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Mexican frozen treats: Helados, nieves and paletas

Karen Hursh Graber

The long, nasal cry of the ice cream vendor reverberates throughout the mercado. On a busy market day, he has some serious competition from people hawking other wares, but he trundles along with his huge wooden containers, successfully drowning out many of the other vendors.

"¡Nieve-e-e-e-e-s!" The Spanish word for snow, a general term for frozen treats in Mexico, gets lengthened into countless syllables, ceasing only when the ice cream man stops to make a sale. Those filling cones and cups from wooden cylinders are usually selling homemade ice cream, while on the street, others offer brand name ice cream bars.

And then there are the paleterías, ranging from small storefronts to sit-down ice cream parlors, where paletas, or ice pops, are sold. The best of these are made from crushed fresh fruit, with very little sugar necessary to sweeten most of them. They are popular all over Mexico, although some of the most interesting flavors originated in the tropical coastal regions, where exotic varieties of fruit offer numerous possibilities for making frozen sweets.

In the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz, people are nearly as exuberant about ice cream as they are about the music and dance for which the city is famous. It has the kind of sultry climate that makes night time the best time to be outdoors and tropical frozen treats the perfect food to enjoy while strolling the waterfront or people watching in the main square. Cherimoya (custard apple), guanabana (soursop), mamey (pouteria) and zapote (chocolate pudding fruit) are just a few of the tasty flavors that can be sampled, along with the more familiar mango, coconut, papaya and pineapple.

This affection for frozen desserts may go back to the days of the Aztec Empire. In Good Food from Mexico, Ruth Watt Mulvey and Luisa Maria Alvarez tell us "legend has it that the supreme epicure Moctezuma sent runners to the heights of the volcano to bring back blocks of snow over which thick chocolate was poured, whipped, and served as a chilled froth." If this is true, it would make Moctezuma the inventor of the chocolate frappucino before anybody even knew what that was, and if not, it is still a good story. What we do know is that ice is not mentioned in the culinary literature of Mexico until the mid 19th century, about the same time it was first widely used in the United States.

But whether or not ice cream and its frozen relatives were invented that long ago, there is no doubt that the ice cream capital of Mexico is the town of Tocumbo, Michoacan, home of "La Michoacana" ice cream, with more than 10,000 outlets throughout the country. Many of them are owned by people from Tocumbo, and in the town itself, those who did not venture farther afield to open ice cream shops in other places are often involved in the business in one way or another.

Ninety percent of the town's families are dedicated to either making or selling ice cream, providing ingredients, or manufacturing or distributing equipment to make it. There is seemingly no flavor the people of Tocumbo will not turn into ice cream or popsicles. Avocado, sweet corn, tequila, pine nuts, homemade peanut butter, rompope, horchata and chamoy (pickled apricot or plum) are all grist for the ice cream makers' mill.

Newer on the Mexican food scene is sorbet, a frozen creation that can be either sweet or savory. The sweet sorbets are typically made with fresh fruit puree and sweetener, using very little water. This gives them a thicker and more intense flavor than "ices." The savory sorbets are often made with herbs, such as basil and mint, and contain more water than fruit sorbets. They are often served to cleanse the palate between courses. And the liquour sorbets, such as those made with Calvados, Cassis or Armagnac, are a digestif and dessert combination. Sorbets are increasingly served in high end restaurants in Mexico City and other cosmopolitan areas, and the abundance of fresh herbs in Mexican markets makes herb sorbets particularly popular.

Not as "gourmet," but wildly popular with children, are raspados, a Mexican version of "sno cones," sold year round, especially outside schools when class is being dismissed. The raspador simply shaves ice into plastic bags and tops them with one of the several brightly colored sugary syrups on his cart. When we lived in Oaxaca, one of our neighbors was an elderly man who sold raspados topped with any flavor imaginable, including mescal.

The summer months are, naturally, a fine time to try your hand at concocting one or two of these frozen treats. For the sorbets, an ice cream maker is not even necessary, since they can be made in regular ice cube trays. And for some entertaining summer reading about the ice cream makers of Tocumbo, among other interesting Mexican vignettes, read True Tales from Another Mexico by Sam Quinones (University of New Mexico Press, 2001) reviewed in the February 2002 issue of Mexico Connect.

Published or Updated on: August 9, 2009 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2009
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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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