From Altotonga to Zongolica: random notes on travels through Central Veracruz
These notes are long overdue; I have been telling myself to work on these posts for at least a year now (i.e. after my last big trip through the area). I have finally realized that I will never be able to put together that massive omnibus on the subject and that it would be better to work instead on smaller posts as I go, concentrating on individual towns/villages or on specific food items whenever I find the time. At the same time, I have already alluded to my experiences in several of these places in central Veracruz in many other threads, many of them moved elsewhere for various reasons and not even currently located on the Mexico Board. So I am hoping to make this thread a pretext for gathering all those stray bits of information together which will hopefully give them a more useful, a more coherent form and context. Consider the ff then as a work in progress.
Before anything else, I would like to note that the title is not an alphabetic affectation at all. ;0) On that trip in October 2007, I did in fact enter Veracruz state from the Sierra Norte de Puebla by crossing from Teziutlan to Altotonga. I would have liked to claim that I was able to travel according to pure linguistic logic in the manner of Raymond Roussel, but beyond moving from Veracruz (city) to Xalapa to Xico, it proved impossible to keep to any more rigorous method. I was headed to see the opening of the annual Matanzas de Tehuacan and was hoping to be able to find a way into Puebla by going over the mountain from Zongolica (town). But although my last town in Veracruz on that trip was in fact Zongolica, I ended up having to backtrack to Orizaba in order to catch the conveniently-scheduled bus to Tehuacan.
A caveat: those who are familiar with the hundreds of posts that I have written on this website since the beginning of the deacde know that RST is very rarely interested in "a nice place to have dinner". For that, there are now several excellent guidebooks to the area (in Spanish, and available in area bookstores; these are mostly written with a target audience of domestic, i.e. Mexican, middle-class tourists and/or tourists from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.) Most of these have good information on restaurants, what to see etc. A lot of this material can also be found in an excellent series called "Mole in the Mountains" published on chow.com (see: http://www.chow.com/stories/10660). But I am more fascinated by houndier, edgier stuff: a completely-forgotten, unjustly-neglected benchmark for mole de Xico, a tiny 3-table never-before-mentioned restaurant in Xalapa serving the cuisine of Chicontepec, unique seasonal produce (chayotextle or tepejilote in Cordoba, chicatana in Huatusco, wild mushrooms etc) and where to have them cooked and in what dishes. A lot of street food very specific to each town will be listed and whenever possible I will specify the exact location of the vendor, his/her name, the time of day when he/she could be found (e.g. the father and daughter who makes a circuit late in the afternoon through the Monday market at Coscomatepec with their plastic buckets of tamales de flor de izote). As far as I know, there is virtually no information at all in any language on most of these very unusual, very specific food items which often can be found only in that one town/village and nowhere else.
I start at the end, only because there is already fairly substantial material on this town (Zongolica town, in the area called Sierra de Zongolica) on the ff thread from March 2007:
I remember the thread being unceremoniously moved by the moderators from the Mexico Board where it really belongs (is there a more specifically and richly Mexican thread than this?) to General Board where no one will ever find it. (Why oh why does the Mexico Board-or is this really the Puerto Vallarta Board? ;0( have to be constantly diluted by having the best material tampered with by moderators!)
I barely had time for another visit in Oct 2007 and spent 2 hrs going up (from Orizaba) and two hours down for a quick 1 1/2 hr walk-around. It was once again a shockingly beautiful ride (specially the segment from Orizaba to Tequila)-pristine mountain sceneries that rivalled other wonderful rides on this trip alone: the cloudscapes straight out of a Chinese ink painting on the ride up to Cuetzalan, or the pastoral delights of the rolling foothills around Naolinco. The vegetation is extremely dense and varied, and at this time of the year, the mountainside is covered with flowers of various intense hues of reds, pinks, purples, browns. Towards Zongolica (town), the roads were lined with hundreds and hundreds of an orange-and-yellow wild orchid (Epidendrum radicans) in full bloom. The town itself is bedecked with beautiful ceremonial arches (arcos; temporary wood-and-bamboo arches decorated with flowers and palm leaves) for the many annual festivities of this part of the year (inclg the upcoming Day of the Dead). After I entered town, the main road to/from Zongolica was blocked off by students from the Tecnologico Superior protesting "irregularidades" in the local administration. This cut short my time I had planned even more but fortunately I was able to sample some really lovely things before I had to hurry off to start the trek uphill, past the demonstrating students, and the policemen, to where the bus back to Orizaba would pick us up.
