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Posts Tagged ‘San Miguel de Allende’

You don’t know John. Neither did we, really. We were the fortunate couple that bought the San Miguel Mexico home of John and Elaine McLeod 6 years ago. Ours was the last home they built here. And naturally, we think it’s the best: the culmination of 24 years of designing and building homes in our lovely colonial mountain town. They had been drawn to San Miguel from Sarasota Florida, where they had lived, we presume, as a happily married “second time” around couple. She is an artist and a beautiful woman, who had adorned her home with a “painterly” eye. One of the first gifts that I bought for my husband Ben was one of her large oil paintings that was hanging beside the downstairs fireplace when we were shown the house.  I thought it belonged right where it was, and made a secret deal with John to keep it from being loaded on the truck headed to Taos New Mexico.  When guests admire our home, I acknowledge Elaine for the paint colours & furniture we inherited: to John goes the credit for the gracious, well proportioned design.

We spoke briefly and cordially with them for the first couple of years. While we were waiting for the house to close, John generously oversaw the construction of our lap pool with an admirable attention to detail. He came in on time and on budget,  treating us like real clients, sending us photos of the work in progress every Friday morning.  I think that he just liked to build things. And he likely knew that this might be his last project.
Have you ever wondered what the sellers do with “your” money on closing: we were happy to learn that the McLeods had returned to the boating world, investing in an ocean going luxury power cruiser that roared down the Atlantic coast. He had been a sailor, like Ben, but the demands of that sport began to weigh. I imagine him standing tall behind the console, hand on the controls, eye on the horizon, sporting his trademark ear to ear grin as he pushed the throttle forward.
On our first day back this July, we learned that John McLeod had died. A heart attack but the cancer had returned. It put a pall on our evening and dampened our usual pleasure in our return to our special Mexican home. We recovered some the next day, and I am sure that tomorrow will be brighter still. We will remember him through the elegant proportions of the outdoor sala, the exquisite detail around the ceilings and the grand cantera fireplace in our living room. A fitting and much loved memorial for a kind and talented man.

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Recently, Ben & I were fortunate enough to be invited to a destination wedding and this time, the destination was San Miguel!  The “Again” in the title of this Post refers to the magical meeting of Ben and I, just over seven years ago.  We were in a roof-top hotel bar when we first entered each other’s orbit,  not too far from where we now enjoy the winter months. (He was going on a dinner date with the owner of that hotel but that’s another story. Another Post perhaps?)

This bride and groom are a sophisticated couple from Toronto, who decided to celebrate their nuptials in the company of their many friends who “winter” here. They also decided to give themselves up to their eager San Miguel party planners and just go with it. In greeting the beautiful but clearly nervous bride at the warmup party, I said that she had the “look of a deer in the headlights”.  Her eyes darting around, she said it was because she did not know what the hell was going on. Or what would happen next.

What happened next was a traditional wedding parade around the Jardin, the central town square.  Well, the parade was not really “traditional” in the sense of other wedding traditions like long white dresses, walks down the aisle and “something old and something new”.  This tradition involves large quantities of tequila being drunk by increasingly tipsy participants following the bride and groom and a white burro ( how often do you read those three nouns together in one sentence?)down and around cobblestone streets for the better part of an hour. As is usual in San Miguel, high heels were only for the fashion foolish!

By the end of the parade, I suspected from the happy silly looks on their faces, that she and her husband-to-be in two days, (the actual ceremony was later) were enchanted with the town, the huge paper mâché “Mohigangas” puppets of a bride and groom that twirled around them*, and of course, grateful to their planner friends.  Even the burro got a big kiss on the nose!

*A mojiganga (pronounced: mo-he-gang-ga) is a giant puppet also used as sculpture or a grand scale design element for a large event. The head and bust are made of paper mâché which is then mounted on a tall supporting A-frame structure. They twirl madly and swoop their huge heads down on the unsuspecting:  quite startling actually!

