This week I visited Milpa Alta, the most rural of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs, for the best views of the volcanoes and to learn all about the nopal cactus before heading to one of the borough’s main communities, San Pedro Atocpan for some mole madness.
Without even having to leave the city boundaries, an hour and a half’s drive southeast of the city centre, just beyond Xochimilco, will take you to the semi-rural, mountainous community of Milpa Alta, which is made up of 12 villages. The word alta means “high” and the word milpa comes from the Nahuatl for “cornfield,” referring to the agricultural technique of planting rows of corn interspersed with other crops, most typically the Mesoamerican staples of squash and beans. Milpa plantations have been used in the Americas since long before the Spanish arrived and until the second half of the twentieth century, maize was Milpa Alta’s most important crop.
Being involved in urban gardening here in Mexico City, I have already learned about the mutually beneficial relationship between the “Three Sisters” (maize, squash and beans) and have even put it into practice while volunteering in a school garden, so I was very excited to see the technique employed on a much larger scale in Milpa Alta as we made our way through the countryside. I really wanted to share a picture of the milpa fields with you guys, but unfortunately the roads were so bumpy and curvy, I couldn’t hold my camera still for long enough. I’m sure I’ll get a photo of a milpa plantation at some stage and I’ll make sure to share it when I do.
Today the economy of Milpa Alta is still based around agriculture and food processing, though you only need to drive through the area to realise that the nopal (prickly pear) cactus is Milpa Alta’s most important crop nowadays. In fact, 80% of all nopal consumed in Mexico comes from Milpa Alta; that’s a staggering 80 tonnes per day, and it’s not just the surrounding fields that are packed full of these cacti in order to meet demand; every available inch of the village is crammed full of them, creating spikey barricades wherever they grow.
To get an idea of how important the nopal is to the Mexican diet, just take a closer look at the Mexican flag:
During the fourteenth century, the Aztecs received a message from the god Huitzilopochtli telling them that wherever they saw an eagle devouring a snake while perched on a cactus, they were to found their new homeland. The sign appeared to the Aztecs alongside Lake Texcoco, with the eagle perched upon a nopal. They settled around that spot and founded the city of Tenochtitlan (from the Nahuatl meaning “the place of the nopal cactus”), which would become present day Mexico City. As such, the nopal has become a symbol of national identity, giving rise to the phrase mas mexicano que un nopal or “more Mexican than a nopal”.
As friends and family will know I am not really a morning person, but in order to beat rush hour traffic, we were up and out before dawn and arriving in Milpa Alta just as the sun was beginning to peak out from behind the mountains. The fresh morning dew covering the green landscape and the sweet smell of manure reminded me so much of home, I spent a while just breathing in the fresh air and absorbing the energy of the countryside. Just look how happy I am to be out and about in nature:
All the gallivanting around the countryside meant I quickly worked up an appetite and Alicia had promised me a breakfast to remember in return for dragging myself out of bed before dawn. At the 19.5km point along the Xochimilco-Oaxtepec highway, you’ll find the San Lorenzo Tlacoyucan lookout point, offering some of the city’s most spectacular views of the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. When we arrived at daybreak, a haze was blocking the view and I thought we weren’t going to see them before leaving for San Pedro Atocpan. However, by the time we were sitting down at one of the lookout spot’s outdoor restaurants, the sun had risen, the mist had cleared, and the snow-capped peaks that glistened orange in the morning sunshine provided a stunning backdrop to a very bizarre breakfast.
This whole area is famous for its barbacoa: pit-roast (not barbecued) lamb that has been elaborately marinated and wrapped in banana leaves, before being roasted for several hours over fire and red-hot rocks in an underground pit that is later sealed to create a steaming effect. In Milpa Alta, it is considered perfectly normal to eat said lamb in a blue corn tortilla with chopped onions, fresh coriander and chili sauce for breakfast, and having tried it, I can promise you that given the chance, I would eat it anytime, anywhere. The gamey taste of the tender, juicy meat that literally falls apart in your mouth is really brought to life by the piquant salsa verde, and the sharpness of a squeeze of lime juice will enhance each individual flavour while bringing them all together at the same time. Definitely one of the most sublime things I have tasted anywhere.
Since it was a morning for trying very non-breakfasty things for breakfast, we also ordered another two tacos: one stuffed with flor de calabaza (squash blossoms), and the other with the plant disease caused by the pathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis known as “corn smut” (yummy), or huitlacoche here in Mexico. Both were delicious. The delicate orange squash blossoms were as pretty as they were tasty and the earthiness of the black, smoky huitlacoche left me licking its inky stain from my fingers.
