Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: World Turtle Day & La Ventanilla on the Oaxaca Coast

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 24/05/2014

Today is World Turtle Day (23 May). The purpose of this fun day, sponsored yearly since 2000 by American Tortoise Rescue, is, on the one hand, to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises worldwide, while, on the other hand, to encourage human action to help them survive and thrive in the natural habitat. The international event brought back my fond memories of the sea turtles in La Ventanilla on the Oaxaca Coast in Mexico – one of the two breeding grounds of a species of this article, Olive Ridley turtle (la tortuga golfina). So I thought I would share some photographs, while taking the opportunity to recommend a visit if travelling nearby, as the experience of the place is unforgettable. If you have seen the animated film A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures (2010) – an enchanting story of a sea turtle called Sammy who, hatched on the Oaxaca Coast, falls for his childhood sweetheart called Shelly – then you know what I am talking about: you unconditionally fall in love with them! This article is dedicated to the community of La Ventanilla for its passion in preserving the sea turtles in their natural eco-system and to my niece and nephew (‘my turtle’ on my hand was released with their names in the photo below) with whom I saw the animated film in a cinema and we absolutely loved it!

Hand

La Playa Ventanilla

La Ventanilla [‘little window’ named after a high rocky peak with a small opening] is a small village, located on the unspoiled and laid-back Costa Chica in the State of Oaxaca, some 2.5km west of Mazunte or 12.5km west of Puerto Ángel. The village consists of a long, unbroken stretch of undeveloped white sand beach and a lagoon (the estuary of the Tonameca River) wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre del Sur. Up until the mid 1990s, the area was a mere coconut plantation with three Zapotec families living there – the electricity arrived only in 1999, when, after the Hurricane Pauline in Oct 1997, more families began to move into the area to build a small close-knit community. Now, the whole protected biosphere area covers around 230 000 sq meters.

La Ventanilla

Past & Present: The story of Olive Ridley turtle

Like Mazunte, which was the centre of sea turtle hunting (with a slaughterhouse) in Mexico by the 1970s and is now the country’s premier turtle research centre (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga), La Ventanilla had to shift its focus on the environment, reforestation and ecotourism due to a loss of main source of income after an absolute ban on turtle meat and eggs had been enforced in 1990 as the number of sea turtle nests had drastically dropped since 1970s. With the new perception of the turtles seen as the species to be protected, the community was encouraged to create a mini-ecological reserve and tourist attraction. The village is, therefore, best known for a successful conservation, particularly of the Olive Ridley turtle, and for an ecotourism co-operative – Servicios Ecoturísticos La Ventanilla – run by about 25 Zapotec families, who are extremely dedicated to preserving the ecology of both the beach and the lagoon. Unfortunately, when I visited the village in Nov 2012, the area was in a fairly bad state due to another devastating hurricane in June 2012, Hurricane Carlotta, but the community, who owns the land and runs the eco-preservation program, was, according to my biologist guide, in a good spirit as the inhabitants were convinced that their village, with its wild-life surroundings, can soon thrive just like it did before the hurricane.

Releasing of a Olive Ridley turtle: The story of ‘my turtle’

The village is most popular for canoe trips on a mangrove-fringed lagoon, where one can admire diverse flora and fauna: among others two varieties of mangroves (red and white), many species of birds and most notably endangered river crocodiles (around 1000 in the area).

But the most memorable experience, in my opinion, is the releasing of the sea turtle hatchlings into the Ocean at sunset, as portrayed through the photos in this post. According to the guide, one can also take part in night patrols, led by the community’s volunteer workers, in order to see adult female turtles laying their eggs in nests [i.e. the mass nesting phenomenon that occurs only with this species known as arribadas] and helping them to collect the eggs. The nesting season usually begins in May and lasts for several months – during the peak of this activity, thousands of sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs along here. They come in large numbers during the nighttime for 2–3 evenings after a full moon. They scoop out holes in the sand circa 1.2 m deep, deposit their eggs and cover them up. The volunteers protect these turtles from natural predators as well as human poachers. After the eggs are laid and mother turtles return to sea, the volunteers gather the eggs in order to rebury them in a safe nest (a gated-off strip of sand), which is closely monitored with the date and guarded until the turtles are hatched. After 45 days, the nests are dug up and hatchling turtles pop out, which are then collected in a bucket. Visitors who happen to be around on a hatching day, like I was, bring the baby turtles, weighing barely between 12 and 23.3 g, to the high tide line and release them onto the sand, so that the baby turtles slowly find their way back into the strong and tough wave of the Ocean. The whole village is involved in this project – the adults’ passion for preservation of the Olive Ridley turtle is passed on to their children, who also join in the fun. Considering that, according to the guide, only 1%–3% of all hatchlings will reach reproductive age (around 15 years of age), the great dedication and empowerment displayed by the community to protect the eggs is a fabulous way to remember La Ventanilla on the World Turtle Day.

Turtle_1Turtle_2Turtle_3Turtle_4Turtle_5Turtle_6Turtle_7

La Playa Escobilla

The second and main breeding ground (3–4 km long) for the Olive Ridley turtle in Mexico is La Playa Escobilla, located very close to La Ventanilla. In order to protect the turtles, the beach is guarded by the national army carrying M-16’s, scientists and enthusiastic volunteers during the nesting season to prevent looters and poachers from stealing eggs and is off-limits to tourists. However, during this season (July to September) visitors can join overnight trips to observe the turtles while they heave themselves on shore to lay their eggs. The trips also help the local community and must be arranged through the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga in Mazunte.

Historically, there were several arribadas in Mexico, but only the two mentioned above now remain, as the species is constantly decreasing – according to Beaubien’s article, the species is considered ‘endangered’ by the US National Marine Fisheries Service, while Mexican sources say that the turtles’ population has rebounded significantly. Turtle poaching by humans (not locals) is still going on despite the government’s total ban. While back in Oaxaca after the trip, much to my horror I was offered 6 turtle eggs for the price of $40 Mexican pesos (circa £2 sterlling). The eggs are not only valued for food, but many Mexicans still believe that the eggs are a powerful aphrodisiac.

