Wow....it’s been awhile. Over a month actually. I spent most of December traveling in the states of Guanajuato, Chiapas and Oaxaca, sometimes spending no more than five hours in Cholula to eat, shower, do some laundry and repack. It was a blast, I got to see more of Mexico in a month than I ever anticipated. I also left each state wanting to return to see and know more, already thinking about when I could come back. At the beginning of this fellowship year I thought about traveling to other central and latin american countries during my time in Mexico. Now I’m realizing that this country has so much to offer, so much beauty, so much variety, so much good food, fascinating culture(s) and people. One year is just not enough. I’ve sort of scrapped plans to spend significant time outside of the country and instead have several trips taking shape for the upcoming months, including to Morelia and Pascuaro in Michoacán, hopefully seeing the monarch butterfly migration in the process, Tulúm and other ruins and beaches in Quintana Roo, Veracruz for Carnival and Zacatecas to the north. I’m also planning on spending some time in the Sierra Norte of Puebla. My “tío” José Luis made his career out of constructing highways and roads, including in the secluded mountains to the north of Puebla. He is familiar with many of the municipalities in the area and has offered to have me stay with some of his trusted contacts. This would give me the chance to live a few weeks at a time in smaller, rural indigenous communities. While it’s pretty chilly here in Cholula, it’s much colder in the mountains, around 1 degree Celsius in the afternoon. Once I translate that into Boston winter standards at a little above freezing, it doesn’t sound so bad, but I’m planning on waiting a couple of weeks for things to warm up a little bit before heading for the mountains. After all, I left all that heavy winter gear at home.
In the meantime, a little catchup...Part I
After coming home from Guanajuato (trip number 1), I spent Thanksgiving with friends here in Puebla and ending up cooking my first two turkeys. The day after Thanksgiving my friend Manuel and I cooked a complete Thanksgiving dinner for his mom, some cousins and some of our friends. I actually had more fun sharing this tradition in the company of some of my best friends here in Mexico than I did at the “all American” Thanksgiving dinner with the American teachers of the Colegio Americano the night before.
The next day, Nico, Manuel, his cousin Keren and I went to their grandmother’s house to see her prepare mole de caderas. Before moving here, I had only heard of mole poblano, the complex dark brown sauce made of almonds, chiles, chocolate, spices created in Puebla. But I quickly learned that mole is merely a term for "sauce," and that there are a ton of different moles, mole negro, amarillo, verde, mole de panza, each coming from different regions or cities. So, back to mole de caderas. On the way, we stopped off at a Puebla market to buy some extra goat bones....yep, this mole is definitely unique. And unique to Puebla. The goat spine and hips required to make the mole come from goats that are killed in El Ritual Cultural y Festival Étnico del Mole de Caderas, or Mantanza, in Tehuacán, Puebla at the end of October. In a tradition originating in the colonial period, these goats are given salt every two weeks and little water and graze on bushes, grasses and nopales in the mountains for the last six months of their lives until the ritual offerings and dances culminate in the Mantanza. The result is a darker, dryer and uniquely flavored meat meant to be more easily preserved as an important protein source for the rest of the year.
On the way over, we stopped at a meat market in Puebla to pick up an extra espinazo (spine), which runs about 800 pesos. This dish has become increasingly expensive to make. This year, fewer goats were killed as a result of the struggling economy, driving up the price of the meat. But even so, it was only mid-November and all the espinazo had been sold out. We picked out a couple sets of caderas and watched the butcher, whose family has been selling this special chivo meat for decades, slice them up into serving-size pieces.
Goat parts in hand, we headed to Manuel’s grandmother’s house. Their entire family gets together each Saturday for la comida, the big midday meal. Only some of the family could make it this particular Saturday; we were only about 25 at the long dinner table. That’s a lot of mole. Thankfully there was already several sets of caderas and an espinazo boiling to make the caldo (broth) responsible for the mole's particular flavor.
Manuel’s grandmother has been making and overseeing this recipe for decades.
When we arrived, there was already a paste of chile guajillo, a mole (sauce) of tomato, onion and tomato, and the caldo simmering on the stove.
Setting aside the meat, the caldo was added to the mole, plus a respectable amount of the chile paste. Some caldo and mole was set aside and only slightly heated with some of the chile paste for those who weren’t fans of spice. (I’ve noticed that as many people in Mexico don’t eat chiles, pointing out the severe stomach damage that can result from a lifetime of eating spicy food, as those who proudly chomp on whole chile serranos in between bites of eggs for breakfast.) After checking the flavor and adding salt to taste, an entire bunch of cilantro, still bundled as it isn’t served but only added like a bay leaf for flavor, was added to the mole. This cilantro, preferred by many Mexican cooks for its stronger flavor, has a much finer, feathery leaf and even some small florets at the tips.
While the mole simmered for two and a half hours, we set about removing the small green pea-like guajes. Manuel’s grandmother swore that the guajes were almost as important as the chivo in giving the mole’s distinct flavor. Blended to a finely-textured paste, the guajes are added about thirty minutes before the end of cooking time.
I had been hearing about this unique mole, found only in Puebla and only in the few months following the Tehuacán ritual mantanza, since I had arrived here, and I’d been smelling it while it simmered all afternoon. While I was a little concerned that the “unique” and “distinctive” flavor of the mole de caderas might be a little overwhelming, the mole exceeded my expectations, slightly spicy, very savory but balanced with the flavors of the tomato, cilantro and guajes. Each bowl was served with a piece of bone and meat. Part of the fun was using our fingers to get off every morsel of meat. Probably the first time I've eaten a soup with my fingers.
This delicious and distinct mole de caderas definitely helped with the slight hangover we all brought to the table after post-Thanksgiving dinner drinks the night before. Nico agrees....
More updates to come! I'm learning a new photo editing software called Aperture 2...wish me luck.