the officials to go get my wife so she could interpret — I didn’t want to misunderstand anything. 

But the customs officials ignored me and ripped the zipper open. From what I could tell everything in my suitcase looked okay. Then one of the agents pulled out a small rectangular device with a digital readout that is very clearly a digital thermometer but in the right circumstances could look like, just maybe…a bomb? I snickered to myself and said what I thought was “temperature” in Spanish. I must have been right because they tossed it aside. I finally let out a breath. 

Then the two agents looked at each other and shared a knowing glance. One pulled out my new digital baking scale, which measured fine powders to within a tenth of a gram, and the other pulled out two one-kilo bags of pure, uncut Mandioca flour.

The female ran her pinky along the outside of the flour bag and licked her finger to test for cocaine as she stared confidently into my fearful eyes. And that’s when I learned the second and most important lesson of the trip: Always bring your tools…but leave the flour at home. 

To be continued…

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina

Always remember and never forget: Be on the lookout for woodfired ovens while traveling. Can you see the tiny oven in the top right corner? I did!

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina

Guess who threw an impromptu pizza party in Buenos Aires?

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina

And taught a new friend how to make pizza in his wood fired oven?

Noel Brohner of Slow Rise Pizza makes pizza in Argentina

One thing I grasped early in my career was the process of learning to make pizza inevitably translates to making lots of new friends!

Always bring your tools...but leave the flour at home. 

Walk softly but carry a big schtick.

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