¿Pistachee?

 

 

There is a row of beautiful trees lining Avenida Mexico in front of Parque Hidalgo here in Puerto Vallarta. I walk by these trees several times each week and right now they are heavy with a fruit I mistook for olives.

I asked an old man sitting in the park what kind of tree this was—“¿Qué  tipo de árbol es este?

Arrayan,” he replied.

I thought he was wrong. So I took a couple of pictures and pulled down a high branch to examine the fruit.

A short woman from a shop across the street ran up and asked me if I would pull down a branch for her. I did and she began filling her apron with the fruit.

Up close the fruits she picked still appeared to me to be black olives.

“¿Qué tipo de frutos son?—What kind of fruits are these?”

“Pistachees,” she replied, “Hacen una muy buena aguas frescas.—They make very good cool or sweet waters.”

Aguas frescas are common here. They are made with fruits, flowers, nuts, seeds mixed with sugar and water. The result is a light non-alcoholic drink.

Some of the more common aguas frescas are Jamaica—Hibiscus, Tamarindo—Tamarind, and Horchata—a mix of ground almonds, rice and barley in many variations.

Pistachios? Is that what she meant? I didn’t think so. So I bit into one I judged was ripe by its dark purple color. It was sweetish, but was certainly nothing like the hard-shelled pistachio nut I am familiar with. It had a pit in the middle a bit like an olive, but it sure didn’t taste like an olive.

When I got home, I wrote a note to Bob Price at Jardín Botaníco Vallarta. I sent him my pictures and asked for his help identifying the tree.

His reply:

That is a pistashio tree, or as they call it here, pistachee.

 It is not the Mediterranean pistachio but a local variety.  I have never tried the nuts to know if they are edible.  Good luck!

 Robert Price
Curator
Vallarta Botanical Gardens

 That made me wonder what part was the ‘nut’. The seed?

Does anyone out there know what’s what about this tree and its fruit?

Please let me know.

A Taste of Vanilla

Layer-cake Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin

When visiting the archeological wonders at El Tajin in the state of Veracruz, we also explored the nearby city of Papantla. There we found many vendors selling vanilla on the streets in centro, downtown. The price of dried and cured vanilla beans was low—a pleasant surprise. Vanilla is very expensive in the US.

On many occasions we have found something we wanted in Mexico, deferred buying it and later when we returned to make the purchase, it was no longer available. So we try to be more opportunistic. We stocked up. Although it’s been several years since we were in Papantla, we still have a few vanilla beans from there in our larder.

Dried and Cured Vanilla Beans from Papantla

***

To our great happiness we found vanilla orchids here in Puerto Vallarta growing at the Jardin Botanico Vallarta. In addition to their display of several varieties of vanilla orchids, they also sell cuttings and give workshops on their care. My son bought us a cutting there which we now have had for almost two years, and it has survived a move across town. We’re expecting a bloom this year so we attended a seminar at the Botanical Gardens and  we hope soon to exercise our new skill as a pollinators—King and Queen Bee.

***

An interesting thing happened when we contemplated moving this plant to the other side of town. As epiphytes, air plants requiring little or no soil, our vanilla plants have strong tendril-like roots. These grab anything in their path and latch on. Where we used to live, our plant had grown to the top of our rooftop palapa and was hanging upside down gripping the bottom of the roof and rafters. We were unsure of what to do. How should we move it without breaking it apart?

Alice to the rescue! She found a YouTube video posted by Richard May about growing vanilla in Costa Rica—see it here. 

The narrator explains that vanilla should be moved or planted only on a waning moon, three days after the full moon. He demonstrates how easy it is to break the leaves and vines on the waxing moon and yet they are rubbery and flexible during the waning moon phase. We followed his directions and were successful in moving our plant to our new home.

Vanilla at our Old House had hit the Rafters

Our Vanilla Orchid in its New Home

I’ve always heard about farmers planting by the moon, and now we know.

The moon! Vanilla!

Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch

Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.

– Charles R. Swindoll

I suppose my first grade teacher deposited this one.

 

My son recently sent me a note with a couple of photos he took of Pawpaws he picked “in the wild” from an island in the Potomac River near Washington, DC.

When I looked at his pictures, a flood of memories from the public elementary school I attended hit me. And this song we sang magically reappeared:

                         Where, oh where is my dear sister Bethy?
                         Where, oh where is dear sister Frances?
                         Where, oh where is my dear Mother Mary?

                         Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

                         Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket
                         Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket
                         Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket

                         Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

After working through the words and melody, I realized I really never knew what a Pawpaw was—except that it’s a fruit, maybe like an apple. I’d never knowingly seen one.

So I Googled it. I read about them, and then thought, Maybe I do know what these are.

