A Taste of San Miguel – Foods & Culture

Monday’s planned activity was another tour combing walking, history, culture, and food. The four of us would be taking the “Taste of San Miguel” tour. We chose the Downtown San Miguel Tour, “a guided 3½ hour food and city walking tour featuring seven food tasting locations carefully chosen to highlight the best regional flavors San Miguel has to offer. Tasting unique regional foods is one of the best ways to explore and experience the culture and charm of a city. We have wonderful memories of our Charleston culinary tour last year and so thought this would be a memorable day to share with Sam and Kayda.

We meandered down and through the winding streets to reach El Chorro where we would meet our guide, Eric.

Walking through the winding streets over the cobblestones, passing picturesque buildings. Just another day in San Miguel!

Just past El Chorro is the Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture) promotes dance, visual arts, literature, theater and music workshops taught by specialists from each branch. On one of our strolls by this beautiful building we could hear choral singing filling the air. 🙂

Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture) infuses the arts into the community.

Back in the mid-1550s, Fray Bernardo Cossin moved to higher areas of San Miguel, to a spring that provided fresh water. That place is El Chorro, now this charming little park. This little haven is also called Los Lavaderos meaning laundry or washing place. There are still public washing tubs here that fill from a natural spring.

El Chorro, or Los Lavaderos. Those reddish cubes are the washing tubs. Water from the spring would flow into the trough behind the tubs.

Al and Sam investigated the washing tubs in El Chorro. There was never anyone doing laundry when we passed the park. The pic on the right is from the internet, to illustrate the washing in action.

Noon was a busy time in El Chorro. Vendors were displaying their merchandise and musicians performed nearby.

Eric, our guide greets us by the fountain in EL Chorro. Eric has dual citizenship, Mexican and American. Acting as a tour guide for  “Taste of San Miguel” is  just one of his talents.

Off we went, our little group of eight hungry people, trailing after Eric as he led the way.

First stop, La Parada, a Peruvian restaurant.

Al is ready to try La Parada. It is past noon and he is hungry.

La Parada’s interior contemporary decor showcased the outdoors, a fun bar, and a coffee table covered in license plates in the lounge area.

Our tasting was ceviche (typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with ají or chili peppers)  – sea bass with chunks of mango and corn soaking in a delicious marinade, which was also a drink called “Tigers Milk.” I am not a fan of ceviche, but this was really delicious.

Before reaching our next tasting, Eric took a detour to show us Plaza del Toros Oriente, the “East Bull Ring”. Some sources state that it was built in the 1950s, others say 1856, a discrepancy of 100 years. Hmm?? My thoughts are that there was a bull fighting ring in this location, but that the most recent reincarnation of the structure was in the 1950s. That said, the building looks older than the 1950s to me. The bullfighting tradition of San Miguel has continued since colonial times. In his youth, Ignacio Allende, San Miguel’s favorite son and a horseman of great talent, was a rejoneador, the name given to a bullfighter who fights the bull on horseback.

Although bull fights are still held here, Plaza del Toros is now a venue for weddings, concerts, anniversaries, birthdays, corporate parties and events, expos, and any social gathering.

Entering Plaza del Toros —  In the top photo, there is a covered nook to the left of the entrance. In that nook is a tiled portrait of Esperanza Macarena, Virgin of Hope, shown in the bottom photo. Perhaps the bull fighters prayed to her before entering the arena for their fight? Or now brides pray to her before they enter the arena for their wedding???

Eric speaks with our group inside the arena, which has a capacity of 3,000 spectators.

An impressive overhead view of Plaza del Toros from their FaceBook page.

Back to the food!! That’s why we are here, walking about, right? Next stop was Casa del Diezmo.

The unassuming exterior hides surprises within. The first surprise is a mojigangas standing in the entranceway. Mojigangas are giant dancing paper maché puppets that are part of every parade.

Casa del Diezmo, dates back to the colonial era when it housed the administrative offices of the Catholic Church and the wineries for tithing. Under Spanish rule, before Mexican independence, citizens were required to give the church 10% of their income, which was often paid in kind with crops, livestock and in central Mexico, with silver. These funds supported the maintenance of the clergy and churches of San Miguel. Diezmo = tithe and diez = ten. The restaurant remains connected to its roots by keeping the name.

