Just as Cinco de Mayo was celebrated throughout the whole month of May, excitement had been bubbling throughout the Mes de la Patria (Month of Patriotism) in anticipation of Mexico’s official Independence Day which falls on September the 16th. The Mexicans are globally famed for their fiestas and for good reason – they rarely constitute a ‘little do’ as us Brits are more accustomed to, restricted to a set stressful few hours, for a limited number of family and friends. Mexicans go big on this one like every other, and it’s yet another opportunity to demonstrate and celebrate their impeccable hosting skills and generous, fun-loving, family-spirited nature. The city of Puebla (and entire country, no doubt) is cheerfully shrouded in lights and decorations in the national colours of green, white and red, much like the Christmas adornments we see in Europe’s cities throughout the festive season. Vendors line the streets and cram the markets with stalls of themed goodies from flags and face paints to wigs and ribbons, jewellery and garlands.
By 1810 Mexico had been under Spanish rule for almost 300 years (since Hernán Cortés’ conquest in 1521); plans to begin a revolution were well under way and scheduled to commence on the 2nd of October. However, the plot was discovered early, arrests of the leaders had begun and hopes of liberation were in great danger. In a swift and masterful move the Roman Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo initiated the War of Independence: he took to a balcony and made a desperate call to arms for his fellow Mexicans to fight and win back their country’s independence. His speech took place in the small town of Dolores, not far from Guanajuato, hence being known as the Grito de Dolores. It is not known exactly what he said, but in what must have been a sufficiently rousing and powerful oration he raised a lot of support and set off to Mexico City with Ignacio Allende to demand the freedom of Mexico from Spanish rule. They were captured and executed in July 1811 and José María Morelos took over until his own capture and execution in 1815. He was succeeded by Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria, who fought until Mexico’s eventual liberation in 1821.
To mark and celebrate the initiation of the war which freed Mexico, the Grito (‘Cry of Independence’) is re-enacted each year by the President from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City (and by governors and politicians in Zócalos throughout Mexico) at 11pm on the night of the 15th of September. In it the names of all of Mexico’s heroes are shouted, ending with three heartfelt rounds of ¡viva México! This is followed by fireworks, parties and general merriment in the streets. Although the 16th is the national holiday, the festivities actually take place on the night of the 15th. Much like England’s Boxing Day or New Year’s Day bank holidays, the 16th is for sleeping, being hungover, demolishing leftovers and recovering from the previous night’s abundance of food, drink and joy. On the 15th, families host a Noche Mexicana – Mexican Night – an extravagant feast featuring any or all of the favourite traditional fare: posole, chalupas, chanclas, tostadas, tacos, pelonas, molotes.
We were to host the Noche Mexicana for all of the rellies at our house, and it had been voted by the democratic majority that we would dine on posole and chanclas. (A Noche Mexicana with a toque Inglés – the English touch being provided by my cooking an enormous amount of apple crumble.) Everybody loves posole. It dates back to Pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine and is the number one dish of choice for the Independence Day feast. It is a shredded meat soup (usually made with pork but often with chicken) with giant whole white kernels of maize. It is topped with thin strips of lettuce and finely chopped radish, powdered chilli and oregano, and served with tostadas (crunchy fried tortillas) rubbed generously with fresh lime. Absolutely exquisite. Chanclas (‘flip flops’) are one of Puebla’s many speciality dishes. It is made of pambazo (a soft white bread like a finger roll) with a filling of shredded beef or white cheese, onion and avocado, which is then drowned in adobo sauce (a rich, smoky, spicy salsa made from guajillo chillis). I say drowned because the sauce isn’t just poured over the top, but the rolls are actually submerged in the dish of adobo and the salsa poured inside as well to soak it all up into a deliciously soggy mess. They always come in pairs, like the shoes from which they take their name. We also ate buñuelos – huge, sweet, crispy round discs bathed in a dark spiced honey syrup.
After the feasting, and the watching of the Grito on the television, the games began. There was a lucky dip of presents (accordingly wrapped in green, white and red) and a game I will call Confetti Egg Smash. The children had made boxes of hollowed egg shells filled with confetti to break over one another’s heads. The children made the eggs, but they were distributed equally amongst all of the guests and a jolly good fight ensued.
The night is a brilliant celebration of Mexico’s well-deserved pride in their culture and cuisine, history and heritage, and a wonderful opportunity to revel in the pleasure of Mexican life with family and friends. Viva México indeed.