I’ll be back for the jelly.
The thing I really like about Latin America is how often I can eat jelly without raising eyebrows. Here, jelly is an adult dessert, for grown ups. You can buy it from street vendors, restaurants, corner shops and market stalls. I have just finished a ‘mosaic’ jelly from the local off license with a speckled enamal spoon bought in Utah. I buy jelly whenever possible and if it not possible, I buy flan which is like jelly pretending to be cake and doing it badly. It is basically a baked custard and cream, sometimes condensed milk. It is coolly wobbly to eat and always bathed in a thin, dark caramel sauce which is tempting to drink from the plate when you’ve finished but possibly not socially acceptable. Failing the appearance of flan on menu and over looking ‘pay’, yes that’s pie, I order a gelatina de tres leches or ‘three milks jelly’ which for those familiar with my South American blog might seem familiar. I was given a recipe for tres leches cake in Bolivia and have subsequently used it to exhort from people, hypnotise them, make them sing, make them dance such is the depth of its deliciousness. Three milks jelly sounds like a delirious combination of that recipe and my favourite earthly thing, jelly!
It arrives fresh from a proper, lumpy bumpy swirly metal mould. Someone in the kitchen though has had moment with the cream squirted on top, which is distractingly unprofessional in its arrangement. Nonetheless, the jelly is cream coloured and opaque, perfect and not totally unrepresentative of a puss filled boil. Overlooking that, the taste is rich and wonderful, smooth and silky. Not too sweet, not too flippy floppy, just right. I look about for the waiter but he is managing four jobs at the same time and not quite in the right order. I realise I am not going to get the recipe from this poor, overworked man and reflect on this failure as I finish the jelly. I have failed with the flan too. Various ladies I ask throughout Mexico smile and shake their heads when I ask for their recipes.
Is it a secret?
I ask. Yes it’s a secret. And I wonder how a dishevelled woman on a motorbike over 7000 miles away from home could present a worry to them and I my usual set of white lies about being a chef in London who wants to recreate the recipe in her restaurant to the clamour of
MORE! MORE! MORE!
but I suppose it wouldn’t make a difference. If Nana Lupita’s recipe is a closed book, I suspect bringing out Big Ben won’t open it. So I must be content with pots of pale yellow flan in the main square, trembling slices on plates in cafes, multicoloured jellies purchased from bakeries and creamy tubs of wobble in clattering markets.
We pass through wide, green expanses of rolling hills and tree covered mountain, through towns and cities sampling the culinary treats of each place and generally paying the price the next day. We ride past bright pink, phallic looking churches that leave me wondering how the Latin machismo and these camped up wonders can exist side by side in wonderful harmony. The air smells of chlorophyll and the verdancy of the landscape is almost shocking after weeks of brown hillsides and gnarly little shrubs. Each day we are relearning the weather patterns and as we sit crunching tostadas or warm pillows of tortilla stuffed with cheese and salsa, the skies bunch with heavy looking clouds. The rain starts suddenly and it pours. The streets flood, roofs funnel cool streams of muddy water in to carparks and the spray as the droplets hit the road bounces back on us soaking us if we sit too close.
We are quietly watching a film in our room one dark evening in Guadalajara, suffering with museum fatigued, when a rattling starts, quiet at first. The sound increases in volume until we are shouting over the noise. I open the door to our room and stare at the glass roof that covers the lush, plant filled courtyard. The rain is hammering so hard I am worried it will break through the glass and carry us away with it. A small crowd gathers on the walkway to the next courtyard and I notice the tiled floor is filling with white chips of ice, washed to one side by the rain. I pick one up. It is the size and shape of a large molar tooth with a similar crenelated dip in the middle. Hail. Big, dentile lumps of ice hurtling down lashing at the big, dark leaves and sluicing across the floor in streams like someone crumbling polystyrene into the sink.
Shall we go out?
