San Pedro Atocpan is a little town about an hour southeast of Mexico City, nestled in the foothills near Milpa Alta. It's actually closer to the state of Morelos than it is to the Centro Histórico, which is sort of crazy. I like it there. The town is quiet and charming, and some of the streets are cobblestone. I kid Crayton -- or am I kidding? -- that I want a country house there someday. Every year, San Pedro hosts a sprawling, colorful mole fair on the outskirts of town. This year I was finally able to go. The fair is worth a visit if you're in the city and don't mind the hike getting down there. San Pedro Atocpan's Mole Fair We arrived at 10 a.m., a little too early for the weekday. Most stands weren't open and the morning air felt too chilly for my flimsy sweater. Within an hour, things were bustling. Vendors sold clay pots, wool sweaters (bought one), embroidered wool ponchos and jackets, and a hearty, nutty drink called atole de novia, a mix of toasted red corn, cinnamon, hazelnuts and almonds. (I scribbled down the recipe and hope to give it a try once I'm in town for more than four days.) The mole lay in another huge section of the fair. (Tip: definitely bring walking shoes, because the roads are dirt and uneven.) Young people held out tastes of mole paste on plastic spoons, and plastic tubs overflowed with mole paste arranged in various artistic formations. One tub of mole was studded with what looked like Jordan almonds, and I asked the woman whether they came with the paste. She looked at me, sort of annoyed. "It's a decoration." More than a dozen pop-up sort of restaurants sold a variation on the same thing -- quesadillas made on blue, green and pink colored tortillas; mole with turkey, and in some cases, chile-rubbed rabbit. The stands' rustic, open-air look reminded me of the ones you see crossing over the mountains into Puebla. My friend Ruth and I ate breakfast and wandered through the fair, buying a few goodies but no mole since I already have too much paste at home. It was a great way to spend an afternoon. How to Get There The Feria Nacional Del Mole runs in San Pedro Atocpan through this Sunday, Oct. 28. It's located on the edge of San Pedro, just off the main road, on the right-hand side if you're driving south. (You can't miss it.) Driving there is easiest, but you could also take the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco and get a cab. My friend who lives in San Pedro told me yesterday (10-24-12) that the Milpa Alta pesero is temporarily out of service, because it struck a pedestrian a few weeks ago. To drive, you'd want to arrive to Xochimilco and take a right on the road that says "Milpa Alta" just after the Centro Deportivo de Xochimilco. From there you'd follow the Milpa Alta & Mole Fair signs all the way to San Pedro. Google Maps also has accurate directions.
In Mexico, you can't just use any old pot to make mole. The best moles, it's generally known, are scraped and mingled together in a clay pot, preferably one that fits an extra-large wooden spoon. The pots conduct heat well and the clay adds an extra touch of flavor. And in my foreign eyes, you cannot achieve the perfect mole moonscape without them. Barrio de La Luz, where artisans still make them almost entirely by hand. I learned about the the neighborhood during Puebla's International Mole Festival last May. A video had been filmed in one of the barrio's workshops and it traced the pot-making process almost from beginning to end -- from soaking the dirt and kneading it, to firing it in an oven. Watching the video gave me chills. (Here’s a link to the mole pot video -- you really have to watch it.) Last week when I was in Puebla to buy my chiles en nogada ingredients, I asked Rebecca if we could pop by the Barrio de La Luz to explore. We invited Alonso Hernandez of Mesón Sacristía to join us. He's one of my favorite Puebla gastronomic historians and one of my favorite people in general. We ventured out early one morning with Alonso leading the way. We stopped at a doorway clustered with glazed mole pots, and an older gentleman welcomed us as if it were common for strangers to show up unannounced. He led us down a hallway and into an open patio, where dozens of unvarnished and finished clay pots jugs lay in rows. This was a group workspace. Each artisan had his own small room to create, and they shared an oven. Rebecca and Alonso and I peered into each doorway and tried not to bother anyone. One man was making an incense holder, known as a