Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: Happy 2013 from Mexico!

Posted in Greetings Cards, Marketing material, MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 31/12/2012

Thank you for following my blog – I wish you a prosperous Happy 2013 and greetings from Mexico!

This typo ‘Happy 2013’ card consists of food ingredients, all of which are staple foods and native to Mexico. It starts and ends with the essential ingredients of Mexican cuisine – beans as in beans and beans as in chocolate. The ‘typo card’ is my idea of Como agua para chocolate (transl. Like Water for Chocolate), a popular novel published in 1989 by Mexican novelist and screenwriter Laura Esquivel. If you have not read the book or seen the movie, read or see it in 2013! Only then you can understand Mexican ‘love affair’ with their food!

Feliz 2013! Srečno 2013! Glücklich 2013! Felice 2013!

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HFrijol (bean) – One of the Three Sisters that were the three main native crop plants that originated in Mexico: the other two are maize (corn) and squash. These tasty beans come in or with just about anything. I am hooked!

AChayote (pear squash) – It is a delicious salad ingredient. Definitely absolutely hooked!

PCatarina chile – It is related to the Cascabel chile (rattle chile) group that originates in Mexico. All other chillies, when dried, looked at first quite similar to me, while I fell under the spell of these two species almost immediately as they look so different, interesting and recognisable with their teardrop shape. They are also quite musical – their rattling sound of the seeds inside when shaken surpasses all the maracas on the market, a traditional Mexican toy that has unfortunately almost disappeared (thanks to China!) and therefore hard to find. The chilli is used to make tamales, marinades, stews and soups. Tamales are a must when in Mexico!

PTomatillo ( Mexican tomato) – It is an essential ingredient to prepare green moles (sauces) together with the poblano chile peppers. One of my favourite dishes – Angela’s Espagueti con chile poblano, our chef at Arquetopia. I was spoiled rotten!

YChile de arbol – This species of chilli literally translates as a ‘tree chilli, as the bush on which it grows resembles a small tree. The chilli is a very narrow and curved that starts out green and matures to bright red colour. Unlike many chillies, this one remains bright red even after drying. The fresh version has the same name. So, definitely another chilli pepper that I can easily recognise – and I better as it is so so so hot! They are very small, and the smaller the chilli pepper grows to the hotter is its burning sensation. I managed to get them into my eyes when taking photos – of course, naturally, I ‘cried’! FYI, wash your eyes with warm water as soon as you can.

2Habañero chile – These chillies – the hottest chilli peppers found in Mexico – are the dreaded and deadly Yucatán killer, known to the Mayas as the ‘crying tongue’. They are very small (2–6 cms long) and lantern-shaped. They range from light green when unripe to bright orange when ripe. They are grown on the Yucatán peninsula only and are thus an essential ingredient of Yucatán food. When researching this chilli I found the following warning:

The peppers are actually so hot and dangerous that precautionary measures should be taken when handling them, including nylon or latex gloves and goggles to prevent getting capsaicin in your eyes. Capsaicin is the chemical used in Pepper Spray. When cooking with these, be conservative in the amounts used. Habanero chilies are rated 100,000–350,000 on the Scoville scale.

Another account tells me that some chillies [habañero are part of it] are so pungent that a farmer needs to wear gloves in order to avoid the skin on their hands from blistering. Blimey! An exeggeration or what! But I only now understand my agony of 10 years ago when I was in Yucatán – my food must have contained this chilli! I am now absolutely certain. The sensation of the heat in my mouth felt as if I was buring in hell! I had to drink 5 bottles of cerveza afterwards and yet I was still in agony! The only positive outcome of that experience is that I now feel I am a true veteran – I can eat anything containing chillies and nothing will ever surpass that unique experience of Tolumn!

0Aguacate (avocado) – Well, do I need to say more … ! Our favourite party dish of all generations – guacamole dip – with tortilla chips, accompanied by a bottle of cerveza! Scrummy! I will never forget the experience of the best-flavoured avocado I ever tasted in my life – the very last one and freshly picked from a tree by the mother of my Spanish teacher in her garden in Tlacolula. The most generous and delicious gift ever given to me as the experience of that avocado melting on my tongue like butter made me feel I was double in heaven!

1Calabacín (squash or courgette) – Leaving in a boring land of northern Europe where exotic fruits and vegetables have a long way to travel to, to my pleasure, squash can grow quite well in our climate, so no wonder why courgettes find their way on my plate quite often (yeah, I am a bit of a courgette addict!).

