Silver & Tequila in the Sierra Madres: The Tale of San Sebastian de Oeste

High in the Sierra Madres, we follow the twisting road from Puerto Vallarta and the seaside on our way to San Sebastian del Oeste, once a  booming mining town in the Sierra Madres northeast of the city and one of the wonderful Pueblos Magicos or magic towns on Mexico. Our journey took us through green jungles and blue plantations. The latter are agave farms, owned for generations by jimadores or farmers who specialize in growing, harvesting and distilling the pinon or heart of the agave into gold and silver tequila and reposado, a type of tequila aged in oak.

Crossing the long spanned bridge over Rio Ameca, the road curves around a ridge and into the tiny village of La Estancia near Hacienda San Sebastián, a family owned raicilla and tequila distillery (for raicilla think tequila only much stronger and likely of inducing hallucinations in anyone who drinks too much).

San Sebastian, now on the way to nowhere, was for years a major stop between the Bay of Banderas on the Pacific Ocean to Guadalajara when its mines produced riches of silver.

When San Sebastian was at its glory, the residents of Puerto Vallarta, then a tiny port and fishing hamlet called Las Penas, were harvesting salt–a necessary ingredients for smelting the ores taken from the mines– loading it onto mules and trekking 4500-feet up to San Sebastian.  The bridge we cross into San Sebastian takes us from the paved highway main street made of dirt and pitted with rocks. It probably hasn’t change that much since the mules came through carrying salt centuries ago.

Founded in 1605, San Sebastian’s boom lasted until the early 1900s. Because it was so remote, modernization never came again to sweep away the historic buildings dating back centuries.

The families of many who live here now can trace their lineage back to the early Spanish colonial Viceroyalty of New Spain period and the town was wealthy, with some 25 mines producing lead, silver and gold.

Walking along the cobblestone streets, past walls covered with red, purple and orange bougainvillea, we take a turn past the town’s zocolo centered around an ornate gazebo. Nearby is the Colonial Spanish Baroque Iglesia de San Sebastian, notable for such architectural flourishes as Corinthian columns, ornate bell tower, and vaulted ceilings painted with frescos. Dedicated to San Sebastian, the church was built in the 1600s and then, after an earthquake, rebuilt in 1868. As we continue on, we pass the Hotel Los Arcos de Sol with its white washed exterior. It too is old, built more than 200 years with a restaurant that gets good reviews. Along the way there ae small stores, housed in historic buildings, offering a variety of goods but we don’t stop to shop.

Casa Museo de Dona Conchita Encarnacion

Instead we’re on a mission to visit Casa Museo de Doña Conchita Encarnación the small museum run by Lupita Bermudez Encarnacion, the great times four granddaughter of a Spaniard who came here to run Santa Gertrudis, one of the mines here, in the 1770s. There is a hiking path to the old mine.

The museum,  once the home and office of  Santa Gertrudis and built in 1774, is packed with an array of family momentos, furniture, silver studded trunks, books, photos, clothing such as lace and satin christening gowns more than 150 years old and odd artifacts including 3D pornography with its own special reader dating back to 1904 and a 19th century photo of the family holding a cadaver. It seems that, according to Lupita, it was a family tradition that when a family member died, before they were buried (and remember it’s very hot here), a photographer was summoned to take a photo of the deceased. It could take days, but that’s how it was done.

Over all the story of San Sebastian del Oeste is one of glory and loss. At one time the town had a population of 20,000; now there are about 1000. San Sebastian was founded by three families who immigrated from Spain and to keep their blood lines pure, they only intermarried with each other. So through the centuries uncles married nieces and aunts married nephews.  Thus Lupita says that her mother, Dona Conchita, married a man who was  her cousin and nephew and so Lupita’s father was also her nephew, cousin and uncle.

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As our guide Victor Avila continues to translate Lupita’s many tales, we learn her great great uncle Jose Rogello Alvarez (and who knows how else they were related) and other men, carrying rifles and riding on horseback, guarded 40 mules loaded with silver and gold as they made the five day trip through the mountains to Guadalajara to deposit their money. Then it was five days back on the narrow mountain passage. Of the many runs they made–at least five a year– bandits only managed to rob them twice. Even then the weight of the metal made it impossible for the bandits to carry only much away.

