Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monumental Markets, Beasts and Cathedrals

Following yesterday's misdirections and overwhelming pounding of the pavement, our feet dictated that our tour of La Ciudad's Historic District needed a little more restraint, plenty of rest time and a cab ride home. Naturally, we'd requested some suggested highlights from Lou - especially since he works right in the midst of the Centro Histórico.  As with yesterday's visit to the Museum of Anthropology, there was more than enough in the district to keep us occupied for days. We, therefore, limited ourselves to three target locations.

First up was La Merced Market - the largest traditional retail market in the city. It turns out we only visited one of the buildings that constitute the market but, even still, we saw an incredible assortment of fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, meat, poultry and prepared foods. What was a bit of a shock to our more sanitized outlook on markets was how we could see the butchers skinning the goats, women plucking the chickens and baby pigs being delivered by the barrel.

I could definitely see La Merced as being a chef's delight - although it would take me some time to incorporate unfamiliar ingredients like huitlacoche (black corn fungus), mealy worms or these tiny crustaceans that looked like crawfish but were the size of your thumbnail. That doesn't even consider all the different peppers, mushrooms or types of fish that I didn't recognize.

I was sorely tempted to buy a small container of passionfruit pulp not to mention any number of other treats - but we limited ourselves to a couple of sandwiches for a picnic lunch. We realized that we'd not only have no opportunity to utilize all these culinary treasures but that we were going to be wandering around in the sun for hours to come.

Next up was the Museo de Arte Popular - the institution dedicated to the preservation of Mexican crafts and folk art. We immediately knew this would be our cup of tea when we were greeted on the street by some monumental alebrijes - oversized fantastical creatures that incorporate various parts of real life animals with mythical or imaginary beasts. Starting in 2007, the Museum sponsors an annual parade of the larger-than-life creatures. Less than a decade in existence, the parade already draws more than 100 entries and two million spectators.

The alebrijes alone would have been enough to captivate me but the museum exhibits also included incredible dioramas of Mexican historical events that were re-enacted by Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) figures, costumes, religious items, masks and every day items. In retrospect, it boggles my mind that the museum has only been around since 2006. Just like at the Museum of Anthropology, the range of the exhibits overwhelmed the senses and there was just too much to take in over one short visit.

Leaving the museum, I'd hoped to find a shop where I could buy a bottle of wine for our picnic but that wasn't in the cards. There it was, a perfect opportunity to add a bottle to The List - squandered. After our wine-less lunch, we carried on through the Historic District.

While the entire Centro Histórico has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our final stop for the day was the Zócalo - the city's main plaza and site for popular cultural events and political protests alike - and the Metropolitan Cathedral found at one end of the plaza. The Zócalo was fenced off today for some reason but the largest cathedral in the Americas was open for the masses - and it's quite the sight, even for a non-Catholic guy like me.

Construction of the Cathedral started shortly after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the conquistadors chose the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor to solemnize their victory. The original church was expanded upon, built around and ultimately replaced as the Cathedral was built in sections from 1573 to 1813. The Cathedral has suffered much damage over the years - mostly due to the fact that its foundations are threatened by the soft clay soil the Cathedral was built upon. Most of Mexico City is built on an old lakebed and as the city's enormous population continues to draw water and lower the underlying waterbed, the city in general and this site in particular is prone to uneven shifting - to the extent that the cathedral was added to the World Monuments Fund's list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. While reconstruction efforts have helped stabilize the foundations and the Cathedral is no longer on the endangered sites list, you can still see irregular angles and slopes inside that highlight the Cathedral's vulnerability.

Following a short respite in the pews to rest our weary feet, it was time to make our way back to Mexican Lou's.  This time we made no mistake about finding our way home. We simply took a cab.

1576.  2010 Tomero Torrontés (Valle de Cafayate - Salta - Argentina)

Having missed out on wine with our picnic, we immediately popped the cork on a bottle that just happened to be cooling in the fridge back home. I'd grabbed the Tomero the other night for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think Mexican wines are known more for the reds and secondly, the Tomero brand is    a second label for Vistalba - one of Boo's and my favourite Argentine wineries - and we wouldn't normally see this wine back home.

I won't say much about Tomero wines because I've written more effusively about Tomero, Vistalba and the Pulenta family in other posts. As mentioned though, the Torrontés isn't a route we regularly take at home. Perhaps Argentina's signature white variety, these grapes are grown, not in the familiar Mendoza region, but in the more northern Salta district. With vineyards being planted at some of the highest altitudes seen for grapes, varietal Torrontés can be somewhat deceiving. Its nose can be reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but its body is bigger and it can be drier on the palate with more tropical than tree fruit. The key to the wine's success is that the higher altitudes bring cooler temperatures in the evening, helping to maintain the grapes acidity because the Argentine days get hot in Salta. The region is similar in latitude to Baja California and you know there's going to be plenty of daytime heat as Salta is about as close to the Equator as quality wine regions get.

We thought we better be nice and leave some of the Torrontés for Mexican Lou especially since we peaked and knew that we had some chicken in store for our dinner. Lou is a lucky guy in that his mom is old school and still drops by his place weekly to conjure up a batch of her home cooking for him. She kept up that tradition - even though he had guests - and we were the beneficiaries. We'd told Lou that we were hoping to try as much local and authentic Mexican food as we could while we were here. You can't get much more authentic than a mom's home cooking.

The Torrontés quickly disappeared and it was time to open another bottle - of Mexican wine.
1577.  2009 Bodegas de Santo Tomás Syrah (Valle de Santo Tomás - Mexico)

Founded in 1888, Bodegas de Santo Tomás is Baja's oldest winery and one of the largest in the country. While the winery does have a website, unfortunately for me, it's all in Spanish. I found a few other articles that mentioned the winery and region and Wine Enthusiast described Santo Tomás' internationally trained winemaker, Hugo D'Acosta, as "the most significant evolution in Mexican wine since Spaniards first planted vineyards at the Santo Tomás mission in 1791." D'Acosta apparently started the La Escuelita wine school and custom crush facility in 2004 and his students have started more than a dozen small wineries in Mexico. La Escuelita just happened to be the school that Thorsten Schocke, of Bodega de la Resistance, attended. His Tolochos was the wine we enjoyed the other evening.

Despite a long history, Mexican winemaking is still learning the nuances of modern tastes, production and marketing but Santo Tomás is acknowledged as being in the forefront of the movement and it appears that the majority of premium wine is being made in Baja Mexico. There are three main valleys for wine growing in Baja: Valle de Guadelupe, San Vincente and the eponymous Santo Tomás. Santo Tomás, the winery, grows grapes in all three valleys, allowing it to take advantage of the different microclimates and soils.

I couldn't find any specific information about this Syrah but we were pleasantly surprised. Restrained in its expression of fruit and integration of ripeness, tannin and acidity. There'd be no confusing it with an Okanagan or old school Rhône Syrah but it it could certainly match up against many an Aussie or Californian Shiraz.

Once the Syrah was put to rest, we decided to put ourselves to bed. We'd arranged to go on a tour out to the Teotihuacán pyramids in the morning and we needed to be ready for the bus by 7 a.m. - a rather early start for a vacation, I'd say. There wasn't likely to be any wine on the tour but we thought we could manage.

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