Who's Afraid of Michoacán? - Notes from Morelia en Boca
“Don’t go!” they warned. “The narcos are there, the local Mafiosi, you’ll return sin cabeza.” I was planning to attend
Morelia en Boca, which takes place in one of those “scary” states. The sad truth is that the entire country continues to get a bad rap for the sins of a small percentage. Yes, there’s organized crime going on at the border and in isolated areas of Guerrero and Michoacán. But the whole picture paints quite another story. Life goes on, tamales are steamed, mole is ground in some of the most beautiful areas of the country, and it would be sad to miss out.
I’ve never lived by fear, but I’ve lived with it. I survived the sinister New York of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. If it’s cooking I have no fear. So I got on the bus and headed to the serene 18th century capital city for a foodie fest much like others I’ve attended, but always with something special to offer. Everything was cooking there. And nothing bad happened – except, perhaps a couple of dishes ill-conceived by well-meaning chefs.
Festival Internacional de Gastronomía y Vino de México, better known as Morelia en Boca, was in its fourth edition this year. It’s a gathering of chefs, traditional cooks, students and gastronomes to celebrate and discuss Mexico, Michoacán and the world’s cooking. Products such as mezcal and smoked fish are touted, cooking is demonstrated, wines are tasted. The “Divas de la Cocina Mexicana” - Patricia Quintana, Marta Ortiz, Carmen Titita et al – circulate and must be venerated. Cocineros tradicionales – those amazing folks who one hopes to find cooking in markets, fondas, by the road, in a humble home – are invited to prepare and sell their specialties. Juana and Luz Bravo, of Angahuan, make gorgeous blue antojitos much as their mother must have. And the big-city star chefs are there too, of course. The great Doña Titita, of El Bajio fame, is feted and honored as she should be after 40 years of tireless promotion of real Mexican cooking. Her daughter Maritere Ramírez demonstrates French pastry with a Mexican twist. Sra. Ortiz of Dulce Patria is supposed to demonstrate cooking with insects but instead confounds onlookers by molding little chocolate salamanders.
Rick Bayless demonstrates, before a crowd mostly comprised of culinary schoolers, how to make an herby green salsa for Lake Pátzcuaro’s pescado blanco. Audience members mount the stage afterwards, poking their pinkies into the pot for a taste; so do I--it's superb! Wines are tasted, as are dried and smoked fish products, peanuts, agave, mescal and fresh frog tacos.
Nationally and locally famous chefs are paired for special dinners – Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, of DF’s Nico’s, does what he does best, that is, tweaks tradition without needing to bypass it entirely. Eduardo Palazuelos, in from Zibu in Acapulco, turns out an avocado sorbet dessert so good it doesn’t make you wish for chocolate. And local chef Fermín Ambás, who studied in Spain, opens his new, hipsterish Tata Mezcalería for a special lunch at which we're served the worst looking but best tasting lamb tacos I’ve ever experienced. The visually dreadful Pepto-Bismol-colored sauce is really a light fresh goat cheese, perfumed and tinted with essence of flor de Jamaica. It works, complementing the barbacoa within as well as one of Cher’s old costumes did for its mistress.
I am told again and again that the most (formerly) touristed areas of the state – i.e. Morelia, Pátzcuaro, Uruápan etc. – are perfectly safe. Morelia, its historic center refurbished and lively from morning until the wee hours with strollers and café habitués, is as lovely as any provincial Spanish town. And there are now good restaurants to boot: San Miguelito, Los Juaninos, Lu and the aforementioned Tata Mezcalería amongst them.
I hope to return to the land of the Tarascas; there’s no reason why not to. And I salute the culinary pros, young and old, for their important work in celebrating Mexico’s great panoply of cuisines.
Mercado Roma is open. The beautifully designed space features upscale but accessible dining and shopping. A welcome addition to the constantly morphing Colonia Roma. Querétaro 225, between Medellín & Monterrey, open 10-7 daily.
Guzina Oaxaca, at Mazaryk 513 (tel. 5282 1820) in Polanco is chef Alejandro Ruiz' venue for great Oaxacan cooking. It's worth a visit.
Casa Virginia is chef Mónica Patiño's latest venture, located above Delirio at the corner of Alvaro Obregón & Monterrey, the Porfiriana house is beautifully restored and home-style food is delicious Tel. 5207 1813
Sesame at Colima 183, Roma, is chef Josefina Santacruz' venue for authenically prepared Asian street snacks. Try the pho, it's divine.
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