Tag Archives: oaxaca

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

This month at The Eye we have much to celebrate! When we put out the first issue in early 2011, I could not have predicted that almost ten years later we would still be going strong and putting out our 100th issue.

This is also our annual Food Issue and, as a restaurateur, it is one of my favorites to put together. However, this year feels a little bit different for me.

The unprecedented worldwide COVID situation is affecting how we relate to one another. We are reevaluating social norms; shaking hands is verboten, let alone the hugging and kissing which is so common in Latin culture. Standing too close to someone is no longer just rude but is seen as a form of aggression.

The restaurant experience as we have come to know it is changing quickly, with disposable menus, plastic-wrapped cutlery, having your body misted down with disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and of course there are the masks. Suddenly staying home seems a lot more fun.

With this in mind, we return to comfort foods. This is not a time for molecular gastronomy or expensive cuts of meat. It’s a time for eating close to home with seasonal ingredients. Make extra and send it to your neighbor – in sterilized Tupperware, of course!

And we need to evaluate these changes through a wider lens. Yesterday 4,158 people died from COVID while over 21,000 died from hunger. I do not say this to diminish those affected by this virus, but to encourage us to remain focused on the fact that many humans do not have the basics for survival. This ‘new normal’ makes providing those basics even more difficult. There are currently 70 million displaced people across the globe and half of those are women and children. Many are living in one of the various immigration detention centers or refugee camps around the globe. As the world came to a stop, they have not had the luxury of self-isolating. In addition, caseworkers, courts and immigration services came to a standstill, making the already long process they face, even longer.

The world has come to a halt to protect human lives. But why have we not stopped the world for the hungry when their numbers are so great and their power so little?

Thank you to our readers for being on this journey with us!

See you in October,

Jane

Al Pastor and the Lebanese Influence on Mexican food

By Julie Etra

Yum! One of my favorite Mexican dishes is Tacos al Pastor, layers of marinated meat, slow-cooked on a spit with a vertical flame, slivered up and served on a warm corn tortilla with all the side fixings. The spit, called a trompo (“spinning top”) in Spanish, slowly rotates as it cooks the al pastor, which in Mexico is usually pork. Marinades vary, but can mostly be classified as “adobo,” which includes achiote and ground red guajillo chilies, resulting in the reddish colored meat. The pastor part, which means “shepherd,” is derived from the verb pastorear (“to herd”), as this fixture in Mexican street food is actually Lebanese in origin and the corresponding meat was lamb (pigs are not herded). In the Middle East, the dish is called “shawarma,” and originally consisted of spiced lamb roasting on the slow-turning spit and served on pita bread; when it arrived in Mexico, the pita eventually became a wheat flour tortilla (as in tacos árabe). This method of cooking on a rotating spit is also customary in Greek food, e.g., the gyro (think gyroscope), a meat sandwich of beef, veal (oh no, not a fatted calf), lamb, pork, or chicken.

Lebanese Food Comes to Mexico

Records show that the first Lebanese arrived Mexico in 1892, initially concentrating around Puebla and to a lesser extent Mexico City and the Baja. At the time, Lebanon was not a distinct country but part of the immense Ottoman empire. The immigrants were largely Christians fleeing political persecution, and they rapidly assimilated in Mexico.

The first Middle Eastern restaurant in Mexico was opened in Puebla by Yerbagues Tabe Mena y Galeana in Puebla in 1933. Called “La Oriental,” it was located at Avenida 16 de septiembre, #303. Since lamb apparently was difficult to find and expensive, and since the Mexicans preferred pork, the family quickly adapted. Traditional Lebanese spices, such as caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger were gradually replaced with Mexican spices but tacos árabes are in part defined by the wheat flour tortilla, not corn.

The restaurant moved to its current location near the zocalo in 1942; it’s at Portal Iturbide, #5. The sign reads “La Oriental: la cuna del taco Árabe” (“The Eastern: the birthplace of the Arab taco).

