Published: March 3rd 2012December 18th 2011
My journey through Mexico was partly a culinary tour, to learn about local cuisines and explore new flavours. Our next stop was the city of Puebla where I discovered plenty of exciting culinary delights. It was the first place I have ever eaten sweetcorn, chilli and chocolate for breakfast (all on the same plate). It was also the first place I tried deep-fried grasshoppers. But more about that later.
Puebla is a charming colonial city whose claim to fame is that it contains 365 churches, one for each day of the year. This is actually a lie. Naughty naughty. While it contains over 70 churches in the historic centre alone, the figure of 365 actually comes from the number of church domes that exist. The strength of their faith is shown by the sheer number of churches. The predominant religon in Mexico is Roman Catholicism, with over 90% of Mexicans subscribing to it’s faith. This makes Mexico the second largest Catholic country after Brazil. The Spanish missionaries of the 16th
century did an outstanding job of converting the locals. They didn’t say “look, we’ve got this new God, and he’s a bit better than yours. Why don’t you
As seen from the top of the pyramid in Cholula
switch your faith over and give him a try?” Instead, they took the pre-hispanic religions and gave them a clever twist, thereby grafting them on the Catholic religion. They took a bit of artistic licence with Jesus though. Some religions of Mexico were based around sacrifice. People would voluntarily sacrifice themselves, believing that after death they would live on in the heavens. So in some parts of Mexico, Jesus was portrayed as being put on the cross by his own suggestion and free will.
A few days previously we had seen an example of how strong Mexican faith can be. Outside the Cathedral of the Lady Guadalupe in Mexico City there were altars and shrines on the street where hundreds of people were gathered, lighting candles, praying and openly weeping. My friend Justine said to me “I wish I believed in something so much that I would light candles every day”. I had a good hard think myself. I’m not a religious person, but the thing I am most passionate about is food. If someone built an altar dedicated to bacon, I’d probably light a candle.
As well as the bustling streets, the Cathedral itself was so busy
Conveyor Belt Religion
I took this photo whilst on a moving travelator
that they’d installed a moving walkway to ensure that people moved around the church in a timely and efficient manner! And nearby was a street market were all the stalls were selling religious trinkets, ornaments, statues and other paraphanalia. You could buy a Virgin Mary candleholder, mirrors with Jesus etched on them, religious paintings, drink coasters, windchimes and lampshades. If the image of a saint or other significant figure could be fit onto an object, then it was for sale here.
Now let’s turn the topic back to food. Puebla has many local specialities when it comes to cuisine. The first of many which I fell in love with was the “mole”. I’m not talking about the subterranean burrowing rodent here (although I am sure they would be very tasty). Mole is pronounced “mol-ay” and is a complex sauce with great depth and many layers of flavour. Mole can be the highlight of a dish, the entire reason for ordering a particular plate of food, whereas the other components such as meat play an entirely secondary role. You start by roasting various nuts, seeds and dry chillies. Then you add tomatoes, garlic and fresh chillies which have been slow-roasted.
Then “other ingredients” are added, and the mixture is simmered and blended to produce a thick, rich sauce. There are many types of mole, and the “other ingredients” can include olives, raisins, almonds or green tomatoes. Each will give the final mole an individual taste. The speciality of Puebla is Mole Poblano, where a small amount of chocolate is added to give a level of richness and sweetness that goes suprisingly well with meat.
So, back to my most unusual breakfast, and also one of my most delicious and memorable. As I mentioned before, it was sweetcorn, chilli and chocolate on the same plate. There was a fluffy omelette filled with chillies, salsa and shredded chicken. This was topped with sweetcorn swimming in a creamy sauce. Then on the side was a thick chocolate mole sauce with fried tortilla chips. This flavour combination was the work of both a madman and a creative genius. It should not have worked, but actually it was delicious!
