Friday, 30 November 2007

Lidl, Lobster, Language

If you don't know, Lidl is the still point around which the world turns.

It is a ludicrously cheap supermarket, but one that manages to come up with the goods much better than that vacant monkey cage, Netto, which calls itself a budget option but in reality just sells the lowest value things like air biscuits and greasy pop and hopes you won't notice the scurvy in your fit- like rapturous throes of stinginess.

But Lidl- they have aspirations. You can imagine them sleuthing around the world for bargains, sourcing from bankrupt cherry canning operations and money launderers that use pre- packaged omelettes as a front. All sorts of unusual products and lots of strange languages on the packaging.

Untranslated labels in general correlate strongly with low cost, with the obvious aberration of those in Italian- which is done on purpose to make you think you are getting one over on the Italians who meant to hoard whatever it is for themselves. (The same fuzzy logic just doesn't work for countries that we don't have a vague conviction are guarding godlike culinary secrets). Anyway you can gau
ge the cut of Lidl's gib from one of their current offers which is a whole lobster for just £5. Here it is!

It is frozen, and opaquely packaged so there is no real way of seeing what it is like, apart from a perfectly smooth tube about 10" long. Now I know lobsters are not perfectly smooth- I am quite sure they are pretty bumpy, so I have been hoping this is just caused by frozen water, because the alternative is that this is lobster in the same sense that 'crab sticks' are really crab- in other words, I have bought a large tube of expensive mushed up sea protein.

This has been in my freezer for a couple of weeks now- today I had a friend over who would appreciate it, so today is the day. I defrost it, we open it; it is definitely a whole and real animal. A bit smaller than I would expect, as almost half the length of the packet was taken up by the claws which were arranged in a diving position over its head. It is red rather than a fresh grey, which I guess is to do with the freezing process. The same happens to frozen prawns so I don't know why I would expect any different. The movies I suppose.

We cook according to the guidelines, boiling furiously for 5 minutes. We make a garlic sauce. Then sit down on battered sofas to eat the most studenty lobster ever eaten, off our knees in lieu of table and off the same plate in lieu of plates. It takes a bit of bravery to get started, but we egg each other on....

Sigh. All that, and it is almost entirely
hollow! I wouldn't mind if it was tough and tasteless, as long as there was something there to pretend with. For potential guests to pretend with! As it were, we got maybe 2 small bites each out of it and enough garlic butter to make us feel a bit sick.

It is as if this is just the shell of a lobster, which it shed like a snake. Do lobsters do that? If no one has checked I think it might be a good idea. My meat probably crawled out and is now enjoying its big luxurious shell in a cushy restaurant tank somewhere, cackling. Don't count your chickens, Mr. Lobster...

*The image above is photoshopped, but that is my friend, and that is the crustacean in question

Monday, 12 November 2007

Eating with scissors

Who thinks spaghetti is a nemesis best countered by turning it against a spoon on the end of your fork?

Well- you're well mannered, but wrong. The solution so simple I can't believe people don't do it all the time. I feel like urban legend cosmonauts using a pencil;

1 - Just get your fork full, let it all hang down as far as you like. This is a new carefree you.
2 - Jam it in your mouth, remove fork.
3 - Chop off the excess with scissors.

There is still some slurping involved, but not enough for the spaghetti to whip around and flick stuff everywhere. So next time you have a posh do to go to...

Next; pizza. This should be easy to cut; its so thin! But it is this quality of compressive elasticity which lends it such irritating resilience, coupled with the fact that normally when cutting things up on a plate, we use a lot of 'ripping' motion without really noticing. You can't do this with a pizza because it takes up a whole plate.

Everything else that is flat you cut with scissors! I suggest in the strongest possible terms that you do the same with pizza.

In sum, if it is thin and flexible; scissors are better.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Anaerobic respiration pickling

Thanks to some guy from the internet, I am going to preserve some of my chilies by anaerobic respiration pickling, which is something like fermentation. All you do is submerge them in a weak brine for a while and they sort of create their own acidity in the form of lactic acid.