Speaking of spices, there are numerous spices not originally Mexican but over the centuries and decades have found their way into Mexican cuisine, e.g., cumin (comino in Spanish) and cilantro.

Cumin, which seems indispensable in so many Mexican dishes, is in fact from the Mediterranean, introduced to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores. Cilantro (called coriander when you are referring to the seeds) is related to cumin, as they are both in the carrot/parsley/celery family. Although its origin remains uncertain, it is also most likely from the Mediterranean and it has been in use as a spice and as a medicinal plant for about 5,000 years. There are references to the use of coriander in the Old Testament (in Exodus) and The Arabian Nights. Coriander, too, arrived in Mexico with the Spaniards, along with cinnamon (canela) and cloves (clavos).

Lebanese Culture in Mexico

Who are some famous Mexicans of Lebanese origin?

Number Uno has to be Carlos Slim Helu, better known as Carlos Slim. I have to assume, dear readers, that most of you know he is the 5th-richest person in the world, the wealthiest Latin American and worth about $68.9 billion US dollars, but did you know he is of Lebanese descent? Slim is the son of Julián Slim Haddad (born Khalil Salim Haddad Aglamaz) and Linda Helú Atta, both Maronite Christians from Lebanon. Slim’s father emigrated to Mexico from Lebanon at age 14, apparently to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army, making Slim first generation on his father’s side. His mother was from Chihuahua, but both her parents were also Lebanese immigrants. The Soumaya Museum in Mexico City – and most of its contents – are the gift of Carlos Slim.

The actress Salma Hayek Jiménez, aka Salma Hayek, is also of Lebanese descent. She was born in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Her father, Sami Hayek Domínguez, is Lebanese, having emigrated from the city of Baabdat, Lebanon. Her mother, Diana Jiménez Medina, is Mexican/Spanish (her maternal grandmother and great-grandparents were from Spain).

The supermarket Chedraui, aka Super Che, is one of the two big box stores in HuatuIco and is part of a chain of super stores founded by the Lebanese immigrants Lázaro Chedraui Chaya and his wife Ana Caram in 1927 in Xalapa, Veracruz. First known as Port of Beirut, this highly successful chain now includes stores in the United States in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, under the names El Super and Fiesta Mart.

A Brief History of Cooking

By Randy Jackson

Today, perhaps more than any other time in human history, food has been elevated on a cultural pedestal of reverence. The depth of knowledge and appreciation for a wide variety of cuisines among so many people seems to be a cultural characteristic of our times. Celebrity chefs, food shows and food networks, never mind food pictures posted on Instagram, are only a few of the many indicators of this interest. The term “foodie” was first coined in the 1980s and is now in common use. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a foodie as “a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not only out of hunger but due to their interest or hobby.” Travel, immigration, and the abundance of food and ingredients from all over the world have all had a hand in this current cultural obsession with food and cooking. However, today’s modern hipsters of cuisine are only the most recent green sprig of growth in the long history of cooking.

Our evolutionary record shows the harnessing of fire coincided with the growth of the human brain relative to body size. This development took place roughly 1.9 million years ago. Harnessing fire had multiple benefits to humans, but chief among them was that it allowed the cooking of food. Cooking food increases the caloric value and reduces the energy required to digest it. Cooking food also enabled early humans to eat certain tubers and roots that were otherwise inedible.

I think it safe to assume that grilling was the first cooking method. Studies of primitive tribes, even today, show how an animal is cooked (it’s estimated that there are more than a hundred “uncontacted peoples” worldwide, half of them in the Amazonian jungle). The entire carcass is thrown onto the open fire. The fire, along with some scraping, removes the fur. Then as bits of the animal are deemed cooked, they are cut or torn from the carcass and consumed. It’s easy to see the direct lineage of this form of cooking to the tossing of a piece of meat onto the barbeque today.

The earliest dishes beyond grilling were probably soups and stews. There is some evidence from Japan dating back 10,000 years of a type of stew made by putting flesh and water into an animal’s paunch and boiling it over a fire. No doubt soups and stews were being made much earlier than this. Once mankind had figured out how to cook in a container of some sort, it only made sense they began boiling up bits of almost anything they could find.

