Traveling to Foreign Countries

The train ride from Pêso da Régua to Pocinho takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wildly picturesque route, with the tracks laid just at the edge of the Douro River and at the base of steep hillsides where terraced vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate alternate with massive granite outcroppings. Whoever conceived that grapes could be grown here? Yet the Douro is the earliest delimited wine region in Europe, its system of control and classification codified in 1756.

Pêso da Régua is the central town of Baixo Corgo, the lower part of the Douro growing region. The train lumbers east through Cima Corgo, the middle region, to Douro Superior, the driest, hottest and most sparsely populated area of the Douro. Rainfall is about 19.7 inches annually in Douro Superior, compared to 35.4 inches downriver in Baixo Corgo; the average annual temperature is 70 (degrees fahrenheit) compared to 64 further west.

Pocinho, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish border, is the end of the rail line. It’s about 10:40 a.m. when we jump off the steps of the railroad car, but the station clock unchangingly asserts that the time is 4:25. The heat is lavish, penetrating. The village is dusty, shuttered, ramshackle, like a set for the kind of Western movie that ends with everyone being sadder but no one being wiser.

High above, in the scrub-covered hills, however, lies an oasis, the Quinta do Vale Meão, founded in 1877 by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who, in the period of her greatest power, owned 30 properties in the Douro, making her the most important proprietor in the region. When Dona Antonia bought the property, the local saying was that she would better have bought land in Angola, because that African country was more accessible than Pocinho. “But then the railroad was built through, as she knew it would be,” says Quinta do Vale Meão’s present owner, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, the great-great-grandson of Dona Antonia. “That cut the travel from Porto to Pocinho from 12 days to five hours. Now it takes only four hours by train, so, you see, we improve by one hour each century.”

Francisco Javier de Olazabal is known as Vito, to distinguish him from his son, Francisco, the winemaker at Meão, who is called Xito; Xito’s cousin, Francisco Ferreira, also a descendant of Dona Antonia and the winemaker at Quinta do Vallado, is known as Chico. The close relationship between Vito, Xito and Chico merely touches the surface of the root structure of relatedness by family, marriage and quinta ownership that permeates the Douro and goes back generations. It is not uncommon in the Douro to be talking to a gentleman who happens to own this quinta and that quinta and used to own this other quinta — meaning an estate — but he sold it to his cousin, and then to talk to this gentleman’s wife and discover that she and her family own another quinta. A chart of the history of the families and quintas of the Douro would resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, along with Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria and Niepoort Vinhos, form the group rather exuberantly named Douro Boys, dedicated to advancing the quality and the image of the region, not only through port but through the increasingly important table wine segment, which, for these estates, dominates their production.

A bone-crunching ride in a battered pick-up truck takes us to a high point on the Vale Meão estate, 350 meters about the river, from which the view is stupendous. The hills recede from the Douro in its upper reaches (in Portugal) and the landscape broadens. “There are over 130 grape varieties in the Douro,” Vito tells us, “so there is always the potential for finding new things in what is already here. There is need to put much investigation into these grapes.” In other words, we don’t need cabernet and merlot, though, oddly, that night we taste fermenting pinot noir from the tank at Niepoort. The vineyards here, stretching down and around the hillsides, are planted to touriga nacional (50%), tinta roriz, known as tempranillo in Spain (30%), touriga francesa (15%), tinta amarela (5%), tinta barraca (5%) and tinta cao (5%). The vineyards are not planted as field blends, as used to be common in the Douro. “Everything is block planted,” says Vito, “because grapes are different and have different needs and act differently.” Eighty-one hectares, about 208 acres, are under vine at Meão, with 65 hectares in full production.

A few parcels are being picked in the noonday sun. Workers go through the rows, bending to their task, clippers in one hand, finding the cluster of grapes with the other and needing a third hand to push away the leaves and other stalks. They carry a pail for the bunches, and when the pail is filled, it is emptied into a plastic bin. Other workers collect the bins and load them onto the truck for transport to the winery and the sorting table. Pickers are paid 33 euros (about $52) for an eight-hour day, that is, two four-hour segments, beginning at 8 a.m., with a lunch break. The producer pays for the workers’ social security and insurance. Some work full-time at the estate, but most are seasonal workers who move from one region to another through a contractor.