Incidentally, I seem to remember, anaerobic respiration is what happens when you sprint and have to create energy for your muscles without enough oxygen- in a sense they burn because they are being pickled.

Anyway, I'll update you on this in about 3 weeks when the fermentation is over and I can seal it.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Ice Shaving Guatemala

In a world where form and beauty and truth were prime, if origin counted as equal to product, all Slush Puppies would be made like this.

A young calm-faced Guatemalan mother stands in front of the cathedral, rotating a lump of clear ice the size of her head in her cast-iron ice shaving device. Curls flake off and snow into a cup, spoonfuls of honey and neon candied fruit (swarming with wasps) are applied and sink in as ink. The ice, clearly, was mined from a glacier far into the mountains and transported here by llama trains, wrapped in sealskin and insulated by the cleanest fleece, patrolled fiercely by the ice-miners’ dogs – all of them with one green eye and one blue, they say they can know the future – and exchanged for meat, for salt, and for religion.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Barrrrrbacoa, Palenque, Yucatan

The food with the most awesome name in the world is common around the Yucatan Peninsula. When ordering, expect not to be understood unless you say the word in the mindset of a boxing commentator announcing the HEAVY WEIGHT CHAMPIOOON OF THE WOOORLD! It must be pronounced in a way that you might just expect a 'ding ding' after you order. Otherwise they really don't understand you.

Barbacoa is a generic word, essentially meaning slow-cooked meat, traditionally steamed as a pit roast.

Monday, 10 September 2007

First lobster, spineless

After explaining to the chef of a nice and quiet little restaurant that we were, to put it mildly, incredibly tight fisted, she kindly offered us the cheapest thing she could whip up (off menu) - rice and beans with a fried egg. Nothing wrong with that, we thought.

Except there seemed to be a guy whose job it was to hang out and casually suggest expensive optional extras. We said no thanks to the 'traditional pre-rice-and-beans custom' of a mojito, thinking ourselves quite tough little travellers.

But we gave into his suggestion that since they had one lobster tail left, we could have it at half price. After all, how often do you get to eat lobster in Cuba? It was our last night.

I loved it. I think perhaps the main reason it is so revered is that as well as having that delicate shellfish taste the sheer volume of the meat makes it all the more satisfying- there is less figuring your way around all the unpleasant bits that come with invertebrate territory. So much pluckable sweet, soft, white muscle.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Fiat cafe, Cuba

We stopped for a dinner of cheap spaghetti at an unusually brightly lit, extremely glassy little restaurant, with an extremely faithful adherence to a colour scheme of royal blue and white.

Hang on.

Every inch of this place is branded by Fiat! There are blue racing stripes over the whitewashed walls, little logos on the tables and pictures of old cars framed undramatically on the walls.

Why would a car company own a cafe? Is this the equivalent of the Coca- Cola adverts in the rest of Latin America which are so conspicuously absent in Cuba?
Do they also sell cars here? Is this supposed to be cheese? What is going on?!

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Stinginess in Cuba, 1 peso eats

We are now in Cuba, where the political situation certainly impacts the food available in several noticeable ways:

1- The unofficial economy is not. I see no street vendors, no gloriously colourful markets, no hawking of strange foods. A reminder that tower blocks are not the only face of capitalism.
2- Even the official shops that are allowed really aren't brimming with choice. This is an island in a way which not many places are any more.
3- A lot of stuff is very expensive for tourists; not unrelated to the fact that there are fairly clearly delineated places for them to be, and a separate currency.

I want to make it clear that I am not being a sourpuss. There are real world reasons for this situation that override anyone's need for a nice bouncy sandwich. But overall, pretty much all the food we have had in restaurants has been like school dinners. So we have decided to take a fuel- centric attitude to food while we are here, to skip the (relatively) high prices and generally just revel in being stingy. Here are our discoveries:

Cheap option 1 - Actually, there are a couple of places on the seafront (no no, think oil slick and anti- erosion concrete) that will serve a pretty rubbish mozzarella pizza for a peso or two. It may not be amazing, but cheese and bread is never inedible. And they don't seem to mind you drinking your own bottled water.

