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Category Archives: Food

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

MUTEM pays tribute to tequila, mescal and mariachis

Three of the most emblematic symbols associated with Mexico – for better or worse – are tequila, mariachis and charros (Mexican cowboys). The Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis (the MUTEM, as it is known colloquially) showcases all three!

A typical gala charro (Mexican cowboy) outfit used by Mariachi musicians

This month, the UNESCO recognized Mariachis as Intangible Cultural Heritage (meeting the committee’s stringent criteria, since it is “transmitted generation to generation and continuously recreated during festive, religious and social events; it strengthens the sense of identity and continuity of its communities, within Mexico and abroad”). With this honor comes a commitment from Mexico to promoting this genre of music and foster related research. More than anything, I applaud this declaration because it raises what is seen as a folkloric expression to a more serious level, assuring that Mariachi music remains vital and will, hopefully, be taken more seriously.

Mariachis playing on a chalupa or flat bottom boat in the Xochimilco channels in southern Mexico City

Mariachi music, for those unfamiliar with this traditional Mexican music, is played by a group that varies in size and style. It takes songs from different regions of Mexico – including jarabes, polkas, waltzes, the traditional serenata and corridos, many of which were not written for the express purpose of being played in a “mariachi” format – and turns them into a sound that is unmistakably Mariachi!  The vast majority of lyrics are associated with romantic courtships or rural life, and became recognizable worldwide during Mexico’s Golden Age of Motion Pictures, with actors such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Luis Aguilar to name a few, who often broke into song intermittently in their films.

A sampling of instruments which give Mariachi music its unique sound

Mariachi bands are made up of guitar, violin, trumpet, vihuela (an acoustic guitar with a rounded back) and guitarron (an acoustic bass guitar on steriods) players. The groups usually range between 6 and12 members, decked out in gala charro outfits with tight-fitting pants (or skirts, in the case of women Mariachis) studded with silver-plated buttons commonly linked with chains running along the side seams, a short jacket, long bow tie and the typical broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, embellished with portmanteau embroidery and optional sequence.

A collection of hundreds of artisanal tequila and mescal bottles in the MUTEM

Mariachi bands can be heard and hired in Garibaldi Square. Yes, believe it or not serenades are still popular in Mexico, particularly for quinceaños’ festivities, to charm disgruntled novias, at weddings and for birthdays and saint’s days, though given the current economic climate, they are not as ubiquitous as year’s begone since they have become less and less affordable. The musical groups congregate in Garibaldi, which is lined with numerous bars, situated just off the city’s central artery (Eje Central) downtown. That is, appropriately, where the Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis is located.

A spruced up and renovated Garibaldi Plaza downtown

In the city’s attempt to clean up the “Plaza de Garibaldi,” the zone has been given a recent face lift, including the creation of the MUTEM (last year). Mariachi music has morphed over the years, but it’s roots can be traced back to the state of Jalisco in the 18th century.  The MUTEM is the only place in Mexico City to learn about the history of this music, or about tequila or mescal, which are all intertwined. (There are other tequila museums in Mexico (country) – one in the heartland of Jalisco – in Tequila (city) and another in Guadalajara (also in the state of Jalisco.)

The MUTEM has several displays illustrating how tequila and mescal are made

In order to retain the international honor that the UNESCO has bestowed it this month, Mexico is required to “protect” this living manifestation of its cultural tradition, so hopefully this small, yet comprehensive, museum will take on greater importance, and continue to expand its displays, which showcase the production of tequila, mescal and mariachis!

The open-air roof bar provides a great place to sample hard-to-find labels of tequila and mescal from around Mexico

By the way, the MUTEM offers one of the safest watering holes on the Plaza, since the third floor is the museum’s roof-top bar. The entrance ticket to the museum includes one shot of tequila or mescal of your choice from a broad collection which lines the walls! (Mexican antojitos or snacks are also available at a reasonable price.)  As an added bonus, you can listen to mariachi music to your heart’s content – for free! The best groups on the plaza alternate sets in this open-air space. If you chose to continue your spree, you can sample the agave-based liquors, selecting from a long list of top-notch tequilas or mescals carefully selected from around the country. And, given that the museum and the restaurant-bar is run by the city government, there is no fear of being overcharged or taken advantage of (as is often the case at the surrounding local bars) as your mind gets fuzzy from the libations!