There is an ancient tradition in Oaxaca – still practiced – of making “stone soup.” National Geographic has a documentary showing this
(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2010/10/04/mexicos_stone_soup/). The cooking method consists of putting water, vegetables, and fish into a smooth rounded depression in the rocky ground. Then a stone is heated on a fire before dropping it into this natural cauldron, and the soup is cooked. It’s easy to imagine how different flavors were discovered by experimentation or by chance when something new was added to the soup or stew.

Let’s not forget about bread. Archaeologists in Jordan have found the remains of flatbread made with wild barley and plant roots – about 14,000 years old, it predates agricultural practices by thousands of years. Societies all over the world have independently found ways to make bread. Mash up grains, add water to make a paste, fry on a hot rock – and presto! For example, the original inhabitants of what is now California developed a complex procedure to make flour for flatbread out of acorns. Source material for bread was everywhere once man learned to harness fire.

Harnessing fire and cooking required greater social organization and division of duties – there had to be fire tenders, wood gatherers, hunters, etc. A central fire also brought people together for longer periods, especially at night, which increased social complexity and likely helped in the evolution of language.

The Important Role that Grassroots Organizations Play in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Pete Noll

As I was thumbing through previous editions of The Eye during the start of our quarantine in amazing Huatulco, I was pleased to see a number of social organizations highlighted. After college, I took the path most followed by many of my peers and began a job in finance and sales outside of Los Angeles. Fortunately, that journey ended when I got the news that I had been accepted to join the Peace Corps and would be going to Guatemala.

Since then, I have transformed my vocational pursuit, or life strategy as I now refer to it, to working in social justice, primarily in the nonprofit sector. In addition, I went back to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) to add to my academic portfolio of the theory and practice of public policy and management, with a focus on structural change. I believe that, while far from perfect, the nonprofit sector can provide a space and balance to address many issues that are underserved, intentionally or unintentionally, by the private and public sectors. I would include independent media as a fourth element, although we are regrettably seeing most of the content absorbed by a handful of corporate media outlets.

Since 1997, I have had the opportunity to work in both rural and urban centers in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. I have had the opportunity to un-learn a lot of my beliefs about top-down management and miracle market forces and, ultimately, have discovered the empowerment gained from participatory social processes.

I often refer to two sayings that I believe exemplify grassroots work. The first one uses the image of a person atop a donkey, with the caption “Only the donkey knows how hot the ground is.” You can draw your own reflection. For me, I have been humbled time and time again when I have left my preconceived ideas in the background and observed and learned from the local people and customs. In Oaxaca, the people have deep traditions in community action, like gueza, guelaguetza, and tequio, indigenous words (Zapotec and Nahuatl) for slightly different forms of reciprocity. I have been inspired by those forms of collectivism and solidarity. And thus, to my second adage: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, we go together.” I hold a strong belief that humankind is best served when we can focus on the common good.

For the past 11 years, I have collaborated with Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (www.puentemexico.org); in August I started a position at TASH, Inc. (www.tashinc.org), an organization that helped initiate and grow a nonprofit hospital, La Clinica del Pueblo, A.C., located in San Martín Mexicapam. Since 2000, TASH has been able to support a total of 15 organizations in Oaxaca in addition to La Clinica. During the pandemic, we have also given a grant to a civil society coalition, AMOax (https://amoax.ong.mx/), or Apoyo Mutuo Oaxaca (Mutual Help of Oaxaca), which is giving meals and supplies to low-income families affected by the situation.

One might ask how the Mexican government or private sector supports these organizations. The unfortunate response is their responses are limited, with only about 150 foundations compared to over 86,000 in the United States. However, charity or generosity is complicated and nuanced, as the society and culture practice social contributions in their own ways, such as the solidarity after natural disasters or community support to those who need help. Moreover, differences in tax codes – i.e., whether or not they incentivize charitable contributions – affects giving around the world. Mexico itself has an anti-money-laundering law that makes reporting on incoming funding more of a burden.

