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Christmas Down Mexico Way

Christmas Down Mexico Way
For Christmas, Anna Maria Espsater travels to Mexico where turkey originates and Christianity still thrives.
The Spirit of Christmas begins early and lingers long in Mexico, starting with the traditional posadas on the 16th of December and running right through to Día de los Santos Reyes, or Epiphany, on the 6th of January. With such a wide variety of celebrations taking place, it goes without saying that Mexican festive food reaches new heights this time of year. Although there are some variations to ingredients used in different parts of the country, the majority of celebrations are similar regardless of region.
“Posadas are one of the most deep-rooted Mexican customs,” says Angeles Ayala, Mexican chef and author of Fresh Mexican. “They were introduced by the Spaniards in an attempt to teach the local population the history of the birth of Christ.
Asking for lodgings or 'pedir posada' is a re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for accommodation on the way to Jerusalem and this traditionally happens during nine consecutive evenings starting on the 16th and culminating with a feast on Christmas Eve. Families and friends get together, often visiting a different house each night, where they ask for lodgings through songs and verse. When eventually admitted, the festivities begin. A clay pot filled with candy, fruit and toys, the 'piñata', is smashed open with a stick then the ponche navideño is served, a hot fruit punch, bobbing with seasonal fruits. Adults might prefer this “con piquete” or with a bit of bite that is a little nip of alcohol, usually rum or brandy. Next come Mexican antojitos: tostadas, quesadillas, tacos and tamales with different fillings and sweet, crunchy buñuelos - a sweet flat fritter with sugar syrup, for dessert.
“The ninth posada falls on the night of Christmas Eve,” says Angeles. “This is the big sit-down meal of the Christmas period. A fiesta for everyone, the whole family, from the yougest to the most senior in the community. Everyone takes part. This is also true for the preparation and organization of the main meal, everyone contributes something and the family works together to prepare for the feast.” Although in the past dinner used to take place after midnight mass, these days many families prefer to have dinner earlier in order to drink a toast, at midnight, at the end of the meal. But this varies from one family to the next. Come Christmas Eve it’s time to put out the best china and push the boat out.

Preparations for the main meal start several days in advance. Bacalao - a dried salt cod, is a typical Christmas dish, particularly Bacalao a la Vizcaina; originally a Spanish dish, it’s been “Mexicanized” with local ingredients such as tomatoes and chillies, but there are also a few different regional varieties adding, for example, potatoes. As the dried fish is very salty, it needs soaking for a couple of days before the real cooking begins – slow-food at its finest, lending itself to a communal cooking style, where everyone pitches in. The best bacalao is imported all the way from Norway, but that’s not to say Mexicans don’t make good use of what’s widely available closer to home. That perennial Christmas favourite, the turkey, hails from these parts and remains exceedingly popular for the holiday season. “Turkey is firmly associated with celebration here in Mexico,” Angeles enthuses, “and there are many turkey recipes right across the country.”

Table laid and preparations made, people will start to arrive on Christmas Eve. Just like during the posadas, they’re often greeted with a hot fruit punch with cinnamon and piloncillo, raw sugar, as an aperitif, before sitting down to dinner. There may be a clear consommé to start, or almond soup, followed by Christmas salad, with red beetroot, white jícama and green lettuce – the colours red, white and green are very important around Christmas: they are the colours of the Mexican flag. For the main course there are Bacalao a la Vizcaina, and various turkey dishes, such as pavo ahumado, smoked, pavo con adobo, in dried chilli marinade, or oven-baked with a traditional stuffing of chestnuts, dried fruits or apples. Baked, glazed ham or leg of pork are other popular dishes, served with mashed sweet potatoes and apple sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, another key dish on the Christmas table are romeritos - small dried shrimp patties and a wild herbal plant, somewhat similar to rosemary, known as romerito, served in a mole sauce – the whole dish is known as revoltijo, literally a “mess” or “jumble”, as the plant is stirred into the mole sauce, making it look rather a mess. It exists in different versions, with some adding baby new potatoes and others adding nopales, particularly in the centre of Mexico. Best to save a small corner of the stomach for dessert as well; “when it comes to dessert,” says Angeles, “ it can go on for the rest of the night. There’s the traditional Christmas cake, which is made with dried fruits, there are bowls of dried fruits with prunes, dates and peaches, candied almonds, marzipan, turrón, nougat, and colourful boiled sweets.”

After such a feast it’s no wonder Christmas Day is more of a day of rest here. Although some families choose to have the main meal on the 25th, mostly this is the day of the 'recalentado' or re-heated leftovers .

Since Mexicans don't celebrate Boxing Day there’s time for a breather ahead of New Year’s Eve dinner, which also takes on epic proportions, right up until the eating of a grape per chime at the stroke of midnight, followed by a liberal toast.

And unlike in Britain, here there's one final celebration in store. The Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings. For the occasion a special bread, the Rosca de Reyes, an oval, wreath-like egg-based bread, is baked, with decorations of dried fruit and sprinklings of sugar, served with hot chocolate. The bread contains a small figurine of baby Jesus and whoever happens to find it has to throw a party on the 2nd of February, Candlemas, meaning the nations good people have a month to recover before the next extravaganza.

Further information:
Fresh Mexican: Over 80 Healthy Mexican Recipes. By Angeles Ayala and Monica Medina-Mora

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29 November 2009
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