MEXICO: SIN MAIZ NO HAY PAIS
We were heading off to Morelia. But, before we get there I want to talk about one of the top ten tastes of the whole trip of EAT MY GLOBE so far and, I am sure it will come as a bit of a surprise to find out that it does not involve meat in any way whatsoever.
Cristina and Judy mentioned that, before we set off on the drive to Morelia, some five hours away, they wanted to visit another market. In part to look for clothing, but more because they wanted me to eat a Shrimp Cocktail.
Now, I am actually rather fond of your prawn cocktail. Well, I am fond of the UK version when made well with small sweet prawns on crisp lettuce with a good gloop of a frighteningly pink Marie Rose sauce. I am considerably less fond of the US version with its bright red sauce, which they try to beef up by liberally dosing it with horseradish. So, I was more than keen to see what the Mexicans could come up with.
Well, what they came up with was so good I have been dreaming about it ever since. Simple in construction, but achingly fresh and with a zippy bite that makes every nerve ending in your mouth seem as if it has been asleep for the last twenty years.
Served in a glass normally reserved for an ice cream Sunday, it comprises a few large, meaty shrimp doused with a thin tomato juice that is spiked with chilli, ice, cilantro and a hefty amount of lime juice.
The shrimp disappeared in quick, joyful chomps leaving me to spoon out the liquid, which could make even the most jaded palate want to whistle a happy tune. It really is that good.
While Cristina and Judy went to do some shopping, I spent a happy hour or so mooching, looking at large slabs of pork rind and haggling with stallholders over DVD’s before we met up again and headed off towards Morelia.
It is a long drive which could have been made shorter by use of a toll road, but we all agreed that it would be much more fun to take the free route which would pass by some more pleasant scenery. More importantly, it would bring us in touch with another of Cristina’s favourite restaurants, Carnitas Aeropuertos.
Now, I think it is fair to say that Cristina had my number from the start. She knew instinctively that, while I may well fall under the spell of a piece of glorious seafood in the short term, my life is truly predicated on eating meat and lots of it. She suspected, for this reason that Carnitas would be right up my colon. She was not wrong.
Another feast of meat, as pork is cooked braised and then roasted before being served, you guessed it with tortilla and salsa.
Cristina hustled the staff gently into giving us some of their staff aprons and I was thrilled to be able to don mine and go and stand by the counter where the meat was being chopped for a photo opportunity.
The owner, or at least I think it was the owner, found this all rather amusing and handed me his huge chopper to hold (no sniggering at the back) to add a bit of realism to the whole thing. It would be fair to say that I was a very happy bunny. The apron still hangs with great pride in my kitchen next to my “Burn Rate” apron snaffled from my chums at The American Royal in Kansas City.
By the time we reached Morelia, it was already dark and Cristina and Judy deposited me at my hotel with a promise to collect me the next morning.
The hotel, Casa de Loma turned out to be one of the nicest of my stay and one of the beguilingly charming staff helped me lug Big Red up three flights of winding stairs before showing me to a truly lovely room decked out in colonial Mexican stylings.
After a long day, I did not have much energy to stray too far nor, after two memorable meals, did I have too much appetite. So, I just headed into the town for a stroll in time to see the locals coming out in force for their evening paseo around the small, but beautiful city centre.
Cristina and Judy collected me bang on schedule the next morning and we headed out to see some more of the city and to take the opportunity to see more of the astonishing offrenda being created for The Day of The Dead.
They really are stunning with the marigolds of orange and blue combining to incredible effect in bursts of colour all over the city. They also introduced me to the Pan De Muertes, the bread cooked specially for the occasion.
On the EAT MY GLOBE journey to date, people had really gone out of their way to find interesting ways of showing me what their local food was about. Cristina was no different. At each turn she and Judy came up with ingredients of which I had never heard, tastes I had never experienced and memories I shall never forget.
Supper that evening was a perfect example. Cristina said we were going to church. That didn’t particularly phase me, I had, after all spent a good chunk of my youth thinking I was going to be a priest and I rather like churches. But, when she said that it was for a meal I had visions of us stealing a few communion wafers and eating them in the back of the car washed down with a few stolen glugs of altar wine.
Instead, what I found at The Church of The Immaculate Conception was a Kermesse A buzzing local food court originally set up by locals to raise money for the building of the church and now, so successful if had become a regular event.
After we had bought a batch of vouchers we headed off to make our selection from a huge range on offer, taking as our guide the old adage that the stalls with the longest queues must be the best.
By the time we finally settled down to eat, we placed in front of us everything from quesadillas, tamales and enchilada washed down with large glasses of frescos.
I am not going to lie to you. Food in Mexico is not always the prettiest to look at, particularly when I am taking the photographs and it is never going to win many awards for subtlety, but it is seldom anything other than damn tasty and here, where locals bustled around bubbling fryers and spitting grill pans was some of the best I had in my whole time in Mexico.
In the next couple of days including The Day of The Dead itself, Cristina and Judy continued to be the best hosts imaginable, generous with both their time and their local knowledge. For someone coming fresh to this exciting country, it made a world full of difference as I tried to understand what makes Mexico tick through my chosen prism of food.
They also helped me see beyond the food to other aspects of Mexican life and I could see why Cristina was so keen for me to be in Morelia for The Day of The Dead when we went to visit the cemetery in Tzintzuntzan
Cristina, obviously managed to find a space directly opposite the graveyard despite the fact that half of the state of Michoacan was out in force in the same neighbourhood. We strolled in to the cemetery and our respectful admiration of the shrines to the recently and not so recently deceased were welcomed by the locals.
A small impromptu, open air service was being held at one end of the plot and I have to admit to shedding more than one tear as these deeply religious remembered their loved ones with prayers and simple hymns.
On my last afternoon in the city and, sadly my last afternoon in the company of Cristina and Judy, they invited me to their delightful house a few blocks from my hotel. There, Cristina introduced me to yet one more Mexican dish, Chilaquiles, made from eggs, day old tortilla and chillies.
It proved to be a perfect dish for a perfect brunch and the perfect full stop to my time with two people whose enthusiasm for their adopted home I can still feel now. Their passion for Mexico literally burst out of them with a fire that is infectiously childlike.
I could not have found better guides to this new (to me) and remarkable place
My next stop was Mexico City the thought of which filled me with great excitement. But, I have to admit that I was also filled with a surge of disappointment that I would not be seeing it through the eyes of my two new friends.
It was a disappointment that was hardly softened, even by my last meal in the city of take out barbecued rabbit with a slab of pork rind. That tells you just how disappointed I was.
I hope they will be pleased to hear that the nearly 1000 pictures I took of the places the showed me and the food they introduced me to on that portion of EAT MY GLOBE, are the ones I have returned to most of all when I am reliving some of my many incredible memories.
Next stop Mexico City.