Cheap option 2 - Petrol stations seem to have a standard range of microwavable goodies that are equally cheap at a couple of Pesos Convertibles, and they don't bat an eye at serving foreigners.

Cheap option 3 - MASSIVE bread. We got this from a shop that sold pop, newspapers etc. It looked very filling at 1 peso, but on closer inspection proved to be several hundreds of years old. It was mummified rather than rotten however, and would be be edible if you either have the use of a funnel to collect the cloud of crumbs that it becomes upon any attempt to pierce its carapace, or you are willing to mash it up with some water into a slimy but intact dough.

More stinginess tips coming!

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Isla mujeres

On our first night on Isla Mujeres we had a dark and breezy meal in a restaurant by the sea and the waiter brought us all the torches because we were the only people in the whole world. Sandy and very romantic.

I don’t even remember what we ate. Sigh.

Chichen Itza

The new 7th Wonder of the World is a big tourist- puller, and the first place I have seen 'nachos with cheese' for sale. It costs 35 pesos! Maybe that is why you never see it. Hmm... maybe not.

Our cheap eats were instead found down the road from the entrance; opposite two coach- friendly restaurants in a little shop. We got a can of refried beans and a couple of packs of crisps. Nice little lunch- and always a good backup plan for the backpacker flitting into expensive zones. Just remember to always take a spoon with you like I do, even though this one was so cheap it bends against the resistance of a mush with any viscosity at all.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Unidentified fruit #3

These little buggers look like baddies in a Gremlins movie, or miniature plesiosaur eggs. Despite their squishy appearance though, they are rock solid, and took some cutting.

The lady on the stall assured me that they were very edible, but to consume them I should chop up and boil thoroughly; the resulting watery juice was the really good stuff and the fleshy mush left over wouldn't be worth the chew.

She also told m
e that it was very good for the stomach, to get rid of any bad stuff in your gut, which after a second of consideration sounds pretty ominous even if she wasn't chuckling to her friends.

I followed instructions. It was about half an hour of boiling before anything really came out, and I did over an hour to make the most of them. Then let it cool in a glass.

SO SOUR! Six tablespoons of sugar later, still sour, but drinkable. I think this is mainly a medicinal- use plant.

Making tortillas, Bonsai Carlos

Some time ago in Papantla I bought my very own tortilla press from a market. Great idea I'm sure seeing as it is made from cast iron and we have 3 weeks of backpacking left to do. These are the liberties you can take when you pack light, i.e. carry lots.

So I have been pottering around with it in this hostel kitchen in Merida. We bought some (wheat) flour from the shop. This is a matter of some controversy- we like the wheat flour ones better, and they are quite common further west, but we are entering a more maize- loyal zone now (and 'loyal' really isn't too strong a word) so my choice elicited some grumbling from the man who helped me make them, Bonsai Carlos ("Sabes bonsai? Me encaaanta las bonsais. Tengo como setenta plantas en mi casa! Vengan!") who considers it an insidious import, or substandard at the least.

To use the press you must put your dough (flour and water) between two sheets of plastic, probably from an old bag, then squeeze it with the vice. He showed me the 'authentic Mayan' way of doing it too, which is to grip the dough in one hand between the flats of your fingers and your palm, fingers together, then use your other hand to squeeze your tortilla-holding hand. As you squash it, the idea is to rotate it and flatten it out.

I think tortillas originally must have been really quite small and thick- not like the pancakes things we often have today, and his choice of when to say it 'its ready' affirmed this. Even the ones me made in the press we couldn't get that thin- the elasticity of the wheat meant they actually refattened about 20% (can you have percentages of fatness?) as soon as you took the pressure off.

We fried our fat little tortillas dry, one by one and ate them with a can of refried beans and an ad hoc chile blanco salsa. A nice meal.

Free breakfast, mud, toast

Never ever even consider a 'free breakfast' to be a selling point in your choice between Latin American hostels. It is never more than 1 cup of bad coffee (does the job) and 2 pieces of tiny cold toast. If there is anything else in the toss up, go with that instead.

