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From Altotonga to Zongolica: random notes on travels through Central Veracruz


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From Altotonga to Zongolica: random notes on travels through Central Veracruz

RST | Nov 5, 2008 02:13 PM

These notes are long overdue; I have been telling myself to work on these posts for at least a year now (i.e. after my last big trip through the area). I have finally realized that I will never be able to put together that massive omnibus on the subject and that it would be better to work instead on smaller posts as I go, concentrating on individual towns/villages or on specific food items whenever I find the time. At the same time, I have already alluded to my experiences in several of these places in central Veracruz in many other threads, many of them moved elsewhere for various reasons and not even currently located on the Mexico Board. So I am hoping to make this thread a pretext for gathering all those stray bits of information together which will hopefully give them a more useful, a more coherent form and context. Consider the ff then as a work in progress.

Before anything else, I would like to note that the title is not an alphabetic affectation at all. ;0) On that trip in October 2007, I did in fact enter Veracruz state from the Sierra Norte de Puebla by crossing from Teziutlan to Altotonga. I would have liked to claim that I was able to travel according to pure linguistic logic in the manner of Raymond Roussel, but beyond moving from Veracruz (city) to Xalapa to Xico, it proved impossible to keep to any more rigorous method. I was headed to see the opening of the annual Matanzas de Tehuacan and was hoping to be able to find a way into Puebla by going over the mountain from Zongolica (town). But although my last town in Veracruz on that trip was in fact Zongolica, I ended up having to backtrack to Orizaba in order to catch the conveniently-scheduled bus to Tehuacan.

A caveat: those who are familiar with the hundreds of posts that I have written on this website since the beginning of the deacde know that RST is very rarely interested in "a nice place to have dinner". For that, there are now several excellent guidebooks to the area (in Spanish, and available in area bookstores; these are mostly written with a target audience of domestic, i.e. Mexican, middle-class tourists and/or tourists from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries.) Most of these have good information on restaurants, what to see etc. A lot of this material can also be found in an excellent series called "Mole in the Mountains" published on (see: But I am more fascinated by houndier, edgier stuff: a completely-forgotten, unjustly-neglected benchmark for mole de Xico, a tiny 3-table never-before-mentioned restaurant in Xalapa serving the cuisine of Chicontepec, unique seasonal produce (chayotextle or tepejilote in Cordoba, chicatana in Huatusco, wild mushrooms etc) and where to have them cooked and in what dishes. A lot of street food very specific to each town will be listed and whenever possible I will specify the exact location of the vendor, his/her name, the time of day when he/she could be found (e.g. the father and daughter who makes a circuit late in the afternoon through the Monday market at Coscomatepec with their plastic buckets of tamales de flor de izote). As far as I know, there is virtually no information at all in any language on most of these very unusual, very specific food items which often can be found only in that one town/village and nowhere else.


I start at the end, only because there is already fairly substantial material on this town (Zongolica town, in the area called Sierra de Zongolica) on the ff thread from March 2007:
I remember the thread being unceremoniously moved by the moderators from the Mexico Board where it really belongs (is there a more specifically and richly Mexican thread than this?) to General Board where no one will ever find it. (Why oh why does the Mexico Board-or is this really the Puerto Vallarta Board? ;0( have to be constantly diluted by having the best material tampered with by moderators!)

I barely had time for another visit in Oct 2007 and spent 2 hrs going up (from Orizaba) and two hours down for a quick 1 1/2 hr walk-around. It was once again a shockingly beautiful ride (specially the segment from Orizaba to Tequila)-pristine mountain sceneries that rivalled other wonderful rides on this trip alone: the cloudscapes straight out of a Chinese ink painting on the ride up to Cuetzalan, or the pastoral delights of the rolling foothills around Naolinco. The vegetation is extremely dense and varied, and at this time of the year, the mountainside is covered with flowers of various intense hues of reds, pinks, purples, browns. Towards Zongolica (town), the roads were lined with hundreds and hundreds of an orange-and-yellow wild orchid (Epidendrum radicans) in full bloom. The town itself is bedecked with beautiful ceremonial arches (arcos; temporary wood-and-bamboo arches decorated with flowers and palm leaves) for the many annual festivities of this part of the year (inclg the upcoming Day of the Dead). After I entered town, the main road to/from Zongolica was blocked off by students from the Tecnologico Superior protesting "irregularidades" in the local administration. This cut short my time I had planned even more but fortunately I was able to sample some really lovely things before I had to hurry off to start the trek uphill, past the demonstrating students, and the policemen, to where the bus back to Orizaba would pick us up.

First of all, this is a very small town, large enough to support a permanent market structure, but apart from fondas on the second floor of the market (the everyday dishes include tesmole de res or pollo, "salsa de puerco" etc), there are very few other places to grab a meal. I was told that the busiest days for market are Thurs and Sun. But everyday, there is a modest row of Indian women sitting on the ground ("las Marias") between the market and the main plaza selling the most magical things: tiny aguacatillos, quelites and quintonil (amaranth greens) of different hues, hierba mora (Solanum nigrum) which is used as a medicine I think, tendrils of different vines (chayote etc), fresh new beans measured out in sardine cans, wild mountain guavas, guajes, chayotes of diff sorts (this whole part of Veracruz is chayote country!), little plastic bags of fresh-picked red bean flowers (probably ayacote flowers) or of pumpkin seeds (pepitas), granadillas, montones of jobo and of nispero which are in season at this time of the year and which could be found growing wild throughout the countryside first around Huachinango/Xicotepec (Sierra Norte) and then again here in Zongolica/Orizaba. I became obsessed with nisperos and could not eat enough of it on this trip (incidentally, I think that the specific cultivar of nispero of these areas is closer to Asian loquats than to the so-called "open-arsed" medlar of Europe-there must be an interesting story of transmission behind this!)