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For me, as for many travellers, food is the fastest way to learn about a new country:   culture, language,  history, geography and even economics are all expressed through the kitchen and then on the plate. So when landing somewhere new, I try to book a cooking class early on, preferably one that includes a market or shopping tour. In my first month in San Miguel as a visitor, I tore through most of the local Mexican cooking schools, and so have a decent mastery of market Spanish and several versions of salsa roja and verde.

But when we moved here for part of the year (that would be the cold part back in Canada) I began to crave a different experience. Mexican cooking is very regional, so once you have been exposed to the local specialities,  you are pretty much done. Most of the Mexican classes are  filled with tourists, so I was unlikely to extend my network of “like minded” residents in my new home.(Definition of “like minded”:  folks who get nervous if their meals are not planned four to six sittings ahead)  For six months of the year, I also craved the flavours of my favourite ethnic foods:   Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Sichuan.  There are not many good ethnic restaurants here, I thought I might put those Far East cooking classes to work.  But where to get the ingredients?

The heart of the kitchen

The heart of the kitchen

So I was delighted to discover  Michael and Valarie Coon’s global cooking school, Insideroute. Set in the fabulously equipped kitchen of their San Antonio home,(I have a serious case of range and fridge envy),  their specialty classes focus on cuisines from all over the world, with the exception of Mexico (The couple do lead very popular culinary tours to other parts of Mexico, and you can email them here to get on the list for classes and for tours:  insideroute@aol.com

I have taken quite a few classes from them, (Thai, Vietnamese,Korean , Low Country and more)  and they are great fun and very social events. With Michael as chef/teacher and Valarie as charming and welcoming hostess,  he manages to impart culinary knowledge while ensuring that we are all engaged and participating at whatever level we feel most comfortable. For some, that’s just sipping an agua fresca but if you want to,  don an apron and grab a ladle.

One of the ancillary benefits of attendance is that Michael (and his assistant, former caterer and long time resident Holly

Holly plating the Polenta

Holly plating the Polenta

Sims) know where to get everything to do with food.  From the best sources for free range chicken to what specific aisle and shelf the kosher salt is on at the local superstore, to what Asian ingredients are available where and which have to be ordered through Amazon, they are an encyclopedic culinary resource. ( Next month, expect my post on local sourcing of ingredients) Michael is also an obsessive collector of cookbooks:  I think that the living room ceiling threatens to collapse under the weight of his collection above. Here is one of my favourite moments:    he was giving us a tour of the rooftop garden, and walking by a container, casually pulled out a stalk for each of us and said “here’s some lemon grass, take it home, put it in a bucket, water well, and it will grow like a weed”. Like all true cooks, he loves to share his passion.

I will definitely be writing  more about Michael and Valarie’s entertaining classes,  but this post is about a very special evening:  a tribute from Michael to the recently deceased and immensely mourned Italian cookbook author and teacher, Marcella Hazan.  When Michael was at the Culinary Institute of America or CIA in California, he arranged a book signing and presentation for her.  She was to take questions, but I guess her reputation for being a culinary curmudgeon silenced the room. Michael decided to break the ice, asking her “Do you always cook  with extra virgin olive oil?”.  In front of several hundred people,  she flatly replied :  “That’s a stupid question.”

I expect some nervous laughter ensued, but perhaps that opening led to their ongoing relationship.  Here is a sample from their FB chats, offering encouraging words to Michael when they moved to Mexico and started a cooking school:

Ciao Michael. Thirty-four years ago I decided to open a cooking school in Bologna. I had no examples to follow, but it all turned out pretty well and if I hadn’t become too old to continue I’d probably still have students there. It takes optimism and a thick head to undertake something like that and I know what you are facing and I admire you for doing it in Mexico. If travel hadn’t become nearly forbidding for me I’d come down to see you. I wish you well. Victor, who is always grateful to you for putting him onto Global (knives), also sends his best. Marcella

And yes, she always cooked with extra virgin olive oil!