Incidentally, why are loaves (as in, proper loaves) of bread in the rest of the world so tiny? It seems to be a very British thing to have a big loaf of bread which you can make many decent sandwiches out of. Most countries have a choice between their native crusty or floppy, flat, tiny, thin or long bread (which are often lovely, but not very sandwich- apt) and an intensely processed homogenized loaf which is barely big enough to accommodate one circle of salami.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Amnesiac truck cave nonsense

Tonight (well it's the next day I'm backdating) we went out in Veracruz; bit of a party town, that's what it is.

Anyway, having left (ahem) the club early without the girls, I found myself outside our hotel, dejected and frankly rather pissed off in what seemed like a night that was still young and r
ipe for the plucking. It didn't seem to phase me that it was tipping it down, about 2.30 and as far as I could see, all the company I was going to find were naval heroes. Made of bronze.

So I went on an adventure to find some action. At some point I must have sheltered under a truck:
Notice the drips.

Next I do know I found a stand selling some food. There were lights and steam and people... I don't know what I ate, only that green and red were involved, and it was good. There was a plastic sheet drawn out from the stand onto a wall for shelter, and a couple of chairs.

What I do know is I spent about an hour there and made all these friends with my Drunk Spanish (the true international language), and that I have really a lot of affection for them all. Like an amnesiac who still remembers his wife, but not her name:
With the other pictures I count around 10 people there altogether. Best ambiguous street food I ever had.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Rellenos de chile

'Stuffed chillies'. These are a speciality of Xalapa* so we thought we had better try them out. If you go the market is a good place to get them. Quite different to what I was expecting- I thought the peppers would be stuffed with soft cheese and things- I think that is something I got from tapas. Anyway, not at a ALL.

It is quite a mild chilli- the woman selling them said they used to have hotter ones, but demand and current fashions tended towards the mild. That was unexpected.

The way you do it is make an incision in some slightly cooked, fresh chilli peppers, then fill it with a pre made and soft mixture of minced meat and vegetables. Then you get your 10 year old son Carlos to whip about 30 egg whites to a hard peak (so it wouldn't fall out if you turned the bowl over). When it is ready you dip the chillies in. The egg foam should coat them like fondue. Then deep fry it for about 5 minutes, until golden brown (like everything- that is always the colour you cook things to! So boring).

The result is a tasty snack, that is perhaps a bit greasy, but pretty good. I think it would go better with a bit of a hotter pepper- jalape
ño or up would be good. If you make it I would recommend putting something with a pretty strong flavour in the stuffing as there is a lot of low flavour stuff around it.

*Or Jalapa- this is where jalape
ños are from!

Unidentified fruit #2

We are in Veracruz, and have eaten this which struck my eye back in Xalapa- at a glance it looks like some sort of cheap plastic toy. It about 15cm long, with a smooth and rubbery neon pink skin that has a few greenish flaps- like larger versions of the ones you find on each diamond of a pineapple:
When I asked what it was like they said "like a kiwi" which seemed implausible, but I get what they mean

The flesh below the skin is edible in its entirety; this fruit has the architecture of a Cadbury's Creme Egg. It is made for scooping- it is solid enough not to slosh out, and can be carved with precision. Yet it is unbelievably juicy- the seeds you can see are not even a blip on the textural radar. It is not jelly like. There are no fibrous bits to get stuck in your teeth.

The taste is sweet, but not very sweet. In fact, pretty much like a kiwi, except with slightly heavier banana overtones. The size pretty much trumps kiwi too, and the colour beats the colour of practically every other food I know.

Earlier I said that there were no fruits left in the world that were worthy of discovery. I fully take that back. With optimism. This is great.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Coconut on the beach, with chilli and lime? Yes


Making babies cry, kittens and sweetcorn cake

Carlos the 1 year old in the house in Tuxpan likes to try things; he has an expectant, open mouthed thing he does to indicate he wants a taster. Fair play to him- he especially likes table. But he learnt a very important lesson today; he really doesn't like chunks of lime. I shouldn't laugh, but I did anyway.

