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Archive for February, 2010

Sounds vaguely salacious doesn’t it? Well, it is only meant to intrigue you to hear more about San Miguel during the week before Lent.

Why the City of Fallen Women? Because the cobblestones are so uneven and the sidewalks so erratic that turned ankles are the norm, with even bruised knees on occasion.

 A cobblestone street is of those things in life that looks pretty, but is pretty impractical. But of course, there is a made in SMA solution (by a local female entrepreneur): The San Miguel “Combat Cocktail Shoe” pictured above. It comes in a myriad of colours and styles: the common elements are sturdy rubber souls and ankle supports that wrap you securely. Not unlike Spanx for your ankles, and that’s how exactly how it feels.

 Now you never really confidently stride in San Miguel, head high and arms swinging. You still need to watch out for hydro poles, slide by others who share the narrow sidewalk, avoid water coming from the decorative downspouts above, and of course, side step the  doggy do. (Nothing, nobody and nowhere is perfect!)

 New Orleans celebrates Fat Tuesday in the week before Lent with its world famous display of decadence and debauchery. SMA has Harry’s,  a New Orleans’s styled bar, which acquitted itself reasonably well on the licentious  scale (I did a moderate amount of  first hand research, just to be sure)  Most Latin American countries have their own customs for the week they call Carnival:  in Ecuador, you run the risk of being doused by water pistols.   

Here in SMA, children dash around the central square, called The Jardin, dodging grownups and gas lamps, attempting to smash coloured eggs on each others heads. The eggs are beautiful shades blue, pink, yellow, or red, and are filled with confetti and sliver dust, which the kids shake out of their hair and clothes all day. Hundreds of eggs are piled high in huge baskets:  I suspect that they must carefully collect them all year round in preparation.

Around the Jardin, local women sell whimsical handmade dolls which have brightly colored costumes and hair, and hold umbrellas, balloons, or miniature musical instruments.  Clowns are the most common dolls but there are dancing ladies as well as masses of   brilliantly coloured paper flowers, the size of dinner plates.  The whole effect is joyous, bright, and happy, and should serve to erase the bitter winter wind and snow from your mind, at least for a moment or two. Enjoy.

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Most of my friends know that I take cooking classes in whatever country I travel to:  China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos all have cooking schools of varying levels of sophistication and value for the educational dollar. Here in San Miguel de Allende I chose to immerse myself in the cuisine of Central Mexico by taking four different cooking classes in one week.

Cooking classes in foreign countries do more than simply teach you how to prepare an authentic Pad Thai or Cantonese delicacies like steamed spareribs in black bean sauce. Although while there is nothing wrong with collecting recipes when in the country of origin, you may find that you actually prefer your naturalized version back home. It really is a matter of what you get accustomed to. For example, I was shocked at how much sugar and salt go into genuine Thai and Balinese cooking. Literally fistfuls! My blood pressure went up just watching it!

I take cooking class for a variety of reasons. They ease you into the culture, particularly if a market tour is included.  Cooking and culture of course intertwined, and you learn about the history, customs and values of a people by understanding their cuisine. As an example, here in Mexico, olive oil is never used in cooking (and I mean never) because the Spanish overlords forbid access to both olives (and grapes) by non- Spaniards. Hence viniculture in Mexico is still relatively new, and olive oil is rarely used in the comida of the country, even though the climate is perfect for the cultivation of both the olive tree and the grape-vine.

I also take cooking classes to meet like-minded travelers and locals. Cooking classes here in SMA led to an evening with a documentary film maker from California. Later that week, my friend and I attended a showing of two of her wonderful films:  Songs of a Jewish Cowboy, and the Chicken Farmers of Petaluma. Afterwards, we were invited to join her group for dinner at a nearby restaurant whose walls were covered with photos and memorabilia from bullfights, in Spain Mexico and SMA. Ole! Things like this just don’t happen sitting in your hotel room, or confining your experience to a bus tour.

