Veracruz Highlights

Imagine an evening sipping cubas or margaritas and having the strange and wonderful unfold before your eyes. Ten years ago in the zocalo of Veracruz city, we were visited by opera singers, marimba bands, blind accordionists, jarocho trios, salsa conjuntos and various table-side vendors that included a nurse (in vintage white uniform) taking blood pressure readings, men selling “electro-shock” where you hold on to metal rods while the vendor turns up the juice, a woman selling vibrating hairbrushes, midget shoeshine-ers, candy sellers (candied lime peels stuffed with shredded coconut, a favorite), a woman twirling her broken arm for sympathy donations, push-up bra nocturnas selling a selection of nuts, and the specialists offering – “su nombre en un llave” (your name in a key). Add, if you will, another layer to this Fellini-esque vision, which included a clown tightrope act and a Mexico city chapter of the Hells Angels that rode through the crowd to their tables, while a danzon band set up in the background, a weekly ritual where locals practiced their dance steps al fresco.

Just another night in Veracruz, a city that boasts one of the most popular and hedonistic Mardi Gras this side of Brazil.

Ten years later we found ourselves once again sipping cocktails in the zocalo. While the scenario was sedate by comparison – a vendor dressed as Zorro offering electro-shock was the highlight – the only way to wake up from this hallucination is with very strong coffee.
Cafe La Parroquia is waiting.
Find a seat, and a glass of the caffeinated elixir is delivered to your table. Next comes the ritual: tap your spoon against the glass and a waiter with a pitcher of hot milk comes to your table.

Poured with flourish you have yourself a cafe con lechebien cargado.

We were lucky to also be entertained by some Jarocho music with a dancer.
Xalapa, the capitol city of Veracruz, and much more sedate in comparison, we essentially lived off street food. The park in the centro historico is filled with vendors day and night selling their freshly-made specialties. Two tortillas hold up a substantial tortita de papa (potato cake) topped with beans and salsa, providing great fuel…
before a visit to Xalapa’s Anthropology Museum where you can view the amazing Olmec heads.

Strawberries were in season all over Mexico not just Xalapa, as well as perfectly ripe mameys, a deep orange fruit, similar in taste to a cross between strawberry and banana with a starchy note.

Since 1925, La Fama has been producing artisanal liquores, toritos and cremas. Located at 153 Alfaro in Xalapa’s Zona Centro, the shelves showcase an exotic array of flavours: nanche, zapote domingo, hierba del burro, zacate amargo, cacahuate, jobo, rompope, mora and so on.
The elixirs are all made on-site with fruit and other natural ingredients picked fresh and in season, mixed with nothing but aguardiente and honey and left to ferment in oak barrels.
We tasted a lot of the liquers, enjoyed a brief tour of the barrel room and were shown some tejocotes steeping away. I left with a bottle of torito de cafe, a Baileys-esque concoction, perfect for bedtime.

As the saying goes: “You can’t leave Xalapa without trying a torito”.

Further north in Papantla, the birthplace of the vanilla bean, growers sell their wares in the zocalo.

Vanilla beans sell in bags of 12 for the equivalent of $5.00! The vendors also make crafts out of the bean including earrings, rosaries and braided scorpions.
On the grounds of the church is an area with a very high pole. Here, as an act of worship, the Totonacs – men only, young and old – dressed in finely-beaded regalia, climb the pole, hurl themselves off and spin to the ground, upside down. Say hello to the voladores.
The exquisite ruins of El Tajin are a mandatory visit.
Evenings, we returned to the zocalo of Papantla to enjoy Ricos Esquites from a fabulous woman with grandmotherly appeal who joyously served us each night. Esquites are stewed corn kernels. Served in a cup, you have a choice of toppings to enhance their stewy goodness: ground pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, chilie – hot or chile chamoy “that colours only” – lime juice, salt and cheese.
I love this woman!
I also dig the elotes asados, cob corn roasted on coals.
Served on a skewer with mayo, cheese, lime juice and salt. Exquisite.
Colourful plastic pails and tubs showed off the morning’s market provisions, ingredients intriguing and new to me: green chilie criollo, red chilie piquin
wild foraged mushrooms…
and very beautiful indigenous pumpkin seeds.

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