Tag Archives: food

A Pocket of Paradise

Cuetzalan is a small town set high in the hills of the Sierra Norte, about three and a half hours from Puebla. Its hot, rainy, humid climate make it incredibly fertile and home to an astounding level of biodiversity. It is known for its strong indigenous traditions and Nahuatl-speaking Totonac Indian population, but tourism has rapidly increased since it was declared a Pueblo Mágico in 2002.

The town is named after the exquisite (and almost extinct) quetzal bird, native to Mexico and Central America, who makes its home in cloud forests at high altitude. It’s a beautiful, delicate little creature with plumage of red, green and blue, which was considered sacred by ancient Maya and Aztec people. Most famously, Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (ruler at the time of the Spanish conquest) wore an elaborate headdress of quetzal feathers on a base of gold encrusted with precious stones: it is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, and the Mexicans are more than miffed about it. The quetzal continues to be the emblem of Cuetzalan, the crest of which inspires the headdress of the local indigenous Quetzal Dance, and this distinctive circular shape is depicted in all sorts of souvenirs sold there from napkin holders to necklaces.

Just outside of Cuetzalan is the archaeological site of Yohualichán: it consists of five pre-Hispanic buildings once home to the Totonac people, who were until the 19th century the world’s main producers of vanilla and whose territory stretched right from the highlands of northern Puebla to the coast of Veracruz. Set up on high with spectacular views over the jungle valley below, the site is very impressive. And as we so often find in Mexico, right outside the site is the church built by the Spanish when they arrived and tried to eradicate indigenous Mexican beliefs and traditions.

Also just outside of Cuetzalan is the Jardín Botanical Xoxoctic, a beautiful botanical garden which shows, protects and develops much of the area’s natural wildlife, including an astounding range of orchids, coffee, cinnamon, passion fruit, bamboo. Additionally, there is a wonderful butterfly sanctuary and a tree which ‘bleeds’ red sap, the Sangre de Grado (Dragon’s Blood).

The deeply curving roads in the area are nausea-inducing – you’ll need to alleviate your symptoms as soon as you arrive with some of the best local cuisine – tayoyos. Like little squashed dough balls, they are made from maize, filled with a spiced mix of chick pea and avocado, and topped with green or red salsa (or go for both to create the bandera, Mexican flag).

Cuetzalan’s remote location makes its central Zócalo (main square) and Parroquia (parish church) seem particularly impressive, and one wonders how on earth they were built long before proper roads and modern machinery. A big attraction for weekend tourists is the Sunday tianguis, its bustling market. Local people descend from the hills to the town in their thousands to sell their wares, and you can find pretty much anything. There is an amazing variety of handmade souvenirs at very reasonable prices, including lots of jewellery made from coffee beans, hand-embroidered blouses and beautiful rebozos, a kind of traditional Mexican wrapped scarf.

A short climb up the steep hillside away from the Zócalo is the church charmingly called Los Jarritos, which means ‘little jugs,’ named after the little jugs which decorate its tower.

It is especially lovely to wander the peaceful streets at night when there is a refreshing lack of traffic and minimal light pollution. Just opposite Los Jarritos is the bar Peña Los Jarritos which is a great relaxed hideout for the evening: it hosts its own pole for voladores who perform in the dark amongst the fireflies, making for a truly magical experience.

En route home, about two hours from Puebla and one hour from Cuetzalan, is the town of Zacapoaxtla. It is like a smaller, quieter version of Cuetzalan and is famed for the brave contribution its population made to the Batalla Cinco de Mayo. It’s worth stopping by for a wander, toilet stop, and to fill up on tayoyos (again) before heading home.

The centre of Zacapoaxtla
The centre of Zacapoaxtla

Visitors complain that the ‘original’ Cuetzalan is now little more than a legend owing to the huge boost in tourism it has seen in recent years. This may be true, but there’s no doubt that the increase in visitors provides an important flow of business for the locals, who are able to maintain their life and culture in the hills rather than flock to the cities. Furthermore, they benefit from being able to sell directly to consumers rather than through a middle-man who would take a handsome wedge of the profit. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Mexicans young and old to escape from the cities and enjoy a slice of the incredibly beautiful nature and wildlife their homeland offers.

