Saturday, February 20, 2016

Las Cocineras Tradicionales 2016: Where have all the attendees gone?

Gone to greet Pope Francis, that's where.

El Encuentro de Las Cocineras Tradicionales de Michoacán is a don't miss event for aficionados of traditional regional cooking. I had thoroughly enjoyed the 2015 Encuentro.

We were still in ice bound New Jersey, when Jennifer Rose emailed me that the event date had been moved up from the end of February to the very weekend, February 13-16, when we would be flying home. Morelia was also in full, enthusiastic preparation for the coming visit of Pope Francis. It seemed to be an ill–conceived twist of planning

 In the article I read that the organizers wanted to take advantage of the huge increase of visitors to Morelia during the Pope's visit. This seemed to me a poorly thought out concept, for two reasons:

1. People would come to see the Pope during his circuit through Morelia, not to browse the booths at the Encuentro and eat comida tradicional.

2. Advance publicity of the change of date was nearly non–existent. Anyone showing up at the Encuentro venue on the previously scheduled date would be dismayed.

3. Speaking of venues, there was a change this year from last year's relatively compact, more intimate setting at the grounds of the Centro de Convenciones to the extra jumbo, over–the–top* MultiCentro Las Américas, on Avenida Camelinas, between the Holiday Inn and the HI Express.

*(Even more than over–the–top, the central dining tents brought to mind a big top circus. I admit that the tables and settings were quite nice.)

We went on Monday, the next to last day. The following day would see Papa Francisco's arrival to Morelia.  The Encuentro grounds were thinly populated with visitors. At the end of our visit an informed spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, told one of our group that attendance was down from last year's.

Efficiency tended to replace charm. But we did get a warm welcome from the ticket sellers.

Soon after we entered the grounds, I sensed that much of the magic had fled. There was a general listlessness that seemed to cloak even the dedicated and talented cocinerasNevertheless, there were some positive aspects to the event.

Where are the visitors?
Because of the lack of crowds, I was able to spend more time chatting with some cocineras. Choosing what to eat was easier. There were fewer enticements to distract me. There was a lot of capirotada (a dessert made from stale bread) and of charales fritos ( small, crispy fried fish.)

One, two, many capirotadas
Charales Fritos
For our own food fulfillment, we focused on meat dishes (despite a preponderance of Lenten fare on offer.) 

Mojarra frita

A fine kettle of fish
One of the more appealing booths was #37, of Estelina Solorio Lucas, of San Francisco Uricho. She has a weekends–only restaurant, on the west side of Lake Pátzcuaro, serving comida Purhépecha.

Estelina's restaurant
When I neared the booth, a young man was just taking a large chunk of Birria de Borrego from its olla de barro.

Birria on the bone
For only $70 pesos, they served me a huge portion, so large, that I took home the uneaten half and turned it into soup. There was also an attractive wooden tray with fresh condiments. 

Seriously big birria
Condiments for birria
The salsa verde de tomates, chiles verdes y pepinos was outstanding for its taste and freshness.

On the opposite side of the vast field, another booth was dishing up large tacos de Barbacoa de Borrego. Jennifer got some of those. They looked very appealing.

Barbacoa de Borrego a la Penca
Tacos de Barbacoa

Sra. Cuevas got a gordita rellena de queso y un taco de huaraz (Chayote roots, battered, fried and sauced.)

Gordita de queso, L; Taco de Huaraz, R.
Jennifer also went to the Apatzingan booth for some toqueras.  We remembered these very fresh corn cakes from last year. This year's tended to be burnt.

Besides the capirotada,  there were a limited number of desserts.

Muchos dulces.

Pan dulce.

Odd, crumbly bolitas de ajonjolí  and possibly amaranth.

The buñuelos appealed but when eaten, resemble flavorless bits of paper with a light, nearly tasteless syrup.

Buñuelo intact

For beverages, there were some nice aguas frescas, and beer and harder drinks were offered. I patiently awaited the opening of the pulque stand. When at last it opened, I bought a liter each of pulque sabor de mandarina and pulque natural. They were pleasant drinks, and although I could taste the natural yeast, they was entirely too sweet. They lacked the characteristic tartness and effervescence of true pulque.

My final thoughts on this year's Encuentro are that we hope the organizers keep in mind the tradition and the intimacy of the event and not try to make it fit oversize grounds. And please, choose the date more carefully.

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