If I could go back in time and place, I would visit Tenochtitlán, the Aztec lake capital that is now Mexico City.
Once I arrived, I would head directly to the now legendary market of Tlatelolco, in search of stalls brimming with an abundance of never-before-seen vegetables, fish, meats and brilliantly colored pottery and textiles. Then I would board a canoe and head for Xochimilco and its chinampas, where the fresh produce and flowers supplying the vast capital were grown.
Recently, I came as close as I possibly could to realizing this fantasy. The Slow Food Chapultepec chapter asked me to join their first tasting at the “20 Chefs—20 Varieties of Beans” Invitation (20 Cocineros—20 Variedades de Frijol, Primer Laboratorio del Gusto, Convivium Chapultepec). The event would be held in Xochimilco and would also include a guided tour through the chinampas.
Xochimilco is generally referred to as the “floating gardens” and with its many canals it easily appears to be just that.
However, the stationary islands (chinampas) measuring roughly 30 by 2½ meters (about 100 by 8 feet) are man-made These rectangles are turned into platforms of woven reeds layered with mud, lake sediment and decaying vegetation, which eventually reach about one to two feet above the level of the lake. Once vegetables have been planted on the platform, their roots reach into the water and the plants do not depend on rain or watering.
At the time Fernando Cortéz entered Tenochtitlán, the chinampas covered an estimated 100 square kilometers (about 62 square miles.) With the relentless development of Mexico City, many of the canals became increasingly polluted or filled in and replaced by expressways. In the early eighties, the few Xochimilco people left saw their heritage and way of life dwindling away rapidly, and they started to take action to save their historically important environment. Fortunately, this led to the chinampas being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Since then, efforts have been made to re-establish the area with some success.
Interest is growing, not only in saving heritage sites in Mexico, but also some of the myriad edible plants that are indigenous to the Americas. It is estimated that 70 percent of edible plants in Mexico have been lost forever. Thanks to growing interest in heirloom varieties of edible plants, the bean is enjoying a long overdue renaissance. Even though the bean has been cultivated for millennia, previously only two or three varieties were known outside the New World, where an estimated 500 varieties were cultivated.
Here I was, looking forward to tasting 20 of these varieties. I met with my friends Elena Vazquéz and Ada Solano, both great chefs at the restaurant Nicos in Querétaro, which Elena’s family owns. We packed the car with huge cooler bags of prepared bean dishes; both Ada and Elena were part of the group of 20 chefs.
The next morning we started off early for Xochimilco in the southern part of Mexico City. As we reached the designated pier, a lot of hugging, greeting and hellos already were going on as the chefs and guests arrived. The Slow Food chapter had hoped to get 90 people to sign up for the event and they had to cap it off at 120! Much ado about beans!
We boarded six trajineras, the festively decorated barges that are a Xochimilco tourist trademark, and ferried around in the agricultural waterways (only open to interested visitors by request.) At noon we debarked to the chinampa, where a huge tarp was stretched above long tables, complete with tablecloths and flower arrangements. As the guests seated themselves, the chefs sprung into action, grabbing a ready brazier, charcoal and large cazuela (ceramic casserole dish). In the tangle of coolers and boxes the chefs found their provisions and the cooking began.
After I was armed with a wineglass in a net bag and a peltre (blue enamel) spoon hanging conveniently from my neck, I found a seat and the parade of beans began. Every guest had a wicker tray in front of them, and little cazuelas started to be served on them. Every time a new one arrived, the chef who created the dish would give an explanation about it to the guests. Not surprisingly, many credited their grandmothers for the recipe. Others had researched old recipes, and some dishes were being served in the restaurants the chefs represented.
Alicia De’Angeli, Mexico’s Culinary Grand Dame, author of many cookbooks and owner of El Tajin restaurant, started the parade with a delicate appetizer “truffle” made with frijol blanco, ayocote, alubia and acalete.
Patricia Quintana from restaurant Izote served a fluffy and delicious tamal with frijol franciscano, colored a deep pink with black markings. Elena had prepared a savory and dramatic looking Jericalla, which is generally a custard-like dessert made from frijol sangre de toro. Ada chose to make a mole de betabel (red beet mole) with black ayacotes.
Some of the largest in the lot, yellow ayacotes turned up in a bean salad with tender morsels of beef tongue, and purple ones appeared with little breaded and fried pork trotter patties. Mustard yellow frijol palacio, a new breed, was matched with mussels, and I could have drunk a cupful of just the broth from those beans. A salad of frijol vaquita (patterned like Holstein cows), steamed whole wheat grains and fresh mint dressed with a crisp vinaigrette were a very welcome treat in the midday heat.
The parade of dishes seemed endless and I wondered how much room I would have for more. Then came irresistible desserts ranging from empanadas with frijol negro de los reyes Metzontla and guayaba (guava), miniature pellizcada with frijol bay chocolate and the grand finale—ice cream made from frijol lila.
This lists only half of the dishes and, yes, I did try them all, aided by some wonderful red wines from Casa Madero—all in the name of duty as your Culinary Explorer.