Seasonal Feasting: Chiles en Nogada

From hot cross buns and creme eggs at Easter to mince pies and mulled wine at Christmas, the anticipation of seasonal specialities makes them much more exciting than food and drink available at any time of the year. Puebla is home to a number of speciality dishes, many of which are available all year round, but the pièce de résistance (not only lauded as one of Puebla’s finest dishes but also Mexico’s) is the chile en nogada (meaning ‘chilli in walnut sauce’) – which is both weird and wonderful in equal measure.

Puebla owes much of its culinary fame and prowess to the melding of traditional Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques with the arrival of Catholic nuns from Spain in the sixteenth century, who had the time and creativity to develop incredibly complicated and labour-intensive dishes. Owing to the limited seasonal availability of ingredients and the painstaking preparation processes, dishes such as chile en nogada are not meant to be eaten every day or in huge quantities but savoured and relished occasionally.

The chile en nogada is a big, tasty, green chile poblano (a variety of chilli native to Puebla which looks more like a dark green pepper) filled with a picadillo mix of chopped meat and fruit and a variety of spices. The recipe, favourite ingredients, and chilli kick vary slightly, but every Poblano will tell you their grandma’s/auntie’s/cousin’s is the best! Typical ingredients include diced pork and beef, peach, pear, apple, raisins, almonds, pine nuts, onion, cinnamon, clove, thyme and oregano. The picadillo is slow-roasted for six to eight hours before being stuffed inside the chilli. Although not always served capeada, the original recipe dictates that it should be  – a technique which requires a dunking in frothy egg batter and frying. Then comes the best bit – the heavenly walnut sauce – generously poured all over so that nothing can be seen underneath. This creamy white  dressing creates the canvas for the presentation of the dish in the Mexican national colours: it is topped with a garnish of green parsley leaves and vibrant red juicy pomegranate seeds. The perfectly complementary red, white and green makes this dish as striking to the eye as it is to the palate.

It is no coincidence that this unique dish is made with seasonal ingredients and presented in the national colours: its origin and serving are symbolic of Mexican independence. In August 1821 the Mexican military commander Agustín de Iturbide (who became the Emperor from 1822-3) signed the Treaty of Cordoba in Veracruz, which granted Mexico its independence. As he travelled from Veracruz inland to Mexico City he was scheduled to stop in Puebla, and the nuns of the convent of Santa Monica created this dish especially for his visit. Each year ‘the season’ of August and September sees the simultaneous recreation of this spectacular recipe and Independence Day preparation and celebrations; the markets are full of glistening pomegranates and all the local restaurants advertise that they are serving it. There is even a local festival hosted in which Pueblan kitchens compete to prepare the best-loved chile.

All that love and labour doesn’t come cheap (especially in comparison with most Pueblan food), but it’s a speciality, and it’s worth every penny, so catch it while you can. It costs about 150-300 pesos per serving, depending on where you go. I sampled it at El Mural de Los Poblanos, one of Puebla’s most fancy tourist-friendly restaurants, and at La Fonda de Santa Clara, which is slightly better value and offers a more relaxed atmosphere: I highly recommend both. But alas, now we are in October it is time to  bid a sad farewell to the chile en nogada, not a trace to be seen – until next year…

Chile en nogada, served on a traditional Pueblan talavera plate.
Chile en nogada, served on a traditional Pueblan talavera plate.

 

¡VIVA MÉXICO!

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.

