Friday, December 02, 2005

Mexican Breakfasts

Marc's timely tomatillo posting had me pining once more for real Mexican food - we're just planning our next trip to Mexico. (Come to think of it, we're always planning our next trip there, mainly to visit Ol down in Chiapas but also to get that necessary fix of real Mexican food that's dismally lacking in Europe.) BTW it's been a brilliant year for tomates verdes here in Alsace too. I had a freak harvest this summer and autumn, all of them self-seeded from a load of compost cast carelessly over the herb garden last year. I managed to get most of them in before the recent frosts laid waste to them (and to my epazote, also self-seeded). They've gone into salsas, both raw and cooked, and a fabulously fragrant pipian verde, and they've helped to keep the yearnings at bay - at least till February when we're off again. We'll be in Mexico City for a couple of days, then we'll take ourselves down to Oaxaca and do breakfast the Mexican way.

Breakfast in Mexico can, in truth, be brilliant, or it can be a bit of a minefield. You have to rule out right away the desayuno continental served in modest hotels, consisting of boiled acorns (euphemistically called café americano), barely toasted Pan Bimbo and a smear of margarine. It would be an insult to dignify Pan Bimbo with the name ‘bread’. Flabby and sweet, it’s like a piece of warm flannel, designed for people who have no teeth and even less taste.

Once in Oaxaca, we take a deep breath, square our shoulders and remind ourselves that this is a coffee- and cocoa-producing country with some of the best bakeries in the world, a country where tropical fruits abound, the tortilla reigns supreme, where salsas are nothing to do with dancing and beans are de rigueur.

The city’s central food market on 20 de noviembre is a great place to begin. Long before we ever get near the mercado (which occupies two full blocks), nostrils develop a distinct twitch at the bewitching aromas of roasting cocoa beans, caramelised sugar, toasted almonds and cinnamon. We pause at La Soledad in Calle Mina to see (and smell) the beans being roasted, ground, liquefied and rendered to a paste successively with cinnamon, sugar and almonds. Then we choose between amargo (so-called ‘bitter’, though it’s achingly sweet), especial (sweeter still) and almendrado (with almonds and loads more sugar).

Ducking inside the market past the jeans, leather belts, pink plastic shoes and cockatoos we spot the rows of local women selling tablecloth-sized tortillas called clayudas and virginal white mounds of Oaxaca ‘string’ cheese. Some urge us to taste fried grasshoppers for a crunchy, spicy little early morning snack. Once inside, we blink to get used to the relative gloom. Gradually the serried ranks of comedores or dining rooms come into focus. Here people of all ages and sizes are starting on their first breakfast of the day.

A short, plump lady with jet-black braided hair and liquid brown eyes is whisking up the sweet, almond- and cinnamon-laden chocolate in a huge pan of milk. Backwards and forwards between her palms she rolls the handle of the characteristic chocolate whisk (which looks like a cross between a wooden spoon and a baby’s rattle).

The steaming chocolate, smooth and thick as velvet is served in deep soup bowls with pan de yema, a soft, sweet, yolk-laden bread for dunking. A young man with a huge wooden plank laden with more freshly baked breads balanced on his head sways into the next-door booth and lowers the plank gently and skilfully onto the counter without losing a single shiny golden bun. All around, the marchantas chant their litany of wares – chocolate con agua, chocolate con leche, café con leche, champurrado.

This is just a gentle breaking of the fast, taken early in the morning. Mexicans also do brunch (almuerzo) any time up until about midday. For this weadjourn to La Merced market a little way from the centre (ask any taxi driver). Inside the market at the Fonda la Florecita, a beaming waiter is ready to recite by heart the entire menu of brunch dishes. ‘If I’d been half as good at remembering stuff at school, I might have really gone places!’ he grins.

Mexicans take brunch seriously. First comes fruit – slivers of sunset-coloured papaya, half moon slices of ruby watermelon framed in lacquered green skin and flecked with shiny black seeds; yellow, red and green bananas ranging in size from a stubby finger to a positive paddle; or the delectable Manila mangoes, pale primrose-yellow with just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. With the fruit comes a saucer of brilliant green limes cut in ‘cheeks’ (never quarters, or slices) – for these the limes are placed stalks upwards and cloven into four neat pieces, leaving behind a central core of pith and pips.

Brunch revolves largely around the tortilla in any number of guises, shapes and sizes. We feast on empanadas stuffed with the silvery-black huitlacoche corn fungus, or with squash blossoms. Quesadillas are filled with the lightly acidic local white cheese that comes rolled up and wound round on itself like a ball of string. On the fierce heat of the clay griddle, the cheese inside the turned-over tortilla fuses gently with leaves of the pungent, bitter herb epazote (Mexican wormseed). With all of them there's the classic salsa verde or salsa mexicana.

Eggs Oaxaca-style are another option, gently scrambled into a tomato-based sauce with a terrific kick from shiny dried red chiles and flavoured with the ubiquitous epazote herb . In most Mexican regions, tamales are wrapped in corn husks; in Oaxaca they come steamed in fragrant banana leaves.

Thus fortified, we can move on to a day of archaeological explorations, or hop on the gas-fired minibus-special up over the sierra to the coast, or head south on the overnight bus to Ol in Chiapas.

Copyright Sue Style 2005


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