To get an idea of the breeding ground on La Playa Escobilla, see the video below.

Sources

Beaubien, Jason, ‘Endangered Sea Turtles Return To Mexico’s Beaches’. 16 Oct 2009. NPR. Link

Map of the Oaxaca Beaches and how to get to La Ventanilla, see ‘Playa Ventanilla’. Link.

‘Olive Ridley Turtle’. 2013. NOAA. Link.

Quintero, Melinda, ‘Puerto Escondido’s Experiment in Sustainable Tourism’, 2007, Frommer’s. Link.

Turtles of the Oaxaca Coast, see ‘Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga’ in Mazunte. Link.

‘Turtles in Mazunte’. Exploring Oaxaca. Link.

The largest sanctuary of Olive Ridley turtles is Playa La Escobilla, very close to La Ventanilla, see Wikipedia and Oaxaca Mio.

Project: Edible Valentine Type: Love & Kisses

Posted in MEXICO, Projects by andrejabrulc on 28/02/2014

This series of typographic cookies was inspired by my research on Mexican pan dulce – the idea is based on a particular variety of pan dulce [‘sweet bread’] called besos [‘kisses’], which are especially popular in Mexico for Valentine’s Day.

Andreja Brulc_besos

The idea was then expanded further into a typographic feast in 5 languages (English, Spanish, Slovene, Italian, German) using the words ‘kisses’ and ‘love’ as the basis for this project (the final result is the last image below). Furthermore, my project of edible type coincided with the Valentine theme set out to celebrate the first anniversary of Type Tasting led by Sarah Hyndman of With Relish – for Type Tasting’s review of my project click here.

Andreja Brulc_kisses

Recipes

4 different kinds of recipes were used for these cookies:

Besos from Tennie CakesBesos are not cookies per se, but pan dulce, a sort of sweet scorn-like breads.

Shortbread from BBCShortbread was shaped into letters by hand. Some letters were further dipped into a melting chocolate to give some colour to the type and sprinkled with icing sugar and chopped up hazelnuts. The recipe for these world’s famous biscuits, which originated in Scotland, is exceptionally good – in my opinion, it is in a high competition with the famous brand, Walkers Shortbread. For European readers – caster sugar, known in the States as ‘superfine’ sugar, is a British term for sugar with small grains that are between granulated and icing sugar. If you cannot find caster sugar, use ordinary white sugar rather than icing sugar. Your food mixer will do the rest!

Andreja Brulc_love_2

Jam-filled butter biscuits from BBC – A classic British recipe for Jammie Dodgers and a perfect one to sandwich ‘red’ jam between the two hearts. Again, my variation of the recipe came out to be more ‘Central European’ in appearance in order to make the type more diverse when assembled! Traditionally, Jammie Dodgers have a shape (e.g heart) cut out on the top layer, so that the jam is visible through it like in the BBC recipe, but, instead, I decided to make a template of the heart and lettering, placed on the top layer and then sprinkled in icing sugar.

Andreja Brulc_Valentine cookies_4

Andreja Brulc_love_3

Chocolate truffles from BBC – Very simple but extremely delicious truffles – I had to keep them away from many long fingers before I managed to finish with photographing the project! It is worth using a good quality chocolate (70%). For the decoration, the truffles were sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder, chopped up hazelnuts and coconut powder.

Andreja Brulc_truffles

The making of edible Valentine type

The cookies were either shaped into type before they were baked, but in most cases they were assembled into type after the baking and then photographed.

Andreja Brulc_poljubAndreja Brulc_ljubezenAndreja Brulc_amorWhen all letters were finally assembled in Photoshop into two words in 5 languages, the final outcome was a very satisfying typographic Valentine feast that fed my family for a few days!

Andreja Brulc_Valentine card

MEXICO Project: Mexican cuisine: Pan dulce (‘Sweet bread’)

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 31/10/2013

panaderia_columba_tlacalulaFor a Central European with a sweet tooth, bakeries are one of the first on the list to be checked out when exploring new things while visiting a foreign country. No matter how rustic or urban, Mexican panaderías (‘bakeries’) are just that – they score 10 out of 10 on my list. The sweet aroma of pan dulce coming out on the street can tempt even those with no sweet tooth into entering their premises! Mexican panaderías are one of the most innovative in the world and a pride of Mexican cuisine.

During my stay in Oaxaca I was very lucky that my Spanish teacher José Antonio González introduced me to his family of Zapotec origin from Tlacolula in the Oaxaca Valley and particularly to his brother, who runs the panadería Columba with his wife there, baking pan dulce in a traditional adobe oven.panaderia_columba_adobo ovenIt took him six months to construct his adobe oven – using ancient techniques and materials of clay, straw and earth that keeps the oven warm all the time even if not used. panaderia_columba_demonstrationThis article on pan dulce is dedicated to José in the memory of our many discussions about Oaxacan food tradition as well as Oaxacan culture and history in general in my Spanish class, and, nonetheless, especially to his brother’s passion for the bread making and his love for keeping the tradition alive for posterity!

Pan dulce

Pan dulce (lit. ‘sweet bread’), known as Mexican pastry, is a (not too) sweet yeast bread or pastry, baked in many varieties, of different sizes, colours, and flavours. Most of them are topped with the traditional sugar crust pastry (pasta) made from white flour, sugar and margarine (butter). Being extremely cheap even in local terms, pan dulce is a staple food in Mexico and other Latin American countries. It is also popular with Mexican Americans in the United States. It is eaten with coffee, milk or hot chocolate. Pan dulce is typically enjoyed dipped in Mexican hot chocolate – in Mexico, the hot chocolate is darker and not as sweet as regular hot chocolate one finds at home. In Mexico, the tradition of eating sweet pastries for breakfast or mid-afternoon snack, known as merienda, goes back to the 16th century. Pan dulce is considered to be a Mexican cuisine even though its origins are European.

