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Criollo Review: Culinary Journey through Uruguay

Criollo takes us on a nostalgic and emotional journey through the rich culinary tradition of Uruguay, reminding us of the transcendental experience of food.

“Living in the country is living in freedom,” Hugo Soca reminisces as we’re greeted with calming, pastoral images of the sun rising and the sounds of birds chirping. “I liked it when the sun woke me up, it was like the day was just starting, and there was a lot of work to be done.” Walking through his family home, Soca reminisces on his past, recalling pleasant childhood memories. “I’d cook meals with my grandma. She’d fire up the clay oven and teach me how to prepare different pies and breads. My mother would make desserts; I’d watch her and learn, and also when she would cook in the day-t0-day. Thinking about food really takes me back; we would share lots of meals.”

Now a celebrated chef, Soca returns home after 25 years to revisit his roots, taking us on an intimate journey through the rich culinary tradition of Uruguay in Pablo Banchero’s documentary Criollo. Along the way, we visit culinary highlights including Tannat wines, Queso Colonia (a regional variety of Emmental cheese), fish stew, and grilled meats from an asado (communal barbecue). A mix of foods from indigenous and immigrant traditions, Uruguayan cuisine is just as much a rich concoction as one of its mouthwatering recipes. The film interviews a variety of subjects like cheese artisans, winemakers, sommeliers, farmers, and home cooks, who each share personal insights into their experiences with Uruguay’s culinary traditions. “Our experience with cuisine is truly essential; we are permeated by cuisine much more than we think. We all spent time in the kitchen at some point in our lives,” one subject remarks. “Culture begins around the dining table, culture is related to the aromas of the kitchen; that’s where human culture comes from,” adds another.

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Criollo (Courtesy of SIFF)

From the idyllic opening images, we’re swept right off our feet into the screen as the camera casts an adoring gaze over these foods and sweeps over vineyards and the verdant Uruguayan countryside. It’s easy to get lost inside Criollo, and by the time the end credits roll, after its short but contemplatively paced 79-minute runtime, you’re left with an unquenchable desire to savor these foods in person. Meanwhile, Banchero’s documentary finds its emotional anchor in Soca’s warm memories of home meals and his childhood in the countryside. While we’re not given the larger picture of his story as a professional chef, Criollo wisely avoids the world of fine dining in favor of something much simpler and much more worth our fascination—family traditions and home-cooked recipes that are passed down generations, often with ambiguous directions and no specific measurements. It’s not the elaborate multi-course meals from five-star restaurants that are the greatest food experiences, it’s the simple pleasures of home cooking that nourish the soul with the tastes, smells, and memories of our families and our roots.

In an age where much of our food comes from takeout, delivery, and supermarkets, it’s often easy to forget the humble but profound ritual of spending hours cooking a meal to be shared with family and friends. Criollo goes above and beyond its simple travelogue premise, telling a greater story about the transcendental power of food, one that we often ignore but need to be reminded of. For Soca and the artisans we hear from, food isn’t just about eating a quick meal or dirtying pots and pans, it’s about the traditions passed between families, experiences shared with friends, and forging deeper connections with our local environment. Watching these farmers and cooks share their generations-old secrets of cultivating cheese and wines, grilling meats, and catching fish on impossibly long poles from the beach, we’re reminded that these modest, handcrafted recipes are the most delightful, nourishing, and worth celebrating.

Criollo was screened digitally at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021.

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