I looked out of the window from the room where I write here in Puerto Vallarta and there—directly in my sight-line—is a tall evergreen tree. Right now, near the end of February, it is heavy with ripe and ripening Guanabanas. They look suspiciously like Pawpaws, just not smooth-skinned.

Back to Google.

Guanabanas, I found, are native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America. They are called Soursop in English. Their dark green to whitish-green speckled skin has a diamond pattern with each diamond sporting a soft, curved spine. The white to yellowish interior pulp is full of large seeds surrounded by soft juicy flesh with a unique sweet flavor. I drank a big cup of aguas frescas made from Guanabana and Chia at my favorite fish taco stand yesterday. 

Aha! Now I see. The Pawpaw is the smooth northern cousin to the bumpy delicious Mexican Guanabana. Both  belong to the same plant family, Annonceae

 

Guanabana from the tree outside my window

Camarones Gigantes

“The term Jumbo Shrimp has always amazed me. What is a Jumbo Shrimp? I mean, it’s like Military Intelligence – the words don’t go together, man.”      George Carlin

 

Driving east from Papantla, we first hit the Gulf of Mexico at the Veracruz beach town of Tecolutla. It was an early summertime Friday and it seemed as if everyone in eastern Mexico had the same idea—let’s go to the beach. We found a small hotel and quickly joined the crowds cooling themselves in the soft breezes and inviting waters.

***

The following day we wanted to see more of the seaside village. So we walked over to the riverfront where the mouth of the Rio Tecolutla enters the Gulf  and defines the southeast corner of the town. There we found boats offering sightseeing trips to the nearby estuary to view exotic birds, crocodiles, turtles and more.

We hired a boat with a young guide named Hector, and we were off. We headed south toward a wide swamp crisscrossed by creeks.

While slowly motoring across the main channel I noticed men in boats drifting swiftly with the current toward the river’s mouth. They were throwing very large round cast nets. I asked the guide to save time to get a close look at them on our return to the dock. 

“No hay problema.”

In the estuary the water was slow-moving and calm. It was quiet with only bird sounds interrupting. A motionless ten-foot crocodile basked in the sun and where downed trees tipped into the water, long rows of turtles communally enjoyed the warm day. And there were lots of birds—kingfishers, ospreys, white ibis, wood storks, reddish egrets, black skimmers and more.

On our return, I reminded Hector I wanted to get an up-close look at the cast-netters. He obliged and motored about a hundred feet from another boat and then cut the motor. We drifted along beside two men working and watched. The man on the bow of the panga threw the net while the other man kept their boat aimed at the correct angle to the current as they swept toward the Gulf.

It surprised me that the net was so big—more than twenty feet in diameter. It had been elaborately prepared for casting with cigar-shaped lead weights attached in about one-foot intervals around the circumference. So the rig must have been very heavy with that many weights on a wet net.

The bowman cast his net twenty-five feet in front of the fast-moving boat. A perfect circle hit the water ahead and he paid out line to drop the net to the bottom—I guessed about thirty feet. He very slowly retrieved the handline to the net as his partner in the stern back-paddled to hold their position. I wasn’t sure why until he had completely pulled in the net, then I realized these nets do not pull into a bag like the cast nets or purse nets more commonly used in the US. Rather, they depend entirely upon trapping the creatures in the mesh itself. A slow retrieve does not shake them loose.

 

He brought the net to the side of the boat and we could see there were dozens of very large shrimp, camarones gigantes, entangled in it. The man in the rear of the boat quickly moved forward to help bring the net aboard and the two men carefully removed maybe forty to fifty shrimp. We pulled next to their boat for a closer look at their catch—some were so big that one of them would fill your hand. And, many of the shrimp appeared gravid—orange clusters of eggs hung from their bellies.

We bought two dozen kicking shrimp and immediately pitched the ones with the obvious large egg clusters back into the water. The rest we boiled in beer and ate for lunch. YUM

 

 

Chickens in Mexico

hen-with-chicks-2-fs

On my first visit to our little neighborhood grocery, tienda de comestibles, I carefully requested in Spanish, “Quisiera una docena de huevos, por favor.” I believed this to mean, I would like a dozen eggs, please. I was surprised by the reply, “¿Te gusta blanco o rojo? Rojo? I was stumped. I thought rojo was red. It is, of course. Yet, it took me a minute to realize the patient shopkeeper referred to what I have always called brown eggs.

When it comes to chickens, Mexicans have viewpoints different from most US citizens. Actual contact with chickens for most in the US generally consists of buying chicken parts wrapped in plastic. Mexicans, on the other hand, are not fazed when a flock of hens and biddies strut down a public street—even in the middle of a city. They don’t find it unusual if roving chickens poach a couple of bugs from their gardens, or if a rooster crows at any time of day or night.