In conclusion, if any readers are interested in engaging with any specific areas of health, education, environment, or a whole range of other possibilities, I am a promoter of collaborative efforts and you can reach me at pete.noll@tashinc.org. I live in Oaxaca City, while TASH currently supports projects in the Central Valleys, Sierra Juárez, and the Mixteca.

Mexican Mangos

By Brooke Gazer

Originating in South Asia, the first mango trees arrived in Mexico via the Philippines, in 1779. At one time, China dominated world mango exports, but Mexico now holds that distinction. In 2015, Mexico exported 277,000 metric tons (±305,340 US tons) to the USA, and 368,000 metric (±405,651 US tons) in 2019 – that was 18% of Mexico’s production. While Mexico currently produces many mango varieties, the two most commonly exported are the Tommy Atkins and the Ataúlfo.

Weighing up to two pounds, Tommy Atkins is a large mango covered with a green, yellow, and red mottled skin. Inside this mildly sweet fruit, the orange flesh is juicy but highly fibrous. Originally cultivated by a Florida grower bearing its name, Tommy Atkins may not be the tastiest of all mangos, but it is the favorite among importers throughout Canada, the USA, and most of Europe. This is due to its long shelf life and its ability to be transported with minimal bruising. The Tommy Atkins is grown extensively throughout the Americas and represents up to 49% of all Mexico’s mango production.

The tastier Ataúlfo mango is about half the size, with golden skin and flesh of a similar tone. Unlike the fibrous Tommy Atkins, this fruit has a rich creamy texture, the sweetness of honey, and a relatively small flat pit. It was named after Ataúlfo Morales Gordillo, a grower from Chiapas who developed this particularly delicious variety. In Mexico, Ataúlfos are grown commercially in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Michoacán.

With its smooth buttery texture and sweet rich flavor, this could be considered the champagne of mangos. And just as the bubbly wine from France is protected for authenticity, the Ataúlfo mango is protected by Mexican Institute of Industrial Property. When other countries began producing and exporting the Ataúlfo, they called it a “Champagne Mango.” In some places, these sold better than the original Ataúlfo, since gringos had difficulty pronouncing and remembering the Spanish name. To make it more marketable, in 2017, the National Mango Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture renamed it “Honey Mango.” Whatever they call it, this is the same sweet fruit with a soft creamy texture.

Mangos are an important part of Mexican cuisine, and this country is proud of their contribution to the mango species. Mexico has not adopted the English names – here it is still referred to as Ataúlfo. Those of us living in Huatulco will have no difficulty remembering the name, which is pronounced A -TOOL-fo, and rhymes with Wha – TOOL- co.

Environmentalists suggest we favor eating locally grown food to cut down on shipping foods over long distances, thus reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint. Mango transportation might be an exception. Like all trees, mangos absorb carbon dioxide from the environment and release oxygen back into the atmosphere in a process called carbon sequestration. While trucking the mangos to their final destination inevitably produces greenhouse gases, researchers in Nayarit and Sinaloa determined that the average mango tree sequesters two to two-and-a-half times the carbon emitted while transporting fruit to the U.S. In Chiapas, mango trees absorb seven times the carbon that is emitted. So, whereever you are, go ahead and indulge yourself.

Some people are wary of consuming mangos because they are high in sugar. They are, but they are also low in fat, high in soluble fiber, and rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, copper, and potassium. One cup of cubed mango equals about 100 calories, the same as a slice of bread or a four-ounce glass of dry white wine.

When I serve mangos at breakfast, guests frequently ask how I am able to cut the fruit in half, maintaining a smooth clean surface in the center? The answer is simple – I can’t, the mango is actually cut into three pieces. The center part is reserved for a different use, possibly a smoothie or chopped up and added to salsa. There are so many ways to use mangos, and one of my favorites is mango fish. In this simple recipe I prefer the juicer, less sweet Tommy Atkins.