Photo Ana Gilbert

Photo Ana Gilbert

The history of bread in Mexico

The Spanish colonial influence

Wheat was one of the first non-native foods that the Spanish colonialists introduced to Mexico. The grain was not only a Spanish staple food but it was also a religious necessity – the only grain that the Catholic Church recognised suitable for the making of Eucharist wafer. The first wheat bread produced in Mexico was uninspiring as it came out as a tasteless lump. The indigenous population did not care for it at first, but since they worked on wheat farms that provided bread for the Spaniards, they gradually got used to it, especially since wheat was part of their pay (Palmerin 2012:869).

The story of eating sweet pastries says that an inventive viceroy started a practice that would change the way in which indigenous people perceived bread – he dipped his bread into hot chocolate – a custom that quickly caught on as it tasted better than simple white bread and people never looked back.

The French influence

A desire for something more delicious was further fulfilled thanks to the French influence that took hold of Mexico at the end of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1821. And, when the French bakers started to arrive in Mexico and influenced the art of bread making there with their introduction of pan francés (lit. French bread), the taste of bread – crispy rolls, baguettes and sweet pastries ­– finally began to appeal to Mexicans. By then, Mexico had already been flooded by French bakeries.

It is ironic without saying, however, that the first French military intervention in Mexico is called The Pastry War (Guerra de los pasteles) (Dec 1838–March 1839). Civil disobedience seems to have been the norm in the early days of the Mexican republic. The properties of many expatriates, including those owned by the French, were constantly looted by bandits and even Mexican soldiers, but their appeals to the Mexican government for compensation fell on deaf ears. In 1838 a French pastry cook called M. Remontel claimed that Mexican soldiers had damaged his establishment in the Tacubaya district of Mexico City in 1828. As he was refused compensation, he appealed to the French King Louise-Philippe for help. As we know the French take their pastry very seriously indeed, the King demanded 600 000 pesos, which was extremely high, as, in comparison, an average workman’s pay per day at the time was one peso! As Mexico refused to pay the sum, a surreal cause for the war as pastry might have been led to a three months long conflict between Mexico and France! Britain acted as a mediator, and as Mexico promised the payment, the French withdrew from Mexico in 1839.

Benito_JuarezThe 2nd French Intervention in Mexico under the army of the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I also lasted for a short time (1861–1867) – the cause for this war, also known as Maximilian Affair or Maximilian Adventure, was again of monetary nature – President Benito Juárez‘s suspension of interest payments to foreign countries (Spain, France and Britain) on 17 July 1861. Benito Juárez was not only the first indigenous president of Mexico (of Zapotec origin) but he is also perceived as the hero of Oaxaca (he was born in San Pablo Guelatao, a small town in the Sierra Norte north of the Oaxaca valley, but was later educated in Oaxaca where he started his political career as a governor of the State of Oaxaca). The French were defeated on 5 May 1862 at the battle of Cinco de Mayo (also known as the Battle of Puebla) but continued fighting in Mexico until 1867 – on 19 June the Emperor Maximilian I was executed by the forces loyal to Benito Juárez in Querétaro. The execution is famously depicted by Eduard Manet (1868–69, Kunsthalle Mannheim, below; fragments of earlier but larger painting are at the National Gallery, London; and a third unfinished version at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Edouard_Manet_execution_Maximilian I

However brief the actual control of Mexico by France was, it was enough to leave behind a strong French influence that peaked in the early 1900s during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz – a big sympathiser of anything that was French in origin. He even sought to modernise his country by replacing traditional local dishes with French cuisine!

The formation of unique Mexican pan dulce

The French bakeries certainly left behind their legacy in the art of bread making in Mexico – as it eventually helped to establish the Mexican baking tradition that has become one of the most inventive in the world.

piloncillo_raw sugar caneAs a result, many Mexican panaderías sprouted up throughout Mexico as skilled panaderos (‘bakers’) went on adopting a variety of French techniques in making dough – and though much of pan dulce resembles French pastries, their flavour and texture are often different because they contain margarine or lard instead of butter (Palmerin 2012:869) thought I think butter is now more popular than margarine with some recipes at least in home cooking! Mexican panaderos then added Mexican ingredients such as corn flour, piloncillo (‘raw sugar cane’), chocolate and vanilla as well as native fruits (pineapple, guava) and native vegetables (sweet potato, pumpkin).

The Mexican panaderos created new bread designs in playful shapes and in a variety of dough and textures, bearing colourful names usually associated with their appearance – e.g. marranitos (‘piglets’), conchas (‘seashells’), moños or corbatas (‘bowties’ or ‘neckties’), ojo de buey (‘ox eye’), bigotes (‘moustaches’), canastas (‘baskets’), chinos (‘Chinese’), polvorones (‘shortbread’) or espejos (‘mirrors’).

La Virgen de Guadalupe_Teotitlan del Valle

Pan dulce is not only sold daily at panaderías or at bread stalls on local markets but stalls are also set up for all sorts of events, festivals and celebrations – e.g. above at the celebration of the La Virgin de Guadalupe (12 Dec) in Teotitlán del Valle in the Oaxaca Valley.

Different types of pan dulce

It is estimated that there are between 500 and 2000 types of breads and pastries being produced in Mexico. The most commonly found varieties of pan dulce are the following (for pictures of each type identified by names see Willamette Week or La concha bakery or The Bread Factory):

besosBesos (‘kisses’) – A beso is made of two round domes ‘kissing’ each other through a thin layer of jam (strawberry or pineapple) sandwiched in between and coated in granulated sugar. Besos are popular on holidays such as Valentine’s Day, but they are also eaten, like other pan dulce, at breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Recipe.

churrosChurro (‘fritter’, ‘doughnut’) – A churro is a deep-fried dough pastry, introduced to Mexico by the Spanish but became very popular there, with its local variations of being filled with dulce de leche (‘milk caramel’), in Mexico called cajeta (a confection of thickened syrup made of sweetened carmalised goat’s milk), but also with chocolate (churro con chocolate) and vanilla custard (churro con lechecilla). They also appear as plain (churro naturales), just rolled in sugar and cinnamon. They are best to eat hot, dipped into chocolate. The pastry is piped into hot oil from a churrera, a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle, in order to make long sticks. My article on churros here. Recipe.