So today we had
pan de elote for the second stage of our mid evening after supper snack. Jess had made a special plea for this so I was intrigued. Basically these are the ingredients:
  • sweetcorn, de cobbed, about 2 1/2 handfulls
  • a stick of butter
  • a tin of condensed milk
  • bicarbonate of soda (tablespoonish)
  • about 2 eggs
You put these in a blender- shuckashugglaghusha- and then pour into a cake tin. Bake for 30- 40 minutes. Until it looks and feels like a cake.

The result is a nice firm spongey type thing that is moist throughout. It's almost like madeira actually. The sweetness is subtle- as it just comes from the condensed milk and sweetcorn.

I recommend having it with a water- based hot c
hocolate. If you use tinned sweetcorn drain it for about an hour before- not sure how all that extra moisture would work out.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Go on! Its only waffer thin!

Currently staying with this lovely Mexican family who grow oranges for a living near Tuxpan and I think I am about to burst. I fear for my life and am actually quite tired of talking about food.

Empanadas, enchiladas, a whole boiled chicken ripped up with jalapeños in sandwiches, gorditas, fresh prawns from the lake, molotes.... There are so many avocados growing in the garden we can hardly keep up with the windfall between 8 of us.

Part of lunch today was a common Mexican favourite- pozole. This is a thin, opaque, hot soup with a big lump of pork, chili, radishes and lots of red. You dribble chopped lettuce or cabbage on it once it is in the bowl. Deelish.

The weather here in Tuxpan- in the rainy season at least- is like living in a mouth, and once you've got litres of hot chili- laden soup inside you the gentle, steady oozing just becomes a free for all sweat session. I think once you embrace the sweatiness it gets easier, so kudos to the soup. Refreshing.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Pigs ear bitch.

Today we are in Papantla; perhaps the vanilla capital of the continent, if not the world. But that's all economics. Today I want to talk about breakfast.

We had a hot hot tamale, which is basically a maize mass of unpredictable clodginess, steamed in leaves and flavoured with- well whatever, and sold out of buckets which they have been carefully packed into to keep them warm. In this case, it was nice and sloppy (how I like it) and flavoured with a surprisingly hot tomato sauce and a pigs ear! I consider that value added. Linz wimped out of the whole thing but I do think it added a good meaty tone to the mix.

But yeah while we where eating it near the vendor some Mexican lady came up to us. Uppity auld thing; as closely as I can remember this is what she said...

"You look like civilised people- you shouldn't be eating this muck! It's not for our type. Look at me, how do you think I'm so thin? I drink lots of aguas de fruta!! You don't want to be like those fat, ugly bastards who work in the market. We civilised people know this kind of food is not for us. What do you think you're doing?!"

Not a smirk. Watabitch.

Friday, 24 August 2007

A comparative study of Cornish pastys in Latin America

In Mexico City Norte Bus Station there is a little stand that sells "Pachuca Cornish Pastes".

This is a reference to the Mexican town of Pachuca, which has some sort of relationship with Cornwall, and thus I suppose the pasty. I don't think it's a coincidence that it is also a mining town- everyone knows that the point of a pasty is to
stop soot and grime getting on the tasty food. I guess that's why they have it in Mexico City bus stations.

This story has other branches- I am reminded of the very popular salteña which they have in La Paz, Bolivia (it also came over for all the miners). These are made from a kind of short pastry, and are overflowing with a treasure- laden sweet salty meaty sauce, full of vegetables boiled eggs etc. Everyone stands around the stalls in the morning, first taking a little bite, then sluuurping out the juice before chomping them down. Unlike with this Mexican version the Bolivians make absolutely no reference to its origins, and are very proud of it as a distinctively South American dish, which to be fair they have made all their own. They are delicious.