The interior of Casa del Diezmos is a beautiful courtyard garden setting.

We were served Cochinita Pibil, slow-cooked pork served on a panucho.  The pork is marinated in sour orange juice and then slow cooked in a hole (“pibil”). The panucho is a Mexican food specialty from the Yucatán made with masa, cooked on a dry, hot cast iron skillet until slightly puffy. The Cochinita Pibil was accompanied by 3 sauces, one guacamole, one fresh chopped onions and peppers (hot and spicy), and one darker one (VERY hot).

The third stop on our tasting tour was once again behind a very ordinary looking doorway in a wall, La Cocina, Café del Viajero, which translates to “the kitchen, café for the traveler”. It is most commonly known as “the kitchen.”

La Cocina, another nondescript exterior hiding charming interior spaces.

Like many of the restaurants we have seen, the entrance opens into an interior space that is really “interior” as in floor, ceiling and walls. Then one steps through into a courtyard, semi-outdoor space with light and plants.

Top photo – The first interior space.                                                                                Bottom – Another attractive outdoor courtyard. Our waiter is waiting by the table.

La Cocina’s Oaxacan Black Mole over an emmolada

I’ve always wanted to try a mole sauce, although I really didn’t know what the ingredients are. I learned that mole is a generic term for a variety of Mexican sauces   Traditional moles are labor intensive from the grinding of the ingredients, which usually include fruit, chili pepper and nuts. It was with great anticipation that I tasted La Cocina’s “Oaxacan Black Mole”. This mole recipe’s ingredients included cacao, 5 different chilis, pumpkin seeds, bananas, apples. The mole topped an emmolada (corn tortilla with shredded chicken.) I have to be honest – I was disappointed. Expectations too high?  It just didn’t appeal to my taste buds.

Los Milagros (miracles), our fourth restaurant, was also hiding behind a doorway.  It is said to be a ” local institution” that serves some of the best molcajetes and tortilla soup in town.

Los Milagros, another doorway that leads to ……

I would label Los Milagros as a typical (what I would imagine “typical” to be) Mexican cantina. A bar, a guitar player, with folks sitting around eating and socializing.

The guitar player added an auditory experience to our tasting. Click  here to see and listen to a short video of him.

We sampled tortilla soup with toppings – avocado, crema, farm cheese, pork rinds and dried pepper. I think I will try some recipes for tortilla soup when we get back home.

Stop #5 was not a restaurant, but a street vendor. Nieves Las Monjas is one of the oldest and busiest food stands in San Miguel.  Nieves Las Monjas has been serving homemade Mexican ice cream for 40 years. With no electricity, the ice cream is kept cold using the old-fashioned, low tech method of salt and ice. Nieve means “snow” and Las Monjas means “the nuns.”  I get the snow part for ice cream, but nuns???

Choosing a flavor was not easy. There were traditional flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and oreo cookie, but there even more adventurous sounding flavors – yerbabuena, mamey, cajeta, montecado, guayabo, zapote.  I chose almendra, an almond that was deeply flavored like almond paste.

Ice cream! Is there really anything else that needs to be said?

Stop #6  – San Agustín Churros y Cholocate

San Agustin churros are “second to none.” So good we gulped them down before I took a photo. Therefore , this is a standard internet pic of churros.

The tour had taken a decidedly sweeter turn by now. After the ice cream, the next place was San Agustín Churros y Cholocate, a San Miguel landmark. Unfortunately, it was too crowded for the ten of us to enter. Eric brought the churros out to us in the park across the street.  Churros are a fried-dough pastry, sprinkled with sugar, and often dipped in chocolate.

The doorway to El Gato Negro. Note the black cats on the swinging doors.

The final stop was more unusual than any of the others. El Gato Negro, the second-oldest bar in San Miguel de Allende, is a tiny hole-in-the-wall cantina, dating back to 1921. The original owner had a business delivering fuel, and a black cat was its mascot. The business changed (a different kind of fueling?) but the black cat theme stayed.

We were here to taste tequila, served in these sweet itty-bitty pottery “mugs.”

 

 

 

The bar is so tiny  that the 8 of us just barely fit inside. The walls are covered with memorabilia, mostly Marilyn Monroe, with the Beatles and a few others interspersed. Salud, Sam!