First of all, this is a very small town, large enough to support a permanent market structure, but apart from fondas on the second floor of the market (the everyday dishes include tesmole de res or pollo, "salsa de puerco" etc), there are very few other places to grab a meal. I was told that the busiest days for market are Thurs and Sun. But everyday, there is a modest row of Indian women sitting on the ground ("las Marias") between the market and the main plaza selling the most magical things: tiny aguacatillos, quelites and quintonil (amaranth greens) of different hues, hierba mora (Solanum nigrum) which is used as a medicine I think, tendrils of different vines (chayote etc), fresh new beans measured out in sardine cans, wild mountain guavas, guajes, chayotes of diff sorts (this whole part of Veracruz is chayote country!), little plastic bags of fresh-picked red bean flowers (probably ayacote flowers) or of pumpkin seeds (pepitas), granadillas, montones of jobo and of nispero which are in season at this time of the year and which could be found growing wild throughout the countryside first around Huachinango/Xicotepec (Sierra Norte) and then again here in Zongolica/Orizaba. I became obsessed with nisperos and could not eat enough of it on this trip (incidentally, I think that the specific cultivar of nispero of these areas is closer to Asian loquats than to the so-called "open-arsed" medlar of Europe-there must be an interesting story of transmission behind this!)
Most exciting and unique of all finds is a very delicious, very delicate variety of tomato. Here is my description of this tomato taken from my emails to eat_nopal and from notes sent out with seeds I dried and sent out to friends right after I got back home:
These seeds were collected on October 16, 2007 in Zongolica (town) high up in the Sierra de Zongolica (Veracruz) from an unusual tomato variety being sold by one of "las Marias" (Indian vendors) spread out (on a non-market day) in one corner of the main plaza. This is a variety that I had never seen before elsewhere in Mexico-not even in the markets of the nearest big cities (Orizaba and Cordoba). The biggest fruits of this tomato are only as big as my thumbnail. They grow in clusters like cherry tomatoes, but differ from "cherry", "currant", "grape" or "pear" tomatoes in having the shape of kaki (persimmon): i.e. tapering away from the stem end. The fruits are jade green in color, with dark green/black stripes which give it the look of striped winter squash. It has the exact flavor of passionfruit and pineapple with an aftertaste of green tomato: a perfect balance of tart/acidic/fruity/sweet. While doing research, I found references in ethnographic materials to a certain citlaltomatl or citlalillo which is beloved in Tehuipango (also Sierra de Zongolica). I don't know if citlaltomatl refers in fact to this variety, but the name seems very appropriate since citlali is the Nahuatl word for "star", thus citlalillo = little star. I am sending these seeds out to different farmers here in the Chicago area who sell at local farmers' markets as well as to friends in New York, Southern California, and Northern California. I hope they acclimatize well in each of these areas, although I half-imagine that parts of Northern California (with its intense daylight, colder nights) might best replicate the high-altitude conditions of the Sierra de Zongolica (3,000m).
Sadly, the seeds I planted this summer (2008) here in Chicago did not do very well at all. I don't know whether to attribute it to the cold summer that we had or a weaker constitution of the plant. Several seeds germinated but did not survive very long after that.