Unlike my Mexican Pachuca Cornwall 'chorizo' flavour
paste which was awful and about a week old.
Top: Pachuca Cornish Paste. Bottom: salteñas

Insects and fish tacos

A short while ago a Mexican friend who we are staying with assured us that it is possible to got to the market and eat (ascending order of what the fuck my own)-

Grasshoppers ('chapulines' - especially in Oaxaca)
Fried ant eggs ('escamoles' - everywhere, San Juan market in Mexico City)
Fried mosquito eggs
LIVE beetles. ('Jumiles'- especially in Taxco, where he is from)

Really. My Spanish is ok, but I took great pains to make it clear that these beetles were actually eaten alive, and actually beetles. And that the whole process was done on purpose! But yes, apparantly the vendors keep them in little bags, and you can either get them like that, or they'll pop them in a taco for you, which you have to hold a certain way to stop them escaping. The interesting thing is that this custom originated because the species in question can live for
about a week after cooking! Its not invincible, just takes a while to die from its injuries.

Despite my dedication to food exploration I am a little unnerved. But I may now be closer to being Indiana Jones then I ever have been before. A crisis is festering in my soul. I may not seek out jumiles, but one day soon they may find me- and that day I will be forced to stand alone with my own cackling existence and decide why I am here at all.

In the mean time I am trying to seek out the dead versions. Me and Linz had a long search for the escamoles today in Mercado San Juan, and got a lot of strange looks, but nothing like they didn't know what we were talking about. More like if we had gone up to people on the street and said "do you know if there is anywhere near here where we could perhaps buy a poster of a rasberry?"

But I got a fish tostada from a stand to keep me going. A tostada is a tortilla that has been fried so its
like a big crisp, with stuff on. This was really nice, all the prawns and stuff tasted really fresh and cold and almost crunchy.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Chiles en Nogada

We are currently in Puebla, and wanted to take advantage of the Festival de Chiles en Nogada that just so happens to be this week. Basically Chiles en Nogada is dish of local pride, and at this time of year there are more places that stock it- coinciding with the season for the poblano chile.

The dish is also a matter of na
tional pride, as was actually invented (by nuns!) for Agustín Iturbide, the first ruler of a free Mexico. It is consciously red, white
and green and is popular on independence day, along with things like pozole. Its origins remind me of that other fabricated patriotic recipe- coronation chicken. I don't think it is a coincidence that both dishes are a confusing medley of sweet and savoury, are very rich and full of exotic ingredients that have barely been introduced. These dishes have to exhibit every corner of the great nation (or empire) they represent, and all its richest richness's.

So the basic framework is a large, mild poblano chile, stuffed, covered in a cool, creamy walnutty sauce, topped with pomegranite pips (!). The stuffing is comprised of (and I only know because I asked) peanuts, ground meat, potato, beans, coriander, banana, cinnamon, apples, peaches, pears and onion.

Lindsay loved it, and so do many many other people. But to me it was like eating the tongue of a great big ogre, which had been killed while eating ice cream.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007


We tried to see the ruins of Teotihuacan today- but the crazy rain that seems to have been sucked up by Hurricane Dean meant that we walked the whole way through very fast with only an cheap A4 plastic poncho each that we bought on the way in, half hysterical with stinginess. I have never quite understood the phrase 'blinding' rain before.

Anyway, this was waiting for us at the end- hot sopa de frijol (bean soup) and sopa azteca, which is tomato, chili, flavours, and chopped up stale tortilla (like Mexican croutons! Cool!)

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Unidentified fruit #1

A good rule of thumb is always buy a fruit immediately if you haven't seen it before. Things are regional, and seasonal, and the chances are you might not see it again.

We got this in a market where an oldish man only had these for sale, evidently this wasn't his normal occupation- just chanced upon some valuable produce and decided to liquidise his assets. At least I hope they were valuable- we were distinctly sure we were getting ripped off at 10 pesos each. Anyway we don't really know yet what prices things are at all- me and Linz are still half assuming Bolivian prices are standard (apparantly 3 pieces of bread for 8 isn't a scam...)

Anyway, I am now of the opinion that as imperialists we have already acquired all the best fruits and vegetables there are in the world, bred, injected and polished them to perfection and have them all in the supermarket back home. Every new fruit I eat seems to be just, well, shit.

The volume is largely a pair of quite attractive, shiny, mahogany- coloured seeds and the flesh was bright orange inside. This fruit was very very soft, but not juicy at all. The texture was something like an avocado, but without any sense of oiliness. There was little taste, and what taste there was was just a sort of generic... plant taste. If you know what I mean.