It was in Puebla that I was also introduced to the “Pasita Bars”. These are drinking establishments that serve shots of delicious spirits and liquors for the bargain price of 20 pesos (£1). Shots
Cheese, raisins and liquor in the same glass. Who could want for more?
seemed to be all they served on their menu, and although the Western culture of shots is to thrown them down your throat in one go, the etiquette here was to sip them elegantly and take your time. Pasita is the most well known shot, and is a raisin liquor with a hint of vanilla. Bizarrely, it’s served with two raisins and a lump of cheese thrust onto a cocktail stick!
On our next day Justine and I arranged a day tour with a guide. We were to visit a series of remote villages outside Puebla, mingle with the locals, try some ethnic food and see them making handicrafts. We arrived in a dusty town where the guide proceeded to show us around a remarkably drab church, and tell us about each and every stone carving in excruciating detail. The church was old and unattractive, and if it was a person you'd describe it as having a "face for radio". In fact it was so butt ugly that if I'd tried to take a photo, it would have broken the lens on my camera. The stories the guide was regaling us with were quite dull, and he was really
Churches of Puebla 1
Most of Puebla's 70 churches are lovely
clutching at straws to find anything interesting to say about this drab little church and it's bland surroundings. We nodded sagely and said "mmmm, yes, very nice" in all the right places so that we didn't hurt his feelings. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we headed back to his car where he said we would move onto the next church. We corrected him, and said that surely he meant we were going to move onto a village? He looked puzzled, so we explained that we were booked on a village tour. He had no knowledge of this, knew of no villages, and had no itinerary to offer us! Somehow we had got booked on the wrong tour! After seeing umpteen million fabulous and beautiful churches in Puebla, we were pretty "churched out", and I would have rather knawed my own arm off than see any more, especially in the baking heat. However, there was one spectacular church that wasn't on his itinerary, and it was atop one of the world's largest pyramids. This seemed like an interesting place to put a church, so instead of knawing my arm off, I had it twisted, and we set off for
Sweet picture, this is the Mexican way of carrying your offspring. The same arrangement could be used for carrying your shopping
We arrived at the site, and there were rows of locals selling their wares from makeshifts stalls, and with goods layed out on blankets. One woman had a large bucket of some interesting looking goodies that were being shoveled into plastic bags and sold to people as snacks. I looked closer, and with a mixed feeling of horror and delight I saw that they were deep-fried grasshoppers! Delight because I had been wanting to try them. Horror because I had never eaten an insect before. The woman saw my interest, and offered me a spoon with a couple of the little fellas on it. I gingerly placed one in the palm of my hand and looked at it. It was small, crispy, and was coated with some kind of chilli spice mix. It's little legs were thrust up to the sky, and it was the least appetising thing I've ever seen. But being a food adventurer, how could I say no. I brought it closer to my mouth, pulled my tequila face (without the tequila), and tried to sum up the courage to eat it. Justine told me to just "put it in your mouth and get on
with it", so I opened wide and threw it inside. CRUNCH. I clenched my fists, grimaced and did a little dance of horror, trying to munch it as quickly as I could. whilst trying to save my sunglasses which had fallen off my head. It was crunchy, salty and hot, but once I calmed down, not too bad. I bought a bagful for my travelling companions to try, and then we headed up Cholula.
The pyramid which the church is built on has a base that is four times larger than any pyramid in Egypt. Massive. According to myth, it was built by a giant. (If you believe that, you will believe anything). But it was abandoned centuries ago, and became overgrown and covered in dirt. So now it's just a big hill, with a few token excavated areas to hint at what lies underneath. The church on the top was fairly impressive, as much for it's location as the architecture. As we climbed to the top, we reached a flat area where there was some bizarre ritual going on. There was a circle of people wearing white robes and holding swords, with a scary "creature" dressed in black
Does his wife know he dresses like this?
in the middle. He was like a cross between a shamon, a devil and a witch doctor, wearing a skull mask topped with magnificent feather plumage. He was dancing around to the tribal beat of bongos, and the air was thick with the sweet, cloying smell of incense. Each white-robed person in the inner circle had black robes at their feet, which made me think this was some kind of cult initiation ceremony. We asked our guide, but he had never seen this before, and had no idea what this represented. To this day, I have no idea what this was for. If anyone reading this blog knows, please let me know!
There are more photos below