May 19, 2013

A Vacation from our Vacation (2)

The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
The realist adjusts the sails.
William A. Ward

Comala, named after the 'comal' flat earthenware griddle (R)
The next day we were given historical as well as contemporary information on Mexican haciendas, ex-haciendas, and ejidos.

Ex-haciendas and Ejidos 
Ex-hacienda courtyard - Renovation only done up to twelve feet high...
Rocking chair for two
Haciendas, usually translates as farms or ranches, but were usually factories. Much like mining towns, they also provided the living quarters for workers and ran the store where workers purchased food and other staples. Most workers were continually indebted (for generations!) to the hacienda.
Lock in shape of guitar
Haciendas were run much the same, becoming self-sufficient mini-towns with dwellings for the workers, stores, schools, etc. The owners of the haciendas usually didn’t live there. The local haciendas milled or raised rice, coffee, cattle or sugarcane and came in three distinct designs: open, closed or mixed. Closed ones only had one entrance, open had entrances on all sides, and mixed were a combination, all had center courtyards and were usually located at the center of the ranch or plantation.

The contraption hung from ceiling is for temporary food storage (while cooking meals)
so critters don't get to it before you do
The discontent generated by the continual debt owed to the owners helped initiate the Mexican Revolution of 1910, during the reign of President Porfido Diaz. One of the outcomes of this revolution was to have hacienda owners keep the buildings but give the land to their workers. These tracks of lands were called ejidos (common land or cooperative). 

Your own private confessional
Rain 'coat' - more like a poncho
Love the woven hat with leather accents. Called the four-stone hat for it has four indentations
at each corner of the leather 'cross' on top.  Beautiful work - still made today
Equivalency chart on beam of ex-hacienda
What is now a planter used to be a water purifier made of stone.  The water was poured
in the stone and it would drip through into another container (not shown) below
We visited three ex-haciendas, and although they had many similarities and are already starting to get mixed up in our minds I’d like to list some of the interesting things we saw or learned.
  • The first female Governor in Mexico (Griselda Alvarez) lived in one of the ex-haciendas we visited.
  • All ex-haciendas had 12-15’ ceilings and inner courtyards with fountains surrounded by nice landscape.
  • One ex-hacienda’s entryway was decorated on each side by huge paintings of family trees with names and dates of all his and her relatives. Really time consuming but informative.
  • We had a delicious lunch of Chile de Nogales (or Nogada) with a pitcher of freshly pressed blackberry juice at an ex-hacienda that offers lunches. Although I already shared our experience of this dish in a previous post, this was made fresh and was delectable. Chile rellenos filled with hamburger meat mixed with dried fruits, covered with white sauce made with walnuts and pomegranate seeds. The red, white, and green colors match the Mexican flag and its history is tied to the independence of this country.
  • One ex-hacienda has been turned into a shopping mall (we haven’t visited that one).
  • One ex-hacienda was very close to a church. Its people dug a tunnel from there to that church in an attempt to circumvent the anti-Christian war activities of 1926-1929 wherein it became illegal to attend masses. People had to meet secretly but after three years they were finally allowed to get back to their normal ways.
Roots caving in the tunnel
  • One ex-hacienda still has a bullfight ring. Each year a re-enactment takes place there. At this hacienda one could rent one of two rooms displaying bedspreads with the colors of the most famous matador who stayed there; bright neon green and purple.
  • See ceiling height! Purple and bright pink in memory of that special bullfighter
  • Most ex-haciendas serve as inns, hotels, museums, art galleries, restaurants or places where you can have special events. Their sheer size makes them difficult to maintain but they are truly beautiful.
  • Many of the beams and the furniture are made from the parrota tree (Huanacaxtle – the official tree of Costa Rica) since termites do not eat it. That wood is very reddish, giving the beams a color that superbly accents the red clay tiles found in roofing or flooring.
Coffee and Sugarcane

Fresh fruits, honey roasted amaranth seeds, freshly squeezed OJ
Empanada 'volcano' - looked better in real life
Our last day began with an imaginative breakfast thanks to our host/chef. He made mushroom empañadas to look like a volcano with snow next to an active volcano with red lava. It was a delicious and clever surprise.
Suspended bridge
Today we are hiking in a canyon with suspended pedestrian bridges, boarded by sugarcane fields and shade grown coffee trees. We end the day at a town square where the church’s fountain is surrounded by ancient rocks carved to show faces; easy to miss if you don’t have someone pointing them out. We start at a small town called Suchitlan (where the flowers bloom), the last indigenous town in the area.