I ask looking at Jamie and thinking wistfully of his stories of running through the empty streets of Paris in a storm. We weave through the collection of open mouthed guests at reception and slip out the door and in to the sodden night. I am hopelessly soaked within 10 seconds. My hair drips and water streams down my back. I shriek as a small river gushes over both feet and wade through it to the middle of the small plaza outside the hotel. Little huddles of people gather under awnings and in doorways sharing dripping Mexican jokes and barking with laughter as friends lurch towards them shouting over the din. Cars half drive half swim down the streets and are forced to stop when they aquaplane in to the pavement. Taxis sit motionless, hazard lights flashing and the horses who pull the ludicrous, Cinderella carriages around for tourists are hastily covered with small tarpaulins and stand snorting raindrops from their noses. We watch in fascination as a motorcyclist clad in galoshes and sou’wester speeds past us impervious the halted traffic and haemorraging streets straight through a red light and disappears in to the watery darkness.
Says Jamie and I nod in agreement. How wonderfully Mexican.
The next day the streets have a harried look to them. Small branches and sopping leaves clog the drains and a drenched pigeon corpse lies broken winged in a puddle. The unmoored cars have gone and the air is warm and steamy bright with the sunshine trying to break through the thin clouds. We have decided we want to go to the cinema today and see Arnold Schwarzenegger at his best. The trailer for the new Terminator film we watched in California, contains two Arnolds of wildy different vintage and the line ‘I’ll be back’ shouted at thingy from Game Of Thrones before he jumps out of a helicopter. Wonderful! The major stumbling block is that the film has been dubbed rather than subtitled. I am certain I will understand at least some of it and uncertain that Jamie will but we are here now in the glossy foyer all excited so we buy two tickets and go in. I run back five minutes later for the unexpectedly required 3D glasses which are sure to make everything even harder to follow.
I am right. The first ten minutes of the film are completely out of focus and we turn to see the rest of the audience lifting their glasses and peering at the screen uncertainly before a man marches down to the exit and retrieves an usher to deal with the problem and have a chat with. Several more men join in the chat about the poor visuals and the rest of the audience starts a chorus of impatient, chirruped whistles until someone upstairs focuses things a little and the mayhem begins. A little sharper around the edges perhaps but incomprehensible nonetheless. I follow about 40% of the words but am unable to strong the rapid fire Spanish in to sentences before someone’s arms turn to metal or flips a bus. Jamie understands virtually none of it. The story does us absolutely no favours and apart from lots of rushing around and time travelling we finish the film with little to no understanding of what has just happened to us. The only clear moment of the whole film is when Arnold shouts
at thingy from Game Of Thrones before he jumps out of a helicopter.
We walk back to our room past some grubby mariachi players shouting at cars wondering what it was all about. Jamie wonders philosophically that perhaps it represented the current political status of Mexico and the United States. Helicopters shot down, a broke down, failed future, lawless and full of unpleasant interlopers looking to grab away our way of life GOD BLESS MURICA! We decide it’s tenuous and actually extremely unlikely that Alan Taylor had anything on his mind except box office takings when he made the film. Perhaps the political fervency here is starting to infiltrate where it shouldn’t but Donald Trump’s face jumps up every time we read the news. El Chapo, the recently escaped cartel leader, tweets death threats at the deeply unpleasant American politician who has accused Mexicans of being rapists, drug users and worse. He has vowed to build a big wall segregating the two countries and have Mexico pay for it. Reams of newspaper articles fill the internet filled with frustration at the way in which Mexico is portrayed in the US. Mexico is dirty, leaking with dollar hungry illegal immigrants, smeared in corruption, a failed state spilling over with lawless thugs and cocaine.
Mexicans aren’t happy with Trump but nor are they content with their own government. Political statements are scrawled on the walls next to the anarchy symbol, demonstrations fills the streets with people, tents, banners and placards. People gather in passionate protest at the death of 43 students murdered at the hands of a town mayor and his wife. The couple were said to be unhappy that the students were demonstrating against the conference they were holding in Iguala, Guerrero so rounded the group up, handed them over the presumably rather unpleasant local crime syndicate and had them shot. In Oaxaca the zocalo is crammed daily with demonstrators lead by a large group of teachers trying to argue forward education reforms. They say that such reforms will leave young Mexicans in search of something better an alternative to migration. People wave communist flags and shout for equality, better pay and an end to fear. In Morelia where we have just come from, we find that the protests we witnessed in the town centre were lead by a group of vigilantes to voice their anger at the deaths of two children at the hands of the military during an arrest. Citizens parade banners stating that they are sick of living in fear of the cartel and of the military. The vigilantes are formed of those brave or stupid enough to arm themselves and do battle with the two factions. Mexicans, it seems have had enough. They are standing up and fighting back against the reputation they have been tarred with. Label the cartel however you like, Mr Trump, point your grubby fingers at the government but Mexico’s people are having none of it.
