Tuesday, November 28, 2006

November in Guanajuato

Although we’ve been here almost a month now, we’ve (I've!) been taking time to get to know Guanajuato, the intellectual ignition site for the fires that stoked the 1810 Mexican war for independence from Spain. Home to what was once “the” university of the arts (now UNAM in Mexico City has largely taken over as the more prestigious learning hub), music and paintings and street theater still can be found the city’s central streets at most hours of the day – many of which are pedestrian-only and packed with students doing their student things. The callejones (street-lets) climb their way up from the semi-central plaza Jardin Union (bright green triangle in front of the Cathedral and the Teatro Juarez in the photo above) to the edges of the ravine that the whole city is essentially nestled into. The whole place has this incredible quality to it whereby just a few square miles seems to have an infinite amount of surface area – buildings stacked on top of one another as they cover the steep sides of the canyon, with seemingly a billion churches and plazuelas and plenty of dead-end alleys to get lost in...

This is a walking city to put it mildly – that’s not to say that there aren’t a million cabs jockeying with the bazillion motorcycles/scooters for pavement space, just that it’s much more convenient and safe and sane to walk. There hasn’t been room for traffic infrastructure above ground for hundreds of years, so many of the larger “roads” are actually tunnels that cross under the city in a system of insanely narrow and incredibly dark catacombs that were built on top of what used to be a dry river bed. Secondary tunnels jut off with little warning at sharp angles here and there – without much rhyme or reason to the novice…when we first arrived, we ended up having to pay a cab driver to follow him to our apartment/plazuela after getting hopelessly lost SEVERAL TIMES in the underground tunnels that loop back out and around to the city’s outskirts…

As for our lovely little apartment on el Callejon del Infierno (Hell’s Street-let)… Our landlords/hosts have decorated it with finds from the antique markets not too far from here (but the coffee maker is brand new - We’re the first tenants!). The ceilings are high and covered with the original wooden beams, the apartment faces a giant old tree that fills with little parrots of some kind at around 4 every evening…it’s been a great space to work on my thesis and Spanish grammar from, despite the few little scorpions that have also decided to take up reidence - there's nothing like the sound sof two scorpions calling to each other inthe middle of the night to give you goosebumps! so far though, no real run ins of any significance. They don't replace koji though - just not the same to come home to a house without a dog :(
Let's see...well, for those of you wondering (Glen!), having the truck here has been...absurd! When Kraig is not on the chile hunt and he's in town (only a few days of the last three weeks) we park it and leave it and don't even think about moving it. Although wrangling a parking spot is another matter entirely - sometimes a several hour endeavor...we wait... and wait... and prowl the street, hoping that someone will leave (or two cars since most vehicles here are tiNy - with good reason, the streets are tiny too!). Then, one of us races to the spot and tries to look fierce enough to not let the other parking prowlers take it...usually that works, but not always! In any case, we’ve had no vehicle problems at all (knocking on wood) , except for a parking ticket once and the mysterious “laveme” messages that keep getting scrawled in the dirt on the back windows…hmmm…

So, here you have our version of Guanajuato so far. As the magic thesis fairies have just made my thesis go away until i return to Davis to go over drafts, I’ll allow myself to venture out for more than my daily Spanish tutoring session to explore more of the city and surrounding towns – just in time! ...we leave for Mexico City at the end of the week and then on to Argentina for more culinary adventuring and southern chile hunting and penguin gawking!

(…I just had to include this photo of the local meat source. Can’t say it isn’t farm fresh!)

Friday, November 17, 2006

I love tacos...

Oyster tacos!

Steak tacos!

One of my favorite things about Mexico is the prevalance of great street food – it´s cheap, tasty, extremely diverse, very “authentic” and (…the croupier spins the roulette wheel and releases the ball... ) there is always the chance of contracting Montezumas revenge! But as the recent E. Coli epedemic linked to bagged spinach showed us – there is an inherent risk in eating anything, even something that is “triple washed.” But I´m getting into another topic entirely.

Anyways, the undisputed king of the Mexican street scene is the taco. There are a number of tasty treats that fall under the umbrella term “taco”- basically a tortilla wrap (various incarnations of maize or wheat flour) around a filling. Over the course of this trip, I have lost track of the number of tacos I have eaten – around the second week I was at 40+ (these are much, much smaller than your Taco Bell taco), not including all the times I used tortillas as the vehicle to transport food from my plate to my greedy mouth.

