Saturday, April 28, 2012

Luscious Sweet Strawberries for Mother on Her Special Day

Mother’s Day in Mexico is always on May 10th, no matter what day of the week. I find that kind of comforting, just like Christmas is always on December 25. However, there might not always be time to pamper mother lavishly on a working weekday. What delicious treat spells love more than strawberries? Serving mother a bowl of strawberries with a dollop of crema, the local equivalent of crème fraîche, should bring her pure bliss. It does not get much better considering that zero kitchen skills are required.

Here in the Bajio it is strawberry time. At the weekly Tuesday fresh market at the Placita also called Tianguis, tables with patiently stacked pyramid-shaped piles of fragrant strawberries are a bright splash of red, among the other seasonal offerings. San Miguel is close to the city of Irapuato, which considers itself the strawberry center of Mexico, and, apparently people born there call themselves fresas.

Looking back at my own history with strawberries I might qualify for this distinction as well. In my early childhood, growing up in Denmark, I learned to love strawberries. The national dessert, Rødgrød med Fløde (don’t feel bad if you cannot pronounce this) is made from strawberries, which grow there in abundance, and, is always served topped with a big dollop of whipped cream.

My first visit to Mexico, by bus decades ago, was during strawberry season. Wherever the bus stopped, women surrounded us immediately offering bowls of fresas con crema. I literally filled myself with strawberries from bus stop to bus stop.

Strawberry jewlery, blouse, aprons....
Years later, I opened a strawberry crêpe (see recipe) concession at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, held for six weekends in Los Angeles and San Francisco, earning the title of “Strawberry Queen”! No wonder, we went through one ton of strawberries and 60 cases of whipped cream per weekend. Visitors started to bring me gifts with strawberry motifs, from cookie jars 

The wall paper
and silver spoons to fabrics for my costumes. When a friend came along with an armful of strawberry-patterned wallpaper, my husband decidedly put his foot down. 

One of the best gifts however was a book about the history of the strawberry. And what a history this sweet little berry has!

The name strawberry most likely comes from the word stray-berries, as the mother plant grows (straying) runners. However, today, the word strawberry makes more sense, since the low growing plants are often surrounded with straw to prevent the delicate berries from rotting should they lie on the moist earth. Today, plastic sheets replace the straw.

The tiny Fraise de bois
The tiny strawberries; generally referred to as fraise des bois or wild wood strawberry are already mentioned in early Greek and Roman literature. In the 13th century they became very popular in European religious paintings, especially those depicting the Virgin Mary and Child. This was in part credited to the deep love St. Francis of Assisi expressed for the gifts of Mother Nature. It began to influence the style of religious paintings and book illuminations.

The tiny jewel-like strawberries which only grew wild, were a luxury that had to be foraged for, laboriously gathered and often presented to royalty as a special gift. When in 914 a citizen of Auvers France, named Julius de Berry presented his King with a gift of the fragrant berries, the king was so pleased that he knighted de Berry and changed his name to de Fraise, the French word for strawberry.

Almost 800 years later in 1712 an engineer and lieutenant in the French Army Intelligence Corps named Amédée Francois Frézier, a descendant of de Fraise, was sent on a secret reconnaissance mission, passing as a trader, to Peru and Chile. At that time, the then peaceful Spanish-French political connection was starting to be stressed and Frézier was sent to take stock of the military strength of the Spanish colonies, just in case the countries should go to war. His travels took him to every port in Peru and Chile and it was here in the town of Concepción that he discovered whole fields of red and white strawberries being cultivated.

For European standards they were exceptionally large, the seize of walnuts or even hens eggs, as he described them. He found them not to be quite as delicious as the tiny berries of France but still very good. He decided to bring several plants back to France to be cultivated in the king’s garden. I think today we would say the man had heavy strawberry Karma even if apparently he was not aware of the origin of his last name! For the voyage back, which took nearly six months, he had to get special permission from the ship’s captain to be supplied with fresh water to keep his plants alive. It is not known how many he took on board but 5 plants survived the voyage.

The plants did well in the king’s garden, however, with one important snag that occurred; they did not bear fruit. Frézier had unknowingly only brought female plants. His criteria had been to pick the plants with the biggest berries. After many decades of frustrating experiments by botanists all over Europe trying to successfully cultivate the big Chilean strawberry, eventually they struck gold with the help of Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, a botanist at the gardens of Versailles. He planted a row of native male strawberry plants next to the Chilean ones and it worked. The large fruited Chilean strawberry, with the help of its European cousin, paved the way for the strawberries we enjoy today.

We know that the people of the Americas, south and north, were incredibly skilled in plant cultivation. The Chileans probably already had spent millennium on developing their big strawberries, which they were cultivating on a large scale by the time the Spanish and later Frézier came along. Couldn’t they have just asked them how they did it?


I truly earned the title of the “Strawberry Queen” during my eight years as a concessionaire at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Every food booth had a specialty and mine was strawberry crêpes with whipped cream. The Faire was immensely popular; and, like a juggler, I learned to bake crêpes simultaneously with eight pans in order to fill demands; which on many days amounted to 2,500 servings.

Makes about 20-22 6-inch crêpes

1 cup            all purpose flour
2                   eggs
1 ¼ cup        milk (or more, depending on the size of your eggs and consistency of the flour)
¼ cup           butter (optional), melted
¼ tsp            salt
                     vegetable oil for frying

Place all the ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth. The batter should have the consistency of heavy cream. If necessary, add more milk. You can also do this by hand. Place the flour, eggs and salt in a bowl, mix lightly, then add milk and optional butter and whisk to a smooth and free of lumps batter.

Let the batter rest for at least 30 minutes. This can also be done hours in advance, then keep the batter in the refrigerator.