Wonderful Oaxaca

Arriving in Oaxaca – a 14 hour drive from Puebla – stunned my senses. Like any road travel in Mexico, looking out of the window is not for the faint-hearted, but after about nine hours of restless dozing and admiring the inside of the minibus, curiosity got the better of me. I’m familiar with a variety of beautiful European landscapes, but I’d never been anywhere truly tropical before, so weaving our windy way through the mountains was definitely an eye-opener – and a real treat. Everything was just so huge, and our mini bus so tiny in comparison, that it really gave a sense of nature at its wildest and most impressive. The vertical drop just inches from the edge of the road was hundreds of metres of sheer terror, and every spot covered in thick, lush, greenery. There were mango trees everywhere, and piles of coconuts heaped along the roadside. On stepping out of the minibus the first thing I noticed wasn’t the heat but the sound of nature’s noisy hubbub. We had arrived in paradise.

Coconuts - mind your head!
Cocos
Mangos aplenty.
Mango trees

Our first stop was Reserva Ecológica de Chacahua. We travelled for forty minutes by boat through a vast network of swampy rivers, the likes of which I’d only seen on documentaries about the Amazon. We were dropped off at a little riverside village and walked through to the idyllic beach complete with flawless sand stretching as far as the eye could see, and an abundance of palm trees and hammocks.

River cruise
River cruise
Palm-tree paradise
Palm-tree paradise
Salvavidas!
Salvavidas!
Blue sky bliss.
Blue skied bliss.

When we’d had our fill of sunshine and cerveza we headed off on the final leg of our journey to Puerto Escondido, where we were to station ourselves for the next few days. Expecting some kind of grotty hostel, we were extremely happy to find that our hotel was not only stationed right on the beachfront, but also had its own perfect little pool. VERY happy campers!

Villas Casalet, Puerto Escondido
Villas Casalet, Puerto Escondido
"Precopeo"  - Mexican pre-drinks and party games!
“Precopeo” – Mexican pre-drinks and party games!

After a long hard night of precopeo and partying, the following day was spent at the beautiful Carrizalillo beach.

Carrizalillo
Carrizalillo

Next up was a trip to hippy hot-spot Mazunte. The beach was another stunner, and we indulged in some delicious Mexican-style seaside grub. In the evening we took the twenty minute walk up to Punta Cometa to watch the sunset from the cliff top. With the waves crashing and splashing beneath us we watched in awe as the sky glowed a hundred spectacular shades of red before darkening into nightfall.

Mazunte beach
Mazunte beach
Coctel de camarónes
Coctel de camarónes
Ceviche
Ceviche
Chilli, chilli or chilli?
Salsas (sauces) – chilli, chilli or chilli?
Up to Punta Cometa
En route to Punta Cometa
Don't look down!
Mind your step!
A magical moment
Magical moments

The next day Juli and I were celebrating having been in Mexico for three months, and we did so by taking a horse ride along Puerto Escondido beach at sunset. My horse was called Calcetín, which means Sock. He was a real cutie!

BFFs!
BFFs!
Juli riding into the sunset
Juli riding into the sunset

Our next stop was Huatulco. Being the Easter holidays here, it was as busy as it could possibly have been, with all of the beach swallowed by crowded restaurants and cafés right up to about a metre from the water line. We ate classic Mexican nieve, which translates as snow and is like a creamy sorbet. The speciality flavour of Oaxaca is with grated carrot and coconut, and epitomises the taste of the tropics!

Huatulco
Huatulco beach

We went to the centre of Huatulco and planted ourselves on a café terrace overlooking the traditional dancers in the Zócalo and drank traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate, which I just couldn’t get enough of throughout the trip. It’s served in a bowl like soup and is made with either milk or water (milk is always my preference). It’s thick and creamy, and sweetly spiced with vanilla, cinnamon and almond. It’s not completely smooth because of the minimal processing and traditional stone-grounding method of breaking down the cocoa beans, but the texture just adds to its delicious rustic flavour.

As midnight approached we bade a fond farewell to Oaxaca and embarked on an overnight bus ride to Chiapas…

Participant Observation

How on earth do I begin writing a blog on ‘first impressions’ from 10 days that have rendered me dumbfounded and  speechless (quite literally – my spanish is still embarrassingly bad)? And especially without bowing to the extensive range of cliches available for those travelling/on a ‘journey’ – ‘rollercoaster’ anyone? Well I don’t know really, but I’m going to give it a go because I know I’ll hugely regret it if I don’t document these precious firsts.