Mango Fish

This will serve 4 people. I use dorado (which may be called dolphin fish or mahi-mahi up north), but any firm white fish will do.

3-4 Tommy Atkins mangos
oil for frying
4 pieces fish 1” thick, about 6-8 oz each (in Huatulco, ask for dorado en lonja)
2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1 cup white wine
a few shakes of Valentina sauce
salt and pepper
chopped cilantro

1. Peel and slice the mangos, then cut about 1½ cups into ½-1″ cubes.
2. Put the remaining mango into the blender, squeezing all the juice from the skin and pit into the blender. Blend until the mango is a smooth purée. This should give you about 1½ cups of purée.
3. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with the oil and heat it; add the garlic and then the fish. Sear the fish for about 1 minute on each side. Remove it and keep on a plate. Do not wash the pan.
4. Pour the mango purée into the frying pan and use the wine to rinse out the blender. Add that to the pan and use a spatula to stir in any bits of fish and garlic remaining on the bottom of the pan. Add Valentina sauce, salt and pepper to taste.
5. When it comes to a boil, return the fish along with any liquid it may have sweated, and reduce the heat.
6. Turn the fish to coat it with sauce, and continue to simmer until the fish is cooked.
7. Add the mango cubes just long enough to warm them.
8. Place the fish and mango cubes over rice or quinoa and drizzle the sauce over top. Garnish with cilantro.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco http://www.bbaguaazul.com.

A New Relationship with FOOD in the New Normal of 2020

By Susan Birkenshaw

My connections to food have never truly been what would be considered logical, happy, or even healthy. At times I ate because I had to, at others because I absolutely adored what was presented to me on a beautifully created plate, and then others … was I having an “emotional” set back?

This less than normal or consistent relationship with food has led me to be one of the laziest cooks that I know. My grandmother would be horrified! BUT – that finally changed in later years when timing and urgency were no longer factors in how or what I cooked and ate. Add to this, I led myself to believe that I do not like to shop. The truth is, since I do not really know what to do with food beyond the basics and the fact that I absolutely detest waste, cooking has not been a creative outlet for me.

Now we are in are in the middle of 2020 and our world has changed. Since leaving our home in Huatulco, we have been isolating as much as possible in lake country in northern Ontario, Canada, and this has given me ample time to think about many things that I have ignored until now.

I am blessed to live basically two snowless seasons, and this means fresh seasonal fruit, veggies and all the good local things year-round. And surprise, surprise, I am taking the time to learn how to cook!

Three months into this process, this is what I have learned: creating delicious is a combination of Chemistry, Creativity and Courage – all of these mixed with a big dose of patience and willingness to stick to the process and do-over if necessary!

Let’s consider chemistry. I know now that it was a mistake for me to have dropped chemistry class in high school as early as I could, but I remember the only thing I found useful about Baking Soda happened in my geography project.

My dad helped me mold a mess of flour, salt, water, and food colouring into anactive volcano! Baking soda and vinegar created the inner boom to move the “lava” up – what a mess! And now after my first baking experiment, I absolutely know I must have baking soda in my pantry.

And as I moved on, I learned there are many common substitutions in the kitchen. Use 1 tsp of lemon juice for ½ tsp of vinegar, ½ a banana for 1 egg, 1 cup corn syrup = 1¼ cup sugar + 1/3 cup water, and 1 cup self-rising flour = ⅞ cup all-purpose flour + 1½ tsp baking powder + ½ tsp salt – see, it’s Chemistry!

Now, on to my Creativity! Creativity is accepting differences and stepping outside the boundaries of whatever you are doing. Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that creativity is in part “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

So, taking these definitions to heart, I decided that I wanted to put my own spin on this thing called “cooking.” Obviously, this goes beyond simple taste and temperature. I realized the first thing I need to learn was the way each of these ingredients tastes and the way each cooks. This requires experimentation – and failure.