Along our drive, we have seen (and tasted) a great number of fillings for tacos: carne asada (grilled beef steak), bistec (another steak cut), chorizo (spicy pork sausage), cabeza (“head” from the cow – I think it is neck and cheeks that are stewed), tripa (tripe), adobada (marinated pork), carnitas (pieces of pork fried in fat, then cooked again), camarones (shrimp), ositones (oysters), marlin (smoked gamefish), machaca (dried shredded beef), birria (stewed goat meat), costilla (pork ribs), al pastor (rotisserie pork).
This doesn't need a caption.

Beto and his taco stand - he starts serving at 7AM, in time for breakfast.

Some of the fancier rigs even have little stools or tables for you to sit at, and a whole smorgasbord of salsas, pickled chile peppers, chopped vegetables and limes to choose from. However, the process is more or less the same. The cook asks you what you want (say... 4 tacos with carne asada), and if you want it with “greens” aka, onion and cilantro. You then take your piping hot tacos to where there is a great variety of salsas and lime wedges to add the right touch of heat. You can always go for seconds or thirds. Don´t be shy. At about 60 cents each taco, Heather and I walk away satiated and happy for under 5 bucks every time. I absolutely love these little stands and wanted to share some of that with all of you and to encourage you to patron one of these little stands the next time you are here. Just make sure you go to one where the cook is not the same person handling money!

Tacos de Birria

My favorite so far: Tacos de Birria – this is a filling of stewed goat - a really spicy, tender, rich flavoured meat that is a speciality of Jalisco and Guadalarajara. Or... maybe the Gorditas I just had at Bernal are really my favorite..
These gorditas, made fresh with blue corn masa are then opened and filled with a number of great combinations.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Back on the Chase!

After working all last week with my Mexican collaborator, Jose (aka Pepe) on various aspects of the collecting, he and I took up the chase again, this time in the neighboring state of Queretaro. While Queretaro is not thought of as a prime wild chile habitat - much of the state is at higher altitudes and is heavily farmed, Pepe had an inside source - a former Master´s student - who knew of some areas where the wild chile roamed.

I´m happy to report to all of you that we collected from 4 populations and took samples from various local markets, some of which are pictured above. In contrast to previous chile hunts, in Queretaro the local wild chile is called "chile piquin" or "chil kipquin".

Note the elongated, pointed fruit!
While the plant is quite similar in form to the chiltepines that we were collecting in Sonora, the fruit is elongated rather than round, and there is not quite the demand for these peppers as there is for Sonoran chiltepines.

Rather than recount the entire trip in all its grueling details (traveling 140 km in 3.5 hrs, through the 860 twisting turns of the Sierra Gorda, then making the return trip in the dusk), I will share some brief vignettes and some photos.

* Our first collection site was really significant. We were up in the folds of a mountain that rose up to 3500 m and were lost in tierras ejitidales (communal lands that are farmed), asking 4 or 5 folks for directions - follow that road (what road?) along the canal, take a left at the tree (which tree?) and just towards the mountain are the peppers, don´t worry, you´ll find them. After circling the same fields a few times, we contracted a 14 year old to take us to the plants - we went up a small embankment in the truck, followed the irrigation canal to the small lake where the road ended.
Just a few hoof prints to follow

We drove around the lake to the other side to find the peppers in a high-altitude chapparral environment. What surprised us was the altitude - over 2000 meters in altitude, about 6700ft+. No one would think that wild peppers exist at this altitude. We continued to find the chile peppers under the same types of "nurse" plants - hackberry, mesquite and sometimes, cacti.
Pepe picks a peck of pointed peppers

* We ended the first day in the small town of Bernal - at the base of a huge monolith that is thought channel spiritural energy. We ate the most amazing gorditas there - blue corn meal that is patted into the form of a tortilla, filled with shredded cheese and a chile sauce, heated on a hot comal, then filled with savory combinations - peppers with nopal and cheese, steak, more cheese and chile. One of the best street food stops so far. Pictures in the street food post to come.