Ben’s favourite course of the evening was the “Grilled Portobello Mushrooms & Polenta and Michael kindly supplied his recipe here. (more…)

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On Friday Ben & I are having a cocktail party, our first one as a couple and our first in our adopted winter home, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I hope to buy roses at a ridiculously low price, and scatter the petals in the two fountains in the courtyards of our rental home, just as our favourite restaurants here do. Tomorrow is the anniversary of our first date, and we will celebrate it by returning to the scene: the lovely Fabrica la Aurora, a turn of the last century textile factory, now converted to showcase and studio for many contemporary artists. In a town founded in the 16th century, you would expect history to be close to the surface, and indeed, it survives in the magnificent haciendas, treacherous cobblestone streets, and striking churches that give the town it’s unique colonial character.

During my first trip to San Miguel, the famously fabulous weather was horrid: cold, rainy and miserable, the only saving grace being the lack of snow. But even the need for boots and wool wraps could not diminish my enthusiasm for the live music, the variety of restaurants and the warmth of the people I met. Admittedly, most of my new friends were like me: travelers of a certain age from North America, looking for a little warmth and a few new experiences. San Miguel is an ex-pat paradise, with something for everyone, from the new age spiritualist, to the gourmand to the would be artist.

This time, with another year of Spanish lessons straining my brain, I hoped to delve further into the culture of San Miguel and even Mexico. I have traveled to Mexico several times, mostly to the Yucatán area, and was struck at how rich and unique the different regions of Mexico are, in terms of food (my passion), customs, costumes, and culture. So with that in mind, I attended a Literary Sala on Bi-Culturalism.

The panel had an equal number of men and women, and those from Mexico and the United States. (There are a lot of Canadians here too, but the Americans seem to dominate not only by numbers but by involvement and leadership in the community, at least as far as I have seen. There are so many visitors from Canada this year that a tour guide asked me if there was anyone left there. Nope I quipped: we have left Canada to the snow, the polar bears and the sled dogs. He was from Texas: there is an odds on chance he believed me!)

So what did this panel of writers and professionals have to say about the challenge of being brought up in one culture and choosing to then live in another? Not surprisingly, most had found their way across the border for love. So they were highly motivated, as least initially, to make their way successfully.

One doctor had followed her physician husband to the cold of Connecticut, having to do her residency again to meet the U.S. requirements. It was her observation that Americans work incredibly hard. For couples to be comfortable she said, they must both work, and they both work to exhaustion. And then on the weekend there is all the other work to be done: the shopping, the household chores, the yard work. Mexicans she said, think all Americans are rich, and have so many machines to help. But the lawn mower does not move by its self, nor does the vacuum cleaner. Her answer: Americans should have more domestic help.

Which of course if you live in San Miguel, or Mexico and have a reasonable income, domestic help is the norm. Our March rental home has a maid/cook and a gardener 6 days a week. It is expected, customary and exactly not what the mostly American audience was expecting to hear from a Mexican.

What good have Americans brought to San Miguel? The employment of locals in well-paying and secure jobs. Over 100 non for profit organizations  created and run by  energetic retired expats that support worthy causes like the splendid Library, the SPCA, the disabled, abused women, scholarships for student, and many, many more.

And the downside of all this pale skin and silver hair? Gentrification has forced house prices up dramatically. Consequently, it has become very expensive for the children of Mexicans to stay in San Miguel. (But as the practical doctor pointed out, the same thing happened in Connecticut when wealthy New Yorkers started looking there for weekend homes.)

One the American panelists was a journalist who had married a young man while he was still in high school. She expected that things might change after marriage, but no: they moved into the tight quarters of the extended family home where his grandmother still cooked his favourite meals and he still played basketball after school!  She definitely had the funniest tales of cultures clashing, mostly around too much sharing and too little privacy.

She also had one of the most telling stories of cultural differences: when her first child was born, she found herself suddenly thinking just like her Anglo friends back home, frantically wondering where the money for his Harvard education was going to come from. When she voiced her concerns out loud at a family gathering, her Mexican relatives turned to her husband with raised eyebrows and a familiar look that meant, something along the lines of  “what were you thinking, bringing this woman into our home?”

For as the grandmother patiently pointed out, or perhaps with exasperation, “”Every child is born with his own sandwich”. Loosely translated, this Mexican homily means that if Harvard is to be his destiny, his destiny will be provided for. Why worry about it now?