sumerio, by candlelight. The pottery wheel squeaked with each push of the foot pedal. In the back, three men loaded up a deep oven, hoisting mole pots onto their backs. Alonso said the finished pots could feed 500 people. I eyed all of the mole pots longingly. I told myself that it was not really my time yet, that I had a gas stove that barely fit a 3 1/2 quart Le Creuset, and what was I going to do with a mole pot that fed 500? "Someday," I told Alonso and Rebecca, "I am going to have my mole pot in my backyard, and I'm going to have massive parties and feed everyone." They smiled at me. That day I learned something new about mole -- the love in this dish starts with the pot. Way before toasting and grinding and frying the chiles, and grinding the peanuts into powder, and charring the tomatoes until they turn into soft, mushy pulp, there is clay that was physically stepped on by human feet, kneaded by human hands and carried to an oven on a man’s back. The pot demands our respect, too.In Puebla, the birthplace of mole poblano, many cooks buy their pots in the
Puebla's International Mole Festival, I came home to Mexico City with stars in my eyes. I'd learned about mole and regional Mexican food from some of the top culinary minds in Mexico. I'd met some of Puebla's top chefs, and watched mayoras make foods from their pueblos. And there was the food outside the festival, in Puebla's markets and restaurants: cemitas stacked tall with shredded quesillo. The crispy crackery creamy guajolote, and the chipotle-guajillo soaked chancla. The little bowls of tart chipotle rajas everywhere. How had I not explored any of this before, living only two hours away? I'm already thinking about my next trip to Puebla to eat more and hang out with new friends. And of course, I'm looking forward to next year's festival. Seems like this one was a success. Here are a few last highlights of my trip:After two days of
How To Cook Everything books have more than a million copies in print. He's also fan of Mexico: Bittman has written about Mexico City woman chefs and the Condesa tianguis, and his columns occasionally include Mexican or Mexican-inspired recipes like tlayudas and Mexican chocolate tofu pudding. (The latter is insanely good with churros.) Last week Bittman was among three American speakers invited to Puebla's International Mole Festival. I snagged five minutes of his time, where he explained more about his love of Mexico. Q: When did you first start traveling to Mexico? A: I don’t know, 30 years ago. But seriously, really seriously, it’s been five years. In the past five years it’s become a priority. Q: Why? A: It should’ve been a priority all along. I saw the error of my ways. Look, you can’t go everywhere. It’s important for me to see as many things as I can see, globally. But my early loves were European and Asian cuisine, and I’d say I was first Eurocentric and then I spent a great deal of time in the late 90s/early 2000s traveling in Asia. I don’t have to apologize for this, but I mistakenly put Mexico not at the top of the list. But it’s worked out fine. It’s still here. Q: What first captured your attention in Mexico in terms of the food? A: It’s a really interesting question because the first couple of times I came here, I went to the Yucatán. Without being cruel, I would say that it ’s not -- the way Yucatecan cuisine is presented to visitors is not the best. Yucatecan cuisine is spectacular in its soul, but it’s very hard to find that. Very hard to find it. Because Yucatecan cuisine is Mayan cuisine, and what’s sold in most restaurants in the Yucatán is not that. But I only learned that recently. I think what really attracted me was street markets and street food in Mexico City. I have friends who’ve been kind enough to schlep me around and show me, probably starting eight or ten years ago. And I have been nowhere. Let me say, I know more about Poblano food than about anything else, and I don’t know anything about a lot of them. So I’m totally a real beginner. Q: Yeah, I was originally surprised to see your name on the list of speakers. I’d seen in some of your columns that you’d visited Mexico, but I didn’t know you had such an affinity that you’d actually come here to talk in Puebla. A: Well. I’d go talk in Bhutan where I’ve never been, because an opportunity to talk to a big audience is an opportunity to talk to a big audience. You just get there early enough to not be an idiot about the food. And I have to say I’m not an idiot about Poblano food. Q: