September 28, 2012 9:11 pm

Where’s the beef?

Bovril is not just a meat spread, but a cattle-producing town in Argentina with a rich history
Estancia Las Vizcacheras

Estancia Las Vizcacheras

To a first-time visitor, the dusty town of Bovril is much like any other farming settlement in Entre Rios, a fertile, cattle-producing province in northern Argentina. Its single main street is dominated by tractor showrooms, seed stores and ironmongers; its railway station, long disused, stands forlorn and empty.

Instead, the town’s uniqueness lies in its name. As every Briton knows, Bovril is the brand name of a beef extract, invented in the 1870s by John Johnston, a Scottish grocer. Consumed on toast as a savoury spread or diluted in hot water as a beverage, Bovril is still sold in the same squat jars of darkened glass that Johnston designed. The name is a combination of bovine and “Vril”, a word purloined from an early science fiction novel, meaning a magical energy-giving liquid. A century of inventive advertising and a strong association with working-class culture has assured Bovril a place in Britain’s quirky cultural lexicon.

Nevertheless, few know about Bovril’s Argentinian connection. In the early 1900s, Johnston’s descendants bought large swathes of Entre Rios farmland to breed cattle destined for the Bovril pot.

Soon, the company had an empire of estancias along the banks of the Río Paraná. Its showcase ranch was Estancia Las Vizcacheras, now a hostería for paying guests and the private weekend home of Teresa Giustinian.

“In the late 1970s, my family and I were looking for some good cattle country in Entre Rios,” she told me. “We bought Las Vizcacheras without knowing much of its past and afterwards began to do some research.”

Giustinian contacted the Johnston family, who sent her a diary written by Robert Sheepshanks, a Bovril farm manager who had lived at Las Vizcacheras in the 1930s. “The house, though old, was utterly charming,” Sheepshanks wrote. “It was one of those matey types of houses that become real homes almost as soon as one crosses the threshold.”

While Sheepshanks bred pedigree bulls, his wife “cooked parrot pies for bigwigs from home, who all found their way sooner or later to Vizcacheras”.

A bottle of Bovril

The main house remains as the diary describes. It sits amid jacaranda and eucalyptus trees, with deep verandas and a corrugated iron roof, washed in red oxide, to protect the house from Entre Rios’s steamy climate. Inside, floorboards are casually strewn with Persian rugs and ceiling fans trace lazy circles.

These days, Giustinian’s guests mainly come for the birds: enthusiasts can spot a hundred species in the estancia’s dells, pools and hedges. A toads’ chorus of groans accompanied my evening stroll in the grounds; fireflies pulsated in the night air.

By the middle of the last century, Bovril owned half a million hectares in the area and 1.5m cattle, which it transported to its 17-hectare abattoir at nearby Santa Elena in a flotilla of company-owned boats. For decades, Santa Elena was owned by the company. Bovril ran the schools, telegraph office and police service, and employed 3,000 skilled workers in the abattoir alone. Hundreds of labourers lived in company houses near the Km 49 railway halt, a settlement renamed Bovril in 1951.

I drove over to Bovril town the following day, but found the museum padlocked. One resident I spoke to recalled that patriotic citizens had tried to change the town’s name during the 1982 Falklands war. “The paperwork got lost,” he said, “so here we are still living in Bovril.”

At Santa Elena, abattoir caretaker John Giebert led me through the meatpacking process, describing how the machinery could systematically strip a cow within hours, packing it neatly into jars. One blood-curdling fact struck me: 1.5m litres of water a day sluiced blood and offal into the Paraná, where it nourished a thriving population of Yacare caiman.

Yet after decades of commercial success, Bovril’s Argentine empire came to an abrupt end. In 1971, a canny investor bought out the Johnstons and shed the company’s South American holdings. The ranches, boats and cattle were sold at auction, and the British managers sailed off like colonial administrators departing a newly independent territory.

Back at the estancia that night, Giustinian returned triumphantly from the kitchen with toasted bread and a dark glass jar. Surrounded by century-old company relics, we passed it around like sacrament wine, each taking a ceremonial sniff before tasting it. “I suppose I shouldn’t admit this,” said our hostess, sniffing gingerly at the pot, “but it turns out I’m not terribly fond of Bovril.”

Rates are from $150 per person, full-board; www.vizcacheras.com.ar

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