Also to be filed under the category of “I had no idea that you felt that way”, was the response from an ambitious and successful young Mexican businessman, who as a  teenager,  had regularly been smuggled across the border to work as a roofer in LA. When asked: “What do Mexicans really think of North Americans?”, he said, “They think you are all rich, spoiled and think only of your money. It’s what they see on Mexican television,” he said with a shrug and a smile. What else can you expect?   The not so benign influence of The Housewives of Orange County or Jersey Shore perhaps?

He also made one of the most sensible remarks of the evening: “I am not a gold coin”. It is another Mexican homily that sounds so much better in Spanish, as does most everything really. His point: we are all human: we are not all good, nor all bad. Please do not assume that all Mexicans are universally virtuous (or have no sense of time, or no ambition, or any other cultural generalization)  and we will not assume the worst of all of you, despite what we may see on television. An excellent foundation for successful bicultural relationships, here or perhaps even back home in Canada.

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In my first post, I tried to articulate what I felt made San Miguel de Allende so compelling to visitors.  There are many stories of people who planned on only staying for a week or two, and end up buying a home on impulse within a few days.  New friends from Connecticut did that in my last week there:  we celebrated their purchase of a “tear down” with drinks on a roof top terrace, toasting their new venture and the stunning San Miguel sunset. 

 As I said earlier, there is something for everyone in San Miguel. You can explore your latent creative ability with fine art lessons, seek spiritual enlightenment at an Empowerment Centre, watch fabulous, sexy flamenco at the local theatre, or expand your mind with lectures on Dante’s Inferno.  The option of spending your days recovering from the night before is a popular choice too! Actually, there are so many restaurants and bars with live music, filled with folks eagerly practicing their dance steps, you would have to be pretty much a curmudgeon not to enjoy yourself. (And if that is the case, don’t come! Please.) 

Or, you can join a number of strong, independent women in San Miguel, and open your own business. I spent my month in SMA at Casa Linda, a boutique hotel done in an extravagant colonial style, owned and operated by a Texan, Linda McLaughlin.  There are a lot of Texans here, and they bring their warm, big-hearted attitude to the place. (I like the contrast with the more earth mother bohemian women of a certain age that choose to retire here) There are over 100 hotels and B&B’s here, so I could have been more nomadic, which is what I normally do to “try out” a new city. (For example, in Bangkok, I moved between three boutique hotels in 5 days, just to see the difference in value for dollar. For future reference, the winner was the magnificent Sukhothai.) 

But here, I was upgraded to a suite, and frankly, I welcomed the chance to practice Spanish with the staff, and spend my morning coffee with Linda when she was available. I even got the point where I would just go to the kitchen door to order breakfast. As the manager said, I became family. 

Linda came to SMA 16 years ago, by way of small town, working class Texas, a high school marriage, which led  to Dallas, New York, Philadelphia and L.A. (I may have omitted a few spots, but you get the sense of a  busy life, filled with her children, a demanding career of her own and an ex husband with a big job in the oil industry) Her first stay here was for 6 months, in honor of her deceased brother, who had loved Mexico. She had no aspirations to be an inn keeper, and in fact her first venture was a jazz bar, restaurant, art gallery mélange. Doing business here can be challenging because the working culture is so different from our own. The tax structure is pretty straightforward and there are no mortgages, so cash talks. As a foreigner, you cannot work here if it means taking jobs from Mexican citizens, but you can certainly invest. 

So she did, jumping right into the deep end of the pool, by renovating a 400 year old meson into a modern boutique hotel with 8 unique decorated rooms & suites, a pool, Jacuzzi, gym, restaurant and an extremely popular roof top bar, aptly named, The Sunset Bar. In fact, I met almost all the people I now enjoy as friends sitting on that terrace, watching the lights come up on the churches and in the hills beyond.   