*On the start of the following day, on our way to the far reaches of the state, Pepe says - this looks like a spot where peppers would grow, why wouldn´t they be here? So we stop and find a healthy population in the arroyo along the highway. Filled with self-confidence, we continue on. After reaching our destination, the municipio of Jalpan which is located on the fringes of the Huasteca forest that heads down to the Gulf of Mexico, we walk down an arroyo where we have been told there are plants. It is hot, humid, getting late and we do not see a single plant. We stumble across a machete wielding - grandmother (Margarita) and her grandaughter (Alicia) who are out looking for their lost goats. We ask them about the chile piquin plants and if they could help us. Margarita thinks its late to find plants in the far forest and most of the fruits are still green and they have to find their goats, and... I think then she took pity on us, 3 glasses-wearing, hot and sweaty city folk who were obviously lost in the forest. "But what about the ones you passed on your way here?" We didn´t see any the whole way and we were obviously looking for plants. She and Alicia proceed to walk with us back up the trail towards the road where we left the truck and point out about 10 plants - some of which were about an arm´s length from where we just walked! We had been looking for the bright red ripe fruit, which are easy to spot - these plants had no ripe fruits on them and were difficult to spot in the dense humid forest, a very different environment in which we had found the other populations. They had been picked over by birds and by people looking to add a bit of spice to their diets. We were extremely grateful and a bit sheepish as we accepted her help and catalogued the plants on the way up and tried to find the remaining ripe fruits for our study.
These ladies knew where to look! Notice how different the vegetation is - the peppers were no longer associated with any "nurse" trees.

The sight of Doña Margarita wielding the machete and picking the plants out of the forest made me instantly smile, as I thought how generations of people must have harvested these fruits and how easily she recalled the locations of these plants. I was shaken out of this day-dream by the sandal-clad Margarita and her grandaughter Alicia, who had gathered a handful of green fruits and insisted that we take the immature green fruits for our salsa. And so we did and took our leave as we returned to the city of Queretaro.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

driving the devil's spine: from Mazatlan to Durango

After our chile harvesting trips in the Alamos area, we headed SW to the coast of Sinaloa - the land of big ag, and, not surprisingly for Mexico, big ag schools. We spent a wet very few days in the Capital city of Culiacan weathering Hurricane Paul (downgraded to a "tropical depression" while we were there) while Kraig exchanged information and wild chile population site specifics with reserchers at the U. Autonoma de Sinoloa. In addition to increasing his seed collection by almost 1/3, it was a successful stop on the great Mexican road trip for other reasons. We both found it really interesting to see for ourselves some of the effects of NAFTA - i.e. that "big" ag here looks like it's gringo twin - huge ares of land are being consolidated under large growers/companies and, instead of growing corn, are now being made to produce zillions and zillions of tomatoes and peppers for both national and international markets. Here is the Global Horticulture market at it's finest (eh hem GHA...!). The licence plates here have also been recently changed to reflect this...a giant (no micro- or heirloom varieties here!) tomato replaces the "o" in SinalOa.

Bueno, after Culiacan and the wet, we decided to head for the drier coast of Mazatlan before shooting inland to our awaiting apartment in Guanajuato. We found Mazatlan to be a janus of sorts.

Our hotel room in the old part of town

We streched H´s "wings" for an afternoon

One side of the coastal tourist mecca (the "zona dorada" or "gold zone") is home to zillions of
high-end jewelry and kitch stores selling "authentic" mexican goods to the thousands of cruise ship visitors that come through here each year.
From the malecon, or boardwalk

The other side is the old colonial downtown quarter that's full of bookstores, sidewalk cafes, plazeulas, bohemian art studios and stores, and even an Egyptian hooka shop/cafe. We saw very few tourists in the centro and loved the tasty street food and the icy Micheladas at a bar dedicated to the art of bullfighting.

After a good night's sleep in a room not 50 feet from the ocean, we headed inland on something of a blitz colonial city tour - Durango, Zacatecas and Aguascalientes - before finally making it to Guanajuato. The first part of this drive inland crossed "El Espinazo del Diablo" (the Devil's Spine), which is supposed to be a 2 lane highway that crosses the Sierra Madre del Occidente mountain range. Spectacular. Terrifying. Memorable. Suffice to say that we made it, the truck made it, and i only screamed outloud twice!
Don´t look down!

Views from the spine

Once across the spine, we descended to about 7500' as we entered Durango. Here we ate our first gorditas (think hybrid between pita sandwhich and a doublesided taco!), had some tasty elote loco from the vendors in the Plaza (young corn boiled and served hot with sour cream, farmer's cheese, chile flakes and lime). We also ran into our first street theatre performances celebrating the Dia de los Muertos...stay tuned for the next posting with more on that.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lingering images of Sonora

We've moved on from the state of Sonora - but the incredible landscapes and the warm people that we met during our time there over the last two weeks have left a lasting impression. Here's a few of our favorite pix that weren't included in previous posts.