And failure takes Courage. But failure breeds its own kind of courage. Over time, the creativity involved in experimentation becomes a fearless activity. The act of creating a new flavour, new textures and combinations, leads to fascinating taste tests and carefully considered do-overs. Once I threw out the preconceived notions I had absorbed from my grade school Home Ec teacher, I was free to brave the mysteries of cooking!

The Cheeses of Mexico

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The United States in the mid-20th century was not a place where children developed a palate for cheese. Our families’ forays into cheese-tasting extended not much further than Philadelphia cream cheese, which was liberally smeared on bagels, and some soft substance called American cheese that was grilled between two slices of white bread. When well-travelled cousins introduced us to exotic cheeses imported from France, or even just purchased in Wisconsin, we quickly created the name “stinky cheese” for them.

Although in the following decades small US dairies began experimenting with and producing some wonderful cheeses, by savoring them, or visiting France and Italy, we still weren’t fully prepared for the varieties and differences of the cheeses we learned to love while living in Mexico. Even the mass-produced cheeses that one finds in the supermercados are wonderful for snacking or cooking. Our weekly supermarket shopping in Mexico is never complete until we toss into our basket a block of manchego, a ball of Oaxaca cheese, and a round package of panela. And, in the enormous Chedraui near our favorite condo in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, the huge cheese department tempts us with varieties from virtually every state in Mexico and beyond.

But in our opinion the very best cheeses are found in small specialty stores or from sellers in outdoor markets. One such store was in La Crucecita in Huatulco, Oaxaca, and offered a wide selection of cheeses: La Cremería Costa del Pacifico. Unfortunately, the shop recently closed due, in part, to the economic effects of the pandemic. Last March, the owner, Rebeca Barboza, was gracious enough to discuss their cheeses with us.

Most of the cheeses available at such specialty cheese stores are made from cow’s milk, but each type has a distinctive taste and properties. Fresh, crumbly Ranchero, made in the State of Mexico, is a great addition to salads. Panela, also fresh from the State of Mexico, is the delight of nutritionists since it contains no fat or salt. We sometimes grill panela, and since it has no fat, it softens into a spreadable consistency but doesn’t melt.

Quesillo, the pride of Oaxaca, is also a fresh cheese made without salt. But because of its fat content quesillo can melt. If we don’t immediately snarf it down, we use it in omelets or other dishes calling for a taste of melted cheese. An alternative to quesillo for cooking is Mexican mozzarella made using the same process as mozzarella in Italy – but the Italian process uses buffalo milk while mozzarella in Mexico is made from cow’s milk. While mozzarella is traditional on pizza, quesillo is everyone’s favorite on the Oaxacan alternative to pizza, the delicious tlayuda.

The manchego that was available in La Cremería Costa del Pacifico came from Guadalajara after being aged two or three months. Originally made in Spain from sheep milk, it is perhaps the most versatile of cheeses. Whether from specialty stores or supermarkets, we grate manchego for a variety of dishes, melt it for others including queso fundido which sometimes is served with tortillas or vegetables for dipping, or sometimes we simply cut up the manchego into cubes for a snack. The best cheddar (yes Mexican not Wisconsin cheddar) is aged 12 months and comes from the mountains of Jalisco where, according to Senora Barboza, “milk is cheaper than water.”

Both specialty stores and supermarkets also carry goat cheeses. One of the best is the crumbly feta that is made in Guanajuato. And our favorite queso de cabra is spreadable and is sold in many stores in small logs, often covered with black ash which gives the cheese a delicious smoky flavor.

For the very freshest of cheeses we head to the organic market which is held outdoors on selected Saturdays in Santa Cruz Huatulco. According to the cheese seller, Isabel Ramos, all their cheeses are made from cow’s milk the day before the market on a ranch located twenty minutes north of Puerto Escondido. The organic designation requires that no chemicals be used in the cheese preparation, just milk from free-range cows.