Most exciting and unique of all finds is a very delicious, very delicate variety of tomato. Here is my description of this tomato taken from my emails to eat_nopal and from notes sent out with seeds I dried and sent out to friends right after I got back home:

These seeds were collected on October 16, 2007 in Zongolica (town) high up in the Sierra de Zongolica (Veracruz) from an unusual tomato variety being sold by one of "las Marias" (Indian vendors) spread out (on a non-market day) in one corner of the main plaza. This is a variety that I had never seen before elsewhere in Mexico-not even in the markets of the nearest big cities (Orizaba and Cordoba). The biggest fruits of this tomato are only as big as my thumbnail. They grow in clusters like cherry tomatoes, but differ from "cherry", "currant", "grape" or "pear" tomatoes in having the shape of kaki (persimmon): i.e. tapering away from the stem end. The fruits are jade green in color, with dark green/black stripes which give it the look of striped winter squash. It has the exact flavor of passionfruit and pineapple with an aftertaste of green tomato: a perfect balance of tart/acidic/fruity/sweet. While doing research, I found references in ethnographic materials to a certain citlaltomatl or citlalillo which is beloved in Tehuipango (also Sierra de Zongolica). I don't know if citlaltomatl refers in fact to this variety, but the name seems very appropriate since citlali is the Nahuatl word for "star", thus citlalillo = little star. I am sending these seeds out to different farmers here in the Chicago area who sell at local farmers' markets as well as to friends in New York, Southern California, and Northern California. I hope they acclimatize well in each of these areas, although I half-imagine that parts of Northern California (with its intense daylight, colder nights) might best replicate the high-altitude conditions of the Sierra de Zongolica (3,000m).

Sadly, the seeds I planted this summer (2008) here in Chicago did not do very well at all. I don't know whether to attribute it to the cold summer that we had or a weaker constitution of the plant. Several seeds germinated but did not survive very long after that.

At one end of the main plaza, there is a tiny circular fountain area always surrounded by tamales and atole vendors. There is a woman seated near the fencing around the fountain who specializes in leaves for tamales. One of the themes of this trip is a search for unusual tamales forms throughout the Sierra Norte de Puebla, specially those wrapped in papatla leaves (Canna indica) which shockingly I have discovered to be possibly the third most common wrapping for tamales in Mexico. The last time on the sequence of this trip that I saw papatla was in Altotonga, just beyond the Sierra Norte de Puebla. Here in Zongolica, apart from totomoxtle (dried corn husks), the most common wrappings are "platanillo" and "malintzi" leaves (I have not found scientific identifications for either leaves). The platanillo (a different variety of banana?) has large leaves about 2 feet long, with ribs that are not very strong. These leaves look more like papatla than banana leaves but when I pointed to a clump of canna plants (canna lilies with tiny red flowers) on the other side of the fence, the vendor said that that is not it. She also made a distinction between hojas de platano ("esto se asa primero") and platanillo (platanillo doesn't need this first step before use). The platanillo falls apart easily and is also not recommended "porque chupa manteca". The malintzi leaves, also rolled up by the vendor in logs like the platanillo, are shorter (about a foot long?), has a slightly pointed tip and veins curling out beautifully from the rib to the leaf edge. The vendor approves of this leaf heartily "porque no chupa manteca". In addition, I also heard mention of both a tamales de frijoles in hoja de ilomole (a Zingiberaceae?) as well as one wrapped in hoja de chicaliscot (?) which shows up around town around the time of Todos Santos. Near this vendor is a woman called Sra. Marcellina who has a number of these tamales available. She makes some really really wonderful tamales: I remember specially a malintzi-wrapped tamal in green sauce with a marvellous masa texture, with chunky bits of black beans, a large delicious piece of pork, and fragrant with tlanepa (hoja santa). The chile used for this tamales is one so-called "chile huachinango". Also available in this area of the plaza are various types of atole (atole de uva, atole de jobo, champurrado, arroz con leche, atole de granillo, or broken corn) inclg the very unusual atole de conextle (my transcription//when I returned I found an alternative transcriptions atole de kuanextle in the CONACULTA volume #31 on Zongolica, see p123-4) which is an atole of masa cooked with "ceniza muy finita del fogon".

Finally, before ending the Zongolica section, I have to mention the wild mushrooms I found being sold by one of the Marias at the plaza. I recognized them immediately as Ramaria sp as I had fallen in love with this specific mushroom a couple of years ago in the marvellous wild mushroom restaurants of Kunming in Yunnan. She called them what I thought sounded like chilhuachi or perhaps silhuate, and which I found a reference for in the CONACULTA when I got back, as xilbatzi, also known elsewhere in Mexico as hongo escobeta or escobetilla (the broom-like mushroom). There is a recipe in the CONACULTA for a kind of xilbatzi in tesmole and I was also told that these are also often used in homecooking in tesmole de pollo. But I was in a hurry to get to Tehuacan in time for the opening of the Matanzas and did not have time to wait for a tesmole to be prepared for me. However, when I got back to Orizaba, I headed straight to the market building where I found my beloved quesadillas stalls (these are typical quesadilla stands where they make q. de flor de calabaza, de huitlacoche etc), and where at one (near entrance) and then at the other (in heart of bldg), all I had to do is hand the ladies the bag of xilbatzi for them to know exactly what to do. A quick swirl in water to clean, a vigorous squeeze to get the water out, then the roughly-torn xilbatzi goes on top of freshly-patted masa with a sprig of epazote and a large mound of freshly-pulled queso de hebras. With a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice and some delicious local coffee, I could not have asked for a more delicious lunch!!!


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