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Island importer brings the best of Argentina

Island resident Carl Mundt and an associate inspect grain in an Argentine field. - Photo courtesy of Carl Mundt
Island resident Carl Mundt and an associate inspect grain in an Argentine field.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Carl Mundt

eat beef.

Islander Carl Mundt, the managing member of Argentine Products, wants to introduce them to some of the country’s other delicious foodstuffs.

“We have to educate Americans,” Mundt said. “We want to be known as the source of Argentine food – good quality, organic food.”

The idea grew from the retail success of the company’s organic polenta, sold under the name “de la Estancia,” which hit the shelves in 2003 at Town & Country market.

Mundt had approached Rick Nakata and Steve Vadset about putting the product in the Bainbridge store, and it was well-received.

From that point, the business expanded to the Seattle market.

Those first two years, Mundt did 100 cooking demonstrations in Seattle, Poulsbo and Mill Creek dressed in his Argentine clothes. Mon Elisa’s on Winslow Way is another fan of the product, using it to make polenta pasta and selling it in packages and in bulk.

Mundt and three partners – fellow islander Chris Oechsli and Argentine farmers Pedro Arias and Osmar Monaldi – grow a variety of crops, including organic corn, on a 20,000-acre farm called estancia buenaventura in northwestern Argentina, in the province of Salta.

A confluence of experiences led Mundt to law and then farming. When he was 10 years old, his family moved from New York to Uruguay. His father was a maritime lawyer who loved the language and cultures of South America. They stayed through the first part of his high school days and later lived in Buenos Aires.

In 1980, Mundt met fellow lawyer Oechsli. In 1990, Mundt left his law practice and joined a commercial fishing company in Seattle.

Two years later, he moved his family to Buenos Aires for six months while he started his company’s fishing operation in Tierra del Fuego.

The business soared, Mundt became chairman of the board and, in 1994, he retired. On a family trip to the Salta province in 1996, he met Pedro Arias and farming success soon followed under the name Estancia Buenaventura SLR.

“We were two American lawyers and two farming families that had not been to America before,” Mundt said. “(The farmers) were young, in their 20s, when we started this.”

After buying land that had only been used for selective logging, the four partners decided to devote the entire estancia – which means “place to stop” in Spanish, while buenaventura means “good fortune” – to organic agriculture.

Everything produced at this farm is sold in Europe, Japan and the United States.

Located in the high Andes, 50 miles from the Tropic of Capricorn, the Salta province is subtropical. Its abundant rainfall, rich soil and hot sunny days make the land a paradise for growing crops, Mundt said.

On the farm, which is bigger than Bainbridge Island, they plant corn, soybeans, sunflowers, wheat, black beans, safflowers and adzuki beans. Less than half of the land is planted.

“It’s really worked out wonderful. The Argentine partners come up once a year,” Mundt said, and it was not hard for the American half of the company to do business in Argentina.

“The country’s constitutution says to treat foreigners the same,” Mundt said. “In Argentina you pay with cash. It comes with an armed guard and a truck and you put it on the table.”

Because it championed organic products early on and adheres to strict standards, Argentina is recognized as an organic food leader in Europe, North America and Asia.

“In Argentina, it’s very easy to trace a product back,” Mundt said.

Although all polenta is simply corn that has been ground up, the difference in products stems from the corn that is used.

“To no credit to us, the corn grown in Argentina is a very low-starch form of corn naturally and it cooks in just a minute,” Mundt said. “It’s just corn in the package, very hard and very yellow, almost orange. It’s creamier because it’s less starchy. We realized we had a great product on our hands.”

This type of corn, which grows in the fields for six months, doesn’t grow in the U.S., Canada or Europe, Mundt said.

What drew Mundt to the land?

“When I was a lawyer I was representing food companies and fishing companies. My ancestors were farmers in the Midwest. I love food and I love Argentina, It’s a very beautiful place,” he said.

Mundt puts his polenta where his mouth is.

At home, he said, “That’s our automatic side dish.” He makes his polenta with milk, some Parmesan cheese, salt and butter, as it sets up. “It loves to take sauces,” he said.

This past August, Mundt’s company signed contracts with a large food importing company in New Jersey, Source Atlantique Inc., to take its polenta national.

“They own half the brand,” Mundt said. “Now people can buy it across the U.S. because of them. Hopefully, this is the first product of many. ‘Organic’ is our recognition factor.

“We want to introduce Argentine food to the U.S. because it’s wonderful,” Mundt said. “It’s the land of food. All the different crops that grow in all the climates – not just grass-fed beef. There’s essentially no Argentine food sold here. They’re not good marketers.”

Mundt has his sights on importing such products as olives, cheeses and dulce de leche. Some of these products will be produced for the company.

“The farm will stay,” Mundt said. “We’ll stay farmers.”

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