Entertainment | Restaurants & Dining | June 2005
|Finding a Thousand-Year-Old Recipe for Barbacoa|
Actopan, Hidalgo - It's almost dark when Simón Blanco finishes building the mound, covering a pit of glowing volcanic rocks and smoked mesquite. As he rakes the last of the dirt, his wife draws a cross in the earth. "So the demons don't get at it," Blanco explains.
Deep in the mound, carefully wrapped in the long, spiky leaves of a maguey cactus, lies one of the most mysterious and obsessed-over pieces of Mexican cuisine: barbacoa.
A few hours earlier, Blanco had slaughtered a sheep, and overnight the meat will cook slowly under the earth until it is fall-off-the-bone tender and infused with a flavor that some people, like Blanco, treat like an addiction.
"I have to eat it every day," he said. "If not, I don't feel right." Shortly after arriving in Mexico City four months ago, I got into a heated, tequila-fueled argument about barbacoa with Julio, a driver for a Houston TV correspondent and self-avowed barbacoa-phile.
Two years ago I had become a convert when I tasted barbacoa in the Texas border town of Eagle Pass. In much of south Texas, barbacoa is made from cow head the cheeks, brains and even eyes and I was wary of trying it. But the barbacoa was a revelation, dripping with grease, but with a flavor better than any beef fajitas. It was one of those defining food experiences, like eating your first truly good steak or Maine lobster.
Julio didn't want to hear my praise of south Texas barbacoa. He looked at me pityingly and declared that the best barbacoa in the world is in the state of Hidalgo, a few hours north of Mexico City. "Listen to him," the other guests at the party said. "He's right." So I decided to check it out for myself.
Throughout Mexico, barbacoa varies by region. In the far north, cow head predominates. Barbacoa makers use goat in the area around Monterrey. Pig is served in the Yucatan, and sheep in Hidalgo. What unites the various barbacoas is the cooking method, developed by the Chichimeca Indians of northern Mexico, according to Cristina Barros and Marco Buenrostro, who have written several books on Mexican cooking.
The Chichimeca, ferocious warriors, held out for more than a century after the invading Spanish had subdued much of what would become Mexico. When the Spanish eventually conquered the various tribes of Chichimeca, they marveled at the Indians' method of cooking wild boar overnight in a hole in the earth.
Buenrostro says part of barbacoa's popularity stems from its association with special occasions.
"It's a flavor learned from infancy," he said. "We are reminded of fiestas, of happy times. ... They are almost genetic memories of taste." After some research, I settled on the town of Actopan, famous for its yearly barbacoa festival on July 8. The folks at the state tourism board recommended I talk to the Blanco family, which has developed a fiercely loyal clientele.
Actopan is a dusty, hardscrabble town where everyone, it seems, has traveled north to work in the United States at one time or another.
Ramón Blanco, patriarch of the family, guided us to the home of his son Simón, who now runs the family business. Before we entered the house, he confided: "Making barbacoa is almost like a religious ceremony." Simón has made four trips to California to work various jobs in construction and in restaurants, but always returns home. "Here I'm my own boss," he said. "I don't make a ton, but it's enough." Besides, when he was in California, the authorities said making barbacoa in the traditional way violated local laws.
Simón brings out the day's feast a 120-pound sheep that snorts and wheezes as he ties its feet together. Simón killed his first sheep at the age of 10 and I ask him how many he's slaughtered in his life. "Let's just say I'm going to hell," he laughed.
Nearly every part of the sheep will be used: the skin and fur sold to shoe and textile makers, the head cooked along with the meat and the innards placed inside the stomach and seasoned into what some aficionados consider the tastiest part of the barbacoa.
After slaughtering the sheep and butchering the meat, Simón and his 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old nephew prepare one of two concrete pits in the family's backyard. They fill the pit with mesquite logs and volcanic rocks. We wait about five hours until the rocks are glowing red. Simón rakes a hole in the middle to place a large pot of water, rice, beans and vegetables. This concoction will help steam the meat and become a tasty soup made of dripping sheep juices.
Simón salts the chunks of meat and wraps them in the maguey and places the bundles on top of a grill above the pot. He puts some sticks of smoked mesquite on the meat and covers the pit in more maguey leaves. Finally, they cover the pit with dirt. Over the next 12 hours, the combination of heat, maguey leaves and soup transform the meat into a delicacy.
"You can't rush it," Simón said. "It's an art, seriously." In the chilly morning air, we all gather once more to uncover the pit. As Simón and his family pull the dirt and rocks away, the tart odor of the steamed maguey leaves gives way to the rich smell of the meat. He carefully moves the steaming bundles to a table. "This," he says proudly, "is the famous panza (belly)." I'm a little anxious as his wife thrusts a freshly made tortilla in my hand.
The family looks at me expectantly as I take a bite. The stomach was tender as butter and tasted vaguely of goat meat. The meat was divine, pink and smooth, but the best part may have been the thick and rich soup.
So is it better than Eagle Pass? Well perhaps I have my own embedded memories, but the border barbacoa, with a fuller, less gamey taste, still reigns supreme.
Simón says some of his friends have urged him to cook with gas, which would cut his cooking time from 12 hours to two. But the Blanco family prefers to use a method that hasn't changed for perhaps 1,000 years.
"The taste wouldn't be the same," Simón said.
With my large chunk of meat safely wrapped in maguey leaves for the ride home, I couldn't agree more.
Mexican Barbacoa À La Bandera - Serves 2
1 - 3 Lb. Pork Arm or Shoulder Roast
2 Quarts - Cold Water
5 - Chiles Ancho
5 Cloves - Ajo (Garlic), chopped thick
1 Large - Cebolla (Onion), quartered
1 Stick - Canela (Cinnamon)
1 Pod - Tamarindo (Tamarind)
2 Large, Fresh - Laurel (Bay) Leaves
1 Tsp - Comino (Cumin) seeds, crushed in a molcajete (a mortar and pestle usually made of volcanic rock)
3 Tbls. - Fresh Cilantro, chopped
1 - Long, red Chile Arbol
Pre-heat oven to 450° F.
This is a long, slow cooking dish, so start the day before you want to serve it. Hey, at least I'm not asking you to dig a 4' deep pit in the yard, line it with adobe mud, cover it with maguey leaves and cook it underground overnight the way they do barbacoa in Oaxaca!
Score the skin of the Pork Roast with a very sharp knife (I use an X-acto® Knife) then set it in the very hot oven for 1/2 hour to crisp the rind. Turn the oven down to 325° F. and roast for one hour more or until a meat thermometer registers at least 170° F.
Have a large pot with a domed lid ready with a layer of chopped Onion on the bottom. Remove roast from oven and place in the pot on top of the onion, then add the Cold Water, Chiles Ancho, Bay Leaves and Garlic. Don't worry about covering the roast. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Let simmer overnight and through most of the next day, turning the meat a few times. In the morning, give the Tamarind Pod a few good smacks and pick off the shell, the stem and the thick fibers that run down its length. Remove the seeds and add the gummy pulp to the pot. Add the Canela (Cinnamon) Stick and the crushed Cumin Seeds and simmer one hour more.
Then, fish out the bones, chiles anchos, bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Butter the insides of a large, shallow, earthenware casserole. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meat and other solids from the pot into the casserole. Pour in the juices from the pot and place in a 325° F. oven, uncovered, for about an hour to let the juices bake down and thicken.
Just before bringing to the table, stir in most of the chopped Cilantro. Quickly top with dollops of Sour Cream the long, red Chile Arbol and a sprinkle of the remaining cilantro for the colors of the Mexican flag.