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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molinillo

molinilloA molinillo is is the traditional Mexican turned wood whisk used in the preparation of hot beverages such as hot chocolate and champurrado. Held between the palms and rotated by rubbing the hands together it creates a creamy froth in the drink that makes the addition of milk unnecessary. And while I don’t make a lot of hot chocolate myself, I nevertheless found myself transfixed by the artistry as well as the mechanics of the molinillo on display at Mucho Mundo Chocolate. Rest assured I’ve got one safely squirreled away in my luggage.
molinillo falling from the sky

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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.

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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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might as well be hung for a goat

hung for a sheep

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in thrall to the chilis

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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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goin’ south

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from the archive: the pinker side of mexico city (part 1)

It may be smog-choked, even crime ridden in parts, but the lure of Mexico City is irresistible.  The most populated metropolis in the world boasts colonial mansions and excavated pyramids alongside fabulous museums and galleries, all shadowed by the concrete and glass of encroaching NAFTA development.  Above all, the city is alive – exciting, sometimes frightening, always bewildering, but boldly alive.  You cannot avoid it, and if you genuinely want to know anything of Mexico you shouldn’t even try – even if the attraction does sometimes seem to be the same ghoulish fascination that draws onlookers to rubber-neck a car crash.

Though the 10% rule of thumb would peg this city as having 2 1/2 million friends of Dorothy romaing its congested streets, that is simply not the case. Mexico, like Ireland, wears its provinical Catholicism on its sleeve:  any deviation is firmly rooted in centuries of shame. The queer scene may slowly beginning to make itself visible, but it has been a long road.  It doesn’t approach the carnival-like atmosphere found along the Pacific coast citites that have become a gay tourist mecca, the paucity of rainbow flags will attest to that.  You’d be wise not to walk hand in hand down the street with your lover; though the backrooms are nightly filled to capacity with eager flesh — such is the paradox of Mexico City.

Designed to rival the grand thoroughfares of Europe, the Paseo do la Reforma is the most impressive street in Mexico.  It doubled as a ceremonial parade from the palace of Chapultepec to the city’s Zocalo, or central square.  It remains the smart thoroughfare:  ten lanes of traffic, lines of tress and imposing statues at every intersection.

It’s a teeming procession that’s made worse by an onslaught of pedestrian crush and traffic fumes – and don’t forget the altitude.  You’ll be well served by hopping one of the frequent buses, which allow you to jump on and off at will.  The roundabouts at each major intersection feature distinctive statues that provide easy landmarks:  Christopher Columbus at the Glorieta Colon – Plaza d Republica is just to the north; Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc comes next at the crossing of Insurgentes – a bottleneck for some of the worst city traffic; El Angel, appropriately golden, atop a 50m column is the third to look out for – the place to get off the bus for the aptly named, Zona Rosa, or Pink Area , Mexico City’s version of Greenwich Village-cum-Castro.

You’ll know you’re there by the street names:  Hamburgo, Londres, Liverpool, Roma.  Packed into a tiny area are hundreds of bars, hotels, restaurants and above all else, shops.  Teeming with the city’s highest concentration of beggars, queens and tourists, the Zona has multi-lingual policemen who wander around specifically to help tourists (little flag emblems on their lapels denote languages spoken).  More impressive, however, are the scores of unofficial guides whose only apparent task is to get you into their stores.  While you will want to cruise the constant activity, the street entertainers and the incredible diversity of shops and places to eat and drink – you’ll notice that this is no longer where the premier hotels and shops are located, though the prices in the Zona belie that fact.

On the fringe, there’s the Museo de Cera (Londres 6; 525-546-7670).  A thoroughly tacky wax museum with a chamber of horrors that includes Aztec human sacrifice.  Also here is the Museo de lo Increible (Same address) which displays such kitsch marvels as flea costumes and hair sculpture.  On the other side of Reforma is a much quieter, upscale residential area.  The streets are appropriately  named for rivers; hence the cruisy stream of boys with wedding bands (this is a Catholic country after all) who seem to be looking for more than just a stroll round the neighborhood

Just beyond the area of the Zona, lies Chapultepec Park and a pair of the most spectacular museums in the world. The recently refurbished Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Gandhi, just off Reforma; 525-553-6386; free)is possibly the eighth wonder of the world, packing a civilization’s entire pre-modern archeological history into one coherent building. Virtually next door, the Museo de Arte Moderno (Gandhi, just off Reforma; 525-553-6211; free) offers an equally impressive history of the period that followed.

The vast, paved Zocalo or Plaza de la Constitucion rivals Moscow’s Red Square.  It is the city’s political and religious center as well as its historic downtown and well worth a day of exploration.  It is dominated by the great Baroque Cathedral, dating back to 1573 (M – Sat 11 am – 5 PM; free). The Palacio Nacional, (daily 9 am – 5 pm; free) takes up an entire side of the square, housing the President and standing on the former site of Montezuma’s Palace.

Any visit should include the magnificent Diego Rivera murals that grace the central stairway and courtyard (there are fourteen courtyards in all) with the panorama of Mexican history.

Constantly buzzing with activity, for most of the year the Plaza is spectacularly illuminated in the evenings.  Among the constants, a troop of ceremonial guards marches out from the Palace to strike the giant national flag from its grandiose pole in the center.  The bar of the nearby Hotel Majestic provides a romantic vantage point for the pomp.

Behind the Palcio Nacional is the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (C Moneda 13; T – Sun, 9:30 am- 6 pm; free) a collection devoted to the archaeology of other countries.  Originally the official mint, it has been immaculately restored and is more interesting than you might think.

For all its grandeur, the Zocalo offers a dose of reality as well.  Lines of day laborers queue around the cathedral looking for work, each holding a sign bearing his trade and a few rusted tools at his side.

The area also holds other periods of the country’s history.  This was the heart of Aztec Tenochtitlan, and in the recently excavated Templo Mayor you can see remarkable remains from the temples on this site.  (T – Sun 9 am – 5 pm)  It’s all highly confusing, since a new temple was built over the old at the end of each 52-year cycle.  The result is a whole series of temples stacked inside each other. To make sense of it all, grab a diagram from the ticket office and look at the models in the museum.

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