Linda credits her eight successful years here to her wish to make people comfortable, to make them happy with their stay in SMA and at her hotel. Anyone who has ever touched the service business knows that sounds a lot easier than it does. She has been described as the perfect hostess, a slim blonde with a dazzling, welcoming smile, who works the room to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves, as much as she obviously is. I think that she also has a generous heart:  one of my first events in SMA was a chili tasting contest which was also a  fundraiser,  spearheaded by Linda and two friends, for a local school for kids in need. When I saw her a few mornings after the event, she was going off to see the accountant to see “how much money they had raised for the kids”.  

Her ”Next Big Thing” is to help others face  the challenges of getting old and still have  a wonderful life. She is looking at a venture which will be retirement residence that has a huge fun factor built-in:  could this be the Club Med for Seniors that I referenced earlier? She sees it as a natural extension of being an innkeeper, but it also an expression of her genuine caring for others.

I wanted to profile more of these strong successful women in San Miguel, but I ran out of time. Or perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to go back?

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One rainy evening in San Miguel, (and believe me, many of them were rainy) it was suggested that we take refuge in the warm bar called Berlin and undertake that tequila tasting I had been talking about.  By way of background, to be called tequila, the product must originate from the region of Tequila, where it is made from the blue agave plant in a time-consuming process. Anything with over 51% agave can be called Tequila, but the higher the agave content, the better the product and the more expensive the bottle. But is the extra cost justified?   Connoisseurs of the fiery Mexican drink will tell you that you get what you pay for:  more expensive tequila should taste better, smoother, more complicated and nuanced in flavour. 

There are over 950 brands of tequila but I have neither the time nor the liver to conduct an exhaustive survey so we took a simple approach to the question.  We ordered a pair of roughly equivalent tequilas, served straight up in shot glasses, tasting in sequence from least expensive to most. 

Honestly, it was all a bit lost on me. I don’t think tequila will ever replace fine Scotch whisky or premium bourbon in my liquor cabinet. However, some folks in San Miguel sip it all night in small snifters, and report feeling no ill effects the next day. I cannot say the same about an evening spent with Glenmorangie!

However, in a country where beer is the ubiquitous beverage of choice, which I don’t drink, and house wine tends to err on the side of plonk, tequila is a good choice for an evening out.  Frankly, the best part of the tequila tasting for me (except for the charming company) was the sangrita. It is a traditional accompaniment to premium tequila, meant to heighten the appreciation of the agave flavour, by sipping alternatively from each glass. It is made from a spicy blend of tomatoes or tomato juice, orange and lime juices, onions, salt and hot chili peppers. It is vaguely like sipping a Blood Mary with the liquor in one glass and the tomato mixture in the other, and it is really appealing.

 At the close of our evening, our intense concentration was broken by a gentleman from a group sitting across the bar who shouted “OK, enough already, which was the best?”  Apparently, our little experiment had attracted an audience.

So here’s the verdict: the best tasting tequila was indeed the most expensive:  Don Julio.  The next best was actually not Tequila at all, but a premium mescal:  Jaral de Berrio  Made of 100% agave, and aged for about four years, this beverage had a smoky flavour that these two scotch drinkers found appealing.

 Since mescal does not have the cachet of aged tequila (it is commonly associated with college binges and dodgy worms lurking in the bottom of bottles) it will always cost less than premium tequila. Think of the relationship between Armagnac and Cognac. Despite the name mescal, it has no psychedelic properties, and indeed, in the north of Mexico, they drink it before breakfast as an aid to controlling diabetes and hypertension.  Somehow I think my good doctor might be skeptical. 

But there is really only one way to drink tequila or mescal for that matter. You find your way late to a dark, dingy cantina in Mexico, where the doors swing open like in an old-time Western. Brush the crumbs off the battered chairs, ignore the decades of grime ground into the carpet and order a round of tequila and sangrita. The corners are dark and the air smoky and there will be at least one couple dancing close and another kissing as if they were on life support. If you are very lucky, the music will be old-fashioned Mexican western songs of love and loss, strummed on an acoustic guitar by a handsome man who wears a Sombrero and sings in a rich baritone. Mix the music with impromptu sing alongs by the mostly Mexican audience, really filthy jokes (they have to be really profane if I understood them in Mexican) and good-natured heckling from the floor and you have the makings of a fine evening with tequila and friends. Salud!

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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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