For many years, Vito was president of the family company, Ferreira, but he resigned in 1998 to restore Quinta do Vale Meão. That task included a careful restoration of the 140-year-old winery, with its walls of double granite and its beautiful roof and ceiling of fine old chestnut beams. Though the winery is filled with modern steel tanks and a new office and laboratory, it retains the original rugged concrete legares, though somewhat smaller, and a sense of history compounded of the smell of oak and fermenting grapes and the record of a century and a half of vintages.

In the winery’s tasting room, we go through nine vintages of Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Red, 1999 to 2007. Here are brief notes on each wine:

>1999. “An experiment” — only 10 percent of the winery’s production in its first year — that turned out beautifully. Radiant, spicy, beguiling at first, then dense and chewy, a marriage of power and elegance; vibrant and resonant; black currant, plum and lilac, elements of moss and minerals slowly build, feels deeply attached to the earth; an ache of tannin at the back of the throat. Could age another five to seven years. Exceptional.

I want to show readers something that most people who casually drink wine or love wine or collect wine don’t see, and that’s what happens to grapes just after they’re picked.

Wednsday, my group spent part of the morning and early afternoon at Quinta Vale D. Maria, a small property way on top of a minor mountain reached by a hair-raising drive on a narrow dirt road of insane hair-pin turns so precipitously close to a sheer drop-off that only a line of dusty olive trees seemed to keep us from falling to certain death. At least that’s the way it felt to me.

We were driven up to the winery and house by jovial and bear-like Christiano van Zeller, who owns the property along with his wife, Joane. Quinta Vale D. Maria had been in his wife’s family, he said, for 250 years.

We happened to arrive just as harvest was beginning on the steep, terraced vineyards and were privileged to observe the process by which grapes are transformed from firm little clusters of globules to a mass of stuff that looks like bubbling blue beastie brains, ready for fermentation.

Because Quinta Vale D. Maria is not a huge operation, the process was carried out by a few young workers. One man stood in the back of a truck that was filled with plastic bins of grapes. The grapes, by the way, represented a field blend of about 40 red varieties and would go into the estate’s table wine, about 85 percent of the production, with the other 15 percent being port. This fellow dumped the grapes onto the sorting table where a couple of women inspected the bunches and discarded any that looked “green” (not ripe enough) or bruised and damaged. We asked van Zeller what happened to the bins of discarded grapes, and he said that the workers would take them home and make wine for themselves and their families.

Here’s an image taken from the other side of the action. You can get a hint, from the background, of how stunning the landscape of the Douro Valley is, with its high hills and deep valleys lined with vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate. In fact, as often happens with the sites of great vineyards and winemaking, they seem planted in places that ought to be utterly inhospitable to farming.

The top of the sorting table is actually a conveyor belt that moves the grapes along slowly and drops them into a bin below.

Here you see the grapes coming to the end of the conveyor belt and falling into the welcoming arms (so to speak) of the destemming machine, a rotating steel screw that separates the grapes and stems and send the shorn grapes into a fat plastic hose to be pumped several yards away into a large concrete vat called a lagare.

Quinta Vale D. Maria has four lagares, each capable of holding 4,000 to 5,000 kilograms, 4,000 kilos being a bit more than 8,800 pounds of grapes and juice (the “must”). The grapes ferment both in the lagare and in tanks. Each tank in the fermentation room holds the result of one lagare. Red tables wines ferment for seven to eight days, but juice for port ferments only two to three days. Table wine goes into small French barriques (about 59 gallons), while port goes into large old casks and stainless steel tanks.

This machine is the “robot,” an electronically controlled device that crushes the grapes in the lagare. It can be coordinated so that the legs move up and down in sequence together or alternately or back and forth. Vale D. Maria still using the traditional foot-crushing, in which the workers enter the lagares and, one supposes, with a great deal of both concentration and hilarity, use their bare feet to crush the grapes. This ancient practice, van Zeller told us, “is important to make sure that the crushing is homogeneous.”