Heat a small amount of oil or butter in a 6-or 10-inch pan, depending how large a crêpe you would like. Pour in a thin layer of batter and fry until the batter is set and the underside is golden brown. Flip the crêpe with a spatula and brown on the other side. Stack finished crêpes on a plate and keep in a warm oven until ready to serve.

To serve, fill and garnish with your choice of filling. Crêpes can also be served with savory fillings, such as creamed spinach or seafood. There is hardly anything a crêpe does not like.

You can make the crêpes in advance and freeze them. Instead of stacking them when they are being fried, lay them out in a single layer on paper towels until they are completely cooled, then stack them, wrap in clear wrap and place in a freezer bag. To defrost, remove from the freezer and thaw at room temperature. To reheat, place them in an ungreased pan over medium heat or reheat them in the oven with your filling of choice.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Paletas -The Mexican Popsicle and the Village that Could

Knowing Easter is coming soon, I began to think about traditional Mexican Easter foods. My favorite day starting the Easter celebrations in San Miguel de Allende, is Viernes de Dolores, held on the Friday before Good Friday. This is the day many homes erect beautifully decorated altars in honor of the Virgen Mary, our Lady of Sorrow. In the evening hours, these homes are then opened for the public to visit. This event is much different from the following austere Easter celebrations of Semana Santa. The mood is festive but not boisterous. Soft, religious music is played, while families, friends and newcomers visit with each other while wandering from home to home. Fruity paletas are offered to passersby, symbolizing the tears of La Virgen de los Dolores. Paletas are the part that children are most excited about, but the adults enjoy them as well.

Paletas (from the Spanish word palo, meaning wooden stick or paddle) are ubiquitous throughout Mexico. I have always loved this refreshing fruit treat, even in the US when I lived near Mexican communities. The tinkling bell from the cart of the paleta vendor proved Pavlov’s conditioning theory right; I came running whenever I could. I took this refreshing treat almost for granted, but for this article I wanted to offer more information about it and I went into research mode. Well, I ended up getting so much paleta information to be able to fill many pages of La Atención.

A millennium ago, the Chinese treasured edible ices and snow. Preserving ice throughout the year was difficult, and costly, a luxury reserved only for the royalty and the very privileged. Supposedly, the court of Moctezuma was no exception in craving this luxury, as snow from the Popocatepetel volcano was brought down to his court to create iced concoctions.

Electricity made it possible to produce ice without the help of freezing temperatures in nature, thus, it became a treat readily available for the masses. The popsicle, so popular in the US after its invention in the 1930’s, was mostly made from artificially flavored juices. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, because of the abundance of fruits, the paleta is made from fresh fruit, some with chunks of fruit in them, as well. These paletas became very popular, but the vendors making and selling them still were only eking out a living.

Let’s go to a struggling small town in Michoacan: Tocumbo. It is considered the town that made the paletas famous in a unique way.

Despite the backbreaking labor, the sugarcane field surrounding the town allowed most of the inhabitants to make wages, yet they could barely survive. There was tradition of making paletas, but again, it did not yield more of an income than working in the sugarcane fields.

One day, two brothers, Ignacio and Luis Alcázar, and their friend ,Agustin Andrade, headed for Mexico City to seek a better life. They knew how to make paletas and opened a paleteria they named La Michoacana. Daily, they made paletas from fresh fruits and became a huge success. These three men were illiterate, but they knew their trade. Soon they passed on their skills to other family members, who in turn, opened up more La Michoacanas. Those family members passed on the business, and so on.

Today, there are about 15,000 La Michoacanas in Mexico. All of these “franchises” are passed on with a handshake, and. financing is from person to person, without a bank. Only the Pemex gasoline stations of Mexico have been able to penetrate Mexico as much as La Michoacana.

As ideal as this sounds, there are severe international copyright issues as La Michoacana has moved northward to the US and Canada and there are plans for global expansion.

Today, Tocumbo is one of the most affluent communities in Mexico. The town has erected a spectacular monument to the paleta, which freed them from the hardship of toiling in the sugarcane fields. Opulent homes were built, the streets of the town are paved, the new church was designed by the famous Mexican architect, Pedro Ramirez Vasques, who designed the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Interestingly, many of the very comfortable homes in Tocumbo are not occupied for eleven months of the year. In December, when the paleta business is slow, the families of Tocumbo, from wherever they have their franchises, return to their homes to celebrate Christmas and family fiestas, such as weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras, special birthdays, the passing of beloved ones, and, to participate in the annual paleta festival.

This is as near to an utopian success story as we can get in our corporate business structure of today. ¡Viva las paletas!

Even though you can get paletas nearly on every street corner here in Mexico, maybe you would like to try making your own? The following is a recipe by Fany Gerson; a Mexican pastry chef living in New York that started her own paleta business called “La Newyorkina.”

Paletas de Fresas - Strawberry Pops

4 cups            fresh strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters
¾ cup            sugar
½ cup            water
2 tablespoons            lime or lemon juice, freshly squeezed

Combine the strawberries and sugar in a bowl. Let sit until the strawberries start releasing their natural juices, about 20 to 30 minutes. Place the mixture in a saucepan over medium heat and simmer until the strawberries a slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
Transfer the mixture to a blender or a food processor; add the lemon or lime juice and purée until smooth. Alternatively, you could leave some chunks in, if you like.
Using conventional molds, divide the mixture among the molds, snap on the lid, and freeze until solid for about 5 hours. If using glasses or other unconventional molds, freeze until the pops are beginning to set (1½ to 2 hours), then insert the sticks and freeze until solid, about 4 to 5 hours. If using an instant ice pop maker follow the manufacturers instructions.

From Fany Gerson’s Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Pops, Shaved Ice and Aguas Frescas, Ten Speed Press, Berkley, California.