Conchas (‘seashells’) – Conchas are one of the most widely recognised Mexican pan dulces, whose name is taken after its shape of a shell. The concha is a slightly sweet roll with a shell-patterned topping made from the traditional sugar crust pastry (pasta) – a mixture of white flour, sugar and butter (sometimes added with cinnamon or chocolate). Recipe.

La Virgen de Guadalupe_Teotitlan del Valle_cono de nieve_whiteLa Virgen de Guadalupe_Teotitlan del Valle_cono de nieve_yellow Cono de Nieve (‘ice cream cone’) – In my opinion, a translation used by La Concha Bakery should be ‘snow cone’ as the word nieve means ‘snow’, while ‘ice-cream’ is helado in Spanish. As Pera Chapita explains, the cones are a kind of cupcakes, with cake-mix, decorated like ice-cream. But the recipe is not the real thing, as the cone ought to be more like a crispy croissant dough rolled in the shape of a cone and filled, if I believe La Concha Bakery, with Bavarian cream. I was not able to find any further information on this type of pan dulce nor a ‘real’ recipe, but it seems that cono de nieve is very similar to what is known as Cream Horn – as in the recipe from Natasha’s Kitchen that shows a beautiful demonstration of the cones being made with flaky or puffy pastry filled with whipped cream. The horn shape is made by winding overlapping pastry strips around a conical mould. The pastry can also be moistened and sprinkled with sugar before baking for a sweeter and crisper finish. My Spanish teacher tells me that this type of pastry is known in Oaxaca as barquillo (‘wafer’) – the first photo shows Barquillos con turrón, while the second Barquillos con lechecilla – though the pastry undeniably resembles the process from Natasha’s Kitchen. But not to confuse, there are two types of Spanish turrón, the harder one (the better known) and the softer one (meringue) – for this pan dulce, the softer version is used. I tried both from the pan dulce stall at the celebration of the La Virgin de Guadalupe (12 Dec) in Teotitlán del Valle and were extremely delicious. Recipe for pastry from Natasha’s Kitchen; for custard filling either lechecilla or Bavarian cream; and for white filling Meringue Buttercream de turrón or if difficult to find the ingredients, any recipe for soft meringue or even munchmallow.

panaderia_columba_cuernosCuernos (‘horns’) – Cuernos are made from a rolled pastry in the shape of a bull’s horn, similar to a French croissant but cuernos are not as rich. They are also topped with the traditional sugar crust pastry (pasta) – a mixture of white flour, sugar and margarine (butter). In some regions, like in Oaxaca, cuernos are also called Cuernitos dulces con pasta as in the picture from the panadería Columba. Cuernos have a rich tasting dough with elements of vanilla and cinnamon for flavour. Recipe.

Cuernitos (‘little horns’) – They are also known as Mexican wedding cookies. In Oaxaca, these biscuits are presented in fringed white tissue paper and given as favours to wedding guests. In the States, they are often called ‘snowballs’ as they appear in the shape of a ball. The recipe is similar to the Austrian version called kipfel (with walnuts or hazelnuts) or that of the Greek version called kourambiethes (with almonds). Traditionally, the Mexican version uses pecans, but also other nuts (including walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios) are used. The biscuits in all versions are heavily powdered in icing sugar. Recipe.

Elote or elotito (‘corn’) – It is a popular pan dulce, which gets its name from the word ‘corn’ because it looks like an ear of corn. It is made of cinnamon flavoured dough, filled with chocolate or other flavours, and covered with a generous sprinkling of sugar. Recipe.

Empanadas (‘turnovers’) – An empanada is a soft stuffed pastry pocket that typically comes with a variety of fillings depending on the region and season – most common fillings are apple, pineapple, coconut, guava, pumpkin, vanilla custard (lechecilla) and chocolate cream but there are other varieties with other fillings. In Oaxaca, these are also called Empanadas de Corpus Christi, as they are a speciality of the Catholic holiday of Corpus Christi on 7 June, prepared with fillings of lechecilla, pineapple and coconut. Recipes for sweet pastry dough, with chocolate and dulce de leche or apple cinnamon or lechecilla fillings. Recipe for a savory version with pumpkin, Empanadas de Calabaza, from Mexico in my Kitchen.

Galletas (‘biscuits’) – Panaderías generally make several types of galletas depending on the region, some in bright pink or covered with sprinkles. They are firm and crumbly and very popular indeed.

Molletes (‘cheeks’) – A mollete is a round roll that was originally made in Spain before it came to Mexico. In Mexico, it got transformed into a bolillo, a kind of baguette but shorter in length, which is then opened up to make different types of sandwiches or tortas. A bolillo is the most popular of all traditional Mexican breads. Both are in principle savory breads, but the sweet mollete is made by spreading butter over the bolillo and then sprinkled with sugar or honey and grilled until crisp. Recipe for bolillo and mollete.

Orejas (‘ears’) – A sweet, crispy and puffy pastry in the shape of an ear, very similar to the French palmiers. As the saying goes: ‘Lend him (or her) your brittle, buttery ear of bread, and you’ll hear whispers of sweet nothings on this special day.’ Oreja de Elephante (‘elephants ears’) is the same puff pastry as the oreja but with added cinnamon and pecans. Recipe.

Piedras (‘rocks’ or ‘stones’) – A pastry made of old bread and is known to be hard as a rock. It is eaten with very hot drinks. Recipe.

Puerquito or cochinito or marranito (‘little pig’ or ‘piggy’) – A cute little biscuit in the shape of a little pig is the basis of any panaderías. Its taste can be compared to gingerbread though neither ginger nor cinnamon are used to make the pastry. The traditional marranitos get their spicy-brown flavour from molasses or treacle (a by-product of the refined brown sugarcane). There are two types of puerquitos: the traditional crunchy type (recipe) and the modern soft type (recipe from Mexico in my Kitchen).

Yoyos (‘yo-yos’) – A pastry named after the yoyo toy and is shaped exactly like it but does not have the string. It has a filling, usually a raspberry jam. Recipe.