At one end of the main plaza, there is a tiny circular fountain area always surrounded by tamales and atole vendors. There is a woman seated near the fencing around the fountain who specializes in leaves for tamales. One of the themes of this trip is a search for unusual tamales forms throughout the Sierra Norte de Puebla, specially those wrapped in papatla leaves (Canna indica) which shockingly I have discovered to be possibly the third most common wrapping for tamales in Mexico. The last time on the sequence of this trip that I saw papatla was in Altotonga, just beyond the Sierra Norte de Puebla. Here in Zongolica, apart from totomoxtle (dried corn husks), the most common wrappings are "platanillo" and "malintzi" leaves (I have not found scientific identifications for either leaves). The platanillo (a different variety of banana?) has large leaves about 2 feet long, with ribs that are not very strong. These leaves look more like papatla than banana leaves but when I pointed to a clump of canna plants (canna lilies with tiny red flowers) on the other side of the fence, the vendor said that that is not it. She also made a distinction between hojas de platano ("esto se asa primero") and platanillo (platanillo doesn't need this first step before use). The platanillo falls apart easily and is also not recommended "porque chupa manteca". The malintzi leaves, also rolled up by the vendor in logs like the platanillo, are shorter (about a foot long?), has a slightly pointed tip and veins curling out beautifully from the rib to the leaf edge. The vendor approves of this leaf heartily "porque no chupa manteca". In addition, I also heard mention of both a tamales de frijoles in hoja de ilomole (a Zingiberaceae?) as well as one wrapped in hoja de chicaliscot (?) which shows up around town around the time of Todos Santos. Near this vendor is a woman called Sra. Marcellina who has a number of these tamales available. She makes some really really wonderful tamales: I remember specially a malintzi-wrapped tamal in green sauce with a marvellous masa texture, with chunky bits of black beans, a large delicious piece of pork, and fragrant with tlanepa (hoja santa). The chile used for this tamales is one so-called "chile huachinango". Also available in this area of the plaza are various types of atole (atole de uva, atole de jobo, champurrado, arroz con leche, atole de granillo, or broken corn) inclg the very unusual atole de conextle (my transcription//when I returned I found an alternative transcriptions atole de kuanextle in the CONACULTA volume #31 on Zongolica, see p123-4) which is an atole of masa cooked with "ceniza muy finita del fogon".
Finally, before ending the Zongolica section, I have to mention the wild mushrooms I found being sold by one of the Marias at the plaza. I recognized them immediately as Ramaria sp as I had fallen in love with this specific mushroom a couple of years ago in the marvellous wild mushroom restaurants of Kunming in Yunnan. She called them what I thought sounded like chilhuachi or perhaps silhuate, and which I found a reference for in the CONACULTA when I got back, as xilbatzi, also known elsewhere in Mexico as hongo escobeta or escobetilla (the broom-like mushroom). There is a recipe in the CONACULTA for a kind of xilbatzi in tesmole and I was also told that these are also often used in homecooking in tesmole de pollo. But I was in a hurry to get to Tehuacan in time for the opening of the Matanzas and did not have time to wait for a tesmole to be prepared for me. However, when I got back to Orizaba, I headed straight to the market building where I found my beloved quesadillas stalls (these are typical quesadilla stands where they make q. de flor de calabaza, de huitlacoche etc), and where at one (near entrance) and then at the other (in heart of bldg), all I had to do is hand the ladies the bag of xilbatzi for them to know exactly what to do. A quick swirl in water to clean, a vigorous squeeze to get the water out, then the roughly-torn xilbatzi goes on top of freshly-patted masa with a sprig of epazote and a large mound of freshly-pulled queso de hebras. With a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice and some delicious local coffee, I could not have asked for a more delicious lunch!!!
I'm disappointed that this excellent OP, rich with on-the-scene ethnic foods information, has not had any replies until now. However, I'm not terribly surprised. First, it's a lot of information for readers to digest at one sitting. (Although I find the stories fascinating, the paragraphing made it somewhat difficult to read.)
