Memorable Meals in Mexico 2 – A la Sombra del Camachin
This is the second memorable meal that I have eaten within the last two weeks. This meal could not have been more different from the other one – that I wrote about in the previous post – which was very accomplished, sophisticated regional cooking in a charming, elegant restaurant in Guanajuato.
This meal took place in a pulqueria, about two miles off the road heading north from Ciudad Guzmán towards Goméz Farías just before reaching La Fortuna. In this region, there are a number of roadside pulquerias, which are places selling aguamiel, the freshly extracted juice of the agave plant, and pulque, which is the same liquid, but now fermented and alcoholic.
In his book on Mexico City, David Lida brilliantly and accurately describes pulque as having “a foamy viscous texture somewhere between spit and sperm”. Aguamiel is meant to be non-alcoholic but I often find it creates some subtle shift in my consciousness.
Normally, during the week, this pulqueria only sells aguamiel and pulque, but at weekends it opens to offer food as well. The main meal is a ‘bote’, as shown in the first photo, which is a rich stew of chicken, pork and beef, cooked over an open fire with vegetables and aguamiel.
As it was the final weekend of my friends Troy and Kevin stay in Mexico, I was keen to take them to this pulqueria called ‘A la Sombra del Camichin’. The name translates as “in the shade of the camichin tree”, which is a beautiful 300 year old tree providing shade to the pulqueria.
The pulqueria is set just off the road. A friend recently told me that when the road was rebuilt a few years ago, after the original route which went through the laguna was flooded, this particular curve was altered to leave an empty space by the side of the road. The people who owned the adjacent land quickly occupied the vacant space. The pulqueria is their third or so venture. An earlier attempt to sell authentic carnitas from the nearby state of Michoacán in the same space had not worked out.
When we arrived around 2.30pm on a Sunday, the place was starting to get busy. There were about twenty simple wooden tables and chairs scattered on the earth under a tarpaulin, in front of a large serving counter, behind which there was a gigantic ice box containing the ubiquitous refrescos (fizzy drinks). To the right side of the counter the bote was being cooked.
We were immediately made to feel very welcome. As the wind blew, occasionally scattering serviettes and anything not anchored down, the woman chef said she would turn down the air-conditioning. In addition to the bote, the pulqueria serves tostadas of guacamole and chile de una. Chile de una is said to be a speciality of this region. Its basic ingredients are finely chopped onion, tomato, green chile and coriander. Every place has its own way of making it – another local restaurant here once told me they use 14 ingredients in its preparation.
We each ordered the bote and, to start with, two rounds of tostadas of guacamole and chile de una. We were served with an enormous jug of aguamiel. As we were waiting for the tostadas, a young, talkative, wide-eyed Mexican man came to our table and started talking to us in English. He was a musician, and when he realised we were English, and not American, as he had assumed, he went into a rhapsody of praise of English rock groups.
His own band has a Mayan name. This shifted the conversation, by now in Spanish, into a discussion of Mayan cosmology and the predictions the Mayans reputedly made that an enormous transformational change will occur on 21st December 2012, either marking the end of the world or ushering in the new age of the Quinto Sol (the fifth sun). He explained the basis of this prediction drawing maps of the universe on a paper napkin.
I have come across these ideas before, but have never had them expounded with such enthusiasm and conviction. His final remark was to invite me and my son, at the appropriate time of year, to taste the local hallucinogenic mushrooms which are to be found in the Sierra close to where we were eating, before he retired back to his group of friends at another table.
Shortly after this, a four-piece band arrived in their beaten-up car.
They came first to our table and asked if we wanted a song. For 40 pesos, they gave us a rendition of one of my favourite Mexican songs, ‘Perfume de Gardenias’. As they completed the musical introduction and two of them began singing, my new-found friend came over to the table, put his arm around me and began belting out the song. I thought, with an English sensibility, that this might cause offense to the singers, as they were drowned out by the young man’s powerful tenor voice, but my son reminded me that this is normal in Mexico, and that the band play so that others can sing.
The band then moved to another table, and a large man, with another beautiful tenor voice, sang along with them. After completing a couple of numbers, he came over to our table, introduced himself in English as a lawyer from Guadalajara, said we were all very welcome in his country, and, that if we needed help, he would be glad to be of service. This was all done with great authenticity. I could not imagine English people approaching strangers in a small country town and welcoming them to England.
By now the place was getting into full swing. The band were going from table to table and I noticed that many people had brought their own bottles of tequila as, at least that day, the pulqueria was not serving alcohol.
Our bote arrived, served steaming hot in bowls. It was delicious, and was refilled as many times as we wanted. I wandered off to take some photographs. Tucked away, on the other side of the counter, I found two women cooking meat on a grill. One of them was the mother of the bote chef.
They explained to me that it was also possible to eat carne asada in the restaurant and presented me with a plate of meat and a number of tortillas. A nearby table also gave me a couple of spoonfuls of salsa so I returned to my table to share the carne asada with them. I have to say the meat was distinctly chewy.
By now, we were getting to know the family who run the restaurant and they presented me to the pulquero, the father of the husband of the bote chef, and the man who extracts the juice from the heart of the agave plant. He showed us the tool he uses to extract the liquid, and, if I understood correctly, told us that he regularly gets about 2 litres of aguamiel from each agave plant.
Unfortunately, at this point, because of other commitments, we had to leave. Most Mexicans, of course, would have thought “to hell with the other commitments” and stayed, but cultural roots go deep and we left. I had wanted to ask the band if they could do “La Reina del Sur” by the Tigres del Norte, a well-known Norteño Mexican group, but this will have to wait for another time.
It is often commented how warm and hospitable Mexicans are. This is indeed true, but the friendliness, warmth and good humour I experienced in this pulqueria are well beyond the norm. Incidentally, I believe, (as I did not pay the bill), that the price of the meal came to about 60 pesos per person (around 4 USD or 3 English pounds).