Unique breads in Mexico

With the invention of pan dulce in Mexico, other culturally significant breads were created in order to celebrate occasions and traditions, such as pan de muerto, buñuelos and rosca de reyes – only sold in panaderías a few days prior to, and during, these occasions. These special breads are part of the traditional customs that have been around for many centuries. The stories behind these breads derive from religious beliefs, predominantly from Roman Catholic Church, though pan de meurto may show some links to the Aztecs tradition.

pan_de_meurto Pan de muerto (‘bread of the dead’) – A pan de muerto is a celebratory bread that is offered (ofrenda) and consumed, either at home or at the graveyard, as part of Día de los muertos celebration (1–2 Nov). It is a sweet egg bread decorated variously either with a cross of bones or skeletons or little figures representing the departed soul (difunctos or difunctas). The latter (as shown in the picture) is very popular in Oaxaca where it is called pan de yema oaxaqueño. The history of pan de muerto is a complex one –  one the one hand, it goes back the conquest years when the Spanish added the bread into the ofrenda as a replacement for the Aztecs rituals of human sacrifice, while on the other hand, it brings forth the Aztecs tradition of making figurines out of a paste called tzoalli (amaranth mixed with tamale dough). These moulded figures of certain deities, some of which were linked to death, were used in celebrations and ceremonies. Also, the tradition of placing food as offerings on the tombs of the deceased goes back to the Aztecs rituals. More on the history of pan de muerto soon. Recipes for pan de muerto from Allrecipes or Mexico in my Kitchen and for pan de yema.

Buñuelo – A buñuelo is a wheat-based yeast dough, a kind of large flat tortilla or fritter – it is thinly rolled, cut into individual pieces and shaped into disks, then deep-fried in order to become crispy and light. In Mexico and other Latin American countries buñuelo is often sprinkled with icing sugar, or with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar or honey or most famously dipped into hot sugarcane syrup (piloncillo). It is sold at fairs, carnivals, and Christmas events such as Las Posadas. In Oaxaca, it is a tradition that you break the clay plate making a wish after you finish eating the buñuelo. This tradition is said to spring from a pre-Hispanic festivity in which all the dishes were broken at the end of a calendar cycle. Recipe with piloncillo from Mexico in my Kitchen or with cinnamon and sugar from FoodNetwork.

DSC_0401 Rosca de reyes (‘kings’ cake’) – A rosca de reyes is a celebratory bread, which is symbolic in many ways ­– its round shape signifies the crown of the Reyes Magos (‘The Three Kings’) as the bread is eaten on the Three Kings Day (6 Jan), twelve days after the birth of Jesus Christ. On the story of rosca de reyes and how it is shared among your family and friends see my article in which I shared my rosca de reyes with José’s family while in Oaxaca. Recipe from Mexico in my Kitchen.

My list of pan dulce will certainly grow as I ‘waggle through’ my two books on desserts I have proudly acquired while reasearching this article on pan dulce. The books will certainly help to make my journey to Oaxaca and to my friends there being closer!

===

Sources

Flores, Joseluis, Dulce: Desserts in the Latin American Tradition (Rizzoli, 2010)

Kennedy, Diana, Oaxaca al gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (2011)

La Monarca Bakery, 2011

Palmerin, Stephanie in Maria Herrera-Sobek (ed), Encyclopedia of Latino Folklore, ABC-CLIO, 2012, pp. 869–870

MEXICO Project: Mexican cuisine: Churro

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 29/10/2013

While I was researching my article on pan dulce (‘sweet bread’), also known as Mexican pastry, I noticed that a churro is never mentioned as a type of pan dulce. According to this encyclopedia article, the Mexican churro is considered as a cross between a dessert and a savory food because salt is added while kneading the flour – not being an expert, it seems an odd explanation since salt is added to most of pan dulce recipes I have been looking at. My explanation would be that rather than being baked, churros, like buñuelos, are always deep-fried. Deep-frying food is not what one might consider healthy, but since yesterday was a miserable Sunday afternoon in London (with a severe warnings of the worst possible wind storms since 1987) and since today is a year from my departure (flying over the hurricane Sandy) to Oaxaca where I discovered my ‘perfect’ snack, it seemed like a ‘perfect day’ (in the words of Lou Reed, R.I.P) to indulge myself with extra calories, why not!

churros

The context for churro

A churro, sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut, is a deep-fried dough pastry. Principally, the dough consists of five ingredients: water, oil, four, sugar and salt. The pastry is piped into hot oil from a churrera, a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle, in order to make long sticks. Churros are fried until they become crispy and golden brown.

In Mexico, churros are normally eaten for breakfast dipped in hot chocolate or coffee, but also as a snack throughout the day. Churros can be bought at panaderías (‘bakeries’), which traditionally sell pan dulce, but the most common way of buying them is at the corner of a street, where street vendors fry them freshly and sell them hot.

Origins

There seems to be two different theories with regard to the origin of churros. The first one claims that the Portuguese sailors brought new culinary techniques from the Chinese Ming Dynasty on the Iberian Peninsula, including the dough for youtiao (‘Chinese doughnut’). The Spanish learnt how to make it from their neighbours – it was then modified by adding the sugar and introducing the star design.

The second theory claims that the dough was invented by nomadic Spanish shepherds living in the mountains cut off from the world with no access to bakeries. The churro paste was easy to make and cook in frying pans over the open fire. This theory seems credible as there exists a breed of sheep called the ‘Najavo-Churro, which are descended from the ‘Churra’ sheep of the Iberian Peninsula – the horns of these sheep look similar to churros.

Churros gained popularity because of its simplicity in the making process.

Variations

In Spain, there are two types of churros: one which is thin (and sometimes knotted or curled) and the other which is long and thick (porra). Porra is fried in the shape of a continuous spiral and cut into portions afterwards.

Although introduced to the New World by Spain, churros are very popular in Mexico as well as in other Latin American countries, where they come in many local variations. In Latin America, churros are thick sticks and often filled. The Mexican churro is filled with dulce de leche (‘milk caramel’) – in Mexico it is called cajeta (a confection of thickened syrup made of sweetened carmalised goat’s milk) – but also with chocolate (churro con chocolate) and vanilla castard (churro con lechecilla). Chocolate and vanilla, of course, come from Mexico. It also appears as plain (churro naturales), just rolled in sugar and cinnamon (churro con azúcar y cañela).

