The word Puebla translates to “populates”. A state in the south-eastern part of the country, only a 2 hour drive from Mexico City was a complete surprise. Travel to many parts of Mexico today is like as if time has stood still. Besides the inevitable Face Book phenomenon connecting the younger generation to the rest of the world, one might envision local villagers roaming the streets with their cultural dress, selling local artisanal ware, streets lined with cobblestones, elaborately decorated churches at every corner, and singing and dancing in the Zocalo, the city center. Well some of this is still true but the city proved to be so much more. Living up to its name, Puebla city is the 4th largest municipality in the country inhabiting around 4 million people, and blends the old with the new in so many ways.
After the security guard for the hotel gave Ava and I the in about a secret spot a top the roof of our hotel, we were able to capture stunning views of the vast city. Because he advised sneaking a peak in the early morning for sunrise, we were able to capture a clear view of the volcanoes that surround the area, especially Popocatépetl, being one of the most active in the world. A wisp of smoke emerges from the peak during most hours and tends to camouflage itself with the clouds on most days. Our first day proved the preconceived notion of this beautifully quaint, colonial town with each street lined with colorful hand painted tiled buildings and what seemed like every other block being capped off with a more elaborately decorated church than the last. Although he largest cathedral adjacent to the Zocalo looks modest, its interior is adorned with gold leaf and hand painted murals with an expansive courtyard housing many visitors. Sorry, no photos allowed in there.
Before admiring the architecture and artistic elements, we had to grab the first of our many street food experiences to come. Tacos arabes was a must. Much of the Lebanese influence in the Poblano cuisine is seen in the thinly sliced and marinated pork meat layered on a vertical spit known as a trompo and is slow roasted, preferably with wood fire for better flavor. The meat is sliced off of the trompo and placed into a corn tortilla and served with onions, cilantro and red or green salsa. The simplicity of this taco is what makes it so easy to eat at least 5 at each sitting.
After our bellies were full, off to the church we went and continued to roam the streets and capture the artisan touches of hand painted tiles and decorative ironwork found on the windows, balconies and doors of each building.
Through my many travels and intensive classes throughout Mexico, I have met wonderful friends, one of which lives and owns Margu, multiple artisan pastry shops in Puebla. She and her daughter joined us and gave us an amazing tour of the city. A street food walking tour of centro Puebla included tacos arabes, this time served with a thin pita like bread and tart yogurt sauce, and Mulotes, an empanada-like snack made with fresh corn masa filled with assorted meats or vegetables and fried until crisp and served with crema and salsa.
With your first bite, the masa proved to have such a light crisp texture, learning later on that the secret is to mix it with a bit of flour to create that texture. Our next stop was for churros. The long line outside of this bustling corner shop proved to be worth the wait. We grabbed a table and ordered a plate of the golden fried dough dusted in coarse sugar and cinnamon and of course a cup of hot chocolate to dip them in. But before I could take my fist sip of my drink, we devoured these freshly made, still hot, perfectly crisp on the outside, doughy on the inside, sweet treats.
So far Puebla seems to be everything I had expected. I had visited once before in 2013 for a brief few hours, just enough to be intrigued and create a desire to come back one day. My friend and her daughter were kind enough the next day to take the day off and be our private tour guide, but not just for tourist spots, we started with a behind the scenes at her pastry kitchen which supplies all of her shops. Built into the back of her home, completely separating work from pleasure, at least by a door in the kitchen, this professional kitchen houses everything needed to produce her cakes, cookies, tarts and jams for her shops, restaurant clients and private orders.
We headed to the small town of Cholula, just outside of Puebla city. The town is known for its abundance of churches, 365 to be exact, one for each day of the year as they say. The main site we came to visit were the ruins of pyramids, not a hot sauce factory. Seven pyramids to be exact, each built on top of the other after destruction and abandonment, representing 7 different civilizations over a period of 600 years. The final civilization to conquer the area was the Spanish who instead of tearing down the existing structures, covered over them and built an elaborate church at its peak.