...Cara-cara bird (in the raptor family) sitting atop an elhecho cactus early in the morning

daughter of a chiltepin farmer (the irony here is that chiltepin are nearly imppossible to cultivate in any kind of density) - rolling out the day's flour tortillas with a beer bottle. This is just about the southern limit to finding flour tortillas made at home in any sort of significant quantity. Corn rules outside of Sonora and the other border states.

the feet and sandals (made from tires) of Luis Reynaldo, a Guarijillo anciano who served as our a chiltepin plant-finding guide for part of a day

Alejandro selling green chiltepin at the toll booth

One of the bays in San Carlos - we wanted to see what happens when the desert meets the sea

"Los pillares" - a rock formation 2 hrs north of Alamos

A wildlife sighting - this taratunla was so big it left tracks in the dirt

An iron cross in the Alamos cemetary from early 1700s

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Semi-Squatting in Alamos: Chiltepin, Scorpions and Vaqueros

After a short respite in San Carlos by the sea, we went in search of more chiltepin in the areas around Alamos - a small town in the hills of Sonora. This colonial pueblo was a prominent mining center during the 1800s, and shortly after the revolution, the town was the capital of the Western Province of Mexico, a huge state that includes most of present day Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua. The colonial buildings have been mostly preserved (largely by the zillions of gringo retirees that have moved here since the 1950s) and the city is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos – 20 towns that are considered important for their historical value and representation of the era. This was the setting in which we began the next stage of the wild chile quest…

Not 15 minutes into town, we tracked down the home/store of a family who buys and sells chiltepin (referred to us by another conctact who had worked in the area previously). Cold calling in a way, we showed up, were invited to have a chat on the porch, and it turned out that la familia Hurtado was indeed willing and able to help us to get oriented and refer us to someone who could guide us into the hills around the city to hunt for the wild chiltepin plants themselves. In addition, rather than paying for a luxury gringo hotel, Don Oracio Hurtado and his wife Lupe suggested that we could stay, for a minimal price, in the vacant apartment next door (owned by extended family of theirs). At the time, this seemed like a great idea. We “camped” on the bare concrete floors, tried to ignore the various six and eight legged residents and joked that this must be what it is like to be a squatter.

Over the next few days we headed north each morning on dusty roads into the lands of the Guaijiro, one of the smallest of the 7 indigenous tribes of Sonora. The Guaijiro pick and harvest chiltepin during this time of year to supplement their cattle-based/small farm incomes. At each little town that we came to we were told that , oh yes, there are chiltepin in these mountains, but they’re not near here, they’re “mas alla” - with emphatic gestures to the mountains further to the north. Poco a poco, with various guides on different days, we managed to collect samples from nearly 30 plants – some of which were 4 hours from Alamos, accessed by a one-lane-rock-strewn-goat-trail.

During our last days in Alamos, the doctor working in one of the small towns that we passed got wind of our presence and insisted that we stop to share lunch with him and his family at his house on our way out. We had a great meal – the main course was a mutton stew, with potatoes and ancho chiles. Unfortunately, macaroni and mayonnaise (somehow now a part of cuisine “tipico” here) raised their ugly heads and soured H’s gut. However, the conversation regarding rural health and development was quite fascinating. To end our successful Alamos visit, we were greeted with a number of wild animal sightings at dusk as we returned to town.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Cult of Chiltepine - in AZ and Sonora

Last Saturday, I went to the Tumacacori Mountains in Arizona , with T., a postdoc at the University of Washington, to visit his field site - the Wild Chile Botanical Reserve. In this extreme landscape, filled with cacti, brambles, mesquite and hackberry, we hiked into arroyos and found chiltepin plants in the shade of trees and rocks. The plants were totally laden with fruit, as the area had been subject to an unsually strong summer monsoon season and since this was a "reserve" and relatively unknown, there was no one harvesting the fruits. On the high plateaus, where there was little drainage, we didn't encounter many chiles - but this was a different story in the small drainages, where we would often find 5 or 6 individuals within a short distance of each other. I sampled about 20 plants overall and left with the promise of more seeds from T., should I need them...