Method

Advice

I followed the recipe from Allrecipes – I recommend the recipe as my churros were very delicious. But whatever recipe you decide to follow at the end – some even use butter and eggs though my Oaxacan friend tells me that these two ingredients are not used there – there are a few things to remember, the information of which you do not normally get from online recipes:

1. The thickness of the churro depends on the width of the nozzle attached to a churrera (‘syringe’). I was rather surprised that my churros came thinner than expected as I used the nozzle for piping icing for cup cakes. See video.

2. Also, I was also hoping that my churros would come out straight like those I remember from Oaxaca. I subsequently read that churros in Spain are thinner, can be knotted, twisted or curled. So, I was doing alright – they were home-made after all.

3. I managed to destroy two disposable pastry bags before I accomplished the task! The first one burst open with a big surprise – luckily, I prevented the dough from falling into a pan full of hot oil on time – in my opinion, the dough should be left to cool down first as my dough must have been too hot.

4. The length of churros should be in relation to your frying pan. If you want them straight, don’t pipe them too long, as they are bound to curl. They are still soft when taken out of the pan for a few seconds and can be straightened before they harden if you can find the method without burning your fingers!

5. Also, fry only a few churros at any time. They will stick together otherwise.

6. I used kitchen scissors to cut each churro before it wiggled like a snake into the hot oil!

7. The recipe is set for 4 servings – a measure of 1890 ml of oil for frying is suggested. Beware, if you change serving to larger than 4, the quantity of oil will change too! However, even if the quantity did not change no matter for how many servings it is used at the end, the suggested quantity is too high. The pan I used measures circa 25 cm in diameter, which is by no means a standard size for any domestic deep-frying. For that size you do not need more than 1 liter of oil (it can then be recycled for 3 deep-frying sessions if sieved back to the bottle when the oil is cooled down). Check Nigella if not sure.

8. The temperature of oil in the frying pan should be set at around 180º C if you have a food thermometer. Nigella says that the temperature should be 170º C, while churros are ready in 30 seconds to be taken out. Allrecipes says 190º C and fry until golden. I judged it on the principle of an eye – I dropped a piece of dough into the oil and waited until it sizzled (at this point my thermometer read the temperature as 180º C). It took about 1 min each time for churros to become golden brown. You really need to work it out for yourself. Some may come out browner than the other but will still taste good.

churros_ingredients

Ingredients for dough

For 4 servings:

235 ml water

30 g white sugar

3 g salt

30 ml vegetable oil

125 g flour

1 liter of oil for frying

Ingredients for coating

100 g sugar

2 g cinnamon

Instructions

1. Place sugar, salt and oil into a non-stick metal pan containing water. Bring to boil, then remove from the heat entirely.

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2. Slowly add the flour to the water mixture. It is probably best to sieve the flour first in order to reduce lumpiness – use the whisk to make sure the dough is not lumpy.

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The dough should be slightly soft, formed into a ball and sticky to touch.

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3. Leave the dough to rest for a while until cool (at least 10 mins) before it is placed into the pastry bag. Choose the width of the nozzle depending whether you prefer churros thinner or thicker.

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4. Heat 1 liter of oil in a frying pan (circa 25 cm in diameter) until the temperature of the oil is around 180 ºC.

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5. Pipe the strips of dough into the hot oil using scissors to cut the pieces. Fry until golden brown and crispy.

6. Drain well on the kitchen towel before churros are rolled in cinnamon and sugar mixture.

churros_sugar and cinnamon

¡ Buen provecho!

MEXICO Project: Typographic Mexican cuisine

Posted in Craft, MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 16/01/2013

This typographic stitching artwork titled Espagueti con chile poblano was inspired by one of my favourite dishes I had in Mexico. It comes from Angela’s kitchen at Arquetopia. The dish is called Spaghetti with creamy roasted chile poblano sauce (Espagueti con Salsa Cremosa de Chiles Poblano). Her recipe can be found below. Provecho!

Andreja Brulc_Espagueti con chile poblano

Ingredients
1 pack of spaghetti (250g per 2 servings if a main dish)
4 medium size fresh green chile poblano, without skin and seeded, roasted (picture below with 3 poblanos only)DSC_0258
1 tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil
1 Philadelphia cheese
1/2 cup of milk
3/4 cup of thick (double) cream
1 large onion, finely chopped after cooked with spaghetti
1 large garlic clove or 2 small ones
butter for onions
other herbs and spices to taste (pepper, salt)

Notes
– In Mexico, this dish is traditionally made with spaghetti, but other pasta can be used instead.
– The dish can be served with a grilled chicken breast and salad. In this case, the above ingredients are sufficient for 4 servings.
– Some recipes used chicken stock, while Angela’s recipe uses only salt to taste, added at the end.
– Instead of an ordinary thick cream (double) you can also use sour cream or cream cheese.


Instructions

1. Add spaghetti to a boiling water containing salt, onion and oil. When soft, remove from heat. Drain and set aside until the sauce is ready.
2. Roast the cleaned chillies in a flat pan (comal), so that the shell can be removed when rinsed in water. Remove the seeds. Alternatively, instead of roasting the chillies in the flat pan, place the cleaned peppers directly onto the flame of the burner on the cooker. Then let the skin char slightly making sure you turn them to have an evenly roasted skin. Then place the roasted pobalnos into a plastic bag or cover with a kitchen towel and let them sweat with their steam for about 15 minutes to loosen up their skin. Using a knife or your finger, remove the core of the pepper with the seeds and the veins. Clean under running water or with a paper towel.
3. Prepare the sauce by mixing the roasted chillies with milk, cream and Philadelphia cheese and blend until smooth.
4. Separately, fry the onion and garlic in butter in a larger sauce pan, and when gold, add the sauce to the pan.
5.Thicken the whole mixture by slowly simmering it for 10 minutes (low heat). Stir frequently.
6. Add the spaghetti to the thicken paste and salt to taste.
7. Served in a dish with cream if left over.