3Maíz (maize or corn) – A daily staple food to make tortillas, a Mexican ‘bread’. It comes in three colours: white, yellow and blue.

! Granos de cacao (cocoa beans) – Essential: CHOCOLATE, yes, with capital letters! ‘I can resist everything but ???‘ Perhaps my new year’s resolution but I shall say no more!

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MEXICO Project: Christmas Symbol: Poinsettia

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 26/12/2012

DSC_0438In Mexico, in addition to piñatas, another important Christmas symbol is a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). My mother has been buying the flower grown in a pot ever since I remember in order to decorate our dinner table for Christmas. As she calls it a ‘Christmas Star’ (officially known in Slovenia!), I thought it was just a pretty red flower that grew around Christmas in some European greenhouse in the middle of winter and that was part of modern capitalist money-spinning world to make our Christmas dinner table prettier! But until my research on Mexico I had no idea that the flower has in fact a very long Christmas tradition that goes back to the 16th century and that its origin brings me to Mexico!

My fascination with the poinsettia actually begun before my research in early November when I saw it for the first time in the garden (below) of a lovely woman called Eulalia Florina Morales from Teotitlan del Valle, a town in the Valley of Oaxaca famous for a pedal-loom weaving. I went to see her workshop, where she showed me the process of preparing a raw wool for hand-spining and eventually for weaving.

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Origins and description

The poinsettia is native to Mexico and central America. It can be found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa State down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. Also, it grows in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of the States of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

To my surprise, the poinsettia is actually not a flower but rather a small tree or a shrub, typically reaching a height of 0.6 to 4 m (2 to 16 ft).

DSC_0622 DSC_0623The coloured bracts – which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled – are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves. The colors of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.

DSC_0319 DSC_0321DSC_0615There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia. While the main public squares (zócalos and plazas) and those in front of the churches as above in Ocotlán and Teotitlan del Valle in the Oaxaca Valley may carefully be planted with the commercially grown red poinsettias each year during the month of December leading up to Christmas, the poinsettia is actually a pride of almost every Mexican house such as the gardens below at San Filipe del Agua and in Forestal near Oaxaca – the other three flowers are frangipani, bougainvillea and dahlia.

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The flower seems to be also a popular choice to be carried in processions on feast days during this time of the year in Oaxaca, as in the procession of children for the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico (12 Dec) (Peregrinacíon infantil al santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe).

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Christmas association

The flower had already been in use in Mexico before the Conquest. In Nahuatl, the language of the AZTECS, the plant is called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, residue, and xochitl, flower) meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.” The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication (i.e modern day ibuprofen and aspirin).

The plant’s association with Christmas began in the 16th century in Mexico. I found two versions of the legend how the poinsettia was found. In the FIRST, a little boy named Pablo was walking to a shrine in his village to see baby Jesus and had nothing to offer to the child. Having seen greenish branches that grew everywhere, he collected them and laid them on the manter though other children teased him. But to the surprise of others, red-shaped flowers soon appeared on each branch. In the SECOND, a young girl was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The tale says that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson ‘blossoms’ sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.

From the 17th century, Franciscan friars included it in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color represents the sacrifice of blood through the crucifixion of Jesus. In Spain it is known as ‘Flor de Pascua’ meaning ‘Easter flower’. In both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as ‘Crown of the Andes’. In Mexico and Guatamala it is now known as Noche Buena meaning ‘Christmas Eve’. It is therefore extensively used in Christmas celebrations in these two countries, from where it eventually spread as a Christmas flower to other parts of the world.

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MEXICO Project: Christmas Symbols: Piñatas

Posted in Craft, MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 25/12/2012

In Mexico one of the most recognisable Christmas symbols is a piñata (pin-yah-ta).

DSC_0521I made three piñatas for the piñata page as part of the ‘celebrations and festivals’ section of my kids book on Mexico. First, a 7-cone star (estrella) representing the Star of Bethlehem; second, a donkey (burro) representing the animal on which Mary rode pregnant to Bethlehem; and third, a Christmas tree (árbol de Navidad) – all of which are traditional shapes used for the 9 days of Las Posadas, Christmas and the Three Kings in Mexico. At other times, piñatas are usually shaped as different animals or cartoon characters, but can be other shapes too.