Authentic Mexican food, like traditional cuisine everywhere, is that curious dichotomy of “rules which are never to be broken” and “every family has their own version of everything”.  For example, in the making of salsa’s which are really sauces, mostly meant to be served hot over some kind of protein, you cannot use more than one fresh pepper, or one type of fruit in a salsa, but you can use more than one kind of dried pepper, but never a fresh and dried salsa in the same meal. Yes, it can get that complicated.

The “rules” also dictate that only beer and tequila are to be served with true Mexican food. The food related rationale is that the fruit of the wine might compete with the fruit in some moles or salsas, or conversely, be consumed by the heat and spice. Of course, it is rooted in the historical prohibition on the growing of grapes; hence no tradition of serving wine with food.

I don’t drink beer and I have yet to appreciate the joys of tequila*.   So I prefer to think that wine and Mexican foods are like a lovely couple that just have not been properly introduced yet. A Mexican meal would be well suited to an Ontario Riesling, that versatile food wine, the natural spicy food pairing of Gewürztraminer, and my personal choice, a medium bodied Cava, that inexpensive, all-purpose bubbly from Spain. A crisp fruity Albarino from the North Eastern region of Galicia in Spain would be a contender too.

So I leave you with a recipe for guacamole, upon which there are many variations, but this is the simplest and the most authentic.  You can use a fork to mix the ingredients, but I think that using a mortar and pestle (preferably stone based) to create a paste from the onions and chili first will produce a better result. You will notice that they use fresh Serrano chilies, not Jalapeños, which here are used dried and or pickled, never fresh.

You can tell that a Hass avocado is ripe if it slightly gives to your touch:  if not ripe enough, and the success of such a simple approach will depend upon few ingredients in perfect condition,  ripen in a paper bag on the counter for a few days.  Don’t forget to remove the seeds from the Serrano chili;   much of the technique in authentic Mexican cooking focuses on controlling heat, not accentuating it.

The result should be a bowl of pale green mounds, smooth and voluptuous in texture and unctuous in the mouth. You should want to take a bath in it, or at least slather it all over your body!

Failing that impulse, it can be used as “green butter” in sandwiches, a healthy dip for vegetables, or served Tex Mex style, with good quality, lightly salted corn chips.

A gentleman  from California whom I met one evening on a terrace as the sun was setting beautifully over San Miguel said that problem with Mexican cuisine is the use of  corn tortillas:  the corn flavour overpowers everything and makes it all taste the same. Well, that may be true, and I need to do more research (poor me) but there is something ridiculously appealing in the contrast of crisp salted corn and the velvety, voluptuous texture and taste of guacamole. Enjoy!

Guacamole

4 generous servings/3 cups

3 ripe avocados, preferably Hass

½ medium white onion, minced fine

1 Serrano chili (green, seeded and minced fine)

2 tbsp cilantro, carefully rinsed, dried, and chopped fine just before using

2 ripe red plum tomatoes, seeds and pulp removed, medium dice (about ¼ in squares)

1 tsp lime juice (only needed to prevent darkening if you are not eating the Guacamole right away)

½ tsp coarse sea salt (or kosher salt) to taste.

Pound the minced onion, chili and half the salt in a mortar and pestle until it becomes a fine paste. Put into a mixing bowl.  Cut the avocados in half lengthwise, remove pit, and then remove the avocado flesh from the shells  with a spoon and put into same mixing bowl. Mix the paste and the avocado gently, breaking up the ripe avocado into smaller and smaller chucks until you get a thick rich consistency, not unlike a bowl of your best, richest buttery lump free mashed potatoes.  Mix in the cilantro and tomato with care. Taste and add more salt if necessary. If you are serving with chips, you may not need any additional seasoning.