There are hundreds of agave plant species in Mexico, but tequila is made ONLY from the "Agave Tequila Azul" or Blue Anaweber variety of plant, giving it its D.O. distinction

Thus, not only can you learn about the Mexican D.O. liquors – both tequila and mescal have been granted the seal of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) under the international appellation system, assuring that these beverages have been produced in a specific region and comply with stringent quality criteria – and Mexican music, but also sample the music and drink to your heart’s content in a safe environment, at a reasonable price.

The boutique handicraft and spirit store at MUTEM sells unique items you may want to stock up on, either for yourself or for gift-giving!

Be sure to check out the ground-floor museum store, which is brimming with a hand-picked selection of handicrafts unavailable elsewhere. The MUTEM staff travels around Mexico, combing the countryside for unique keepsakes, which it offers at affordable prices at its gift shop.  Plus, the spruced up Plaza now has underground parking, where you can park your vehicle yourself, rather than leaving it with often unreliable valet parking services or having to walk several blocks late at night (very convenient, particularly when your steps are wobbly!).

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Happy New Year from me and a 20 member mega-Mariachi group!

Happy New Year with a Mexican touch! Be sure to check out the MUTEM in 2012!

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A New Meaning for MX – the Abbreviation for Museu de la Xocolata!

Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona, Spain ... why not in Mexico City?

Although this blog is entitled “Mexican Museums and Mavens,” I have chosen to break out of my self-imposed restrictions in order to share with you my thoughts on a museum I recently visited, a museum which could be and should be a source of inspiration for Mexico. The Museu de la Xocolata, in the Catalan language, or The Chocolate Museum in English, located in the Spanish city of Barcelona, provides an interesting concept which is sorely absent from the broad repertoire of Mexican museums.  The museums abbreviation –  MX, taken from the first letters of the name of the museum is suspiciously similar to the standard abbreviation for Mexico.  Is the abbreviation MX just a simple a coincidence?  Maybe, but we certainly know the importance of Mexico’s role in the cultivation and production of chocolate!

Cocoa beans, removed from the pod and spread to dry

The first question which came to mind when I stumbled upon this gem of a museum was, “What’s a chocolate museum doing in Spain, and more specifically in Barcelona?”  My next question was, wait a minute, “”Why doesn’t Mexico have a real chocolate museum?”  I say real, because there are a few meager attempts at chocolate museums around the country, specifically in the areas where this crop is cultivated, but certainly nothing conventional or serious, and definitely nothing on a national scale – nothing that truly pays homage to this gift from the Gods, and, with much chagrin, none as spectacular as Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum.

An example of the typical chocolate sculptures on display in the museum, this one is a scene from the famous classic Don Quixote!

Addressing the first question, “Why does Barcelona have a chocolate museum?” I must admit that I considered it odd, particularly since, from a historical perspective, the Royal Spanish Crown was careful to control its trade routes through the Casa de Contratación with an iron clad fist for close to 300 years (thereby assuring the Spanish monarchs their royal fifth – or the 20 percent obligatory tax on private merchandise). The offices of this institution were located in Seville, not in Barcelona.  As a matter of fact, many historians have attributed Spain’s demise directly to its monopolistic trade policies, which lead to its economic, financial and political demise, converting it from one of the wealthiest empires in the world into a faltering has-been.  So with most merchandise from the New World filtering through the seaports of Seville, Barcelona’s role was minimal in terms of imports and more specifically in terms of chocolate.  So what was Barcelona’s role in chocolate making?

Reproduction of an emblematic Teotihuacan vessel. Note bottom edge decoration of cocoa beans. The original piece is in the on-site museum in the archaeological zone of Teotihuacan. Notice the chiles, vanilla beans and spices to the right of the vessel, which were added to the hot chocolate in pre-hispanic times.