All of this was washed down by a steaming-hot and chocolately champurado, (imagine a thick but lump-free porridge in a cup) and although I thoroughly enjoyed this ecelectic breakfast, I do not recommend that tourists attempt to have this every day. I don’t know anyone here in Mexico who does either and I suspect that attempts by tourists to do so might explain some of the suspected cases of “Montezuma’s revenge” each year. Save this one for hangovers and special occasions, like watching the sun rise over volcanos and a sea of glistening cacti.
The pre-colonial name for this area was Malacachtepec-Momozco, which means “place of altars surrounded by mountains” and I could see why. I Would easily have whiled away hours contemplating the view but I also wanted to know more about how the prickly cactus I saw growing in Milpa Alta becomes the delicious, crunchy, yet slimy topping (like snail-slimy), that I so enjoy on a fava bean-stuffed tlacoyo. Alicia was able to organise a visit to Nopales Azteca, the borough’s main nopal processing plant where 1,000 tonnes of nopal are processed each year.
I got to see how the nopal pads were washed, disinfected, cooked, chopped and packaged and was really taken aback by how few staff were needed for what seemed like such a huge operation.
Production was slick and the place was so clean, I could have eaten the nopales right off the factory floor.
I got to speak to company director Ismael Rivera about why the nopal is such an important part of the Mexican diet. When he explained the nutritional benefits of the cactus, I swore I would try to include it in my own diet more frequently. Antiviral, full of calcium, magnesium and potassium and rich in dietary fibre and antioxidants, the nopal can be useful in treating all kinds of ailments. It’s even said to cure hangovers. But what if you just can’t deal with the babas? This slimy liquid exuded by the nopal pad really puts some people off. I personally love the slime and like to sear my nopales in a skillet with a little bit of oil some sea salt. Want the goodness but not the slime? Boiling them for about 10 minutes should guarantee your nopales are baba-free. To get the raw benefits, Ismael recommends adding fresh nopales to your morning juice and assures that a squeeze of any citrus fruit will reduce the sliminess.
He also explained that foreigners are developing a taste for the nopal cactus and its health benefits and this increase in demand means that 10% of the nopal produced by Nopales Azteca is currently exported to the USA, Canada and Europe, so keep an eye out and you might be able to find it somewhere near you!
Following nopal production, the most important contribution to food processing in the borough of Milpa Alta is the production of mole, a traditional sauce that varies between regions. Its taste is impossible to describe and its aroma is impossible to mistake and we knew when we were getting close to mole capital San Pedro Atocpan due to the mouthwatering smell that penetrated the car well before we spotted the village.
Mole can be purchased as a ready-made paste, as a variety of ready-ground ingredients to be mixed into a paste, or depending on the variety of mole and the ambitions of the chef, as between 20 and 60 different ingredients that are to be ground individually before being mixed into a paste. Ingredients include Mexican chocolate, nuts, countless varieties of dried and/or smoked chillies, exotic spices, small dried fish, seeds, tamarind and bread, to name a few. This eclectic combination results in a taste that is undisputedly unique.
Everyone I met was extremely friendly and interested in knowing where I was from and what I thought of their beautiful and beloved Mexico and its mole. I could sense their pride in this elaborate tradition as they watched me marvel at the sheer quantity of possible ingredients. Tourists wanting to buy mole or its ingredients needn’t worry about the language barrier. Ismael from Moles Don Juan spoke perfect English and had recently returned from studying in Paris. His shop is so successful it doesn’t even need a name and doesn’t have a sign. You just need to ask for “Moles Don Juan” and anyone in the village will point you in the right direction.
The village itself is very charming with cobbled streets:
and a candy-pink church in the middle of a pretty central plaza.
Also it was in San Pedro Atocpan that I finally got to see a Jerusalem cricket or cara de niño (child’s face) as it’s known in Mexico. Never has a name been less fitting.
All in all I had an excellent day escaping the city and getting out into the Milpa Alta countryside. It’s good to know that I have so many opportunities to feel immersed in nature without actually leaving Mexico City. It is a bit tricky to get to but I feel it is worth it especially if you are a foodie and your trip coincides with one of the many culinary festivals that take place in Milpa Alta, or if you are like me and are here for an extended period and can sacrifice a day of city sightseeing.
Make sure to check out my tips section for details on culinary events and how to get there.