We can heartfully recommend all their cheeses. The queso de prensa is firm enough to slice. Chiles and epazote are integral to the queso botanero and different batches range from mildly tasty to moderately picante. The queso ranchero and quesillo are on a par with the same types of cheeses found in specialty cheese shops – but we like buying local and knowing that the cows producing the milk were free to wander around pastures. The requesón is sold under the name of ricotta since foreign frequenters of the organic market are more familiar with that term. But whether one calls the cheese ricotta or requesón, it is great heaped on toasted bagels with tomato slices – much better than cream cheese.

While at the organic market, it is worthwhile searching for the vendor who sells Gouda cheese from Quesería La Pradera in Tilzapotla, Morelos. The cheese maker is originally from Holland. More information about the production of this Gouda can be found at
https://www.facebook.com/queseria.la.pradera/.

During these weeks of sheltering in place to avoid COVID19, we miss our friends and our wonderful view of the ocean in Huatulco. We also miss the cheeses. We will miss La Cremería and hope that the owners and staff of the other little shops and market tables that sell our favorites are safely weathering the earthquakes and the virus. Provecho!

The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.

Five Fabulous Flowering Trees in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

It was the end of May when we drove into Huatulco for the first time. I recall being struck by the magnificent trees lining the green boulevards, especially those flaunting a riot of color. Who wouldn’t be impressed seeing them in all their glory? It is unfortunate that many visitors to our town miss this beautiful season, when the trees are most striking. Here is a list of my five favorites, accompanied by a bit of trivia on each.

The first three require a lot of space and may be too large for most home gardens, but they can be readily admired while walking along the wide median on Chahue Boulevard. The last two are certainly no less impressive and are more suitable for domestic gardens.

Flamboyant (flamboyán) … When in bloom, you can’t miss them. From April through June, clusters of delicate, bright scarlet flowers bunch together, forming enormous crimson bouquets that cover the entire tree. When this occurs, the tree appears to be on fire, which is where it derives the name. Flamboyant is from the French flambé, meaning “in flames,” as in baked Alaska flambé.

These broad shade trees can go dormant in the dry season, but with year-round watering, they keep some of their delicate fernlike leaves. When the blossoms disappear, they are replaced by flat, leathery pods, up to 60 cm (about 2 feet) long. Dozens of mature pods hang from the branches like skinny bats, giving the flamboyant tree an eerie appearance when denuded of foliage.

There are several varieties of flamboyant trees, but the species found in Mexico is Delonix Regia, which originated in Madagascar. If you have the space for a shade tree, and seek (almost) instant gratification, this one can shoot up by over a meter per year, reaching a height of 10-12 meters (up to 40 feet), with an even greater spread. But take care, invasive roots can interfere with building foundations and sidewalks, something you may have noticed stumbling over uneven pavements around town.

Golden Shower Tree (lluvia de oro) … While not seen as frequently in Huatulco as the flamboyant, these marvelous ornamentals grace many of Huatulco’s streets. From April to September, long sprays of bright yellow flowers droop in clusters from its branches, like rain falling from the clouds. A mature 15-meter (almost 50 feet) tree can spread up to 12 meters (40 feet) across. This deciduous tree loses its long, glossy leaves during the dry season, but with regular irrigation, it retains some foliage. Even as the tree is in full flower, seed pods appear as dark brown cylinders, about 2 cm (about ¾”) in diameter and can be up to 90 cm (almost a yard) long, hanging from its branches.

Cassia Fistula is native to southern India and has spread to southeast Asia; it is both the national tree and the national flower of Thailand. Aside from its beauty, this ornamental also bears the name Aragvadha, meaning “disease killer” in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda, or “science of life” in Sanskrit, is a natural healing practice, originating over 3,000 years ago in India. It is believed that various parts of the Golden Shower Tree provide remedies for practically every infirmity from constipation to cancer.

African Tulip Tree (tulipán) … Not only is this tree green year-round, it produces masses of enormous, red-orange flowers throughout the year. Large clusters of buds appear at the end of the branches, and each bud opens to form a five-petal bloom of 8-15 cm (3-6″). The flowers are trumpet shaped, with ruffled edges; hence the name “tulip tree.”