MEXICO Project: Things Found … By Accident / Mauricio Cervantes

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 16/01/2013

DSC_0090While walking along one of the streets of Oaxaca in the late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, I was captivated by this image I saw behind an opened ironmongery door of a Colonial house that led from the street first into a small room, behind of which the second opened door took viewer’s eye further into a perspective, into an overlit open space. The space displayed a skeletal arrangement of household furniture – ironmongery beds rusty from aging and chairs painted in orange-yellow, both of which were decorated with dried marigolds. The whole composition, heavily contrasted by a play of light and shadow, made me feel as if I was looking into a painting by Caravaggio. When speaking to the guard, the display turned out to be a site-specific project by Mauricio Certvantes, called El sueño de Elpis. The artist used the derelict town house to base his art installation as an intervention of space using local materials and colours. DSC_0091 DSC_0117DSC_0107

From the artist’s website, I can see that the marigolds (cempasúchil) were cut fresh at first for the display that opened last Nov. The flower is famously used in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations, so it was quite obvious from the start that the whole installation had very much to do with the passage of time and the beauty of death and transmutation (derelict house, decaying walls, rusty beds, marigolds that change their state from fresh to dry). This ‘art therapeutic’ garden contains, according to one article, other themes too: fear and hope, community and alchemy. DSC_0099 DSC_0130 DSC_0136 DSC_0109 DSC_0105DSC_0132

I was particularly interested by the drama of the whole space in terms of the light and shadow, the use of typical Oaxacan colour scheme and how these colours were casted into the space by the late afternoon light. DSC_0101 DSC_0119DSC_0123 DSC_0152 DSC_0148

One display especially draw my attention – the collapse of a pile of wooden beams into the architectural space. To me, the way the beams are displayed in a pile suggest a destructive force omnipresent in Oaxaca – the earthquakes – they are constantly felt in the city. I felt three in three months!DSC_0142

 

MEXICO Project: Christmas: The Three Kings and Rosca de Reyes

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 06/01/2013

DSC_0401Traditionally Mexican children do not receive presents at Christmas but on 6 January – on the Feast of the Three Magi/Kings (Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, or short, Día de los Reyes), which commemorates the visit of the Three Kings (Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar) to the Christ Jesus on the 12-day after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. During the days preceding the Kings, children write letters to them requesting their present. On the eve of 5 January, the figures of the Magi are placed in the Nativity scene. In some parts of Mexico, children traditionally leave their letter in their shoes by the doorway stuffed with a bit of hay to feed the animals (camels) on which the Kings arrive – when children wake up the following morning, their gifts appear in place of the hay. In other parts, children send the note in a helium balloon into the sky, in which they explain why they have been good or bad that year and the gifts they would like to receive if deemed worthy. Nowadays, like Santa Claus in the States (or Father Christmas in Europe) – a recent importation as some Mexican children receive presents from Santa Claus too – the Kings tend to leave their gifts under the Christmas tree. Also, for the Three King’s day, it is a tradition to eat a sweet cake (pan dulce) called Rosca de reyes.

Rosca de reyes

The cake is decorated with pineapple (piña) and figs (higo) (for recipe click here). Inside the cake a tiny plastic figure (el muñeco) of baby Jesus is hidden. The tradition of placing a trinket into the cake is very old. The baby Jesus, when hidden in the bread, represents the flight of Jesus from King Herod’s evil plan to kill all the babies that could be the prophesied Messiah. The person who gets the baby Jesus is considered as the godparent of Jesus for that particular year! He or she must take the figurine to the nearest church on 2 Feb, Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria). In Mexican culture, this person also has to organise a party and provide tamales and atole de leche or milk chocolate (chocolate de leche) for the guests.

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I found my Rosca being made in one of the houses on the Calle de Porfirio Diáz in Oaxaca – I could not resist the lovely cinnamon and orange smell that came out of the house onto the street, fruit or not! I ‘must’ have it! I was especially amazed by the large Rosca the women of the house had made for the party that was seemingly about to take place. The courtyard smelt delicious. I cannot wait to share mine with my Mexican friends this afternoon – I only hope that I do not get the baby Jesus in my piece as it will cost me too much to stage the party in London!

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Sharing the Rosca

Sharing the Rosca with your family, friends, neighbours or colleagues is really a fun and exciting way of socialising.

Everyone ‘fears’ to cut a piece from the cake containing el muñeco, except very young kids who are happy to have a toy to play! We all had a go after la comida, the main meal in Mexico that normally takes place around 3 pm. I was honoured to have the first go – of course, my hands were shaking! But, phew, I was lucky on my first go but only for a centimeter as the next piece contained ‘the thing’.DSC_0554 DSC_0555DSC_0571

It turned out, as I was told, that a commercially made Rosca (in the box, above) contains more figures that the traditionally homemade one. Also, the larger the Rosca the more figures it contains. The homemade Rosca I bought did not excel in the supply of figures as there were none but it surely did outdo the commercial one on the smell and taste.

Of course, after a few muñecos found in the pieces shared by my friends, it was bound to be my next turn to get one! And sure it was!

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MEXICO Project: Christmas: Las Posadas and Christmas Eve

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 06/01/2013

DSC_0224In Mexico Christmas festivities begin with Las Posadas (16-24 Dec) and end with Candelaria (2 Feb). While everyone can participate in Las Posadas in bigger towns such as Oaxaca (I witnessed the first posada of the Baslilica de la Soledad), in smaller towns they tend to be by an invitation only. I was lucky to have been invited to the 4th posada by the family of my Spanish teacher José in Tlacolula (a small town in the Oaxaca Valley), as his brother was chosen to host the posada for the night.DSC_0194

We arrived just before the night. The preparations for los posada have been going on for some days if not weeks! While most of the decoration was already swinging in the air projecting beautifully against the sky with a nearly full moon, I was lucky to able to see the making of the last, most vital, decoration – the construction of the wreath – for the front courtyard. Almost the entire family was engaged in the making of the wreath, which was incredibly entertaining and, for me, enriching at the same time. DSC_0201 DSC_0248 DSC_0247 DSC_0236DSC_0254

On the other hand, the rest of the family was busy in the kitchen preparing food and drinks as described below. José’s brother and sister-in-law run a family bakery (Panadería Columba), so many nice goodies were baked in a beautifully build adobe oven during the day for the party of at least 250 pilgrims.

