Tuesday, 21 August 2007

A Gastonomic and Historic Tour of Mexico City

Back in Melbourne, Barry booked us in for a tour of the historic centre of Mexico City that he saw advertised on the Internet, hosted by a chef and an historian, formerly partners in a well-known foodie's delight restaurant in Mexico City. So we turned up in front of the Cathedral in the Zocalo at 11.30 Saturday morning, looking for a group led a man in a guayabera (a shirt favoured in the tropics here and in other parts of Central America, loose fitting and with a pin-tucked front and many pockets, in this case holding a supply of cigars) and a straw hat. This was the historian, who conducted most of the tour, starting with an orientation to the early history of Colonial Mexico, the spice trade and the growth of various ports, trade routes and Mexico City's commercial history. I missed a good deal of his spiel due to my inadequate grasp of Spanish spoken so fast, but I also caught a fair bit of it, and Barry, my very own historian of Mexico, was able to fill me in and add more information.

We set off walking through the incredibly busy streets of the historic centre: those of you who have been in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi would recognize the bustle and incessant commercial activity and the crowds, though I think it is even more crowded than those streets are. It's also astonishing where they allow cars to penetrate, though some areas are closed to vehicles. But here the stall holders and mobile traders don't hassle you like they do in Bali. We had been directed to look at the architecture of the buildings, the facades, the construction materials, the scale of things etc. as we made our way through the streets to the oldest jugueria (juice place) in Mexico, founded in the 50's by the same family that still runs this little hole in the wall. They had a great idea in this land of tropical fruit, and now there are juice stalls everywhere: the prices are very low, a fraction of what a Boost Juice would cost you at home. What a shame for the proprietors that they never thought about franchising! We sampled some of their finest, heard from the owner about their history, and resumed our journey.

In this part of the city, whole streets are dedicated to particular trades - we passed blocks of fabric suppliers, ironmongers, plumbing supplies, kitchen goods, stationery, jewellery supplies, jewellers - and noted buildings from different eras, 18th and 19th Century facades, ex-convents, churches in the Chiguirriguesco style (Mexican Baroque, see photo), schools and former military institutions, some covering whole blocks. There were peaceful little squares hidden inside entrances, providing a wonderful retreat from the hubbub all around. We stopped and had another little lecture in one such patio at a former college, now an archive, where older prostitutes on the beat used to take a break, welcomed and befriended by an renowned old teacher there who was renowned for never missing a day 's work and never being late. When he died at a great age, they lit candles and raised a memorial fund for him. The recent City government of Lopez Obrador provided some housing as a refuge for aged prostitutes, an unusual form of social welfare.

The nuns were transmitters of much of the cuisine now renowned as Mexican, and pioneers in the use of the new spices and food products such as maize, tomatoes, corn and chile which the Spanish sent to Spain and the rest of Europe. Our chef, in a natty but pocketless hand-made white chef's shirt, was rarely without a cigarette or a cigar from the other guy's pocket. His Spanish , fortunately for me, was slower and clearer. He told us all about this specific gastronomic history and I found him much easier to follow. Maybe it's because I am more interested in food than in history per se?

A real highlight was a visit to the worker's food market, an area decorated with murals at each entrance representing the history of food and food transport, and the social history of Mexico, focussing on worker and peasant struggles against exploitation, particularly in agriculture and food production. The food hall itself is a bit run down (I liked the Spanish word he used, decadente) - it doesn't specialize in anything, unlike flower or fish markets, but has a full range of the produce you see all over. This includes chicken , which in Mexico is always yellow. I've asked about this - they either feed them marigold petals or some artificial colouring agent. I still haven't quite got over seeing chicken heads on display along with all the other parts. Also meat and chicharron, which is huge pieces of pork crackling, probably the skin of a whole side of a pig deep fried (see photo). Personally I gag at the thought, but it is sold on the street all over Mexico, both the real stuff and an artificial compound which resembles it, broken into small pieces and served on a plastic plate with chilli sauce, and it is very popular here. Mounds of fruit and veg, all kinds of dried beans and pulses, nuts and spices including many variants on mole, dried and powdered or in paste form.

The market is part of a complex , El Centro Cultural y Mercado Abelardo L. Rodriguez, including a theatre (where a ballet class was in progress at a barre on stage. It is a wonderful space with lovely, if in need of renovation, decorations, and is fitted with wooden seats with a lot more leg room than we had at the opera), a library and some government offices. The toilets were considerably less impressive. On the vaulted walls and spaces of the courtyard of the building being used for offices there is an extensive mural by Pablo O'Higgins, one of the famous political muralists, depicting the development of Mexico from pre-Columbian times through the Spanish Conquest (see photo of part of the ceiling mural). ¡Muy impresionante!

Then we set off again through the streets and past the stalls. I am very tempted to buy a sieve or two - they still make metal sieves here in every conceivable shape and size, which might serve to replace ancient ones I inherited from my mother which by now have mostly rusted or otherwise deteriorated. I keep melting the supports off the plastic replacements I have acquired. But I didn't have time to stop and examine the stock in detail, though the chef did pause to buy a little bag of five tiny donuts: I was shocked at this weakness for junk food, but I think he might have been too, as he only ate one and a half and threw the rest away!

Around 3 we arrived at the small food shop specialising in produce from Oaxaca that our guides had selected for lunch. In a tiny space inside the store they put out small plastic stools, while continuing to serve the public at the tables set on the street in front. We ordered various specialties of the region, taking advice from the guide and from tour group members familiar with Oaxacan cuisine - tlayudas (see my earlier post- these were even better than the ones we had in Coyoacán, though not folded: they were served overlapping the plates, quite a feat to eat with any kind of grace, and had a different kind of cheese, whiter, crumblier and tastier rather than the yellower stretchy type), tamales with various fillings (yellow or regular mole, some herb whose name I have already forgotten: Oaxacan tamales of yellow mole are served in banana leaves rather than the more usual corn husks). I stuck to water, as the drink others were ordering looked to have slimy bits in it, maybe like some of those Vietnamese drinks which I also avoid, both for sweetness as well as the texture which I find a bit alarming. I skipped the desserts: many people had a kind of crispy, probably fried, pastry shell filled with some kind of white creamy paste, looked totally artificial and enormously fattening to me and hurt my teeth even thinking about the sugar! There was also a cream coloured sorbet topped with bright red something: this might have been refreshing but I went on a search for fresh fruit instead (which proved fruitless).

Then we slowly worked our way back towards the Zocalo, stopping to look at more baroque architecture and to hear the stories of more ex-convents and the development of
religious myths and customs, how the Jesuits and other Christian proselytisers worked with indigenous customs, beliefs and festivals, just adding new meanings. He also included some history about identifying Jews and Muslims by their inclination not to eat pork, making Christians very keen to distinguish themselves by having lots of pork in their diet. We fought our way through the increasingly crowded streets, avoiding man-high rolls of plastic wrap being unfurled to sell by the 3 metre piece for book covers (this week is back to school here).
The tour had started at 11.30, and we were expecting it to end at 3, however it was after 5 by the time we returned to the Zocalo and hit the Metro. Great value, though in my feedback form I requested an English speaking version of the tour, and in his Barry suggested maps and maybe a directory of the major spots we visited.

No comments: