September in the Mexican sierra: an abundance of apples
Although there is a tendency to think of Mexican fruit in terms of tropical varieties like mango and guava, apples do well in the higher elevations of Mexico, and are valued for their flavor, shelf life, and nutritional properties.
The journey of apples to Mexico was part of the long relationship between apples and humans, in the course of which this fruit has been spread to nearly every part of the world. It was planted along the banks of the Nile by the pharaohs, brought to England by the Romans, and planted in Mexico and South America by the Spaniards.
During the late summer and early fall here in Central Mexico, apples are prominent in markets, fairs, and even religious rituals. Starting in late August with the Feria de Manzanas (Apple Fair) in Zacatlan de las Manzanas in the Sierra of Puebla, apples are eaten fresh, preserved as jellies, jams and fruit liqueurs, and used in a number of desserts, chicken and pork dishes.
They are also used to make the bed of green apples upon which the Virgen de la Asunción rests on her mid-August feast day, which coincides with the start of the apple harvest. Apples are used as well in the alfombras, carpets made of fruit or flowers that cover the path to the Virgin's bed, along the center aisles of the churches in Puebla and Tlaxcala. Peeled, sliced and soaked in lime juice to prevent oxidation, they make a fine white color for the designs in the fruit carpets, which also include pomegranate seeds for a red color and grapes for purple.
At the Cholula Regional Fair, which takes place during the month of September, apples are one of the principal fruits stacked up in the main plaza and side streets. This fair, which starts on September 1st with a torchlight procession to the top of the pyramid and culminates with the Independence Day celebration, takes place in honor of the Virgen de los Remedios, patroness of the city. On her feast day, September 8th, women from market towns and villages all over Puebla take over the zócalo, which is nearly covered with their montones of apples, pears, peaches and walnuts. Surrounding streets and portales are filled with handicrafts from all over Mexico, but on the Virgin's feast day, the fruit takes center stage.
This area of Mexico has long been known for the production of sidra, or apple cider. The town of Huejotzingo, close to Cholula and famous for its pre-Lenten carnival, is surrounded by apple orchards. The town, along with Zacatlan de las Manzanas, produces most of the sidra consumed in Mexico. This mildly alcoholic sparkling beverage, sold in champagne-like bottles, is popular for toasts at weddings and holidays. (It is not to be confused with the apple-flavored soda pop call Sidral.)
The sidra produced in Huejotzingo is made by only forty families using the apples from their own orchards, but in northern Mexico, apples are a big business. The state of Chihuahua produces most of the apples grown in the country, but it is still not enough to meet the great Mexican demand for apples, which leads to the importation of 200,000 tons of apples a year from the United States and China. Recently a contingent of apple growers from Chihuahua went to the state of Washington, where local apple growers shared information on profitable and sustainable techniques. Other apple growing areas in Mexico are Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Jalisco and Michoacan.
The science of growing apples is called pomology, from the French word for apple, pomme. The apple is a member of the rose family, which includes the pear, plum, peach, cherry, blackberry and quince, all of which are grown in the Sierra of Puebla. Fruit preserves have been part of the regional culinary tradition here since the colonial era, and apples are often combined with other local fruit, especially berries, to make marmalade, often used to fill sweet rice flour tamales.
It is no wonder that the apple is so highly regarded in Mexico, where fruit and vegetables are considered far superior to bottled supplements as sources of nutrition. Apples are high in vitamins C, A, B1, B2, niacin, potassium, calcium and phosphorus. They also contain a significant amount of soluble fiber, thought to reduce cholesterol. And with all of this, there are only 80 calories in a medium size apple.
When buying apples, look for firm fruit without bruises or spots. Store apples in a cool place, away from potatoes, onions and dairy products, all of which absorb the flavor of apples.
Our local apples from Puebla are not as cosmetically attractive as the imported ones, but they have a wonderful flavor and are particularly well suited for cooking and baking. Apples also make a good vinegar, widely used in Mexico, where just about every little corner store carries vinagre de manzana.
In Zacatlan, apples are combined with carrots to make a thick, nutritious atole, and sautéed with eggs for breakfast or brunch. In other parts of the country they are cooked with pork or chicken. Following are some favorite Mexican recipes using apples.