It faces the most famous volcano in Mexico, Popocatepetl, and on a clear day you can view the snow capped peak and any activity that might be brewing inside. Unfortunately the sky began to darken quickly and the rains were headed our way so instead of embarking on the long trek up the hill to the church, we headed to the Mercado for comida, what a surprise 😉
Being the season for Chiles en Nogada, a dish made famous here in Puebla, we explored the use of the best, local, seasonal ingredients found in the markets, including pomegranates, walnuts, apples and pears. We stopped at a quesedelleria stall that my friend remembers from when she was a little girl. Blue corn masa pressed into an oblong shape tortilla is cooked over a comal, metal plate over a fire, and then filled with different ingredients. It was freshly harvested squash blossoms, fresh mushrooms and queso Oaxaca for me, griddled nopales for Ava and my mom decided to get adventurous on us early and went with the huitlacoche, a harvested rare corn fungus. All delicious, served with salsa, this was the perfect way to avoid the afternoon rains. As we emerged from the covered market, the rains had passed but we still had room for a sweet treat so the paleta shop down the street would do the trick. Blended fresh fruits or creamy concoctions frozen on a stick, what’s not to like? Arroz con leche for me!
The tour of local sites continued and led us to Los Fortes. Standing in the place where the battle of Cinco de Mayo took place makes you not take for granted what you have. Because although the citizens of Puebla won the battle that day, they were defeated the next, and it was all taken away by the Spanish once again. The city has so many hidden gems and a newly renovated public space with a stunning view of the city that houses museums, a spouting water feature, an expo center where they have what is equivalent to our state fair, a bull riding arena and just stunning grassy public spaces. Throughout the city you see modern fences built, lining government funded spaces. These are not like the fences that separate our borders but beautifully designed metal work that creates a separate space and at the same time allows for the feeling of openness. Also, the current governor is a large proponent on having his citizens healthy. You will see exercise equipment in what looks like a playground but it is an outdoor gym for locals to use for free. He has built many walking bridges for runners, bicyclists and walkers to encourage safe activity. The city seems largely progressive. There is an entire community being developed not far outside the city center that is extremely modern and encompasses that notion of work, live and play. Young families and professionals are moving to this area and have all of the amenities of any large city in America. If I dropped you in this area and there were no Spanish on the signs, you were never guess where you were.
Although this sounds crazy, and those who know me know it is not, but one of the things that brought me back to Puebla for a second look was the Cemita. A sandwich made with a specific roll topped with sesame seeds. Best, I think, with the pork Milanese, thinly sliced pork, lightly breaded and fried, placed between the fresh roll (crunchy on the outside and soft inside) with avocado, queso Oaxaca, and a fresh herb called papalo. I know it sounds simple but it is about the freshness of the ingredients and oh, the chipotles en vinagre. Without this ingredient, the sandwich is not the same. It is sold in most of the markets and as a condiment at all of the street stalls and I have never seen this in any other city in my travels. The dried chipotle peppers are cooked in vinegar, piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar), herbs, onion, garlic, and spices for a very long time and what you end up with is the perfect balance of sweet, spicy and acidic, a chefs dream!!!! I sought out the same stall in a local food court building across from Mercado Sabores. This sandwich was worth coming back for and it did not disappoint.
Talavera is known worldwide as being a distinctive hand painted pottery from the Puebla region. It is mandated to the highest standards and regulations of the Mexican government much like Champagne of France and Parmesano Reggiano of Italy. Only 7 authentic Talavera producers remain in the region and we visited one of the most famous. Sought out by some of he wealthiest in the world, architects and designers for private homes, hotels, and churches, Talavera Uriarte is a very prominent part of Puebla. It is open to the public and they offer a tour of the process. After taking this tour a few years back, I was so impressed with it I wanted to bring my mom here to see the craftsmanship. Little did we know when we arrived that we would be led on this journey by one of the owners of the company. Bored with his board meeting, he opted to take the last tour of the day and we were it. A typical 30 minute walk around the factory in what was once the private home and place of work for the Uriarte family, turned into a 2 ½ hour history lesson, behind the scenes, and newly made friendship with this amazingly personable man from Canada, who fell in love with the place when he came to visit in 2010 and became one of the managing partners 6 months later.
This seems to be a common effect of this greatly populated charming and progressive city. The art, food, architecture and the people will have me coming back again and again.