Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mexico City was a bit of an anti-climax

Not because I had a bad time, but I was constantly reminded, when faced with a menu item that needed explaining or an exotic piece of fruit, how spoiled I had been by having the expert companionship of Cristina and Judy for the last week or so.

It was also the point, about six weeks into this stage of the journey, that the travel demons of loneliness and fatigue began to win the battle over excitement and hunger.

So, although I certainly got out and about, I can’t possibly claim to have done Mexico City justice. I never saw The Pyramids, I did not visit a single museum nor indeed did I spend anywhere near enough time exploring Mexico City’s incredible past.

Despite that, I came away from Mexico City with fond memories. Primarily, because of the people who were helpful and welcoming and, of course, because of the food.

It will, I am sure, make those who knew me in my past life, laugh out loud when they hear that I arrived in Mexico City on a bus. I have always been the sort of person who decried the use of buses for the logical reason “they are used by the sort of person who uses busses”

So, when Cristina informed me that it was the best and cheapest way to get to the capital from Morelia, I had my doubts.

She was not wrong, of course. Mexico’s bus system is a marvel. It has to be given that they have no train services. It is efficient and quick and the buses and the stations remind you more of airports than the grubby coach stations I had been expecting.

Five and a half hours after leaving Morelia, I was flopped on the bed of my hotel. It really was that easy. If only all travelcould be like that.

After a welcome shower, I headed off to explore. My hotel was on Paseo De La reforma and close by to a large park and I spent the next couple of hours wandering around looking at snack stalls and the impressive buildings before tiredness hit me and I returned back to the hotel for an early night.

If I can often be accused of neglecting the cultural side of the cities I visit on the EAT MY GLOBE trip, the same cannot be said of the markets. They really are one of the best ways of understanding any society ( the others, in case you are wondering, are TV ads and Porn) and the markets of Mexico City are a thing to behold.

Daddy of them all is the astonishing Mercado Mercede situated in the rough and ready Avenida De Salvador area of the city.

My hotel advised me to get a taxi there, not because it was unsafe because of its location, more because of the distance from X to Y. I decided to walk figuring that, if I was not going to spend time in Museums, walking a fair distance would at least give me chance to see some of the buildings and some of the local people doing what local people do.

It was not such a great distance, a few miles at most, but it certainly gave me the chance to see Mexico’s inhabitants doing what they do.

The market is way outside the normal environs of the tourist and the streets surrounding the food market are swamped with stalls selling just about anything you can imagine from videos where Animals were the stars (and I don’t mean as in the Lassie films) to electronic items and clothing. It also seemed to be home to the majority of Mexico City’s pimps, hookers and pushers.

Despite that, I did not feel in anyway threatened by the surroundings and reached the market about an hour or so after leaving the hotel and I even experienced some smiles from the prostitutes that I think were genuine rather than an attempt to see what I keep hidden in my fashionable Lurex posing pouch.

Cristina had told me that the market was remarkable even compared to The Abastos in Guadalajara. It was. In fact, it was probably the most astonishing market I have seen on the whole trip ( and I am writing this now some two months later) It would be hard to imagine anything that was not on sale here. Fruits and vegetables towering over you in piles that threaten to topple at any moment, meat and fish in variety and amounts that I had not seen before or since and, of course, the constant whirr of machines making tortilla, the staple of every meal in Mexico and sold by the bundle load.

Despite the hustle and bustle of the market, people still had time to smile, offer tastes and allow me to take pictures. They seemed genuinely bewildered by the sight of a bald European walking around with a camera and a big smile on his face but equally pleased to let me get up close and see what they were doing.

By lunchtime, the sights and smells had made me extraordinarily hungry and I decided to take up another piece of advice from Cristina and head to Azul Y Oro, a restaurant situated way at the end of the Metro line in the campus of Mexico city’s university.

The metro system in Mexico is pretty extensive, incredibly cheap and very efficient. So, within an hour, I was on the shuttle bus that went from the station to the cultural complex of the university.

Azul Y Oro, may be in an unlikely setting but it has an astonishing reputation. The chef, Ricardo Muniz, is the author of “The Culinary Dictionary of Mexican Food” and has been widely featured in magazines all over the world.

I began simply with a light soup of cilantro and crema, which was standard enough but served to prepare me for one of the other great tastes of my trip. The Polo Con Mole, chicken (either breast meat or, much better, leg and thigh meat) served in a glistening pool of shining sauce made from umpteen ingredients including chilli and dark, smokey, cacao.

The taste of mole is hard to describe. I had probably only experienced one deserving of the name once in that brief moment when London went through a phase of opening up “authentic” Mexican restaurants, which were nothing of the kind. I had even tried to make one myself but ended up with a frighteningly red, if not unpleasant sauce that was as Mexican as Anthony Quinn.

Here, at Azul Y Oro, I had an epiphany. The initial taste of the sauce is sweet and smokey with a hit of chilli. You think that is it. Then the sauce opens up to reveal layers of flavour like the package in a game of pass the parcel.

The chicken it surrounded was fine, but a sauce like this could be laded over dead dog and it would still be good. The restaurant was empty on a quiet Monday lunchtime, and I was not under the watchful scrutiny of the staff, so I took the opportunity to pick up the plate and lick it clean. My mother would have been so proud.

The waiter, when he came to collect my plate seemed not put out at all that the plate was almost totally clean. I suspect it happens all the time.

That was about it for Mexico City. In the next couple of days, I just mooched and ate. I went to El Refugio for a meal that seemed to consist entirely of cold pig skin

and to Casa De Pavo (turkey) where I tried another mole this time slathered on top of slices of turkey. It was good, but it was not close to that at Azul Y Oro.

On my last day, I decided to have an early night. I was exhausted from a day of walking and from six weeks of travelling. My body was bursting out of my clothes increasingly tight clothes and I felt, in the words of Paul Simon “weary to my bones”

I also had a flight the next morning to Buenos Aries which meant I had to leave the hotel at 5am.

As I sat on my bed and finished off my notes for that portion of the trip, I decided that, at the end of EAT MY GLOBE, I would treat myself to a holiday. Yes, Yes, I know. I will have been travelling for over a year by then but, if you have gleaned nothing else from these pages, you will at least acknowledge that it is pretty hard work and the constant flitting from place to place is a wearying, if fun way to see the globe.

I promised myself that, at the end of the journey, when the manuscript was handed into my publishers and when I had settled what was going to happen in the rest of my life, I would have one last adventure, choose one country of those I had visited and spend more time exploring it in depth.

There were a few countries on the list. At the top, I scrawled MEXICO in large capitals.

Since then, I have been to another eight or so countries and I still have found no reason to take it from the top of the list. I will be back.

Next stop, Buenos Aires

Thursday, February 21, 2008


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.

Friday, February 15, 2008


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