just published: mayan journey

AsiaSpa - Mayan JoureyIf last December’s prevailing wisdom had held true you wouldn’t be reading this. The storied Mayan calendar was famously closing in on the winter solstice and the end of its 144,000-day cycle. Interpreters of the calendar – and a host of New Age conspiracy theorists – predicted the date would coincide with a global cataclysm. Good thing nobody held their breath, because the Maya believed in the cyclical nature of things. The end of the calendar didn’t presage the end of the world; it marked a new beginning.  Call it a transition or period of renewal, but the Maya believed in the necessity of an epochal timeout before moving forward.  Spanish conquistadors might have brought about that break sooner than expected – subjugating the people by the end of the 17th century – yet descendants of the Maya continue to form sizable populations throughout Mexico’s Yucutan peninsula. Plus, many of their cities and ceremonial sites still remain. The wisdom of these ancient Americans hasn’t been lost. It’s laying patiently in wait for a Mayan journey of rediscovery. READ MORE.

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chicks & ducks & geese better scurry

XoloitzcuintleBeyond art and tchotchkes, Senora Olmedo had a diverse interest in living animals, too, such as geese, ducks, and peacocks, which she collected and kept in the gardens of her museum. And who doesn’t love a pretty peacock? However what I found most fascinating was the handful of endangered Xoloitzcuintles, a 3,000-year old native breed of hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. (They believed the dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld.) Initially I thought I was looking at a group of sleek and sinuous statues – until they moved.
xoloitzcuintlepea hens

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the fabulous life of dolores olmedo

Dolores-OlmedoDolores Olmedo had quite the colorful life. As a young girl from a working class background she caused a scandal when her family discovered that she had posed nude for the painter Diego Rivera. Forbidden to see the artist anymore, it wasn’t until many years later that their paths crossed again, by which time Olmedo had become one of the richest women in Mexico – both a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. Rivera was broke, close to dying, and concerned about his legacy. At his urging she went on a buying spree, amassing a major collection of the painter’s canvases in addition to works by Frida Kahlo, Diego’s wife, with whom Olmedo had a tempestuous friendship fraught with jealousy over Rivera’s affections. After Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths she bought a 16th century hacienda in southern Mexico City, which she later converted into a museum and shrine to her life of passionate collecting. Not only does the five-building complex hold her entire store of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, modern and contemporary art, but also the largest holdings of Kahlo and Rivera anywhere – and her private chambers, filled with extravagant displays of ivory and porcelain, showcase photos of Olmedo with virtually every famous person in the world.

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the new mexican gastronomy

IMG_2820When chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood almost 14 years ago, the budget was so small that his wife had to paint the walls. Things have changed at what is now widely considered Mexico’s best restaurant, with its platoon of 27 cooks. The subtly lit interior is like a fine suit: understated and elegant. Service is hushed and artful – if just a bit quirky – so you can focus the food. One of the leading exponents of new Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is deeply immersed in his cultural legacy. Dried insects feature heavily, like in the elotitos tatemados, a take on Mexican street food: smoked baby corn glazed with coffee mayonnaise and dusted in salty ant powder. Brilliantly served in a hollowed out gourd, it’s an addictive umami snack. In a minimalist version of the salad course, acidity and herbal freshness are explored in foraged wild greens, pinon, and native seasonings. Olvera continuously re-invents traditional dishes and their presentation—you might not recognize something as a flauta, a taco, or a tamale, but with an artist’s flair for combining regional ingredients and modern techniques Olvera lays a foundation and builds on it to create something new. If Pujol is any indication of how sophisticated (yet wholly unpretentious) fine-dining in Mexico can be, I’m in for a whole lot of sensory overload.

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mucho mundo

muchoMucho Mundo Chocolate is the first museum in Mexico dedicated to enhancing the experience of chocolate – as if chocolate needed any help. But beyond the purely hedonistic aspects of consumption, the museum puts chocolate in a historical context, tracing its origins back to the Mayans, who first fermented the seeds inside cacao pods and used them to create a hot bitter drink we’ve come to know as chocolate. The favored drink of kings and priests, it was considered food fit for the gods. When the Aztecs gained control over the Maya, cacao seeds were elevated to the level of currency, making drinking chocolate a luxury few people could afford. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to a wider European audience, yet is still remained a product almost exclusively consumed by the wealthy until industrialization brought about the arrival of solid, mass-produced chocolates. Today we take the ubiquity of chocolate for granted, but a demonstration in Mucho’s test kitchen made clear to me how labor intensive making chocolate the Mexican way once was: first you heat the metate, a traditional grinding stone, while shelling as many roasted cacao pods as you need. (Hint: more than you think.  Roasted cacao seeds are as addictive as cocktail peanuts.) Then grind them on the metate by flicking your wrists with a mano, an elongated pestle. Add a handful of raw almonds to the mixture – their natural oils will slowly release and bind the cacao together – and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. After a bit of sweat you’ll have a crumbly paste, which can be added to water to make drinking chocolate, or serve as the base for baked goods and, after further processing and tempering, chocolate bars. I scooped up a bag of the crumble and munched on it as is; savory, slightly sweet and spicy, it was a tart reminder of why I hate milk chocolate: the fat in dairy dilutes the pleasing bitterness of the cacao. Which, I guess, is why the world is divided between devotees of milk and dark chocolate. On some things we must agree to disagree, however; after experiencing the effort involved, I won’t pop a truffle into my mouth with casual disregard again.