Secondly, the area described is far off the usual tourist routes. You yourself have stated, "A caveat: those who are familiar with the hundreds of posts that I have written on this website since the beginning of the deacde know that RST is very rarely interested in "a nice place to have dinner".", and that, IMO, plays a part in the lack of responses.
Richard, I think perhaps that what you need is your own blog; a website where you can share these details with us at leisure, without any concern that your post will be relegated to a less relevant section of Chowhound.
I look forward to reading more of your posts about areas of Mexico where fewer of us have visited. But in this format, the density of information is a bit overwhelming.
Saludos muy cordiales,
Haha. I couldn't care less about NOT generating five, six pages of "me too me too" chitchatty responses as one might find in some food forums. These posts are about planting seeds. When I was first writing about huauzoncle or cemitas or Shanghainese ma lan tou or Iraqi pacha or Montenegrin cooking or dozens of completely unknown regional cuisines in forgotten neighborhoods in Chicago earlier in the decade, there was virtually no information on any of these items or places. A google search would inevitably lead me back in a loop to my own posts as is the case today if you googled food terms from this post or-say-from the recent posts I made on Sierra Norte de Puebla-they would simply come right back to me. (Try "tamales de papatla", yet papatla is one of the most common one of the most ubiquitous of tamales wrappings in a huge swathe of eastern Mexico.) Today, a search for say "papaloquelite" (another ubiquitous, truly quintessential Mexican herb that no one knew about) would bring up dozens of threads on food boards: the knowledge-base has expanded. This is what it is all about: laying the ground for five, six, ten years from now.
Dear RST, i read your posts but not always answer because i end up with my head charged and loaded...in a very good sense...for example, in this last one i started thinking about those tomatitos...."mmm....i think i have seen them in the wild, but aren´t those supposed to be poisonous? Where exactly have i seen those?...." so i don´t answer because you got me thinking...Muchas gracias por ser tan generoso y brindarnos todo éste caudal de información.
Thank you for another excellent report. I'm familiar with Cuetzalan but not other areas you mention - they're 'ripe' for exploration. I support Anonimo's comments that if at all possible you should consider starting a blog to present and preserve these reports - which are the result of such hard work (and enjoyment ;-) ). Wonderful work.
Thanks Anonimo, Xacinta and Gomexico,
On the older thread on Zongolica, I said something to the effect of emphasizing the no-where-ness of this place. In response to what Anonimo said about the "off-the-beaten-track" nature of this town, I would like to point out that there is a kind of "point" to the radical obscurity of Zongolica. And perhaps the "lesson" behind that is this: the sheer inexhaustible richness of Mexican cuisine. Because you could blindfold yourself and pin a donkey's tail randomly to a map of Mexico and end up with a hundred other town that would yield as stunning a wealth of completely unique, completely distinct to-be-found-nowhere-else treasures. Here I was on one single specific day in October last year, wandering around in town for what was effectively only a little over an hour. Here is a market that I would not, in all my travels through Mexico, even rank among the top 50 markets of the country. It was NOT even a market day. Here was this ragtag little row of Marias with their little clumps of miscellaneous produce or foraged items. Yet what marvellous, what magical riches.