Once inside the museum, that lurking doubt was cleared up quickly.  Barcelona did not boast an early relationship with this once exotic foodstuff.  It become a major player in chocolate-making in the 19th century (after New Spain’s independence) with the establishment of The Industrial Confection Center.  Later, in the early 20th century, The Artistic and Industrial Candy Guild was established.  The history of that trade group was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, to emerge in modern times as an umbrella organization under the guise of the Barcelona Confectionery Guild.  And that is how the Museu de la Xocolata emerged – as a showcase for the guild and its promotion of internationally acclaimed skills in chocolate making, chocolate art (sculpting) and baking.  And here I was trying to figure out the historical angle linking Barcelona to Mexico’s chocolate crops!  Sometimes I am just too intellectual for my own good!

Another sculpture made entirely of chocolate - this time tinted white chocolate.

That cleared up, I could better understand and enjoy the simple explanations of the displays covering the history of chocolate, its origins,  its processing, and the art of chocolate making, with visual masterpieces – chocolate sculptures – dotting the museum, displaying a clear mastery of what was an unfamiliar art form for me.

A glimpse of the equipment showcased in the museum which explains the industrial process of making chocolate

After a walk through the exhibit, an obligatory stop at the candy shop for a tasting of chocolate in its many manifestations could not be avoided. Without a doubt, Barcelona chefs have moved this culinary niche to greater heights, dominating to perfection this culinary specialty both artistically and taste-wise.   Clearly, the Museu de la Xocolata  is a front window for the guild’s culinary school housed behind the museum, as well as a platform for its tasting sessions. (Unfortunately my trip did not last long enough to coincide with their tasting schedule. Maybe next time!)

The chocolate school behind the museum

Going back to my second question – it is my strong belief that Mexico should build a Chocolate Museum, to trace the history of cacao in Mexico, its importance in pre-hispanic life, the highly prized use of chocolate in the pan-Maya traditions as a foodstuff, medicine as well as a form of currency, and link the gastronomic globalization between Mexican chocolate production and how it was adopted and adapted in Europe.  Any museum policymakers out there listening?

A sampling of items for sale in the museum shop

By the way, I forgot to mention that the entrance ticket to the Museu de la Xocolata was a superb quality chocolate bar, so how can you go wrong?  If you don’t like the museum, you can still eat the ticket!

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Food, Museums

 

Bringing Coals to Newcastle (or Chocolate to Mexico)

Louis and I at the chocolate tasting sponsored by Charity Coalition

I met Louis Barnett at a Charity Coalition event last May. This British teen (hard to believe he is only 19) has already put his name on the map as an internationally acclaimed chocolatier by producing a wide array of top notch chocolate bars which blend ingredients as improbable as black pepper, ginger, sea salt and chile.  With these and other unlikely combinations, Louis has improved what was already a sublime treat, in my book at least, into an exquisite culinary experience.

A sampling of Chokolit products on sale in Mexico

Chocolate, unlike money, does grown on trees. Actually, I stand to be corrected, since chocolate – or rather cacao beans – were used as a rudimentary currency during pre-Columbian times, and they do, indeed, grow on trees!  Cocoa beans were so highly valued prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, that the crop doubled as a kind of long distance trading currency (the only perishable ingredient which I know of that was used as money) as well as for tribute – a tax payment to the dominant Mexicas.  Its importance was such that there was a measurement system devised just to count cacao beans (400 beans made up 1 zontle; 20 zontles were 1 xiquipil; and 3 xiquipiles or 24,000 beans was one load –  the weight that an individual man could carry), thus, money did grow on trees!

Cocoa pods jutting out from the tree branches, a rather peculiar site to see!

Theobroma cacao (its scientific name) grows on small trees native to Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), with its pods oddly jutting directly from its trunk (check out my photo below). The Maya people used the beans to make a chocolate beverage used for rituals, which also doubled as a status symbol among the pre-Hispanic elite.   Anthropologists are now adjusting their calculations and proposing that chocolate did not make its first appearance in the Maya diet some 2,500 years ago as originally believed, since there is evidence that its consumption can be traced as far back as 1200 B.C. with the Olmec culture on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

Who would have known that raw cocoa beans resemble nuts!