The result of the grapes we saw being handled today would be Quinta Vale D. Maria’s red table wine, of which the winery produces about 25,000 bottles (about 2,100 cases), an amount, van Zeller said, that is slowly increasing. With enologist Sandra Tavares, our small group tasted vintages 2001 through 2008 of this wine, which is made from vines that are 60 to 70 years old, and whatever the variations of weather and technique involved, the wines were consistently robust and vigorous, deeply aromatic and flavorful, resolutely minerally and generally the embodiment of a marriage between power and elegance.
Quinta Vale D. Maria has importers on the East and West Coasts of the U.S.
There’s much more to tell Readers, like tasting 45 ports from 2007 last night, or our train trip yesterday out to the eastern reaches of the Douro, almost to Spain, to spend an afternoon at Quinta do Vale Meao, and so on. Those events and others will come in future posts, but now I have to prepare for another day of tasting and traveling, this time by boat. I hope it’s a large, safe, comforting boat and not a small, dangerous, death-defying boat. Not that I care.

Readers, it’s another river, but not the Rhine. As you can see on the left, vines grow here on terraced slopes, the banks are dotted with little towns, and the weather is beautiful. It took me three flights to get here; the first was two hours, the second between six and seven hours, and the last less than one hour, followed by a car ride of an hour and a half. A long day of travel, or night and day, or whatever, because my time-frame is all mixed up. The question is “Where Is F.K.?”


OPPENHEIM — Readers, when I was first in Oppenheim at Hotel Zwo, looking out my window, I saw a black BMW pull into the parking lot. I could see, painted on the hood of the car, the words “Deutsche Weinkonigin.” Now I know about as much German as Young Werther knew Pig Latin, but even I could tell that the words translated as “German Wine Queen.” What the hell? I thought, there’s a German Wine Queen?

Indeed there is, and it’s a tradition that goes back 60 years.

Here’s a picture I took of Marlies Dumbsky, the German Wine Queen for 2008-2009, and that’s exactly how she introduces herself: “Hello, I’m the German Wine Queen.”

Each of the German wine regions elects a queen, and so on until in a national competition, for Wine Queen for the whole country is chosen. It’s not just a beauty contest, though the current holder of the office is obviously attractive. Marlies graduated from the Wine Institute in Geisenheim, and she worked for two years at her parents’ winery in Franken. The German Wine Queen puts her life and studies or whatever other job she has on hold for a year and travels practically every day in the promotion of German wine, even, for Marlies, to Japan and Korea and China, to the United States, and she travels constantly inside Germany and to other European countries.

And — was it because our group was important, prestigious or lucky? Marlies traveled with us for two days, always upbeat and engaging, though journalists tend to be a grumpy and demanding species. (I’m kidding, of course; we were sweethearts.) Many times, during our tastings and discussions, she displayed her knowledge about the intricacies of German and EU wine regulations and about grape-growing and winemaking, even, occasionally, gently correcting the assertions of our official guide.

We were sorry to see her go, but German Wine Queen duties beckoned elsewhere.

Thanks, Marlies, you were a real queen!

And no, she doesn’t wear her tiara all the time. She keeps it in her car for emergencies, such as when a bunch of journalists start whining, “Oh, come on, Marlies, put on your crown!”

Wine making, from beginning to end, starting in the vineyard, is a matter of balance. It’s either the easier thing in the world or one of the most complicated.

Listen to Rainer Eymann, owner and winemaker of Weingut Eymann, whose facility is located in the village of Gonnheim, in Germany’s vast Pfalz vineyard region. Standing in one of his vineyards, within a five-minute walk of the winery — even as a village, Gonnheim ranks as small — you will see, off in the west, the blue-gray bulk of the Haardt mountains, while farther away in the east, you discern the distant blur of the Odenwald. Also in the east, about 15 kilometers from where we’re standing, winds the Rhine River, the waterway that over thousands of years created this broad valley and laid down its rich loess soil.