A couple of days later, in the Valle de Rio Sonora, where the local baseball team is called "The Chiltepineros" and no meal complete without some of the red, round BB sized fruit at the table, Heather and I followed the hand drawn map to the small town of Mazocahui, where we found the infamous Luis selling chiltepin on the curve depicted on the yellow piece of legal pad. Luis was thrilled that someone sent us his way and that we were here to learn about chiltepin in the area. Chiltepin is sold by the side of the road, sold by volume, at about 10 dollars a liter. This is a real bargain compared to the 5 dollars for an ounce I paid in Tuscon! This time of year, folks are out the in the hills, collecting the fruit, drying them and selling them. For many people, this is a significant portion of their yearly income and a good harvest can bring some disposable income to the family. The following day, Luis led us through the landscape of Mazocahui as we collected the fruit of 25+ plants from the river bottom of the Rio Sonora to the slopes of the range that line the valley below. These plants were fairly similar compared to the population in Arizona - except for one plant, which had orange fruit. We're heading to Alamos to continue our quest...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

...more on Tucson

I'm a fan of Tucson so far! seems like a pretty cool city with funky bars and restaurants and galleries all around. the older section of town is incredible with it's adobe houses and small farms that have now swallowed up by the city's sprawl but grandfathered into the planning. Saguaro cacti are everywhere (some more 150+ years old).

Yesterday evening after the desert museum we went to the home of this incredible couple... Also chiltepin enthusiasts, they had brought Kraig a few samples from their farm. They own a working ranch in Sonora, Mexico with a few hundred head of cattle and they buy chiltepin from locals there to sell to Native Seed Exchange here in the US (at fairly tradeed priced but not certified "fair trade"). These two gentle and adventure-loving souls are contributing to community and ag development in the area where their ranch is - following thier guts and their hearts in terms of their involvement. Amongst other things, this means working on expanding the market access for the chiltepin up here while trying to maintain the balance of gringo-introduced ideas to the area there... it will be interesting to watch how the projects they've been heling to support there work out.

Their house here in Tucson is really a 5 acre compound of 100+ year old adobe buildings with all kinds of add-ons, a huge sprawling garden with all local and native plants (including mostly edible and medicinal plants, cacti, etc.), a pig, laying hens, beas, fish (in a pond fed by recycled grey water), and millions of treasures collected from their travels to mexico and beyond over their many years. Quite amazing people who welcomed us yesterday as if we'd known them for years ... we feel very lucky to have crossed paths with them, and i'm sure we'll keep up and perhaps visit their ranch in Sonora during their round-up in Novemeber.

Right, enough for now. We're off to a harvest festival in Patagonia (!), AZ tomorrow to see more chiltepin uses and check out the local ag/food markets here. Then, on to Mexico on Monday am, crossing at Naco instead of the more hectic Nogales border town (nogales=walnut in span).

Tucson and the Desert Museum

We made it into Tucson early in the am (from Phoenix) and met with a former chiltepin importer who gave us great info and contacts in the Sonora region. He also drew us a map - with "rio" and "cerro" and "la casa de Luis" carefully situated so that we just might be able to find Senor Luis outside of the Moctezuma area next week!

We'll keep you posted on how this turns out... (click on the image to enlarge it)

We then went off in search of our first chiltepines, grown in the Sonora Desert Museum collection. Several have been planted in their "Mountain Highland Habitat" exhibit and others have sprouted up outside of admin buildings, like this one here... (I'm collecting sample "1"!).

Also in the Mountain Highland exhibit (closely resembling where we'll be hunting for chiles in N. Mexico) were mule deer, mountain lions (tail at left), mexican grey wolves and black bears, and of course, plenty of tarantulas and snakes - we'll be keeping our eyes open for them on the chilequest for sure!

The museum itself was spectacular - really well done - with exhibits outside for the most part. Tons of animals and plants from all over the Southwest desert regions. We only had a few hours there, but it's certainly worth another visit! Highly recommend it.

We're off...

We've been making our way to Mexico... via Vegas (heather's family reunion), Albuquerque (visiting kraig's family), Phoenix and Tuscon (meeting up with several other Chiltepin enthusiasts/researchers).

In Albuquerque we had the chance to check out the International Balloon Fiesta...It was a chilly morning and we made it there before sunrise to see the "glowing" dawn patrol (several balloons that launch earlier than the mass ascention to give other ballooners an idea of the wind, etc.). This particular day of the week long festival was the "ascent of nations" where most ballons fly a flag of a different country. Israel and Brasil were first up after the US!