Perhaps the reason for their higher tolerance of live birds is Mexico’s long history of tending chickens.

It had been widely thought that the first import of chickens to the New World arrived from Europe with the early voyages of Columbus and others. However, recent scientific investigations have revealed that bones found in Chile followed the same DNA sequence as prehistoric Polynesian chickens from Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Hawaii and Easter Island indicating an earlier introduction of Asian chickens perhaps via Polynesian explorers. Radio carbon dating of recently unearthed Chilean chicken bones indicated a date of between 1321 and 1407 AD. So, introduction of the Asian chickens to the New World must have taken place at least 100 years before the arrival of European chickens on the continent.

Likely, the arrival of chickens came much earlier as evidenced by language references. Also, Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421, suggested another introduction of Asian chickens may have taken place when the Chinese undertook to map the world from a huge fleet of junks around 1421. He believes there is evidence of the Chinese sailing into New World harbors including Acapulco. He also notes the easily discerned difference in crowing by European and Asian roosters—both heard throughout Mexico today. Menzies believes the Chinese left behind Asian chickens as well as other strange animals.

Here in Puerto Vallarta, we see chickens on roofs, chickens in yards, chickens in the neighborhood and chickens on the table. Mexicans love chicken. Chicken eggs are an important protein source for many Mexicans.

Neighborhood tiendas sell unrefrigerated fresh-that-day eggs by weight—not dozens by size. These eggs vary wildly in size—ahh, that’s why they weigh them. The yolks are a rich orange color and don’t break when you crack them into a pan to fry.

Mexico abounds with chicken restaurants. There are chains and Mom ‘n Pops. Pollo Feliz—why is that chicken happy?—El Pechugón—the Bustier, huh?—are examples of chains. In addition, the US, thanks to NAFTA, has introduced the Colonel’s contribution to chicken in Mexico—KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken. Some Mom ‘n Pops offer awesome hardwood-fire roasted chickens. You will see them along the streets. They are relatively inexpensive and well worth trying.

Perhaps it is time for us to all embrace chickens in a more natural way and adjust our history books.

rooster-fs

 

Chorizo Almendrado

As a trained lifetime recreational eater as opposed to a refueler (you know the type), I like to eat, drink, record recipes for food I enjoy, and poke fun at food pretension.

chorizo-almendrado-fs

A chorizo is a fat spicy Mexican pork sausage. There are many variations to the spicing mix. Most feature a lot of paprika.

When we were living in Ciudad de Guanajuato, Alice taught English to school teachers in the nearby city of Silao. During that time, we had an opportunity to get to know that beautiful city. It is about the same size as Guanajuato, around 150,000 people, but there are some major differences. Due to the remarkable history and iconic landmarks of Guanajuato, it is more a national museum and tourist destination than Silao. Silao is better known as a manufacturing center anchored by a gigantic General Motors plant. The city is also flat! Bicycles abound. Guanajuato is only a pleasant half-hour drive away, yet it is up and down, hanging onto the sides of a bowl on the edge of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Many of our friends in Guanajuato went to shop in Silao each week as the price of high quality food there is cheaper than in Guanajuato. One day, our friend, Poncho Medina, introduced us to a carniceria, butcher shop, in Silao where he goes to buy a special chorizo, Chorizo Almendrado. What a gift! These sausages are unusual and delicious. We became addicted.

The name of the shop is La Unica, Carniceria y Tocineria. The operators of the shop, Luis and Diego, are incredibly patient with Gringos struggling with Spanish. Further, their meats, bacons and sausages are all awesome!

luis-la-unica-fs

Luis is very serious about his trade. He told me his chorizo has a complicated list of ingredients. They are stuffed with pork, lard, several kinds of chiles, garlic, Mexican oregano, cloves, pineapple vinegar, dried fruits, almonds and more. The mixture is stuffed into cleaned intestines, la tripa, and tied off into individual sausages with strips of corn husk.

We like them best grilled over charcoal. The fat bastes them and the slight sweet and sour flavor is punctuated by the dried fruit and almonds.

I highly recommend this shop with one caveat; call before you go to buy Chorizo Almendrado. Once I made the drive but didn’t call ahead. I got no chorizossold out! All was not lost. I bought a beautiful custom-cut (leaving the fat on) pork shoulder and a rack of the prettiest and best tasting pork chops we’ve ever eaten. Taking a cue from Luis, we grilled the chops with a pineapple/vinegar basting sauce.

We have purchased enough Chorizo Almendrado there to sink a boat.

La Unica
Luis and Diego are located in the back left-hand corner of the Silao City Market. Their phone number is 01 (472)722 2366