Pancho Villa Ruins It All

In 1910, as the Mexican Revolution raged, Lupita’s family’s wealth disappeared. She blames Pancho Villa and his men who kept raiding the town demanding ransom and money until it was all gone.

Those that probably never got rich were the laborers in the mine who were paid by money printed in the office here by Lupita’s family which made spending it anywhere else except San Sebastian almost impossible. Talk about owing your soul to the company store. As an aside, I’ve visited other mines in Mexico and was told that on the average, because of the dangers of mining (no OSHA here), the life span of a miner was ten years.

Plantacion de Cafe

Organic Coffee Farm

Owners Rafael Sanchez, his wife Rosa and Lola, Rafael’s sister are the fifth generation family members to grow coffee hereLa Quinta Café de Altura, an organic coffee farm.

The family’s home and business is located in a building dating back more than 140 years. Out back they tend 11 acres of coffee trees, some as old as the house. The family handpicks 30 tons of beans each year. They’re then dried, roasted, and gound. Sometimes sold just like that, the family also makes blends such as a mixture of ground beans with cinnamon and sugar for the making traditional Mexican coffee–now hard to find, Hot coffee samples are provided and Rosa’s sells her homemade candies such as guava rolls and sweets made from goat’s milk. In an interesting aside, we learn that the Sanchez’s parents married early (the Don was 15), a union lasting 68 years and producing 21 children. Their grandfather did even better, having 28 children, though that took both a wife and several mistresses. 

Comedor Lupita

Walking along the cobblestone road, past a massive 300 year plus ash tree and cascading white frizzes of el manto de la virgin, we enter Comedor Lupita. Here terra cotta platters loaded with chicken mole, fresh handmade tortillas (in America they’d be called artisan tortillas), refried beans and something I’ve never tasted before – machaca, a dish of dried beef mixed with spices and eggs, are placed in front of us. As we eat, we watch the family busy behind the tiled counter, making even more food.  One woman’s sole job seems to be quickly patting masa into paper thin tortillas. Victor Avila, who lives in Puerto Vallarta, is entranced with that.

“It’s so hard to find handmade tortillas anymore,” he says.

Through the windows we see splashes of bright purple from the masses of bougainvillea that drape the stone exterior walls and here the sounds of caballeros, their horses’ hooves striking the centuries old street. We sip our sweet agua de Jamaica water, eat tortillas fresh from the griddle and help ourselves from heaping platters, we all feel time slipping backwards into the past.  

Machaca Marinade:

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 4 limes
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil

Machaca:

2 lbs. skirt steak, cut into strips
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes with green chilies
1/2 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce (Tabasco or a Mexican brand, such a Valencia)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons oil 

Whisk all the marinade ingredients together, and then add the skirt steak. Marinate at least 6 hours or overnight tablespoon Remove meat from marinade, drain, and pat dry. Bring to room temperature. Discard marinade.
In a large heavy pot, heat oil. Sear the meat well on both sides, in batches so as not to crowd them. Remove the meat as it is browned and set aside.

Drain fat. Add in the onion, peppers, and garlic, cook until tender, then add tomatoes, broth, pepper sauce and spices. Bring to a boil, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot. Return beef and simmer, covered, for two hours, stirring from time to time until tender. Cool and shred.

Lay meat on a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 250º for 20 minutes or until meat is dry. 

Machaca con Huevos

2 chopped scallions (white part only)
1 hot green chili
2 tomatoes
1 cup dried machaca
2 eggs
Chopped cilantro

Sauté scallions and peppers in oil until tender, add tomatoes and beef until heated. Remove from pan, add eggs and cumin. Scramble, then stir machata mixture. Garnish with cilantro and serve with hot tortillas.


International Fare in Puerto Vallarta

I was invited to attend the International Puerto Vallarta Gourmet Food Festival, where chefs from around the world including the U.S., India, Sweden, Australia, South America and Europe,  join the executive chefs of the many sophisticated city restaurants, developing recipes and menus during the weeklong annual event. caballito de noche

It’s a great time and way too much food and for a break, our host Gustavo Rivas-Sollis signed us up for a decidedly less upscale but just as delicious street food tour through downtown Puerto Vallarta. The 1.5-mile, four hour tour met at Vallarta and Aquiles Serdán Streets in the city’s Romantic Zone where Ricardo, our guide, gave us a list of the places we’d be visiting and an overview of the history and culture of the foods we’d be tasting as well as some of the sights we’d be passing such as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a beautiful cathedral with Renaissance-styled towers and magnificent views of the city and water.