I am thrilled to witness all this simmering discontent, pleased to see a nation get up off it’s arse and fight for something better. There’s no real way to tell if we will be welcome as we gawp at the crowds and squint at the banners so we back off and skulk about in markets eating jelly and buying trinkets. We have read the blogs that warn silly tourists off from political protests and it’s not our fight. We don’t even understand what anarchy really means. Is it a cup of tea without the biscuits? We ride on out of Morelia headed towards the huge and ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan mulling over what we have seen. Before long we will accidentally hit the outer edges of Mexico City and become lost in maze of small streets, impossibly long lines of stinking traffic and giant pot holes but before that, the fields stretch out on either side of us pleasingly. It’s nice to be out the the town and watch the crops growing. We join the relatively smooth and trouble free toll road and drive for a while in silence letting the air blow through our open visors. Jamie slows as we reach the toll booth and the massive line of traffic that clogs the road leading up to it. What’s this all about eh? We filter cheekily down past the lines of lorries and honking cars to the very front to find a group of young men crowded around the first car in line. They have kerchiefs pulled across their faces and a sign held up reading $100, a hundred pesos or about four quid. Jamie nervously tells me to pull my visor down and tries to manoeuvre the bike in to an empty lane and sneak through but is stopped quickly by the sign holder and pointed back in to line. I haven’t really grasped the situation and Jamie is happy to clarify. Sometimes groups of vigilantes, political activists and rival factions take over the toll booths, order out the staff and run the joint themselves for a bit. The idea is generally not to harm the local populace in doing so says Jamie, but they are often armed and the assumption is that if the beady-eyed policeman clutching the pump action shotgun to our left is doing nothing whatsoever, that this group are indeed in possession of arms and the policeman isn’t going to stir the pot. Sometimes the car drivers don’t take kindly to it and refuse to pay like the driver of the white car in front of us who I imagine is either very brave or very stupid. The group though seem relaxed and cheerful. They are chatting with the driver and eventually some decision is reached and he drives on. We are up next and the toll booth staff watch us from the window of a nearby building as Jamie cautiously moves forward. The group closes around us and looks at us expectantly. One holds a plastic collection jar up towards me and I push my visor back and smile clutching the 20 pesos in my hands. Ordinarily, motorbikes cost much less at the toll booths so perhaps that will be the case here?
I say in a friendly voice, twenty? The man with the collection box looks at the bike and then at me and chuckles.
He says and holds out the plastic tub. I stuff in the note and the group laughs a little. I join in nervously. The people in front move to the sides and we are allowed to pass, shouting gracias as we go.
We ride for a while in silence then I break it. I wonder who they were, did they have guns, what were those policemen doing, do you think they were baddies, weren’t they young? The miles slip by as we chat and then Jamie turns his head to watch something. I follow his gaze to where a great line of military vehicles are speeding past us towards the toll booths. Set neatly on top of each is a small anti aircraft type gun manned by helmeted and rather intense looking men. Further uniform clad soldiers cling on in groups on the back of the vehicles and before I can really focus on what I have seen, they are gone, a trail of beige dust in their wake.
Says Jamie rather aptly.
I am quiet for some moments pondering on the situation.
Did I just barter with an armed gang during a takeover?
I ask, searchingly. And it seems that yes, that’s exactly what I did. Viva Mexico.
Three Milks Jelly
2 litres of milk
1 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
100 grams or 10 teaspoons gelatin
½ cup water
1 can ( 397 grams ) of condensed milk
1 can ( 378 grams ) of evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat the milk in a large saucepan with the sugar and cinnamon.
Dissolve the gelatin in ½ cup of water.
When the milk begins to boil , remove from heat and add gelatin, stirring to break up all clumps.
Add the condensed milk, evaporated milk and vanilla. Taste the mixture and add more sugar if necessary .
Pour into one or more moulds and refrigerate until it has set , about 3 hours.