Native to tropical Africa, Spathodea campanulata is part of the bignonia or trumpet vine family. This tropical evergreen can reach up to 25 meters (over 80 feet), with abundant, dark green foliage. Its leaves have a matte finish and are slightly rough to the touch.

When the showy blossoms fade, long boat shaped capsules stuffed with seeds appear, and as they open, copious quantities of seeds are released. Even if space allows, you might think twice before introducing the “King of Flowering Trees” into your garden. Those seeds form roots rapidly, and are hard to control, which is why this species is listed among the world’s top 100 most invasive. I can only assume it is through the diligence of Huatulco’s ninety some workers who diligently care for our parks and boulevards, that we do not see an overabundance of African tulip trees in Huatulco.

Bougainvillea (bugambilia) … Native to South America, this ornamental may technically be a shrub, but is easily trained as tree. Several roots planted in unison form a single trunk, allowing the thorny branches to make a canopy of colorful blossoms all around it.

The botanist Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumvent the globe, and it has been speculated that she was the first European to observe this delicate flower. In 1776, women were forbidden to sail, so, on the four-year voyage headed by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, she disguised herself as her lover’s valet. The lover, Philibert Commerson, took credit for the discovery and named it after Admiral de Bougainville.

With over 300 varieties of bougainvillea worldwide, the range of colors and hues is endless. Bunches of delicate white, yellow. purple, pink, or red “flowers” – the colorful parts are actually bracts – appear all along its thorny branches. The actual flowers are tiny and waxy, white or pale yellow, in the center of the bracts. At times, bougainvillea blooms can be so profuse, they render the small, green leaves practically invisible.

With water, this hearty species stays green and produces blossoms year-round. Depending on the variety, mature bougainvillea can reach between 6-12 meters (20-40 feet) high. Branches might spread an equal distance but require careful pruning to enhance flowering. Under optimal conditions, bougainvillea can achieve about one meter (just over three feet) per year.

Whether as a tree, bush or vine, this ornamental will provide a rewarding burst of color to any garden in Huatulco. Bougainvillea are so common here, it hardly warrants mentioning a location where one might see them.

Plumeria (plumeria, flor de mayo) … Endemic to Mexico, Central and South America, there are 11 sub-species of this tropical flowering tree, each with a multitude of varieties, offering a diverse range of colors or combination of colors, including creamy white, yellow, pale pink and fuchsia. In Mexico, these exotic blossoms were used in rituals by pre-Hispanic Mayans and Aztecs. In Hawaii and parts of Asia, the flowers are strung into “leis,” garlands to adorn women’s hair or wear around the neck.

Also called “frangipani,” the various species of plumeria produce a prolific display of blossoms with a delicate waxy texture and an intoxicating scent. The name frangipani originates with a 16th-century Italian marquis of the family Frangipani. The marquis created a perfume used to scent ladies’ fine leather gloves. The fragrance from this New World flower reminded people of the scented European accessory.

With shiny, dark green, elongated leaves, 20-30 cm long, most varieties reach a height of 4-6 meters (12-20 feet), but some might attain a height of 12 meters (40 feet). Plumeria blooms in the spring, but with sufficient water, a second season is possible after a dormant period. In its leafless dormant stage, this is not an attractive plant. Most trees limbs branch off into progressively finer branches; plumeria boughs simply reach an award stubby conclusion. However, the exotic blossoms that spring extravagantly from these boughs will compensate for what it lacks part of the year.

Plumeria are part of a larger family called Apocynaceae, also known as the dogbane family, because some were used as dog poison. A cut plumeria branch emits a milky substance that can irritate the eyes and skin.

This striking flowering tree can be seen in many locations around town, but on Boulevard Benito Juárez, as it passes by the Hotel Binniguenda in Santa Cruz, you will see several along the median next to the canal.

I understand that for many visitors to Huatulco, the draw is mainly to escape their freezing inhospitable winter climate. But for those who visit only October through March … you might be missing a major attraction!

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).