In the depths of winter, telling tales of sun-kissed Mexican mountains and colorful market stalls wavers on the edge of cruelty, I know. For that I apologize. But I have to tell you about my visit to the town of Tepoztlan in the state of Morelos.
An ancient mountain town a little more than an hour south of the Mexico City airport, it’s a place too remarkable to miss, particularly in the early weeks of the year, when the streets are bursting with festivals, the churches are decorated like marzipan, and mariachi bands strut down cobbled streets.
Many tourists arrive in Tepoztlan with plans to race to the top of the mountain to see the pyramid, a steep climb perfect for mountain goats.
Others come to see the famous seed arch that leads to the centrally located 16th-century church and former convent. Each year, local artisans design a mural and then construct it entirely of seeds and beans. The mural tells a religious story: Some years it’s a more classically Christian depiction of Jesus’s birth and resurrection; other years, stronger references to Mesoamerican culture and the “feathered serpent” Quetzalcoatl predominate.
Still others visit for the ice creams, in such wicked combinations as pineapple with chili and tequila with limon.
But I’ve come for the market. The central market, which operates Wednesdays and Sundays, is alive with color. There are beans and maize everywhere, sold by women who use their spare time to shuck the dried corn from the husk with a clever tool made just for this purpose. The corn varies from pale bisque to bright yellow, deep carmine red to purplish blue, and sells for about $2 for a “sardinio,” a scoop fashioned from a large sardine can.
In the center of the marketplace, a large stall sells every possible variety of dried chilies, heaped in tall stacks. These chilies are fresher and more potent than the ones in my Washington grocery store, and there are varieties seldom seen in the United States. There are several types of habit-forming peanuts, heavily spiced with salt and chilies, and a fantastic mix of chickpeas, peanuts, soy nuts and sunflower seeds all orangey-red with chili powders.
But I am on a mission. I head straight for the cecina man, Hipolito Cortes Avila, who sells “the best cecina in Morelos,” according to my host, Janet Dawson, an art historian who retired to Tepoztlan with her husband, Doug Clark, several years ago. An enthusiastic cook, she once did a blind tasting of several vendors’ cecina offerings.
Cecina is a treasure. It’s sort of bacon, made from beef, and it’s sort of fajita meat, but thin — so, so thin. Avila butchers papery slices from the back leg of the cow, salts them generously, air-dries them for about 30 minutes, then layers two-foot-high stacks of cecina, brushing the pieces between the layers with pork fat. Locals eat this flavorful, moist, addictive meat cooked quickly for breakfast, lunch or dinner, usually wrapped in warm tortillas with fresh crema (like sour cream) and a healthy squeeze of limon, the local lime.
Avila attends a different market in the region each day and sells about 1,000 kilos (2,200 pounds) of cecina a week at $14 per kilo. This was his father’s business, and it will become his sons’. He purchases half his meat from Mexican beef growers, the balance from the United States and Canada. He lives a few miles away in the valley, in Yecapixtla, a town known to make the best cecina in Morelos.
Cecina is found throughout Mexico, both beef and a pork variety called cecina enchilada. In the north, there’s a version similar to Spanish cecina — thoroughly dried and not unlike the classic Italian cured beef, bresaola. But I’ve never tasted anything like the cecina in Tepoztlan; it’s supple, velvety and impossible to forget.
Avila had more to sell. Just to the side of his two generous stacks of cecina were two long dowels. One was threaded with longaniza pork sausage, spicy with chilies, another staple of the local diet. As Avila stacked the cecina on the scale, lifting each piece and trimming away fatty edges, he draped the trimmed pieces over another dowel. These long, thin pieces dry for days, developing a funky flavor. I purchased some of the most aged pieces hanging from that dowel, and some of the fresh cecina to take back to Janet’s kitchen. It wouldn’t last long. We planned to saute some of the meat for dinner, along with rice and Oaxacan green mole.
Talking to Avila about all the ways to enjoy cecina made me ravenous. I strolled around the perimeter of the market, beneath the shade of multicolored tarps. Guyaba, a sweet, guava-like fruit, was everywhere. Local wild blackberries nestled next to tiny ruby plums. Golf ball-size mangos were piled high, a harbinger of mango season, just a couple of weeks away. Bowls of chapulines, or grasshoppers, fried crisp and tossed with salt and chilies, were addictive. Potato chips with legs.
Wandering along the perimeter of the market, I was mesmerized by the sight of women forming and cooking tortillas. There’s a glorious rhythm to the act. Maize becomes masa, corn flour for the ever-present tamales and tortillas. Then the women knead, roll, press and gently, artfully unfurl the tortillas onto the hot metal griddle. They know precisely when to turn the tortillas, plucking at the edges and flipping the hot disks with their bare hands when they’re perfectly dimpled and blistered. When the second side begins to steam, the tortilla puffs up like a balloon, deflating once it’s removed from the heat.
Everywhere I looked were ingredients to fill those tortillas, so I thrilled at the sight of a breakfast “bar.” All the market ingredients were lined up, ready for quesadillas or sopes: cecina, longaniza, nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), chapulines, frijoles and three varieties of cheese — queso fresco, anejo or Oaxacan. My exceptional breakfast — hot, fresh, made while I watched — was served with three salsas — red, green and incendiary — and was like the entire market on my plate. Freshly squeezed orange juice was the perfect accompaniment.
For less than $5, I was filled to the brim, my mouth stinging happily from the salsas. I wandered to the far edge of the market to look at the famous seed arch. And then, remarkably, I found my appetite once more as I stepped inside the brightly colored Tepoznieves shop for refreshing ice cream incorporating all the flavors of Tepoztlan.
Barrow is a Washington-based food writer.