My first straight-up tequila ever. Whoa!!! Very different from a marguerite.

For 50 years, El Gato Negro was a men only dive. Here’s the proof in pictures —

Starting at the top: 1) Look at the base of the bar behind the ladies’ dangling feet. 2) Running along the base of the bar is a tiled trough. 3) A close-up of that trough.    Men did not have to leave their bar stool to relieve themselves. Understood?? And no, it is no longer used. That all changed in the 1970s as Mexican women began receiving more legal rights and social customs changed.

I hate to end the tour’s description on that note, but that is where the tour ended. Haha. We all had a great time on our “Taste of San Miguel” adventure and would enthusiastically recommend it. It was fun, it was yummy, it was outside on a beautiful day, and indoors in lovely settings (mostly). We thoroughly and literally enjoyed a taste of Mexican culture. What more could you want?

On second thought, there is a better way to end this “Taste of San Miguel” blog post! Sam introduced us to two Mexican beers (not Corona or Dos XX).

Both are obscura or dark beers – Bohemia Chocolate Stout and Modelo Negra.

Modelo Negra quickly became our favorite. As Brian’s Belly describes it —“A complex beer, redolent with caramel and chocolate flavors from the malt, the beer is perfectly balanced with a bit of spiciness or nuttiness in the hop aspects of its flavor profile.”  Our new favorite cerveza. We shall try to find it in New England!

Cañada de la Virgen Pyramids

All four of us awoke on Sunday with a feeling of excitement in the air. We were going on a tour of Cañada de la Virgen pyramid and archaeological zone with Coyote Canyon Adventures about 25 kilometers west of San Miguel de Allende in the Laja River Valley. The morning was unusually cloudy and foggy as we walked to meet the van that would take ten of us out to the pyramids, about a 30-minute drive.

Alberto Aveleyra , our guide and an anthropolist as well, drove the van to the visitor’s center, telling us about the site on the way. Cañada de la Virgen is an unusual archeological site, a public national site in the midst of private land. How did that happen? The story goes ——

In the 1990s, a German woman, descendant of steel producers during WWII, acquired an 18,000-acre ex-hacienda in the valley west of San Miguel. The story of Cañada de la Virgen’s 1998 “discovery” is that a cowboy rode to the top of a “mound” to look for his cattle from a higher vantage point. His horse found solid footing as it stepped up this mound, which turned out to be the pyramid’s stairs, buried under many feet of dirt and overgrown vegetation. The Mexican government then acquired the 40 acres that includes Cañada de la Virgen and official excavation began in 2002. Public access through the private property to the pyramids was negotiated and visitors began arriving in 2011. To accommodate this private/public arrangement, visitors ride a shuttle bus (aka van) from the visitors’ center to a drop-off location near the site.

The view through the van’s windows. This is the road that runs though the private property, a ranch.

Sam, Al, Alberto, and  Kayda, before we began the upward trek.

From the drop-off point, it is a 30-minute uphill walk along a road, of sorts, and then through a gate.

That would be the path we walked up to the pyramids.

Horses grazing on the hills, a reminder that this is also a ranch.

On our way up.

A stop for a rest and a lesson from Alberto.
Looking backwards at that road.

It was the dry season, but the cactus, shrubs, and scrub trees are doing ok.

Cañada de la Virgen sits upon a small mesa ( a small plateau) surrounded by canyons.  The site was built by the Otomí Indians and occupied between 540 and 1050 A.D.  There are three main architectural complexes on the site as well as what has been determined to be ceremonial spaces, residences, and burial grounds.

Alberto describes the structures on the site.

Cañada de la Virgen is not as famous or grand as most of the Mayan and Aztec archeological sites in Latin America, but because of its unusual joint public/private ownership, it is much quieter and tranquil. The number of tours and visitors are limited to respect (or because of) the private ranch land that surrounds the site. Our little group of ten was nearly alone the entire time.

It was quite a thrill to finally see the pyramid. Truly awe inspiring.

The first set of steep stairs.

This internet photo shows the design of the pyramid complex better. This main structure is known as “House of the Thirteen Heavens.”

 

Standing at the top of those steps, we were actually standing on a wall that rims an inner flat area that may have been an arena or ceremonial place.

 

 

 

We stood on the top of the wall and looked across at the pyramid, “House of the Thirteen Heavens.” Relox Cosmico, the cosmic clock, is another name.