20141116_135715The stops, he told us, would include Mariscos El Güero where since 1989 the owners have shopped for fresh fish at the market early each morning, bringing back the best catch of the day to make their ceviche tostadas and other seafood dishes.

Not on our list, we also made an unplanned stop at the seafood market where Antonio from Mariscos El Güero and many other restaurateurs get their fish. I was invited to go out at 3 a.m. the next morning to experience the actual adventure of fishing but declined not being that early of a riser. Besides, I figured having been surrounded by the bins of octopus, shrimp, snapper and tuna was experience enough.

To finish up, Ricardo told us, we’d walk the Malecón—the lively and long boardwalk which stretches along the bay– for a taste of tuba, a type of drink made from coconut palm juice, walnuts, apples, sugar and several other “secret” ingredients all of which were marinated overnight. This tuba vendor, he told us, got to work at 7 a.m and dressed in all white including a large white hat, sold his drink until late at night. Intrigued, I tried to Google a recipe for tuba as we walked, but alas couldn’t find one. That was because, Ricardo told me, tuba wasn’t well known outside of Puerto Vallarta.DSC_0587

Our first stop was at Robles Birria Tacos, a more or less permanent food truck which has been in business since 1986. Luckily Ricardo has pull because there was a long line of people waiting to order but he was able to circumvent the queue. All the tables were taken and so once we got our tacos, we sat on the curb and ate—something many others were doing as well.

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Cesar’s Coconut Stand was even less fancy. Set up on the sidewalk of Avenida Mexico, Cesar, who has been in business there since 1984, used a machete to slice open the hulls of coconuts he plucked from a large pile (he had even more in the back of his pickup truck which was parked next to the stand). Then using the tip of his machete, he gouged a hole in the top, stuck in a straw and handed one to each of us.20141116_135810

Ricardo described him as one of the busiest coconut vendors in the city, saying he sold over 900 coconuts a week. In what might be the ultimate drive through, people would pull their cars close to the stand, lower the window and place an order. Cesar handed them their drinks and bagged chunks of coconut meat in exchange for payment.  Ricardo extolled the vir

Probably less healthy was our stop at Con Orgullo La Azteca Candy Store, a crowded place stacked with bags and bags of candies made with regional ingredients such as guava fruit, papaya, coconut, cane sugar, vanilla and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. More like a shrine than a bustling confectionary, the nearby Xocodiva, an artisanal chocolate shop, gave us samples and also a history lesson about the Mexican cacao bean which Ricardo assured us was the source of the world’s first chocolate and still the best.

El Güero Fish Tostados

2 pounds firm, fresh red snapper fillets (or other firm-fleshed fish), cut into 1/2 inch pieces, completely deboned

1/2 cup of fresh squeezed lime juice

1/2 red onion, finely diced

1 cup of chopped fresh seeded tomatoes

1 serrano chili, seeded and finely diced

2 teaspoons of salt

Dash of ground oregano

Dash of Tabasco or a light pinch of cayenne pepper

Cilantro, Avocado, and Tostadas

In a non-reactive casserole dish, either Pyrex or ceramic, place the fish, onion, tomatoes, chili, salt, Tabasco, and oregano.  Cover with lime and lemon juice.  Let sit covered in the refrigerator for an hour, then stir, making sure more of the fish gets exposed to the acidic lime and lemon juices.  Let sit for several hours, giving time for the flavors to blend.

Chop cilantro into tiny pieces. Cut avocado into cubes. Fry tostados in oil until crispy. Top with fish mixture and then cilantro and avocado.

Con Orgullo La Azteca Candy Store’s Cocada or Coconut Bark

1 large coconut, drained, peeled and grated

1 cup water or more as needed

1 pound sugar

3 beaten egg yolks

1 tablespoon butter

Ground cinnamon to taste

Measure the liquid drained from the coconut, and add enough water to make three cups liquid. Place the liquid and the sugar in a saucepan and cook until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat, stir in beaten egg yolks and the grated coconut meat.

Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the bottom of the pan is visible. Remove from heat and stir in the butter. Spread the cocada in a baking tray, sprinkle with cinnamon and allow it to cool completely before cutting into squares.