|Hola, Mexico City!
There sure is a lot of Mexico City. Coming in at night, from the plane, without cloud cover, it’s like a glittering carpet that sprawls as far as the eye can see.
On my table at home is a book called "Il Monstruo" about the world’s largest city that scared the pants off me.
“Watch out,” my cooks told me. “Mexico City is dangerous. Many thieves!”
And as for the "chilangos" themselves? “Very rude!” Danny said.
I have to admit I’m a more than a little bit nervous as the plane lands. We are deposited in a very modern terminal. Our bags show up "muy pronto" and a charming driver whisks us into his tiny car for a mad tear through the night streets of the city to our B&B in the Condesa district. We are welcomed into a beautifully modernized old house full of contemporary art and flowers, with a fat, blond Labrador retriever serving as concierge and greeter. We take a glass of red wine with a whole atlas of guests from other countries and enjoy an hour of conversation and story-swapping before venturing out for a late dinner at one of the many chic little restaurants that are situated on the tree-lined streets.
I’m here to meet the mother lode of Mexican food and culture. I’ve been many times to Baja California, but here in the middle of the Valle de Mexico is the wellspring, the lodestar, the heart of the country. I can’t wait for the next day so I can begin exploring. This doesn’t seem so scary after all.
Day 1: San Juan Market & La Lagunilla: Insects, billy goats and a 100-year-old virgin
Our guide Ruth Alegria kidnaps us from our breakfast table. We climb into a heavily scarred 1998 Toyota Avalon, which is clearly the victor of many street battles. Alegria takes off like a rocket through the streets of Condesa, into Roma and toward the Centro. At least, I think that’s where we are going. This city has no grid I can follow – and no rules of engagement.
The streets are beautiful in these historic old neighborhoods. It looks like Paris or Buenos Aires; the wide avenues and narrow side streets are lined with trees, while the buildings, a mixture of shabby and restored, evolve by "Colonia" from late 19th century "palacios" to exquisite art deco and lovely, clean postmodern facades, existing side by side with decrepit, abandoned buildings that are somehow still romantic and lovely. It’s gorgeous, human-scaled, livable, dignified. The streets are clean. I want to get out and walk – hell, I want to get out and find the closest realtor – but we are on a mission to Mercado San Juan. The small market close to Centro is the favored shopping haunt of many of the city’s top chefs.
Alegria careens down a narrow, dodgy alleyway and honks her horn. The street parking boss pulls a crate out of the spot she has her eye on, and we enter the market from the alley.
It’s small – perhaps half the size of a typical supermarket. At the entrance, a tiny woman in a colorful apron is selling stacks of handmade blue corn tortillas, "huaraches" and "sopes," which she keeps warm in a basket. I am tempted – but just inside, the real delights begin.
Mexico is famous for its pyramids. In this market, as well as many others, the pyramids are composed of terraces of beautiful, colorful fruits and vegetables – everything from marble-sized red potatoes and impossibly tender underage "nopales" to the bulging horror of "huitacoche," vast bouquets of fresh "flor de calabasa," lettuce that shimmers, hard-stem garlic and onions that gleam like pearls. The fruits are exotic, ripe and perfect.
We are offered a taste of fig by a young salesman (about 10, I think). It’s the best fig I have eaten in years.
Some unusual fruits include ripe "cherimoyas," which smell like piña colada; something called a Chinese pomegranate; and a sour yellow passionfruit that is all tart, delicious pleasure. Seeing, smelling and tasting these glories is like heaven.
After this eye candy, we pass into the next aisle. If you haven’t breakfasted, the cheese and salumi vendors (all European products, alas) will make you a generous plate of tapas and serve you a glass of red wine for about five bucks. Past them are seafood vendors. I see "huachinango" and shrimp, but also whole yellowtail tuna and "dorado" (mahi mahi), as well as skinned eels, fresh octopus, sea bass and various smaller fish for frying.
A vendor (a dead ringer for John Lennon) is excited when I recognize a vat of "percebes," or goose barnacles, which I remember enjoying in Spain, where you pick them out with a long pin and roll them in garlic and oil. These are harvested in Mexico, he explains. They are bit bigger than the Spanish ones.
Past them, a stack of blue crabs, tightly bound with seaweed, glumly await their future as soup, quesadillas or enchiladas.
Things get interesting just past the veal butchers. I spot a stack of suckling pigs, waxy-pale, and rows of butchered goats with shiny guts exposed and furry feet intact.
A table is covered with piles of slithery innards where several men are making something very interesting. Chefs love guts, so of course we stop dead and begin to pepper them with questions. What are they making? "Machitos," it turns out, are goat intestines and testicles carefully twisted into tight bundles, then wrapped in sheep caul fat to make something that resembles a white cabbage roll. We chat for a while about cooking directions. (To wit: steam thoroughly "al vapor," then cut in half and fry until crisp on the outside. Then serve with any salsa you like, though they consulted among themselves and decided on a simple salsa of tomato and dry "chile guajillo." Mexicanos love to tell you how to cook.)
This vendor also sells fresh maguey worms, firm and pale lavender, purged and ready to fry with salt and limón. Munching a large "chapuline" (fried grasshopper) the cashier offers us a bowl of them to taste.
Across the aisle is Los Coyotes. See the photograph of its sign, which says more than I have time to.
The upper half of a wild boar, complete with head and tusks, is in the refrigerated case, but Los Coyotes is famed for wilder stuff. The vendor is keeping careful watch over pans of large, fat "chapulines" and "escamole" (ant larvae, which look like millet seeds). There also is a pan of small, round black balls the size of capers, which turn out to be a kind of much-prized field beetle from Guerrero – hotly desired by the city’s chefs. One chef is using these to make an "ensalada de milpa" – a true "field salad" incorporating everything from the field, including the crunchy little beetles, which sell for $30 a kilo. It's a small fortune in Mexico City. Though as I pointed out, a kilo of any of these would certainly last me a lifetime.
We race off to the antique flea market in Col. Tepic. As we are greased and wiggled into yet another eensy parking space, Alegria says firmly, “You may come here on Sunday flea market only. Never come any other day and never, ever come here at night.” OK! At last, some fear.
The market is a blast! Tons of rusty iron things, old Mexican knick-knacks and pottery, '60s furniture, old books, and sheet music and LPs, including a mint copy of "Disco Inferno." We haggle for Mexican cooking books, which are hard to find and always expensive, even used, and walk back to the row of "comedores," where teams of ladies bang out "tlacoyos" and quesadillas with fresh blue corn and white corn masa, stuffing them from an array of more than a dozen fillings (such as brains, chorizo, "chiles rajas," cheese, "nopale," "huitlacoche," mushrooms) and toasting them on a gigantic "comal."
Alegria won’t let us eat here. She does not trust the vendors, even though one stand has half a dozen cops eating at it. A woman fries fresh potato chips in a tiny cart, which smell divine, beside the usual jewel-like glass jars of "agua fresca" and cut fruit. But no food. Instead, in desperate need of a "baño," I find a vendor with a few genuine folk paintings of saints and village scenes from the early 20th century. I zero in on an 8-by10-inch wooden panel painted (beautifully) with the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by saints and angels. It’s the real thing, lovely and charming, and he wants $250 for it. It’s worth it, but it’s my entire stash of mad money, and I really have to work on controlling my Guadalupe jones.
“Next time,” I say. “I’ll be back.” But not this year, alas.