Sunday, 22 August 2010

Markets and parks.

Fencing in Parque Frida Kahlo
The use people make of the parks and gardens in Mexico City is interesting.   Did I mention the amount of snogging one sees? On park benches, on the lawns, under the trees, in fact everywhere, couples are making out in public, mostly young but not a few middle-aged. I think it is rather nice that when I look out of the window at the high fence across the street, there are often a pair of young canoodlers (and not always the same pair - it must be a renowned spot for it) kissing and hugging for extended periods.

The Parque Frida Kahlo is at the end of our short street.  It has a central fountain which sometimes runs and often doesn't , and in one corner there is a  bronze of a rather grim-looking seated Frida overseeing activities. And of course, as well as the signs saying no ball games, skate boards or bikes, all of these are there in profusion. The signs also say no pets, but there are lots of dogs, on and more usually off-leash, and huge amounts of dog poo. (this is not just in the parks, but all over the streets. I have only seen two people even carrying plastic bags apparently to pick it up - people mostly totally ignore their dog's droppings).

At this time of year each morning there seem to be school or college graduation ceremonies happening.  Along one walkway through the park (like the one pictured above where the fencers are)  a canopy is set up sheltering two rows of chairs arrayed along its full length.  The armed police/guards supervising admit only the graduates and a very few family members: many other friends and relatives gather in our street, which is often closed to vehicular traffic when this is going on.  I normally cut through the park on my way to the central squares or the markets in Coyoacan as it avoids having to walk along, or often right off,  a very narrow and obstructed sidewalk beside a very busy intersection.  They close the park gates except to people with the right papers, so for most mornings during our one-month stay the park has been off limits for a few  hours.

Did I mention the fencing?   Time  for me  to look back and see if I used the photos or video I took one Saturday morning.  I wandered over to where the group of fencers were, and as I was trying to video them, the natural progression of the match  was very Errol Flynn: they were advancing rapidly away from the area they started from and along the path I was standing on (no chandeliers to swing from, however) and I almost got caught in the middle.  Don't fence me in!

There are other martial arts, with people in black outfits carrying wooden poles doing some kind of ritualised paired fighting. Early (well, around 9AM) there are sometimes groups doing Tai Chi. At the much larger Viveros, there are organised and less-organised groups of runners/joggers, and at one end of the track I often see one or more of the runners getting a massage lying on a blanket on the ground.  There is a clear area in the centre of the park where groups of people can be seen practising bull fighting moves - one person may even be wearing a set of horns and charging as the person with the red or pink cape tries to divert the "bull"with passes of the cape and nifty footwork.  There are occasionally people practising walking on very high stilts. There are various martial arts, large and small  groups busy with formal and less formal strenuous and less strenuous calisthenics, and at the stretching stations, which seem to be a waist-high metal bar that I couldn't even consider getting my leg up on, many quite limber folk stretching after their run. There are many moves not shown in the 128 stretches poster I see at the gym, and most people seem to be stretching a lot faster than I would consider useful. I use a tree stump, a tree trunk or a bench for my less rigorous and vigorous but longer stretches during or after my walk. There are people doing yoga classes, bring your own mat.  Occasionally I have seen them doing an exercise where they walk around amongst the trees surrounding the relatively open but contained area where there class is held with their eyes closed - which strikes me as remarkably trusting, there are trees and bushes to collide with.

Another sign at Viveros cautions against feeding the squirrels, which are weedy little things, especially the black ones, smaller than the many pigeons sharing their turf.  Especially near the seedling nursery, the signs explain that they are growing trees for the streets and parks throughout the city and the squirrels damage the growing plants.  Notwithstanding, everyone buys peanuts in the shell and feeds the squirrels, who are not remotely timid about taking them right from your extended hand. Accustomed as I am to our nocturnal possums, I quite enjoy the squirrels' daylight antics in North America, though I wouldn't feed them myself, being far too law-abiding.

At home in Melbourne, large parks may have an area with football fields or cricket pitches, but it seems that in Mexico City at least there are often also children's recreational areas where there are classrooms with organised art and craft activities, ceramics, dance classes, music lessons, and various other educational activities. Rodolfo, a sociologist colleague of Barry's who recently spent a bit of time in Canberra with his high-school-aged daughter Elena, had visited us in Melbourne and recently returned to Mexico. He lives in Cuernavaca and his daughter lives with her mother in a more tropical area, and before going home they met us in Coyoacan with a niece who is at university, and took us out to lunch at a restaurant in the Pena Pobre Park a bit further south, in a relatively small area given to the City by its former owners from a much larger estate, most of which was acquired by Carlos Slim, the richest Mexican and one of the richest men in the world, for development as a shopping, office and residential district. The park is considered very safe as there is only one way in and out, and is well patronised by the locals.  There was a wedding on in a large part of the restaurant, so we had live music, maybe a little louder than was conducive to conversation. After our lunch we went to another little cafe right alongside which specialises in organic bread and cakes for dessert, then wandered though the park itself.  I took a bit of video of a robot-controlled little set of toys built by some kids, and saw something I had never seen before: best explained by the videos shown here. The first shows Elena getting into a bubble, which is then inflated with air and pushed off into the middle of the pool the bubbles are floating on.  The next one shows some of the fun Elena and her cousin had trying to control their bubbles.  I took these with the iPhone, so the quality is not the best.

