Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Strippers, Cactus, & Other Edibles

While moving this week into a new house in the verdant rainforest that encircles my university above the Oaxacan coast, your author stumbled upon notes scribbled at the desert ranch I inhabited for two years before coming here. I think you'll find them quite interesting. The notes explain how I came to devour scrumptious desert delicacies that include much prickly-skinned cactus and one smooth-skinned stripper. Here we go with what I might call the nonfiction hunger games.

Readers who are more interested in my jungle existence can watch an animated movie version of my life that's being released by Disney this weekend, although I don't think the wild scene in the monkey temple accurately represents a typical tropical Mexican party, which is far less organized and far more destructive.

Mexicans have a well-deserved rep as serious partiers. Fiestas for every reason (and no reason) that focus on food and drink are a constant feature of Mexican life. Yet, all parties are not created equal. So, the notes commence with my plan to visit the national wine and cheese festival then a ranchero meat and cactus grill. Both are happening in Queretaro State.

Mexico’s vino and queso fair takes place every year in lovely Tequisquiapan: the gateway to the Sierra Gorda Mountains. This desert tourist town is surrounded by rock-faced mesas. Old legend holds it to be the spot of a fountain-of-youth spring, which cannot be located but nevertheless justifies countless hotels with pools calling themselves spas. Perhaps some of the gleeful splashing children were elderly when they came here, but I'm sceptical.

Arrive at the center plaza. This zocalo is a huge square of rose rectangular cobblestones with black iron benches, vivid green grass, and fragrant purple flowers dubbed Huele de Noche or night perfume. There is a gray marble gazebo under a jade canopy. The blue-and-ivory-tiled fountain spouts jets of clear water behind smiling families posing for photos. All seems well with the world.

The soaring church, bearing an inscription “1874 – Honor and Glory to God,” is rose stucco with cream flower motifs. A bell tower rises on the left. A crystal clock sits on top. There is a stained-glass panel of cloud-and-sunbeam-borne deity encircled by cherubim in white, yellow and blue at the center of the edifice.

Inside, I encounter a different ambience. The walls are virtually barren and badly stained. It appears that business and tourism promoters have funded the restoration of the plaza-anchoring façade but left the sanctuary to the care of those who’ve laid up their treasures in heaven. Both interior and exterior could make one long for a better world.

Exit the church to browse the shops under the colonnades around the square. Most are upscale home art vendors. Silver, copper, and precious stones crafted into Buddha, Jesus, or the Sun deity are quite popular. Getting hungry, I duck into La Valentina Restaurante.

The lofty dining-hall has clunky rustic hardwood chairs plus faded orange and blue stencil painting. It’s warm and friendly looking. Across a stone-columned and turquoise-tiled patio is a plush bar with soccer on plasma TV. I order a very unMexican Bife de Lomo with baked potato. (This steak is an Argentinian cut and potatoes come from Peru.) The food is quality and tasty but touristy bland by Mexican standards.

Set off walking toward the festival. The 1st block is coffee houses and Chocolate Molinillo specializing in artisanal honey and cacao. (A molinillo is a wooden whipper gyrated to make frothy hot chocolate.) The 2nd block is a craft market bursting with woven baskets and carved chessboards. The 3rd block is a hotel-and-tree-lined street leading directly to the wine and cheese fair.

Clustered at the entrance is a crowd of university students wearing Lila Downs T-shirts. The folkloric singer is in concert here tonight. Her cult following looks predominantly like rich Spanish youth donning indigenous floral accents in a show of love, peace, and rebellion smacking of a Latino Woodstock. The times they are a-changin’, but some things never change.

Just past the gate lies a manicured park, full of lush shady trees and long-necked white egrets. One hundred pesos buys me a ticket. I stroll for several hours down rows of exhibition booths, eagerly tasting epicurean delicacies from all over Mexico.

I sample Flor de Alfalfa manchego. This is organic cheese from Jersey cows – rich, smooth and creamy. I savor fine herb goat cheese from Rancho Santa Marina. Both the product and the fine presenter Jessica make my mouth water. I consider asking for a complementary taste of her as well. She can’t really use the no one will buy the cow if they get the milk for free line with her current occupation. She would look udderly hypocritical. Still, I decline to diminish this high class event with my less refined hungers.

I sip L.A. Cetto’s Petite Sirah. The cloudy purple vintage from Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California is sweet with spice accents. Gotta love it! Marco Perez Fautsch stuffs a morsel of NeOle Gouda with black pepper into my mouth. It’s sharp, dense, and unforgettable. He says it’s aged in a cave with 80% humidity, but I only care that it’s as succulent as Salma Hayek’s breasts. No other cheese will top this one. So, I nibble some Jamon Iberico by Señor de Olivenza that’s moister, tastier, and less salty than Jamon Serrano. I’m in hog heaven.

Wash it all down with a 2012 Muscat Blanc from Hacienda de Letras in Aquascalientes. The nectar sweetness leads to a floral finish. It’s like drowning in a flowery meadow but being far too happy to give a damn. My sweet tooth craves more. I munch Cucurucho’s chocolate-covered coffee beans made with Tabasco cacao and Veracruz coffee. Like a crunchy mocha latte. On my way out of the exhibition area, a Kuxtal chocolate lavender truffle is forced into my mouth where it melts into a chocolate lavender puddle on my tongue. Exquisite beyond words. Like an addict, I’m ready to rob a gas station for one more fix.

Light up a Te Amo cigar. (Readers can take a tour of the factory that produces these hearty Mexican smokes in my book Fresh Wind & Strange Fire.) Lila Downs mounts the stage of a white canvas outdoor amphitheater as a funky reggae beat throbs into life and electrifies the sultry night air. Everything that isn’t nailed down begins to sway and groove. The rest of my evening is a blissful blur. I'll catch up with you later in the next tasty installment.


  1. When in doubt, choose the stripper over the cacti.

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