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October in Actopan: Mexico's National Mole Festival

Karen Hursh Graber

One of the most popular of Mexico's many fairs and festivals is the Festival del Mole, the National Mole Fair, held each October in the village of San Pedro Actópan, in the Milpa Alta delegation of the Federal District. This part of the D.F. is unlike any other, a mostly indigenous area with landscapes of rustic beauty which include the Teutli volcano and several country villages.

Until seventy years ago, San Pedro Actópan was just another rural agricultural community, growing corn, fava beans and nopales. Neither pavement nor electricity arrived in this area until 1947, and because of this, the ancient Mesoamerican culinary techniques were used much longer than in other places, where electricity meant that machines replaced the hand grinding of ingredients.

Milpa Alta was also a center of the early twentieth century indigenismo movement, a nationalist ideology emphasizing the value of Mexico's native heritage, including indigenous cuisine. This movement, coupled with the delay in modernization, made this a place where authenticity and integrity of ingredients and techniques were valued highly.

When electricity made the first Molino (grinding mill) possible, families that had been laboriously grinding ingredients on metates began going to the central part of the D.F. and selling their mole. Attention to careful preparation was reflected in the products they sold, and the village became famous for its mole.

Today, respect for the food of the ancestors still prevails, with the Milpa Alta village of San Pedro Actópan producing 60% of the mole pastes used nationwide, and a whopping 89% of the mole consumed in Mexico City. These mole pastes are produced by 17 small businesses, using recipes which have been handed down in families.

The moles we know today, such as mole poblano, contain ingredients brought by the Spaniards, but the technique was described by anthropologist Margaret Clark Redfield as an essentially pre-Hispanic legacy of mulli, grinding food and cooking it with chiles. Redfield studied the cuisine of the Milpa Alta area at the height of the indigenous movement, and subsequent scholars proposed differing theories. Some said that mole, with its European and Asian ingredients, was imposed upon the natives by the Spaniards, and others said that it was a product of the baroque artistry of Puebla. There is not enough culinary literature to provide definitive answers but, in any case, mole is called the "national dish" and is produced in abundance in San Pedro Actópan.

The village's mole festival draws both locals and foodies from all over the country and the world. Stands selling mole paste, as well as pastes for making pipián and adobo, line the streets in the center of town, as do restaurants offering a variety of dishes made with them. This year's fair will have 37 restaurants open to serve such dishes as turkey in mole poblano, chicken in mole almendrado (almond mole) and pork in pipián verde (also sometimes called green mole.) There is also meat, such as pork chops and rabbit, served in adobo.

Most Mexican food aficionados know by now that mole, often considered a festival food, refers to a deep brown sauce made from chiles, spices and chocolate. Although the word mole can also be used to refer to stew dishes, such as the beef and vegetable stew confusingly called mole de olla, it is most often associated with mole poblano or any of the Oaxacan moles.

Pipián, less widely known outside Mexico, is similar to mole in that it is a combination of ingredients ground to a paste, diluted with broth, and served with poultry, pork or, less commonly, fish or vegetables. Pipián verde, the green version, is made with a base of pumpkin seeds and fresh green chiles, while pipián rojo uses sesame seeds and dried red chiles, sometimes with the addition of pumpkin seeds.

Adobo, also sold and served at the fair, is a meat seasoning made of dried chiles, spices and herbs ground together with vinegar to make a paste. The meat is then marinated in the paste and slowly fried.

In addition to mole and pipián in their many guises, fair goers can buy the clay cazuelas in which moles are prepared, as well as hand carved wooden spoons and paddles, typical Mexican sweets, and artesanal handcrafts from all over the country. There are also games, rides, rodeo events, bullfights and voladores, the famous dancers that fly from high poles.

The surrounding countryside and villages provide vistas of mesquite and nopal cactus, which give way to pine forests at the higher elevations. Visitors can still see Zapata's headquarters in the village of Santa Ana Tlacotenco; the seventeenth century Franciscan church in San Antonio Tecómitl, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site; and the aforementioned Teutli volcano.

This year, the 32nd Annual Mole Festival will be held from October 4 through 26. Admission is free. San Pedro Actópan is located on the Carretera Panorámica Xochimilco-Oaxtepec, accessible from Prolongación Division del Norte in the D.F., or by bus from the Taxqueña metro station.

Even if you don't visit the mole fair, you can enjoy several variations of this delicious dish. Mole pastes can be made at home or purchased at the market. In Mexican markets, mole pastes are usually sold at the pollerías, or chicken vendors. Several brands of commercial mole paste are available north of the border, or can be ordered online at www.mexgrocer.com.

Mole paste should be diluted by heating it in a well-oiled cazuela or heavy-bottomed pot, and adding a good homemade stock, a little at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. The paste will keep up to six months refrigerated and one year frozen. Once diluted with meat or poultry stock, it should be kept in the refrigerator and used within three days.

Once prepared, leftover mole sauce can be used to make enmoladas. Softened tortillas are dipped into the mole sauce and either rolled around a filling to make a main dish similar to enchiladas, or simply folded over twice into a triangular shape and served on the plate with chicken or meat. Enmoladas are usually garnished with a crumbled white cheese such as queso fresco. In Puebla, leftover mole sauce also makes an appearance at brunch, served over eggs that have been scrambled hard, broken up into pieces and heated in the mole sauce.

The following recipes are a sampling of the many moles and pipianes served at the Mole Festival and in many other parts of the country. (See also Demystifying Mole.)

Mole Poblano de Guajolote: Puebla Style Turkey Mole

Chicken in Almond Mole:Pollo en Mole Almendrado

Pato en Pipián Rojo: Duck in Red Pipian Sauce

Pechuga de Pato en Pipián Verde: Duck Breast in Pumpkin Sauce

Puerco en Pipián Verde: Pork in Green Pipian

Adobo: Seasoning Sauce for Rabbit, Meat or Shrimp

Published or Updated on: October 1, 2008 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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