Connoisseurs often complain about the quality of Mexican chocolate candy, particularly when comparing it to Belgian, Swiss or (yes) Russian fare.  At first blush, this seems inexplicable given that cacao originated in southern Mexico. Yet, a quick look at the history of cacao itself explains this phenomenon. The word “chocolate” is derived from the Nahuatl word chocolatl. “Xococ” means bitter or sour (think the xoconostle fruit, which is bitter, for example) and the prefix “a” or “atl” means water, referring to the liquid it was prepared with – as a savory beverage.

A cocoa pod split in half revealing the delicious white fruit pulp (encasing the cocoa beans)

“Cocoa” is derived from Classical Maya, ka-ka-wa – with the last vowel is dropped, the word is pronounced “kakaw.”  The tree was referred to as “cacahoacentli” in Nahutl and the seeds “cacahoatl,” most likely borrowed by the Mexicas (a.k.a. Aztecs) from the Maya.  Since, there was no milk (no cows or other beasts of burden in Pre-Colombian America) nor sugar (cane sugar was introduced to the Americas by Hernán Cortes via the Canary Islands, originating in India), Mexican hot chocolate or hot cocoa was prepared with a variety of recipes calling for water, vanilla (also native to Mexico), annato seeds (giving it a distinct red ting), chiles, ground pepper, dried and ground flowers, and at times honey.  Even today, in states such as Oaxaca, diners have the choice of requesting their hot chocolate be prepared with water or milk, ground almonds or cinnamon (not native to Mexico but favored by many today).   So, although cacao drinks were widely consumed among the native elite, chocolate candy production was virtually unknown.

A table lined with all the standard tools for preparing chocolate: a comal or griddle for roasting the beans, a metate or volcanic grinding table, a molcajete or mortar for mixing the cocoa with other ingredients and a molinillo used to produce the delicious foam that tops Mexican hot chocolate

This much coveted delicacy is facing a revival in Mexico with local chefs (Jose Ramon Castillo of Que Bo! is one popular chef who comes to mind) and signature chocolate shops cropping up all over the city (L’Atelier among others) often creating innovative combinations with commonplace ingredients such as mole or tamarind.  Meanwhile, Luis has taken on the challenge and risk of importing his products to Mexico, much like bringing coals to Newcastle!  His success lies in inventing a unique product, unlike anything else available in this country today – in terms of quality and combination of flavors. His brand, launched this Spring under the label “Chokolit,” is available in a local department store chain around Mexico. My first encounter with Louis and Chokolit was at an event where 4 of his chocolates were paired with 4 wines – two French and two Italian.  I admit that I had never tasted chocolate with wine before – what I thought as unlikely duo turned out to be a match made in heaven. All that lovely theobromine (by the way, the scientific name of the tree as well as the active ingredient in chocolate was taken from the Greek word for “food of the Gods” – rightly so!), coupled with PEA (phenethylamine, another mood enhancing alkaloid present in chocolate) and alcohol was not only chemically right for my brain (a serotonin enhancer) but perfect for my taste buds as well!  The quality of Louis’s chocolates is unbeatable in flavor and texture – smooth, subtle, melt in your mouth … in combination with the hand picked selection of wines provided by Alessandro Picone Morelli of Vininter and Sophie Avernin of Grandes Viñedos de Francia (see their photo below) didn’t hurt!

Sophie, Louis and Alessandro tasting the fare!

Louis, home schooled at the age of 11 due to learning disabilities, found his calling by age 14. This dynamic, charismatic young man, brimming with energy and a promising future, has already won several awards including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2011 and Lord Carter Award for excellence in the food industry in 2009.  On top of that, Louis has a social conscience, earmarking a portion of his earnings to selected charities. If you ever come by any Chokolit products – don’t pass up the opportunity to try them.   Good luck to Louis and kudos to Francesca D’Agata, founder of  Charity Coalition, an umbrella not-for-profit agency, who organized the tasting, which gave me the opportunity to meet Louis and learn more about what I love – chocolate and wine. Francesca untiringly works to raise funds for 11 charities while proving fun events ranging from wine tastings to teas to art fairs.  If you are ever in Mexico, try to coincide with a Charity Coalition sponsored event – they are always memorable – lots of fun with the proceeds going to a good cause.

Additional premium Chokolite products, mixed with fruits, herbs and spices

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Food, Mavens