I’ve enjoyed memorable meals in stunning places like Tokyo, Rio and Milan. But my most memorable meal was barbacoa in the home of poor farm workers near Actopan, Mexico.
Actopan is known as the land of barbecue (barbacoa). Actopan-style barbecue means slowly-roasted meat that rests on coals overnight wrapped in cactus leaves in an earthen oven.
The year was 1988. My friend Silvia Nava invited me to spend the weekend at her mother’s ranch about 75 miles northeast of Mexico City.
The meal consisted of succulent barbecued goat meat accompanied by cactus paddle salad (ensalada de nopales), hand-made corn tortillas and pulque, Mexico’s ancient alcoholic home-brew.
Food preparation began one afternoon at the humble adobe dwelling of Leonela, the lady who maintained Silvia’s mother’s ranch house. Leonela, her husband and young son lived in a tiny, dirt floor house surrounded by prickly pear cacti and a menagerie of sheep, donkeys, pigs, chickens and turkeys.
Adjoining the hut-like house was a corral that contained a tribe of goats. I soon learned that the first step in preparing barbacoa was selecting the goat.
The task of finding the right goat fell to Leonela. She carefully studied the corral and then pointed, “That one with big ears.” This set in motion a series of lamentable events for Big Ears. Leonela’s husband replied, “Get me the knife.” I quickly found something else to do and when I returned Big Ears was hanging upside down from a tree.
I have always known where meat comes from but I had never been present for the coming from. The experience prompted me to seek alcohol in the form of pulque (pronounced PULL-kay).
Legend has it that pulque, the fermented sap of the century or maguey plant, has been produced for more than 1,000 years and was once only consumed by nobility. Pulque is no longer a noble drink. Leonela sold the milky white juice for 13 cents a liter. One could be well on the path to insobriety for a nickel.
Silvia and I enjoyed a pint of pulque while the husband carefully wrapped Big Ears in mixiote, the outer skin of the leaves of the maguey. Mixiote not only creates a natural Reynolds Oven Bag it also imparts a distinct flavor to the meat. Meanwhile, Leonela prepared the fire in the pit where the goat would roast underground overnight.
Big Ears was laid on the embers and then was covered with banana leaves. Soil was shoveled into the pit to cover the entire animal. With tomorrow’s lunch smoldering underfoot we retired to the courtyard for more pulque.
The next day at noon we returned to Leonela’s house to eat. I marveled as I watched Leonela’s knife whiz across cactus pads de-spining them and then dicing the batonnetes into almost perfect quarter-inch cubes. Master chef knife skills in a mud hut were also brought to the onions, tomatoes, chiles, cilantro and queso fresco, the ingredients that completed the cactus salad.
While we sat at a table, Leonela stood at the kitchen counter hand fashioning balls of corn flour, squeezing them in a tortilla press, tossing them on a steel comal and handing us fresh, warm tortillas. Ones that puffed up were called ranas (frogs) and were much desired.
There may be nothing finer than a corn tortilla right out of the hands of a loving cook especially if that corn tortilla is stuffed with barbacoa right out of the ground.
At Alain Ducasse’s Bistrot Benoit in Paris waiters elegantly push gilded carts topped with silver chafing dishes containing delicacies of French cuisine. It is a spectacular place to nourish oneself.
At Chez Leonela in Actopan a chicken pecks at the dirt floor under the table, a donkey brays at the door and you dine on barbecued goat and food produced entirely from the land around you. It was a spectacular place to nourish oneself.
I created a book about this memorable trip to the ranch. If you’d like to purchase or view it you can click on the image below.