And the above barely scratches the surface of the food culture of this area. I know that I had several criticisms about the CONACULTA series in the older thread, but the volume on Zongolica #31 is one of those volumes that show careful research. It lists dozens and dozens of items that I have never seen in this town. The list of quelites for instance includes many intriguing items, many of which I saw that day at the market but could not find time to explore: "tetsislsitl, chichikilitl, tomakilitl, xocokilitl, wakilitl, papalokilitl, michikilitl (quelite sabor pescado), xochikilitl, or flor de huapa (frijol silvestre que se cosecha en septiembre), pitasahuaquilitl or yierbamora, el quelite blanco, makuekilitl, xoxoquilitl, quelite colorado y el quelite amargo." (p17) Curiously, the book mentions the platanillo leaf (in one single recipe) but no where mentions malintzi or chicaliscot. But it lists other tamale wrappers: hojas de macuilistatl, hojas de tamalxibitl, isbatamal etc This means that between my data and the data collected in this book, there must be at least 6-7 different unusual leaves used for wrapping tamales in this area alone! If you read the recipes for tamales carefully, you will also find that many of them are truly unique: one called for souring the masa (e.g. in a plastic bag) before use! Then there are many items (e.g. flor de izote, cacaya flowers, tempextquistles) for which the book provides recipes but which I have never seen in Zongolica town itself (I assume that those recipes are collected from lower-lying towns in Zongolica, with a diff microclimate). That very afternoon, after leaving Zongolica and Orizaba, I arrived in Tehuacan. And there they were: the cacaya flowers, two little clumps spread out on a newspaper and being sold by an old man sitting on the ground right by one of the largest concentrations of "marchantas de Coapan" (famous street vendors) in Tehuacan (with cacaya flowers, you can simply boil before eating or batter them like huazoncle before frying). And the delicious, absolutely delicious, caper-berry-like tempextquistles which were everywhere in Tehuacan, being sold by women-specialists (who not only sell these delicious pickled tempextquistles but also stunning delicious nopales salads) all around the market.
Re: "las marchantas de Coapan"
The "marchantas" from the village of Coapan are the traditional purveyors of street tacos in Tehuacan (how does one translate marchantas into English: female-merchants? female-vendors? perhaps the "purveyors of tacos from Coapan"). These women have near-mythical status in this city. And what tacos! these are some of the most delicious street tacos to be found in all Mexico, despite the fact that they are served/eaten cold/lukewarm. The marchantas are immediately recognizable by the city-dwellers: they wear their typical mandiles, walk around town with their many baskets or cubetones (plastic buckets) filled with the different fillings or with layers of those fantastic, thin, fluffy tortillas for which they are famous. I find ineffable charm in the fact that there is a very specific way of addressing these women: one calls out: "Marchanta! Deme cinco pesos (or diez pesos, or whatever) de tacos!" I forgot the exact crossroad where a large concentration of them could always be found (and where I found the cacaya flowers). I'll put it down here when I find my notes on this later.
"Because you could blindfold yourself and pin a donkey's tail randomly to a map of Mexico and end up with a hundred other town that would yield as stunning a wealth of completely unique, completely distinct to-be-found-nowhere-else treasures."
That is absolutely true without a doubt... when I analyze all the unique stuff in my parent's municipality (Union de San Antonio) in Jalisco, and then what I have learned about in other towns around Mexico State... the diversity or maybe the local understanding & utilization of the native plants is almost mind boggling.
In the hills adjacent to my mom's Rancho along the Tlacuitapan river... there is a wild fruit referred to as "Toronjita"... little Grapefruit... that yields a refreshing citrusy "juice". When you find the fruit... they make a hole in it... pour out the liquid to drink... then scratch the pulp on the inside, come back the next day and its full again..... yielding juice or a type of "Aguamiel" for about 2 weeks.
Another interesting plant produces "Quesitos"... little white masses whose flavor & texture lies somewhere between Queso Fresco & fresh Hearts of Palm.
In my dad's town 6 miles away... they are known for Papas de Monte... a wild potato about the size of a golf ball with an amazing flavor that tastes like a buttery & deeply savory version of Yukon Gold potatoes.
Richard, the worldwide audience that is both english-speaking and familiar with Veracruz state is probably measured in the low thousands, at best. I do pilgramages through the area, speeding from the US to Q. Roo, without pause. But I have noticed the majesty of hill and dale in Veracruz, and I am familiar with it's valencias and coffee and other produce. Your "A" and "Z" pueblitos don't show on my mexican map; no importa. Your poetic, earthy, compelling story will have me design my next travel- through to include 2 days to get wonderfully lost in the region. Mil gracias. It's not much, but a start, and you have been the impetus. Thanks.