Elena and her cousin called them hamster balls, as you can theoretically run like a hamster on a wheel.  From the girls' description, it was a lot of fun but very exhausting hard work. I think the cost was 50 pesos, or about $5 Australian,  for 10 minutes. The girls were big enough that only one can go in each bubble - there were some father/child combinations and 2 smaller kids together in other bubbles. I had never seen anything like this before - have you?

I am very taken with the service offered at the markets here.  At the many street or covered markets they will do whatever you like to the chicken, for example.  If you want a base for soup or stock, they will sell you frames, (heads and feet optional: they remove the skin and cut the fat and fatty bits off for you). If you want breasts cut into schnitzels, they will take the skin off, slice from the breast and flatten it for you, or cut it into fajitas - strips such as we would use for a stir-fry - and they will give you the bones to add to your frames for your soup. Likewise when I wanted thigh pieces for a Thai-style curry I made the other day, they took the skins off, removed the bones and the large pieces of fat, and cut it into nice chunky pieces.  I took some video of the chicken guy preparing the chook for me, using scissors and a knife.  In this little clip he is removing the bones from the thigh and cutting off the fat - he had first deftly removed the skin using a piece of cloth. At the end he is asking how big I want the pieces and if he should butterfly them first.

I am also fascinated by how they cut calves liver: so thin (excellent knives they must have!) it seems like silk fabric. I am reminded of how my father described the meat they put in the sandwiches in the canteen at Plessey's, where he worked as a fitter and turner during WWII in England - "so thin it only had one side".

At many of the fruit and veg stands at the markets they have pre-packaged and/or large trays or bowls of  pre-cut mixed vegetables,  appropriate for various common soups or "chop suey", but not exactly the mix of veggies we might use at home. For example, the mix I use as a base for chicken soup has some carrots, leeks, a bit of celery, chayote (choko), zuchinni, green beans, often a few slices of mushrooms, slices of corn on the cob, maybe a bit of cabbage, and a few herbs.  I add more carrots, celery and onions - and would like to add parsnip, but they don't seem to have  it here in Mexico, though there are two  words for it in my Spanish-English dictionary.

I have recently discovered that if you want anything else they will add it and peel/ cut it up for you.  For the kind of stir-fry I would make at home, or for a curry, I have adapted other packages of veggies, adding some peppers, mushrooms, red onions, and maybe broccoli. There will be a few things I would never use at home, but it is really great that you can make a stir-fry without spending so long prepping the veggies.  I am reminded of the conversation at a recent WW meeting.  We were discussing snacks and having fruit and veg  prepared and ready to eat when hunger strikes. As we went round the room, nearly everyone said they had their muchacha peel and prepare theirs for them so it was ready - I can't get used to the idea and reality that all middle class people here have servants, but I guess I could maybe get used to having others, whether at themarket or at home, to help out with the food prep!

If you choose a pineapple they are happy to peel it and cut it into slices or wedges - likewise a water melon - they will peel what they call tuna, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, though these are really easy to peel at home, as they have already removed the spines. By contrast, in the supermarket they will cut you a smaller piece of watermelon or a piece of papaya if you ask - but first you have to find someone to ask, which is not easy.  Then they go away and don't come back for an extended period.  The quality is often comparable, and prices vary up and down, but the service is really a differentiator. Also the supermarket has more imported produce.  In general my experience with buying stone fruit, apples and pears (which largely seem to be imported) is that you shouldn't bother. Whether it is the distance, the handling, the storage, or all of these, I have never eaten an excellent apple or nectarine in Mexico. I am salivating at the prospect of the stone fruit to come from the Berkeley Bowl, Monterrey Markets, the organic farmers market or even the supermarkets  once we hit Berkeley next week .

Chile en nogada at Dona Maclovia
At this season of the year, they sell pomegranates whole, in sections, or just the ruby seeds in a container, ready to be used in whatever dish you would like, notably chile en nogada, the national dish which is red, white and green. I have probably mentioned this in earlier Mexican blog entries: a chile is stuffed with a mix of minced meat, fruit and nuts,  baked (or sometimes fried in egg batter) and served with a sauce made from cream and walnuts.  I wondered how the sauce was so white, as ground walnuts such as I sometimes use in baking at home seem brownish - and saw a guy at the Coyoacan market the other day  hand-peeling the walnut kernels, leaving them pristine creamy white. They crack the nuts with a special implement, like a small hammer with a spike on it, not a nutcracker, so they don't injure the kernels. They are pretty expensive: this obviously is very labour intensive. Walnuts in Mexico are called nuez de castilla, literally nuts from Spain, whereas the far more common pecans are just called nuez.  My chile en nogada lunch today,  pictured, had an extra Mexican touch: the pinkish sprinkles on the middle section are Mexican pine nuts, which are pink rather than cream in colour, and maybe a bit smaller than the pine nuts we see in Melbourne or California. The orange thing on the edge of the plate is a tinned peach - not your conventional garnish. They claim the recipe is from la abuelita, literally,  Grandma's recipe - but I did wonder about the tinned peach. I must note that it was absolutely delicious - the chiles they stuff are just a little picante, more in some parts than others - Herzonia thinks it depends on how well they remove the veins and seeds. I had been determined to eat one and damn the consequences at my next Weight Watchers weigh in, as they are so special.

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