You repeated yourself in your talk, when you mentioned innovation in Mexican food. You said twice that Mexican food does not need to be tinkered with. Why? A: Because it’s really good. I mean that’s an easy answer. How are you going to make this food better? By adding soy sauce? By adding more cheese? By what? By turning it into pizza? If someone's going to tell me I’m having a mole poblano pizza, that’s nice, but let’s not have that be a symbol of Puebla. What’s going to make it better? GMO corn and mass-produced masa is not going to make it better. For further reading, check out Mark Bittman's "The Minimalist" column in The New York Times or his books on Amazon.Mark Bittman, the New York Times columnist and cookbook author, is probably best-known for teaching people how to cook simply. His
International Mole Festival. Several chefs from the U.S. and Mexico -- including Rick Bayless, Marcela Valladolid, Patricia Quintana, Monica Patiño and Daniel Ovadía -- have been invited to talk about mole, its history and their experience with Mexican cuisine. Plus there's a tasting of moles and regional cuisine from all around Puebla. So far I've been really impressed with both the depth of the presentations, and the food. Yesterday Patricia Quintana and Eduardo Osuna talked about what exactly constituted a mole, and how it's deeply tied to Mexican ritual and tradition. Marcela Valladolid talked about her struggles and successes in being a bicultural chef and ambassador for Mexican food in the United States. Mark Bittman put Mexican food and its home-cooking traditions in a global context, and Rick Bayless gave a speech about what drew him to mole in the first place. The coolest thing, to me, was being surrounded by so much passion for Mexican cuisine. I wanted to jump up out of my chair and pump my fist at a few points. "Yes! Let's tell the world that Mexican food is not nachos and burritos! Let's all talk about our first mole experiences!" I told Crayton last night that I felt like I was among my people. I've mentioned before that Mexican food is so regional, and so closely tied to local communities that it's almost impossible to try regional foods without visiting the pueblos yourself. During yesterday's mole tasting, the organizers had gathered cooks from about a dozen municipalities all around Puebla. These women doled out specialties from their towns: moles, enchiladas, smoked pork ribs, cemitas, molotes, cheese-filled breads, chalupas, salsa with local hormigas. Visitors not only got to watch the food cook -- a big bonus for me, a girl who melts at the sight of a pot of bubbling mole -- but we also got to meet the women who made it, and ask questions about their recipes. The Mole Festival ends today, with another tasting (is it possible to top yesterday?) and talks from various Poblano and Mexico City chefs and researchers. I've already made my plans to go back to some of the smaller towns, and eat my way through them.I'm in Puebla for the next two days, attending the city's first
Fiesta de la Magdalena, Xico’s biggest yearly festival that celebrates the town's patron saint. Strands of papel picado hung between the streets. The town looked like it ran directly up into the mountains -- behind all the buildings, you could see them there in the background, covered in thick clouds. Before we could get to lunch at El Campanario, the restaurant I'd painstakingly chosen as my primary mole xiqueño experience, a woman on a side street waved us over. She was selling toritos, a milky drink full of a boozy, rum-tasting liquor. She gave us little shots through the passenger-side window: piña colada, strawberry, peanut, coconut. At this point I was loving Xico. Then, finally, we arrived at El Campanario for lunch. While we mulled over the menu, the waitress dropped off a plate of fresh corn tortillas, drizzled with melted lard and a scoop of chunky tomato sauce. We ordered a few of the house specialities: sopa xonequi, made with a wild green that grows in Xico, and of course the mole. Then the food came... The mole wasn't like anything I've ever tasted. It was much fruitier than the mole I'd tried at El Bajío, with these lingering hits of apple and banana and blackberry-ish chile ancho. And it had texture: you could feel the spices under your teeth. The last thing I got before swallowing was a sense of balance -- it was tangy, toasty, sweet, charred. I wanted to keep eating more, just to see what else I could detect. Thinking about it now, I should've tried to