March 14, 2012

Perfect pastries in Mexico

Whoever thinks croissants and other pastries are a French affair has never been to Mexico. I don't consider myself especially patriotic when it comes to baking: I'm a big fan of German bread, love British scones and Irish soda bread, remember some perfect cinnamon rolls in Sweden, and keep even sweeter memories of the bread I would have every morning of that Summer I spent in Benin, freshly baked at the communal oven… Still, I was certainly not expecting to find such a variety of delicious baked items in Mexico.

From the widely known cuernos (croissants), chocolatins (chocolate croissants) and roles de canela (cinnamon rolls) to more local and less familiar conchas (brioche buns with a swirled vanilla or chocolate sugar coating), roles de anis (anis seeds rolls) and panes de nuez (pecan-filled buns) - fresh pastries are omnipresent in Mexico, from street vendors to popular pastelerias (cake shops) and fancy restaurants.

Out of all the places we sampled the confections from along our journey, it is with no doubt at top-notch El Cardenal in Mexico City that we were served the best ones. El Cardenal is an institution in the Mexican capital and I could not wait to give it a try. Luckily we were staying just a minute away from the original location (the establishment has expanded into a few other branches which appear not to quite live up to the reputation of this first branch) and it quickly occurred to me upon our first visit that going to El Cardenal for breakfast is a little like going to Ladurée in Paris for tea and macarons - a tradition for the locals and a not to be missed highlight for any visitor in town. We tried a few of their pastries over our two visits and without much surprise but for our greatest delight, every single one proved remarkably fresh and fluffy. I fell for the concha de vanilla and the rol de anis above all, not to mention the frothy hot chocolate stirred and poured from the jug right at your table - another specialty of the house, on the richer side but a definite must!

Here lies the irony: although El Cardenal instantly became our favourite at first bite and sip, we suspected the personnel of thinking that we did not appreciate the food as we noted their astonishment every time we asked for the check.. The truth is: while we were perfectly satiated and ready to start strolling around the city after such a wholesome breakfast, Mexican people appear to be much hungrier in the morning as we noticed later that these delicious pastries are just what keeps them waiting for the real thing - generally a full cooked breakfast including eggs, black beans and tortillas at the very minimum!

Palma 23 (between 5 de Mayo and Francisco l. Madero)
Centro Histórico, Mexico City

March 7, 2012

Chomping on churros

We are leaving Mexico tomorrow and believe it or not, until this afternoon I still hadn't succumbed to the temptation of the fluted sticks of fried dough inherited from the Spanish over a century ago..

In order to rectify this shameful negligence as soon as possible, we saved room for dessert and headed towards la Churrería "El Moro" after lunch. An institution here in Mexico City, "El Moro" is famous for its scrumptious churros freshly made 24/7 - the only food item on the menu next to a variety of chocolate caliente and café con leche, dunking optional.

We sat at one table of the obviously historic establishment - which doesn't seem to have undergone much renovation since its opening in 1933 - and ordered coffee and a couple of the deep-fried snacks...

Perfectly golden and sprinkled with caster sugar, crunchy on the outside but slightly chewy inside at the same time - these churros set the standards to which all others should be compared.

Phew... I can now say goodbye to Mexico with a light heart!

Churrería "El Moro"
Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 42
Centro, Cuauhtémoc
06000 Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal

March 2, 2012

Rustic Mexican cooking in the Sierra Norte

We returned yesterday from a wonderful three-day trek in the mountainous Sierra Norte, north-east of Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. Not only did this excursion allow us to explore the gorgeous scenery of the region and learn about the plethora of plants growing here and their respective usages in traditional medicine and cooking, but it also gave us the opportunity to sample some delicious Mexican food in a particularly remote setting.

We passed through three of the "Pueblos Mancomunados", a community of eight Zapotec villages cooperating in an excellent ecotourism program: Benito Juárez, Cuajimoloyas and Llano Grande - all three situated at around 3000 meters above sea level. In each village, we were greeted with comforting home-style cooking at the local canteen or "comedor" - all the more appreciated after hours of strenuous hiking at such elevation.

We were offered nothing but wholesome food, though I especially enjoyed the tostadas which were served to us for dinner in Benito Juárez - lightly spread with pureed black beans and beautifully garnished with shredded lettuce, crumbs of queso fresco (Mexican fresh cheese) and chunks of delicious avocado.

What better way to start a day in the mountains than with a bowl of Oaxacan-style steaming hot chocolate, where cinnamon and ground almonds wonderfully round off the primary mixture of ground-up cocoa beans and sugar? I have been lucky enough to taste some of the finest chocolate drinks through my work or in famous salons de thé in France, but I have to say the rustic Oaxacan recipe enchanted my tastebuds and my heart just as much and maybe even more…

Our meals in Cuajimoloyas were livened up by the presence in the comedor of Joana and Leslie, four-year old little angels quietly keeping themselves busy while their mums were cooking for the whole neighbourhood. Not to mention our admiration when we saw Joana devouring green beans along with a bowl of coffee for breakfast! - while I had declined the full Mexican desayuno that morning and given myself up to the simple pleasure of dipping a bread roll into a frothy hot chocolate, a very frenchie brekkie you would think but the traditional way to have it here too!

We came back a bit sore but delighted by our wilderness escape, one that we would highly recommend to anyone looking to experience the indigenous village life up close. We organised our tour with Expediciones Sierra Norte and were very happy with everything - their website is quite unclear and very incomplete though so you're better off visiting them directly at their office downtown Oaxaca.