A look back at the grove we had walked through to reach here.

WooHoo! We made it this far.

We very carefully stepped down these stone stairs to the level area inside. Alberto continued the stories of the Otomi and the history of the site.

We walked across the length of the ceremonial grounds to the next set of steps. Steeper yet ….

At the top, turning around to look back.

Top – Here at the top of the pyramid is a sitting area made of stone.
Bottom – One can see the “Red Temple” through a small opening in the wall up here. The faint red and black painted bands can still be seen, if you know to look. I forget the purpose of this small hidden space. Meditation? Burial?

The view from here at the top in the other direction.

From the vantage point of the House of the Thirteen Heavens, it was possible to see the other structures —

“House of the Longest Night”

House of the Longest Night, a ground level view.

“House of the Winds”

Amazing circular patterns of the House of Winds and around it.

Albert was an excellent guide. He told us so much, but I have forgotten most of it by now. 🙁   The Otomi Indians were devoted sky watchers and used their astronomical knowledge to form their religious beliefs and govern their society, passing the information down through generations. The pyramid and structures are situated and designed to align with movements of the moon, and especially the sun’s position on the equinoxes and solstices.  For example, “the site faces the celestial north, where the stars spin around in a circle throughout the year. The moon moves up the stairs of the pyramid as its cycle advances. It rises and falls perfectly in pyramid notches at key times in the lunar calendar and during solstice periods it turns out that the planets are lined up as well.” (Wikipedia) 

A lot of walking and a lot of climbing, but we were all thrilled to be there.

The day was not over yet. We walked back down the path to meet the van and return to the visitors center.

The horses joined us for our return journey.

From there we were treated to one of the bumpiest rides ever. The van drove us to a ranch for lunch, included with the tour.

The “ranch” was a small brick home with a covered patio where a long table was set for lunch.

The horses were sheltered just a short distance from the patio.

Our lunch was a “ranch style meal”, consisting of fresh tortillas en el comal, rice, beans, scrambled eggs, fresh salsas, guacamole, and freshly made cheese, quesadillas, salad, and potatoes.

We all sat together and enjoyed a lovely lunch.

 

This symbol seemed to be important to Cañada de la Virgen, but I don’t what it represented. I saw it on a map and a sign (and took a photo), but there was no explanation. Just thought it was an interesting design.

 

To walk around a place as old as Cañada de la Virgen was fascinating. To see grand structures that were built only by human hands and learn about an indigenous society with an advanced understanding and use of the interplay between agriculture, astronomy and architecture is remarkable. I have enormous respect for a society that was able to live in harmony with nature.

 

 

 

Market Day in San Miguel

Everyday is “market day”in San Miguel. There are markets all over the city and they are a feast for the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. Saturday is a special day– Tianguis Organico de San Miguel de Allende (TOSMA) is the open air organic market. Tianguis means open air market or bazaar.

The banner declares that TOSMA,  Tianguis Organic Market of San Miguel de Allende, is open and ready.

Every Saturday, about 40-50 organic traders congregate with their organic produce including breads and cakes, fruit and vegetables, condiments, chocolates, cacti, and herbs. In addition to edible items there are tables and displays of hand-embroidered pillowcases and table cloths, beautiful rugs, paintings, crafts, jewelry and more.

After you walk through the alleyway flanked on both sides with vendors selling crafts, you step into this tented area.

Food vendors surround the tables – so many choices!!

 

People sat together at the long tables in the outer shaded area, enjoying coffee, breakfast, lunch and a variety of sweet treats from the many vendors. The atmosphere in the Tianguis Organico was calm and relaxing, people meandered around chatting with sellers and relaxing in the shady seating area. Musicians take turns playing, adding to the  enjoyment of  the local foods and beverages. What a perfect way to begin a Saturday!

We started by sharing a breakfast of huevos rancheros, good, but not what I was expecting – tortilla topped with refried beans, salsa verde and fried eggs, but no cheese or red salsa.

Have to try more of the culinary delights – While Al opted for a donut, I decided to try an empanada filled with spinach and cotija (a Mexican cheese) with a green sauce on the side. The young couple making the empanadas were so sweet and their empanada was delish!!

The interior of the market was another large space filled with produce, tables and more wares.