interview some of the restaurant staff to find out how they make it. Instead we left the restaurant happy, and off to wander Xico. We caught part of a procession as we were walking. There are several restaurants that specialize in mole xiqueño -- the ones that were on my list, but I didn't try, were El Xicoteco and El Mesón Xiqueño. If you're planning a trip and you want to eat well, I also found Karen Hursh Graber's MexConnect article on Xalapa, Xico and Naolinco super helpful. I'll post the rest of my Xico pictures in the next post!The first time I had mole xiqueño -- mole that's made in the style of Xico, a town in the state of Veracruz -- was at El Bajío in Polanco. I didn't know much about it, so I had expected something heavy and sweet, like a mole poblano. The dish ended up being more complex: delicately sweet like a slice of fruit, and slightly bitter, with hints of smoke and ash. When Crayton and I decided to take a trip to Xalapa, I told him we had to go to Xico. I really wanted to try this mole at the source. Roy drove us from Xalapa. Coffee plants and banana trees lined the road. We pulled over at a little factory that advertised homemade mole, and they gave us a scoop of paste stuck to the end of a tortilla chip. It was delicious -- a mix of chiles, spice and dried fruit. We entered Xico proper a few minutes later. We’d happened to arrive during the
I really, really wanted to close out The Week of Huauzontles with a spectacular new recipe. But then the weekend came around, and our friends Julie and John had a despedida, and then I got stomach sick, and then our friend Justin came to town for a few days. And next thing I know it was Tuesday. My original point with TWOH was to enlighten a few folks out there about this scruffy, nutritious vegetable. As the week wore on and I was eating The Huauz every day -- leftover from the massive one-kilo bunch I bought at the tianguis -- I ended up learning a fair bit myself. You can really eat huauzontles in just about anything -- salsa, queso, scrambled eggs. You can stuff it inside a chicken breast, roll it up and cover it with mole sauce, and it’ll be pretty fantastic. (Also, anything tastes good with mole.) You can add it to rice and chicken broth, to soothe a delicate stomach. And it freezes beautifully, a fact I figured out on accident, because my fridge has some frozen-spot issues. Those bitter huauzontle stems that I used to fear would ruin any dish really don't taste so bitter after all. Well, some of them do, but not the ones near the fluffy buds. I'll close out with a simple little recipe I found on the Internet, for huauzontle-stuffed chicken breasts blanketed in mole. It's perfect for when you have an extra cup of huauzontles lying around and a bag of mole in the freezer. (Two things that are quite probable if you live and cook in Mexico.) ...
Last week, in the spirit of Exploring Mexico Now That I Don't Have a Full-Time Job, Alice and I took a trip to Ciudad Universitaria to see UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. It's considered among the largest universities in the Americas, with nearly 200,000 undergrad and grad students enrolled this past school year. Can you imagine? The place is huge. They've also got a lot of really cool murals, and a new contemporary art museum called MUAC. (Which we reached by cab, because we couldn't figure out how to take the free university shuttle.) It ended up being a neat day trip, though. We saw the famous Central Library mural created by Juan O'Gorman (pic above), and we wandered around and saw kids playing ping-pong and studying outside on bean bag chairs. We stopped at a cafeteria for a snack -- a muy rico panela and avocado sandwich -- and then hit MUAC, which ended up being this giant, peaceful breath of glass and steel. We ate our real lunch at Café Azul y Oro, which I've been dying to go to. All the local magazines have hailed it as high-quality Mexican cuisine for a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere. I loved that the place was casual (paper napkins; no AC), and the menu creative -- my prehispanic corn-gelatin dessert was officially the highlight of the afternoon -- but I'm not sure I'd make a special trip, especially considering it takes me an hour to get down there. Definitely will eat there again next time I hit UNAM, though. Then hopefully then we can see the murals we missed, and the rogue auditorium that's been taken over by students. Lots of photos of UNAM, MUAC and Azul y Oro after the jump. ...