As an aspiring anthropologist, I suppose I’ve been indulging in/attempting a very loose and untechnical kind of participant observation. For those not well versed in anthropological theory it’s essentially trying to learn as much as possible from paying close attention to what’s going on around you, getting involved, asking questions, adopting behaviours, and above all attempting to proceed without causing offence or making a complete idiot of yourself. In other words, mere mortals: ‘watch and learn’. Well for anyone who’s fascinated by different people and ways of life it’s a lot of fun and incredibly interesting, so most of my time is spent feeling slightly bemused and LAPPING IT ALL UP!

It would be the most abhorrent of insults to my host nation not to place food at the very top of my initial observations. And when it comes to food I have been taking a very active approach to participant observation! To say it’s an experience doesn’t do it justice; the food is INSANE. I’ve always been a bit of a food devil but there honestly aren’t words to describe it. From our first few meals in Mexico my fellow English friend Tom and I noted that mealtimes were proving ‘success after success’ and it has since become a bit of a catchphrase for us. Every day I try something new that is absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before. It’s no wonder that the Mexicans are incredibly proud of their cuisine, it is amazing and simply inimitable. And it’s also no wonder they’re all so happy, as theirs is the ultimate comfort food. Chilli is truly addictive, and after a mere ten days in this country I honestly don’t know how I went for twenty five years without adding it to every meal. (Having said that, I still take my pineapple as it comes rather than the Mexican way of adding salt, lime juice and chilli powder!) There are British sweet treats that I crave (banoffee pie first and foremost), but my preferences in savoury grub have been indelibly altered. Just in case you aren’t drooling yet, I promise a blog dedicated to food with details and pictures soon!

Second to food has to be the climate. The past ten days have been like British summer – a good one: blue sky and sunshine from dawn until dusk, averaging 18 degrees in the day but with chilly evenings. The Mexicans, however, believe this to be awful. Wrapped up in layer upon layer of winter woollies (including the dogs), I am the only person walking the streets in a sleeveless top. When I explain that this is what we spend all year wishing for all in England, I am met with cries of “¡pobrecita!” For example, milk is never served straight from the fridge but heated so that it’s not hot, nor warm, but just not-cold! This is very strange to me, but with temperatures set to soar in the next few months I can only be grateful for the gentle warm-up.

Thirdly, los mexicanos. The Mexicans are great fun, generous, humble, expressive and very well-mannered. They’re very polite like the Brits but in a totally different way. Our politeness is modest and reserved whereas theirs is very exaggerated. This can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for someone whose ability to get involved is limited at best and I live in constant fear of offending someone because I’ve said ‘no thank you’ rather than ‘thank you ever so much for the offer but I can’t because of a, b and c, but I will take you up on your very kind offer another day’. The concept of insisting can be very confusing and I often don’t know whether I’m supposed to say yes or no, but by the time I can string more than three words together I’ll no doubt be performing with all the pasión displayed in their telenovelas.

My host family are incredibly gracious and patient with me, and the scope of human kindness often leaves me feeling very emotional. They know next to nothing about me but are willing to take me into their family and treat me like one of their own. And they signed up to host me for a whole year! It’s very frustrating not to be able to express my gratitude, and ‘muchas gracias’ feels like it loses its meaning after the twentieth uttering each day. What’s so poignant for me is that this generosity and warmth isn’t only offered to international volunteers on contracts of a fixed period but on a widespread scale. Mexican relationships aren’t just the odd act of kindness and ‘good deeds’ that we encourage in the UK but lifelong commitments to look after those around them and even adopt them into their extended families. We are so choosy in the UK, everything is carefully considered, articulated and ordered: the Mexican approach is one of comfortable chaos, which can be difficult to embrace but I endeavour to do so!