Fruits, vegetables, breads, condiments fill the interior part of the Tianguis Organica. Again -so many choices!

An entire wall was covered with an array of hanging and stacked colorful woven rugs. I would have loved to get a rug, but shipping it home would have probably obliterated any savings.

An artist’s display of her watercolors.

I found myself wandering back to the watercolor artist’s table. Her work was so delicate. In the end, I could not resist – I bought a small unframed watercolor painting of a hummingbird. Easy to pack!

This little hummingbird will always remind me of the rooftop terrace at Casa Garza and of Sam and Kayda who showed us the joy of watching the tiny creatures.

 

 

Leaving the Tianguis Organica, we wandered past another outdoor market and stopped in there, too. Why not?

Another “tianguis” tucked into a narrow space off the street.

A large puppet figure stood at the entrance to this market. She graciously allowed us to take a photo with her.

This day was becoming “Souvenir Saturday”, although I dislike the term “souvenir.” I prefer the word  mementos of a special time and visit.

Three pairs of silver earrings for 235 pesos total, not each. Everywhere we went I seemed to find something. Long after the travels are over, special items from special places spark a memory and a smile when my eyes fall upon them.

We also stopped at Camino Silvestre, a garden store, where Sam and Kayda had found the little glass hummingbird feeder. It is a beautiful store with an amazing variety of hummingbird feeders, outdoor garden decorations, and interior décor.

Camino Silvestre, known for its  in-house-designed colibri (hummingbird) feeders.

We will have to wait for spring and summer to see this colibri feeder in action.

 

Yes, I bought a small blue glass hummingbird feeder, just a single one. (250 pesos) There were double feeders, triples and multi-tiered ones. I think this one will look nice on our deck; certainly much better than the $3 red plastic Ocean State Job Lot version we hung last summer.

Two mercados (markets) done, two more to go………….. for this day.  Al and I continued our day of markets by walking back to the other side of the city. On our first day in SMA, Sam and Kayda had taken us to two markets just beyond El Jardin.

The little red X (in yellow box) is on Casa Garza.  Our morning was spent at TOSMA (Tianguis Organico), labeled in green on the lower left. Our afternoon markets were  at the top center of the map – Mercado Ignatius Ramirez and Mercado Artesanias. We took a taxi home. 😉

Our walking route took us through El Jardin, behind Plaza Civica (where the statue of Ignacio de Allende stands, on Colegio.

We passed by this truck on a back street. Hmmmm, would you buy your lettuce here???

You could easily pass right by the entrance to Mercado Ignatius Ramirez, an old world style of  grocery market where locals and expats shop, because it is nearly hidden from sight. But once you turn in and step down the stairs you are stunned by an explosion of colors, sounds, and smells (and it is far more encouraging and enticing than the lettuce truck outside.)

Sam ponders the vegetables which looked amazing.

Piñatas above and produce in the bins below.

All kinds of legumes and grains.

After wandering aimlessly (literally) through the produce and foods, we eventually came upon a different market, connected, but different – Mercado de Artesanias (The Artisan Market).  There were stalls displaying anything and everything, hanging high and piled on shelves– jewelry, metallic lamps and decorations cut from tin, rugs, household, textiles, clothing, hats, toys, paintings and more. Lots more.

It was so overwhelming, I didn’t know where to look!

After much deliberation, I decided that a few  pieces of the hand-painted, traditional Mexican ceramics would be a suitable memento. The color and design is impossible to resist. If the suitcase was bigger……………

Two mugs and three small bowls for 320 pesos. The vendor carefully wrapped it all in old newspaper. Take a look at the paper – just can’t escape that man. 🙁

The market continues down some steps through a passageway with stalls on either side, winding through the narrow streets until you come out at the main road on the other side.

The Mercado de Artisanas stretches on and on, down some stairs to another alley.

More and more artists selling their work on narrow alleys that were not open to vehicles.

Eventually we left the narrow tented alleys  to emerge again on the other side, outdoors.

Exploring the many markets was one of my favorite pastimes during our stay, and that Saturday was especially fun and full of Mexican “flavor.” A whole day of shopping and I spent less than $50  US on my mementos for the entire trip. What’s more, I love each one. They will be a tangible memory of this amazing visit to San Miguel de Allende.