Origin and Meaning of Las Posadas

Las Posadas (Eng. lodging) are a 9-day celebration of candlelight processions with a series of parties in a local neighbourhood representing 9 months of pregnancy of Virgin Mary. The procession re-enacts the Nativity (Navidad), that is, Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus Christ.DSC_0231

The procession has been a tradition in Mexico since 16th century, when the Mexican Catholic church combined its tradition with the December celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli by the Aztecs.

Re-enactment of Las Posadas

The procession of pilgrims signs Para pedir posada often accompanied by musicians. DSC_0269

Pilgrims carry candles and are often dressed taking up the role of Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the angels. Four children, dressed up as angels, carry the Nativity scene. The procession sometimes brings along a donkey (burro) to represent the donkey that brought Mary into Bethlehem. The first posada starts from a church of the local neighbourhood. For the first 8 consecutive nights, a different family – chosen by the lay committee of the local church that rotates every year responsible for yearly religious festivities and feast days – would host a posada. The owner first responds by a song refusing lodging until the procession is finally let in, symbolising the place where Joseph and Mary were allowed to enter. The children thanks to the owner. DSC_0283 DSC_0288 DSC_0290

The participants kneel in front of the elaborately constructed Nativity scene (usually made in clay and handed down from generation to generation), pray the Rosary and sing Christmas carols. DSC_0301 DSC_0297 DSC_0306 DSC_0305

Afterwards, depending on the budget of the host, the pilgrims are indulged by the party FOOD (tortas o media tortas con pasta de frijol y queso, tamales de dulce, buñuelos, pan dulce) and DRINKS (ponche, atole con leche). DSC_0262 DSC_0259 DSC_0267

Children break a piñata (usually in the shape of a star) to obtain treats. For the making of my piñatas as a Mexican Christmas symbol click here. DSC_0313 DSC_0323 DSC_0336

Adults occasionally have a party, but in most cases they leave for home with a plate like mine. DSC_0339

The Final Posada on Christmas Eve

The last – the 9th – posada culminates on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), when a manger, along with figures of shepherds, is placed into the crib. Once the Posada house is found, baby Jesus is put into the manger after which the families go to midnight mass (Misa de Gallo). Fireworks follow the church service to mark the beginning of Christmas. Afterwards, families go home to have Christmas dinner. Adults open their presents, while children break their piñatas. If a family is not too religious, it feasts first, then go to the Misa de Gallo.

A Mexican Christmas dinner is abundant and varied, with foods that range from tamales to turkey and Mexican hawthorn (tejocote). Traditionally, a stuffed turkey with fruits, roasted and served with mole poblano, is popular. For a full list of dishes for Christmas dinner including Ensalada de Buena Noche and recipes click here.

The Three Kings and Rosca de Reyes

Traditionally Mexican children receive presents on 6 January, i.e. on the Feast of Epiphany, when gifts are given by the Three Kings (Dia de los Santos Reyes). It is a tradition to eat a sweet cake (pan dulce) on Epiphany called Rosca de Reyes. For more information on Dia de los Santos Reyes, click my other post.

Candelaria

Candelaria (2nd February) marks the end of Christmas celebrations in Mexico. It is believed that on this day, Jesus was taken to the temple as a baby and was officially named. Mexicans engage in parties on Candelaria.

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Explanations of Food and Drinks

Tortas o media tortas con pasta de frijol y queso – Round or half-round buns (bolillos) or elongated buns (teleras) with re-fried bean paste and cheese.

• Tamales de dulce – A paste made from corn flour, lard of pork, carmine (red colour powder), nicuatole (a gelatinous dessert made from ground maize and sugar, traditional in Oaxaca) and raisins (pasas). It is wrapped in corn husk (totomozle) and then steam-cooked.

Buñuelos – A buñuelo is a kind of large flat tortilla or fritter, prepared with wheat flour and deep-fried in oil. It is sprinkled with icing suger and served with honey, sugar cane syrup, cinnamon or vanilla. It is a traditional Christmas dessert. In Oaxaca, it is a tradition that you break the clay plate making a wish after you finish eating the buñuelo. This tradition is said to spring from a Prehispanic festivity in which all the dishes were broken at the end of a calendar cycle.

Pan dulcePan dulce is a sweet bread. Recipe. On the history, and different varities, of pan dulce see my article.

• PoncheA non-alcoholic punch. You boil fruits in water and sugar and serve very hot. Fruits are Mexican hawthorn (tejacotes), sugar cane (caña), apples (manzanas), apricots (chabacanos), guavas (guayabas), raisins (pasas), sugar (azucar), cinnamon (canela).

Atole con leche – A non-alcoholic corn drink with milk and cinnamon. You first cook hard corn for a while, then take it to the mill, then sieve the paste through muslin, and finally cook it with milk and cinnamon. Delicious!

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! 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!

Happy_2013

H – frijol (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!

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

P – Catarina 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!

P – Tomatillo ( 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!

Y – Chile de arbol (literally translated as ‘tree chillies’ as the bush on which they grow 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 the hotter a burning sensation. I managed to get them into my eyes when taking photos – I cried!

2 – Habanero 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 for my book 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 [habanero 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 cervezzas afterwards and I was still in agony! The only good thing is that I now feel I am a veteran – I can eat anything with chillies and nothing will ever feel like that experience in Tolumn!

0 – Aguacate (avocado) – Well, no need to explain. Our favourite dish of all generations on our planet – guacamole dip – with tortilla chips accompanied by a bottle of cervezza. I will never forget the experience of the best-flavoured avocado I ever tasted in my life – it melted on my tongue like butter! The secret – it was freshly picked from a tree! Wow, double in heaven!

1 – Calabacín (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!).

3 – Maíz (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!

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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