MEXICO: SIN MAIZ NO HAY PAIS
Guadalajara really is a lovely city
When I awoke early the next morning to the sounds of a couple having wild monkey sex in the room next door, I decided to get straight out of bed and head out to explore as I had not planned to meet up with Cristina and Judy until midday.
I spent a very happy few hours walking around the city with its alleyways and squares before the pangs of hunger began to bite and I needed to find some food and find it fast.
I found myself by a small central market where a range of stalls selling everything from seafood to local honey surrounded more stalls selling crowds of hungry locals an early breakfast.
There was almost too much choice with tamale looking an odds on favourite for brekkie until I came on a small stand that had a large sign saying “Tacos De Tripa” The decision was made for me.
I love tripe in just about every form I have ever had it served. From my old hometown in Rotherham where there was a shop which sold only two items, tripe and roast udder, to Spain where Callos is served in a spicy tomato stew. Let’s face it, tripe is always good.
It is even better when it is deep fried, as it was here and slivers of crunchy tripe were served on top of more warm tortilla for me to douse with lime and salsa before crunching down. I had eight of them, they were that good and they set me up for more of a walk before I headed back to meet Cristina and judy at the hotel.
Cristina had particularly suggested that I head to meet them at this time of year because it coincided with Day of The Dead an incredibly important date in certain states in Mexico. As soon as they collected me, we headed off to visit one of the temporary Tanguis, markets which are set up to sell a bewildering variety of things all associated with the festival.
Sugar snack in the shape of skulls, paraphernalia to decorate the Offrenda or shrines to the dead which appear all over the town, some of which are extraordinarily elaborate, models of skeletons known as Katrina and Katrines which are both macabre and strangely joyful and plenty of food.
I was particularly taken with a man cooking small cakes on a griddle. Cristina explained that these were Gordita De Nata, which as the name suggests are made with cream. We waited until the man began to make a new batch, as Cristina explained that they were at their best fresh out of the pan, and then bought three or four. They were every bit as good as Cristina told me and, despite the fact I was full from breakfast, I managed to snaffle far more than my fare share.
By all the laws of physics, I should not have been able to eat again, well ever, but after a pleasant couple of hours in the market, Cristina suggested that we all head to another of her favourite taco stands, this time to one specialising in tacos of battered fish. It was as packed as the day before and cars were queuing up to get next to it. I assumed that we would have to park up a little way away and walk back before joining the queue.
Cristina, however, is one of those people who, if you were kind, you would say has St Reversa Parallelo, the patron saint of parking looking over her shoulder. It does not matter how crowded a place is, how many cars are around or how unlikely it looks that you will get a space, Cristina never and I mean NEVER fails to find a space and so it proved as we glided with nonchalant ease into a space that just seemed to appear right in front of the crowded stand.
The tacos were just as good as the night before and this time, the taste of fresh battered fish was the result of chomping through a soft tortilla.
As you may have gathered, I was beginning to think that tacos were a very good thing indeed and, even after a decent supper at a high end local place later than that night, it was still the discs of flour tortilla topped with deeply flavoured chunks of meat or fish that made me break out into a smile every time I thought of them. It still does as I write this.
I have to admit to also breaking out into a big smile when I think of The Abasatos, the colossal market on the outskirts of the city which seems to cover innumerable city blocks and sells just about everything imaginable.
Cristina was very keen to show me all that it had to offer and, after more of my crunchy breakfast treats,we headed off to explore.
I have rapidly discovered something on this trip. I hate farmer’s markets or rather I hate the precious, up their own backside versions we have in the UK and USA where the concept of people growing and selling their own food to the consumer is treated like a ride at Disneyland and the price of the food is swelled up to he same point as the egos of many of the people who sell it.
But, real markets, not that is another matter and, on this trip, I am seeing some beauties. From those in South China where you can find everything from crispy skinned dog to the gasping heads of recently decapitated fish, to those in Finland where elk meat sits alongside achingly fresh seafood.
The Abastos is no different and, as Cristina and Judy showed me around and the hospitable stall holders offered tastes and allowed me to take pictures, I was simply knocked out by the range of what was on offer. Fabulous looking beef, more fish and seafood than I think I have ever seen, machines churning out fresh tortilla at a rate of knots that still struggled to keep up with demand. Slabs of pork rind, Jars of frescos sitting in ice, fruits & vegetables that I scarcely recognised, spices and herbs. You name it, The Abastos has it.
As we left, Cristina ushered me towards a man serving drinks from a small cart. He doled out a couple of cups of Tejuino a delicious drink made, almost inevitably, from corn. I had never tasted anything quite like it. It took me a while to decide if I actually enjoyed it or not. In the end, I came down on the positive side and slurped down more than my fare share as is often the case.
It is also often the case that wandering around markets makes me hungry. In this case, it made me ravenous and I was first to the car when Cristina suggested we head off to try her favourite restaurants, El Chololo which served what she considered one of the best versions of Birria in the city.
I had tried Birria before, well at least I thought I had. What I was served at El Chololo proved to me, if I needed more proof, that what we get in the UK is a pathetically ersatz version of the real thing.
What I got in London was a slab of lamb swimming in a thin broth. What I got at El Chololo was a mound of goat meat which had been cooked and then separated from its cooking liquor and grilled so it was crispy on top.
The cooking juices were then served as a soup to be flavoured with lime and chilli while the meat was topped with salsa and wrapped in tortilla.
Incredible stuff and, as Cristina, Judy, myself and tow friends of theirs enjoyed our meal we were serenaded by a local band of Mariachi. Cristina palmed the leader a few notes and requested a song.
Of course, it involved the words “Mi Corazon” It is illegal, I believe to have a song in Mexico that does not make a reference to a heart that is filled to bursting with love or, more likely, broken and battered from misuse at the hands of an uncaring lover.
This song, however also had another strand and, as the band cried out “Volver, Volver” which means, I think “come back, come back” I was already thinking of just when I could do that. Mexico has that effect on you. When you are there, you are already thinking about when you are next going to come back.
I have a friend of whom this is more true than anyone. So true in fact that she is now living there and working at a dream job making tequila. That night, Cristina, Judy and I had a quick drink at a famous local Cantina, La Fuente. We drank tequila, ate fried fish and listened to the band and the constant hubbub of the crowded bar.
After I returned to my hotel, I saw that the light on my old fashioned Bakelite telephone was flashing. The message was from my friend, Sophie, a stunning French woman who I had met in London earlier that year. She had been promoting her own Tequilla Calle 23 and, as she lived in Guadalajara, we agreed to meet up when I was in town.
Unfortunately, my arrival coincided with a business trip of hers and I resigned myself to the fact that we would not meet. The flashing light signalled a message saying she was back in town for one night and did I want to meet her for a drink
Where did she suggest? Cantina La Fuente. So, I found myself wandering back there in time to have a quick drink with her before they closed.
So, that was just about it for Guadalajara, the next day we were heading to Cristina and Judy’s hometown of Morelia. Before that, they would also introduce me to a dish that will rank in the top ten of everything I have eaten on the trip so far. But, more on that later