* Since writing this entry, I spent a cold wet San Miguel evening in the company of a lovely man, conducting a not entirely scientific survey of various grades and brands of tequila. But that is the subject of another post entirely.  🙂

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I am writing to you today from what is likely the most beautiful Starbucks in Mexico, possibly Latin America. Huge soaring ceilings, covered in aged bricks, from which hang large, elaborate wrought iron chandeliers. There is a lovely flower filled inner courtyard, as there is in most homes, hotels and restaurants in the charming colonial village of San Miguel de Allende. It’s one of those places where people come for a week and buy a house on day 3. I just finished chatting with an American couple (most everyone here who is Anglo is from the US or Canada) who were on their way to an appointment with an architect to look at drawings for their rebuild of an 19th century townhome. Yesterday, they were looking at condos to rent for a few weeks.

San Miguel (or SMA as the locals call it) has been accused of being “Mexico lite” or even “Disney-Mex”, but it is actually a little more interesting than those monikers might suggest. Those who are being  a trifle unkind call it “Club Med for Seniors”, but that’s not entirely accurate either.

In fact, I have had a difficult time pinpointing precisely makes this town of 140,000 so appealing to 5,000 foreigners, mas o meno. There is the dry mountain air, the normally pleasant weather year-round (not when I have been here, sadly), the charming 17th and 18th century colonial architecture,  and the established infrastructure of safe clean streets, boutique hotels, long or short-term rentals, and a variety of restaurants and activities. 

 I am reminded of Richard Florida’s thesis on the importance of the “Creative Class to the viability and vibrancy of a city:  there are more genuine and wannabe artists, craftspeople, and writers per square foot here than anywhere else I have been. Now of course, many of them are well over 50 (I actually bring the average age down among the foreigners!) and are discovering or disparing of their latent creative abilities well into retirement age.

Or they may be seeking spiritual enlightenment through a personal journey or one assisted by the many spiritual leaders or groups here about. It is like Taos New Mexico in that way, and indeed there are many Americans from that part of the US. I also sense overtones of Ubud, Bali, where many Americans, (ok mostly women)  have settled into a life of yoga, mediation and the elusive search for inner peace.

But there are also lots of Texans, of the broad drawl, big hats, big hair, and lots of flashy diamonds and silver.  For as many seekers of inner truth through mediation and reflection,  there are an equal number  who apparently prefer to find it in the bottom of a martini glass. 2 for 1 cocktail hours are the norm, and the pours are scary generous.  Combine that with the high altitude and things get pretty funky here come midnight. Live music is everywhere: jazz for listening, salsa for dancing and the oldies for reminiscing with your tequila and cervaza.

But likely the most striking thing for me about SMA, and I think the biggest influence on its Anglo culture is the sheer number of women of a certain age. Entrepreneurs, “party people”, or earth mother types, they are all here and in quantity. There are couples for sure, a sizable gay community,  and some single straight guys (the odds are so much in their favour, it’s truly an embarassment of riches for them and they know it!)

What does this mean for the traveler? Well, it is a wonderful place for learning. Many of these women have engaged  and enriched the community by organizing festivals for film and writing, are teaching painting, weaving, photography or writing,  or have organized lectures with visiting authors or knowledgeable speakers on interesting topics. It’s not to say that men don’t take part or lead,  but truly, estrogen drives this place. For a women traveling alone or looking to find a community where she can find a niche or create one, SMA is a pretty good place to be.

The other side effect of  having all of these women residents is that SMA is probably the most friendly place that I have ever been. I cannot tell you how many coffee or cocktail conversations have led to dinner invitations. You just need to look up, make eye contact and smile, and you have a new friend in the making. Residents pride themselves on being helpful too, so you never need worry about how to get something done, or who is the best source for whatever. Just ask, and the right business card will be in front of you that afternoon.

I have much more to write, but I am off to cooking class, my third this week. Tomorrow, I will share a recipe or two:  I have finally learned how to use all of those dried peppers I see in the market. Such fun!

Adios.

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