mucho metate

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jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

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Stairwell Orozco

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mercado san juan

the daily shop

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escamoles

escamolesOur perception of Mexican food has been blighted by years of overstuffed burritos, nacho pyramids, and a scourge of chimichangas and fajitas. Yet authentic Mexican cuisine is a fusion of indigenous MesoAmerican staples like corn, squash, and chiles, influenced by the domesticated meats and cooking techniques of the (primarily) Spanish occupation. It’s one of the world’s great cuisines, holding it’s own against both France and China in my humble opinion. (Don’t believe me? Try your hand at making one of the complex regional moles.)  To a large degree that’s what part of this week in Mexico is about: tasting traditions old and new. Like escamoles, or ant larvae – a dish native to Central Mexico and considered a delicacy by the Aztecs. Insect caviar, if you will. As far as traditional foods go, it’s a lot better than it sounds. The light-colored eggs, harvested from the agave plant, resemble pine nuts and have a slightly nutty taste. Often pan-fried with butter and spices, escamoles can be found in tacos, eaten with chips and guacamole, or here at El Cardenal, turned into a no-pun-intended Spanish omelette.

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larga vida al correo

IMG_2811Mexico City’s Palacio de Correos is – as its name suggests – a postal palace. Built at the very beginning of the 20th century, its design and construction was the most modern of the time, including an eclectic style that mixes several different traditions into a very complex  – and very grand – design. The building has a steel frame and a foundation built on an enormous grid of steel beams, which has allowed it to withstand a number of earthquakes. Built with a very light-colored, almost translucent variety of a stone called “chiluca,” the exterior is covered in decorative details such as iron dragon light fixtures and intricately carved stone around both the windows and the line of the roof. A perfect example of the building’s complicated design is the fact that each of the building’s four floors has windows in a different architectural style. Yet  the palace’s unity is maintained through the clever repetition of arches. The main entrance has a large ironwork canopy which is typical of the Art Nouveau that was fashionable in the early 20th century. Inside, the marble floors and shelves combine with bronze and iron window frames manufactured in Florence. The main stairway features two separate ramps that come together to form a landing, then seem to cross on the second landing above before moving off, each in their own direction. Rather an apt metaphor for the mail, don’t you think? Long may it live.

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slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.

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poet’s glen, creggan church

poets glen creggan churchUnassuming at first glance, Creggan Parish Churchyard is one of the more important and historic properties in Northern Ireland. The church was likely founded as far back as 1450 by the O’Neills, who built a castle at Glassdrummond, near the Irish Sea. While all traces of the pre-Reformation church have disappeared, it’s thought that the O’Neill family vault was situated underneath the original church. (Remains of a subterranean doorway were recently found during repairs to the existing modern structure.) The adjoining graveyard is also the burial-place of three eighteenth century Gaelic poets, who give this picturesque area of trails and sculpted gardens its evocative name: Art Mac Cooey, Pádraig Mac Aliondain and Séamus Mór Mac Murphy – poet, outlaw, and self-described handsomest man in Ireland.

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the five foods you can eat with your fingers in france

fritescrepeslamb-chops-basparagusFriedchicken

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tête de veau

tete a veauTête de veau is one of those delicacies you don’t find outside of France too often. (and when you do it’s more often than not something best skipped.) As the name implies it’s the head of a veal calf: boiled, braised, and roasted until the meltingly tender flesh literally falls from the skull. Often the meat is then moulded into a terrine and sliced before frying, so you get that idyllic interplay of a crispy exterior enrobing a layer of buttery soft veal. At Restaurant l’Entre Pots in Pezenas they take it further, pairing the tête with grilled squid, which mirrors the texture of the terrine and manages to create a complex dish that tastes of both land and sea.

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abbaye de valmagne

IMG_2611The magnificent Abbaye de Valmagne in Montagnac, founded in 1139, is one of the most well-preserved in France. Unusual in that though it was home to just a small handful of monks, the church and accompanying cloister are massive, having been inspired by the great cathedrals of Northern France. As with all good ruins it went from prominence to obscurity in just a few short centuries. Eventually it was confiscated by the government and sold into private hands. Having been looted and abandoned the empty church made the perfect 18th century wine cellar for a Mr. Granier-Joyeuse. Ironically it was the wine that ultimately saved the structure, providing support to the interior walls until proper buttresses could be added to the exterior. To this day the abbey remains in private hands, focusing its efforts on organic gardening and in a nod to monks, brewing small batch beer.

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