Description

A piñata is a hollow shape made out of paper, cardboard and glue. It is decorated with coloured crepe and tissue paper as well as other items using a papier-mache technique. Traditionally, it had been made from adobe (olla de barro roja). Each piñata is filled with sweets, small toys, fruits and yam beans.DSC_0532

DSC_0376Origin

Breaking of the piñata as a popular party game is traditionally associated with Mexico used for special celebrations and festivities. It is an essential form of entertainment for kids at Las Posadas, Christmas, the Three Kings and birthday parties. However, the piñata probably originally comes from China. The Chinese version was in the form of cows, oxen or buffaloes, covered with coloured paper. It was filled with seeds and then broken with a stick during the New Year celebrations. The remains were burnt and ashes served for good luck throughout the year.

The piñatas were introduced from China to Europe in the 14th century by the explorer Marco Polo. They were adopted for the first Sunday of the Lent (Piñata Sunday). In Spain, this festival was called the Dance of the Piñata. The Spanish made them out of clay in the form of a pot (olla de barro roja). Later on, ribbons and colour paper were added. The word piñata probably comes from the Italian word pignatta meaning a ‘fragile pot’. It is also linked to the Spanish word piña meaning a pineapple.

Introduction of piñatas to Mexico and their religious significance

The Spanish missionaries brought the European tradition of piñatas to Mexico in the 16-century. They used them to attract the indigenous people to the Christian ceremonies. However, there had already been similar traditions before the Spanish Conquest. The AZTEC tradition was to celebrate the birth of their supreme god, Huitzilopochtli, in mid-December. Priests would attach a clay pot decorated with colourful feathers on a pole in the temple of the deity and when hit with a club, the hidden treasure would fall at the feet of the idol as an offering. Similarly, the MAYA, who were great lovers of sport, played the game in which a player was blindfolded while hitting the clay pot suspended by a string.

The Augustinian monks modified their European tradition by incorporating aspects of these games for their religious instruction (catechism). They also created Las Posadas tradition to co-opt the commemoration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli. A small town just north of Mexico City, Acolman (State of Mexico), claims, according to the local sources, to be the origin of the Las Posadas tradition as well as the birthplace of piñatas in Mexico. It helds an annual national Piñata and Las Posadas Fair (Feria de la Posada y la Piñata) in early December.

Traditionally, the piñatas therefore had a religious significance. The Mexican Catholic interpretation of the piñata was based on the struggle of man against temptation. The decorated CLAY pot (cantero) represents SATAN, who wears a variety of masks to attract people. As the traditional style of the piñatas is in the shape of a seven-pointed star, the CONES represent the SEVEN DEADLY SINS, known as the cardinal vices or capital sins (pecados) – greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. The seasonal FRUITS and SWEETS inside the piñata symbolise the TEMPTATIONS OF EVIL (of wealth and earthly pleasures). The piñata, therefore, reflects 3 THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES – faith, hope and charity. First, the BLINDFOLDED PERSON with a stick – the main force in defying evil – stands for FAITH (Fe). The spinning of the blindfolded person and singing by the other participants represent the disorientation caused by the temptation. The person is turned thirty times, one spin for each year of Christ’s life. Second, the piñata is a symbol of HOPE (Esperanza). As the piñata is hang from the above, participants look towards the sky/heaven (los cielos) waiting for the award. While hitting the piñata signifies the struggle against temptation of evil, the stick itself symbolises virtue as only good can overcome evil. Once the piñata is broken, the TREATS inside represent the AWARD for keeping the faith. And third, the piñata symbolises CHARITY (Caridad) as every participant shares in the divine blessings and gifts!

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How to make a piñata

For the star, I used a papier-mache technique though I think that it is unnecessary if you are using a clay pot. It is however essential if a balloon is used to make the body of your star or any other round shapes. In this case, the two websites are useful: first and second. I would recommend not to use the shiny metal based paper as it is difficult to shape around the round shaped pot.

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For the other two shapes I decided to use useful DIY instructions on Oh Happy Day blog, which uses a glue technique rather than the complications of a papier-mache technique using a flower-water mixture, which takes ages for a piñata to dry. I used crepe, China and hand-made amate papers. The Christmas tree was decorated with snow flakes using crochet.

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The game

While the piñata has now lost the religious significance, the ceremony remains the same. To play the game, the piñata is hung up from a string suspended from a tree or a ceiling. Each child has a turn at hitting the piñata with a wooden stick. Before hitting the piñata, the child puts on a blindfold. The other players spin him or her round, while an adult is moving the piñata away from the blindfolded child. The player can try to hit the piñata in the time it takes for the other players to sing a traditional song. The game is finished when the piñata breaks and everything inside falls on the ground. P.S: The photos below are from one of Las Posadas in Tlacolula (Oaxaca Valley) where children where not blindfolded, nor where they span around, but the piñatas were being pulled up and away from children making it harder to hit.

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