Three carved heads around church's water fountain
Church decorated with homemade paper and plastic flowers and ribbons
Don't know the occasion but very colorful
The hike is interspersed again by the sight of birds, butterflies, iguanas, lizards, and interesting plants. Most of the path is well kept up and lined with cobblestones. We pass by ranches with cows, bulls and horses as we discuss growing, handling, and processing of sugarcane and coffee.
Jupiter (guide), Marie-France, Nikki near sugarcane field
Sugarcane can easily grow to ten feet. Once they bloom (the flower looks somewhat like a huge brownish red feather), the fields are burnt so only the cane is left to harvest. The burning is done from the outside in to kill the snakes found within these thick plantations. Other than killing the snakes, it helps burn all excess leaves, giving easier access to the cane without hurting the canes. However, once burnt they have to be processed within 24-48 hours. Un-burnt cane does not have to be processed that quickly. For that reason, certain farmers do not burn the cane. 

No longer in-use sugarcane press
Piloncillo molds*
*Piloncillo is an unrefined sugar that is commonly used in Mexican cooking. The sugar has been around for at least 500 years, and was being made before the Spanish came to Mexico around 1500. It is made when sugar canes are crushed, the juice is collected and boiled then poured into molds, where it hardens into blocks. The fact that it comes in block form is one of the reasons why white and brown sugars are more commonly used, even in Mexican cooking, than piloncillo once was. To use it, it must be grated or chiseled off the main block - a process which is well worth the resulting flavor boost in food to some, but too time consuming for others to bother.

Piloncillo - finished product - before grating
The first time it is planted, it takes 18 months to mature, after that it is harvested annually. The canes look somewhat like an offspring of a small bamboo and a tall grass.

Thick rock fence with view of the volcano about twelve miles away - no mortar is used in the process
Coffee is a tree that can grow to 30 feet but is usually pruned at around 8 feet for easier harvesting. Since the best coffee is shade grown on steep hills, harvesting is still done by hand, a very labor intensive process. There are two ways to pick the beans – picking each bean that is mature or stripping the whole branch of beans regardless if the beans are mature. Of course the first technique takes a lot longer and produces a much higher quality product.

Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t see a harvest. May and June is the period when these plants are in bloom. The beans will be ready to harvest by December.

There are five factors that make the coffee of this region exceptionally good. 1-Shade, 2-Arabica, not Robusta variety is grown, 3-Volcanic soil, 4-Organic environment, and 5-High altitude.

The longer it takes for a bean to reach maturity, the tastier it gets. When shade grown in poor soil at high altitude; the plant only produces once a year. At lower altitude, in better soil, and not shaded it produces four times a year but has little taste.

And then there is Juan Valdez – the famous coffee character so many of us grew up with. A study was conducted when it was discovered that in 1980 people consumed 4 times less coffee than they had on the 1960s. There were two major reasons for this decrease. Thinking that no one would notice growers started adding more and more lower quality beans to their coffee. People had no connection to the coffee story. In their great wisdom, marketers came up with Juan Valdez, someone to connect with and with his stories and the use of better beans, consumption of coffee grew again. We all know the rest of the story (Starbucks and all)…

Much of the coffee grown here is fair-trade coffee. If prices reach less than 1.3 pesos per kilo (10-11 cents for 2.2#), the coffee is not picked.

Pheromones are used to attract a type of beetle (Broca del Café) that eats the beans. When a beetle strikes, nice red coffee cherries still look round, shiny and lush on the outside but if you squish them, they are empty instead of having 2 nice ½ greenish-gray beans covered with a very sweet protective slippery coating.
Red coffee cheery on the plant - Green bean in hand
Even though it is the very end of the season, our guide finally managed to find a few red cherries left so we can taste raw coffee beans –delicious!

We get an excellent view of the active volcano before our return down the canyon. At 17km (11 miles) away, it still looks commanding. Our guide points to a board in the center plaza with red, yellow, and green lights. Instead of referring to traffic, these lights refer to the danger rating of the volcano – Extensive plans are in place to get people out of these areas should a big eruption happen.
Odds and Ends
On the way back, we asked about a huge building that looks like an open-air stadium. We are informed it is where cockfights happen. Cockfights are still legal and popular in Mexico. This particular ring can accommodate 9,000 people! We are told the trick to having a good fighter is to feed it hot peppers to make it agitated and mad. We also heard of a particular breed of cocks that is sought after because its blood coagulates very quickly giving it a great advantage in a bloody fight.

Bullfights are facing legal challenges. There are more and more people asking to make it illegal. Soon the bullfight rings will go the way of the haciendas.

As we drive out of Comala through Villa de Alvarez, we learn that growth here has been at 10%/year for several years. The next big project coming this way is the building of the largest Corona beer plant in the world to export to thirsty China! With the large port of Manzanillo less than 40 miles away it makes sense; but it also makes you wonder how this growth will affect the Zona Magica and the archeological sites already so close to urbanism.
Tree bondage?
Pre-hispanic products Mexico gave to the world:

  • Avocado
  • Butter churn
  • Chili
  • Chocolate
  • Corn
  • Dried empty gourd to carry water, etc
  • Earthen pot and pan
  • Egg basket
  • Grinder
  • Peanut
  • Petrol lamp
  • Sieve
  • Tomato
  • Wooden spoon and spatula

Hope you enjoy finding out a bit more about this amazing country.

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