This feels more like a staple food than a tasty fruit- but it is dead expensive, which means it is probably just something people chance upon. This food belongs to hunter gatherers- if we agriculturalists eat boring food nowadays at least its cheap

Mole con pollo

We are now in a nice outlying town. It is built on silver like so many others, with an unlikely yet somehow expected ornate peach- coloured church.

We have just had our first mole! Something we have been looking forward to, essentially this consists of a very complicated sauce made from fruits, spices, chili, and cocoa beans. This is another pretty ancient dish- people were eating cocoa like this long before anyone decided to make it hard, mix it with milk and associate it with seduction.*

And the chocolate really is apparent. In fact, it may be my boundless ignorance but the dominant taste is by far the cocoa, and I'm not sure, when you really get down to it, that you need the 40+ ingredients that everyone seems so proud of. Certainly it is an interesting taste- the other ingredients do something, and that something is magical. But do you need to spend a week making it? (and they do!)

On finer points, the sauce is satisfyingly dark, really quite runny, uniformly smooth, and there is a lot of it. This is a good dish if you like to take advantage of the never- exhausted free tortillas, as there will be a lot of stuff to dip them in. As to the flavour, it has a good base of bitterness, so all the sweetness (from various fruits) and saltiness can just lay back in that. The slight burn from the chili almost feels like the afterglow of drinking wine. Bathing in this is one chicken leg, and it comes with a splat of refried beans as standard.

*I'm a bit bemused and interested by the fact that even when referring to cocoa (or cacao), people here say 'chocolate', which comes from when Europeans (the French I think) started putting it with milk (late). A word and a plant are adopted from Mexico, taken to Europe, twisted, changed and used for something quite different, and then hundreds of years later the new word finds its way back to general usage in the wake of commercial force, in a totally different language, yet again referring to the same thing that farmers a thousand years ago used it for.

Meat and cheese empanada for breakfast. The note on the table says, "share a table- make friends."

Monday, 20 August 2007

Pulque is a bit wierd

Pulque is a beer- strength alcoholic drink fermented from maguey (what isn't?) that as far as anyone can remember has been made around this part of the world for thousands of years.

Today we decided to go and try some. I must say its not that hard to find, despite what various guidebooks say. Everyone seems to know one nearby. I think what the books are getting at is that it is not something you can get in any old bar- it has to be a pulqueria.

There is no other reason for this other than it has to be made more or less fresh, and often on premises- no one has found a good way to store it for longer than a few days. In this way it reminds me of Chicha- a similar kind of drink we had in Bolivia- but which is made from maize. In both instances this total barrier to industrialisation and mass production has pocketed the cult of the drink in a special, tiny bubble where some pleasures manage to cower beyond the reach of
money with its loud, indignant demands.

What I mean is; when you see people talk about these drinks they get genuinely excited. Unpredictability and being denied is what treats are all about.

Anyway, it is pretty viscous, almost like swilling cold spit around your mouth. We didn't get around to trying the plain version (it was our plan to try that after) but we did have, wait for it... celery, beetroot and cinnamon flavours. Not good. I thought beetroot was ok. All had salt on the rim, and really really tasted like the things they were supposed to. A nice big glass of viscous celery goo anyone?

Snacks in el Jefe

I am quickly learning that in Mexico City chili, lime and salt are quite possibly commodities just as valuable as petrol, groping and big, big numbers. Here is a bag of chopped apple I bought in the street- sharp and freshly coated. Actually the way the chili/lime/salt powder just soaks up the apple juice is a wonder. I might steal the combination. It is not as hot as you expect- a significant proportion of the powder (which is pretty ubiquitous for this type of snack) isn't just straight chili- don't be put off if you're scared by the heat.

Also in pic- bar snacks (with chili and lime and salt),
tequila con Squirt (or Esquirt) which is a grapefruit pop. The best one as it is the least sickly sweet, and the only one most bars will condescend to allow you to mix with their precious tequila.