Over the years, on road trips from Central Mexico to various parts of the U.S., we have explored different routes, some more scenic than others. One of the most unforgettable included the state of Hidalgo, in north central Mexico, where a great deal of the countryside still resembles the beautiful Mexican calendar art of the 1940s and ’50s. At one point we descended from a spectacular high desert, studded with nopales and maguey and dotted with with old adobe houses and stone fences, into a basin filled with abundant tropical vegetation.
The differences in terrain and climate, along with the many cultures that have flourished in Hidalgo, have combined to produce a unique and varied cuisine. The ancient Otomí and other indigenous people, the Spanish colonials, and the Cornish miners who came later, all left their culinary legacy to the inhabitants of present-day Hidalgo.
The Sierra Madre Oriental, zigzagging through the state, breaks it up into several small valleys, which – though not far distant from one another – are home to different indigenous groups, all with their own languages and customs. When the Spaniards arrived, they gathered neighboring groups together within “the sound of the bell,” in order to better control the populace and facilitate the work of the missionaries. The communities created by the Spaniards from a mix of ethnic groups were the basis of modern municipalities, forming a kind of indigenous melting pot, and anyone who has lived in a “melting pot” knows that this is where to find the really soul-satisfying food. The Aztecs had apparently known this, too, because foodstuffs were what they had demanded as tribute from this region to their empire before the Conquest.
The Otomí, Tepehuane, Mazahua and Nahua people were all expert hunters and farmers. The Mesoamerican staples of corn, beans and chiles were, and still are, grown in abundance in Hidalgo, which today produces a whopping one fourth of all the green chiles in Mexico. In the less fertile regions, maguey was the tribute of choice, yielding the much loved beverage pulque, and the fibrous thread ixtle, used in pre-Hispanic times to make textiles.
In the mountains, people gathered wild mushrooms and a variety of herbs and greens given the general name quelites. In the less fertile areas, hunting provided a great deal of the diet; rabbit, dear, possum, squirrel, wild duck, and a variety of game birds were valued sources of nutrition. In arid areas, armadillos, maguey worms and reptiles were consumed, usually with the ubiquitous chile as the main seasoning. And, as in most of Central Mexico, the ant roe called escamoles was, and remains today, a highly prized delicacy.
With the arrival of the Europeans, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats were introduced, and the latter two are characteristic ingredients of Hidalgo’s regional cuisine. Barbacoa, the seasoned goat or mutton baked in a pit, is the star of the state’s culinary repertoire, as are mixiotes, bundles of seasoned lamb or chicken wrapped in maguey leaves and steamed until falling-apart tender. The pencas, or inner leaves of the maguey, have traditionally been used to wrap the mixiotes, but it is now illegal to strip the plants of their inner leaves, and cooks use a parchment-like paper called papel para mixiotes.
Many of the cooking ingredients brought by the Spaniards were well suited to the native foods. Cumin made an excellent seasoning for rabbit, and is one of the main ingredients in Hidalgo-style adobo, or seasoning paste, generally considered to be one of the best in the country. Pork was delicious as a filling for the huge Huasteca tamales called zacahuil; beef made a tasty stew when cooked with the tart cactus fruit xoconostle; and mole de frijol ayocote, a dish made with the large, purple ayocote beans, was enriched with chorizo or olive oil. The Spanish fava beans were cooked with hierbabuena to produce the region’s caldo de habas, fava bean soup.
Another culinary creation, and perhaps the state’s most famous, was introduced by the Cornish settlers who came to Hidalgo in the 1800s to work the area’s rich silver mines. The meat pies called “pasties”, a portable meal perfect for carrying down into the mines, and filling enough to keep the miners going throughout their sixteen-hour shifts, became known in Spanish as pastes (pronounced PAH-stays). Today pastes are the specialty of the old mining town of Real del Monte, where the high sloping rooftops and chimneys reflect the Cornish influence in the area and where visitors make a point of ordering the delicious meat pies. The Cornish immigrants, who came from what is known as the Central Mining District of Cornwall, in southwestern England, had undoubtedly never eaten chiles before coming to Mexico, but today fresh serrano chiles are as likely to be included in pastes as are the traditional beef, leeks and potatoes. At this time of year, special pastes are made with lamb and the ancho chiles that are the freshly dried version of the summer harvest of poblanos.
These seasonal treats are featured in both Real del Monte and Pachuca, the state capital and onetime twin mining town to Real del Monte. However, pastes are not the only reason to visit Pachuca. In October, the city holds its annual festival in honor of Saint Francis, where a regional food fair is one of the major attractions. This year, the Mexican Embassy in London is marketing both Pachuca and Real de Monte as “Mexico’s Little Cornwall,” and encouraging visitors to come and meet the Spanish-speaking descendants of the Cornish immigrants. (Pachuca is also the birthplace of soccer in Mexico, brought from Cornwall and originally played in 1900 at the Pachuca Athletic Club. The first golf course in Mexico was also located in Pachuca.)
One of the local specialties that can be tasted and purchased in Pachuca is pan de pulque, an orange-flavored bread that uses the fermented pulque as a leavening agent. Pulque is also used in braising meat and poultry, and to make the beverages called pulques curados, in which the fermented juice of the maguey is flavored with fruit, often the tropical fruit of the warm, humid Huasteca region or the cactus fruits of the high deserts.
In addition to the papaya, mango, guava, pineapple grown in the Huasteca region, apples, peaches, pears, peanuts and walnuts are cultivated in the fertile valleys. Fruit is often used in preserves and desserts, including pears cooked in cinnamon and sugar syrup, walnut brittle, cakes topped with marmalade, and pitaya (cactus fruit) gelatin. There is even a cake made with liquefied nopal paddles in the batter.
The following recipes are just a sampling of the food of Hidalgo, where a mixture of different cultures has provided a rich and varied culinary repertoire. A recipe for Mixiotes de Carnero: Spiced Lamb Steamed in Maguey Leaves, can be found in the March 2004 issue of Mexico Connect, and a recipe for Conejo en Adobo: Rabbit in Chile Sauce in the December 2005 issue.
- Caldo de Habas Estilo Hidalgo: Hidalgo Style Fava Bean Soup
- Pastes: Cornish Meat Pies
- Pollo en Pulque: Chicken in Pulque Broth
- Mermelada de Piña, Manzana, Naranja y Coco: Pineapple, Apple, Orange and Coconut Marmalade