Jun 022016


Today is the feast of Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo, a Christian saint and martyr, who, according to Christian tradition, died c. 303. He is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. Not much is known about his life. The Acts of Saint Elmo were partly compiled from legends that confuse him with a Syrian bishop Erasmus of Antioch. Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend credited him as a bishop at Formia over all the Italian Campania, as a hermit on Mount Lebanon, and a martyr in the persecutions under Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian.


Saint Erasmus may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to pray to him. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called “Saint Elmo’s Fire.”

I am interested in him because indirectly he gave his name and patronage to my barrio in Buenos Aires – San Telmo. It was known as San Pedro Heights during the 17th century, mostly home to the city’s growing contingent of dockworkers and brickmakers. The area became Buenos Aires’ first “industrial” area, home to its first windmill and most of the early city’s brick kilns and warehouses. The bulk of the city’s exports of wool, hides and leather (the Argentine region’s chief source of income as late as the 1870s) were prepared and stored here in colonial times. Their presence led to the first residential settlements in this area: that of Africans, slaves and free, alike.


Previously separated from Buenos Aires proper by a ravine, the area was formally incorporated into the city in 1708 as the “Ovens and Storehouses of San Pedro.” The neighborhood’s poverty led the Jesuits to found a “Spiritual House” in the area, a charitable and educational mission referred to by San Pedro’s indigent as “the Residence.” The suppression of the Jesuits in 1767  led to the mission’s closure.

The void left by the Jesuits’ departure was addressed by the 1806 establishment of the Parish of San Pedro González Telmo (or “San Telmo”), named in honor Saint Elmo because he was the patron of sailors and the barrio was a vital port at the time. This move failed to replace the lost social institutions, however, and San Telmo languished well after Argentine independence in 1816. The Jesuit Residence, restored as a clinic by Guatemalan friars, was closed in 1821, and San Telmo saw no public works for the next 30 years except a Black Infantrymen’s Quarters and the construction of the infamous Mazorca Dungeon by Governor Juan Manuel de Rosas (now a grizzly museum which you can visit).


San Telmo began to improve despite these challenges, particularly after Rosas’ removal from power in 1852. The establishment of new clinics, the installation of gas mains, lighting, sewers, running water and cobblestones and the opening of the city’s main wholesale market led to increasing interest in the area on the part of the well-to-do and numerous imposing homes were built in the western half of San Telmo. This promising era ended abruptly when an epidemic of yellow fever struck the area in 1871. The new clinics and the heroic efforts of physicians such as Florentino Ameghino helped curb the northward spread of the epidemic; but as time went on it claimed over 10,000 lives, and this led to the exodus of San Telmo’s growing middle and upper classes into what later became Barrio Norte.

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At first hundreds of properties became vacant. A few of the larger lots were converted into needed parks, the largest of which is Lezama Park, designed by the renowned French-Argentine urban planner Charles Thays in 1891 as a complement to the new Argentine National Museum of History. Most large homes, though, became tenement housing during the wave of immigration into Argentina from Europe (mostly Italy) between 1875 and 1930. San Telmo became the most multicultural neighborhood in Buenos Aires, home to large communities of British, Galician, Italian and Russian-Argentines. The large numbers of Russians in San Telmo and elsewhere in Buenos Aires led to the consecration of Argentina’s first Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Expanding industry to the south also led a German immigrant, Otto Krause, to open a technical school here in 1897.

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San Telmo’s bohemian air began attracting local artists after upwardly-mobile immigrants left the area. Increasing cultural activity resulted in the opening of the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art by critic Rafael Squirru in 1956, as well as in the 1960 advent of the “Republic of San Telmo,” an artisan guild which organized art walks and other events. San Telmo’s immigrant presence also led to quick popularization of tango in the area: long after that genre’s heyday, renowned vocalist Edmundo Rivero purchased an abandoned colonial-era grocery in 1969, christening it El Viejo Almacén (“The Old Grocery Store”). This soon became one of the city’s best-known tango music halls, helping lead to a cultural and economic revival in San Telmo.

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The 1980 restoration of the former Ezeiza family mansion into the Pasaje de la Defensa (“Defensa Street Promenade”), moreover, has led to the refurbishment of numerous such structures, many of which had been conventillos (tenements) since the 1870s. As most of San Telmo’s 19th century architecture and cobblestone streets remain, it has also become an important tourist attraction especially on Sundays when there is a gigantic flea market in the center along with street music and dancing (and when I stay home !!).

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Grilled Provoleta is a local specialty in san Telmo. Provoleta is a trademark, and common name, for an Argentine variant of provolone cheese described as “Argentine pulled-curd Provolone cheese.” It is eaten barbecued throughout Argentina and less commonly in Uruguay. The cheese was developed by Natalio Alba in about 1940, and the PROVOLETA trademark was established in 1963. The cheese is produced with a pulled-curd (pasta filata) technique.


Small discs of Provoleta of 10 to 15 cm in diameter and 1 to 2 cm in height are often eaten at the start of an asado, before the grilled meat. The Provoleta, usually topped with oil, chile, tomatoes, and oregano, is placed directly on the grill, on small stones, or inside a foil plate, and cooked until part-melted. The Provoleta may be seasoned with chimichurri (see here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-left-handers-day/ ), and is usually eaten communally with bread.

There’s no real substitute for San Telmo fire-grilled Provoleta, but you can make a kind of replica by taking a disk of provolone, placing it on a well-heated, greased cast-iron skillet, crisping the bottom, then running it under a broiler until darkened on top. Drizzle olive oil over the top and sprinkle with crushed red chiles and oregano, or chimichurri, and eat straight from the pan by dipping in crusty bread.