Eymann has run his domaine using organic methods for 27 years; in 2006, he increased the intensity of the treatment by going with biodynamic principles. The estate consists of 15 hectares (about 39.5 acres) of vineyards around Gonnheim, planted to 70 percent white grapes, mostly riesling, and 30 percent red, mostly pinot noir, with a broad range of other grapes. He makes a little sparkling wine in addition to still wines.

“When I began organic,” he said, “people around here thought I was looney, but times have changed. Organic and biodynamic have reached the top producers now. There was a legend that organic wines would not be high quality, but everybody knows now that it’s not true. Still, we’re always learning with organic and biodynamic agriculture. In 20 years, we may be doing something different.”

The soil where Eymann has planted his feet in stalwart fashion between two rows of vines is some 30 meters deep, with eight to 12 percent lime, or “calcareous soil.” The sky that hovers over us is mottled with shifting and blowing dark clouds; one would swear that rain was on the way, but Pfalz in actually the driest area of Germany.

“The problem,” said Eymann, “is that the weather comes from the southwest. It rains in the mountains, but stops in the plains and then picks up again in the Odenwalt to the east. We have soil that can store lots of water, but we don’t have enough rain, and this effect is enforced by the change in climate. We put down the cover crops between the rows [between every other row] to help the fertility of the soil, but that also takes away some of the water that we need.”

This delicate balancing act, as if the vineyard were poised on a high-wire and the farmer/winemaker were a circus master urging the performer carefully onward, requires craft and experience to maintain. First, Eymann lays down a rough compost material in alternate rows (alternate to the cover-crop) to protect the soil from erosion, because, “we don’t get much rain, but when it rains, it pours.” Second, and especially after the record-breaking and death-dealing heat of the summer of 2003, he installed a drip irrigation system.

Constant work goes on in the vineyard toward leaf, canopy and cluster management. Harvesting is done by hand.

To defeat fungus, Eymann sprays, from the organic farming tradition, different extracts of plants, seaweed, mixtures of stone-dust, minerals, copper and sulfur. He also uses the well-known (or infamous) biodynamic mixtures called 500 — “horn manure” — and 501 — “horn silica.”

When I asked Eymann why he decided, three years ago, to take his organic methods to the level of biodynamic, he said, “I was just interested in what’s happening. I was in contact with a lot of farmers using biodynamic and we talked, and I decided to try it. The main point is that you have the basis of organic farming, and biodynamic is the apex of it. After three years, you cannot tell safely by statistics that anything is different, but we are building on the basis of 20 years or more of good organic practice. We have done many things, so I would never say that because of 500 or 501 that we are making good wine. We have to wait and see.” He did say that he believes that because of using biodynamic methods his wines taste more authentic, that you can smell and taste the vineyard more intensely, and that the wines “are more sophisticated.”

What is important, he said, is the health of the grapes. “Quality comes from the vineyard, from selecting the grapes and treating them gently. Quality is not coincidence. It takes planning and craft and management. We do not want to produce the same wine every year. The wine should reflect the vineyard and the vintage and the fingerprint of the winemaker.”
O.K., Readers, it’s 12.45 a.m. on Saturday, and I have a plane to catch in Frankfurt at 12:25 p.m. I suppose I should get a few hours sleep, but maybe I should go ahead and pack. Or read for a few minutes. Each day on this three-day whirlwind tour of organic estates in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, we have visited three or four wineries, had lunch at some and tasted wines, met other winemakers for dinner and tasted their wines. I have a lot to write about, not only about individual estates and wines, and meals we had, but about the issues and concerns that surround organic and biodynamioc methods. We had a terrific group of wonderful, funny and companionable people, though I’ll tell you that if you give 12 journalists a big enough bus, they will not share a seat! No way! We need the second seat for all our gear! Actually our number was diminished today (I mean yesterday), and sometime, perhaps, I’ll tell you the story — like something out of Beckett or Flann O’Brien — of the jolly Irishman who had to drive back to Dublin suddenly because he discovered that his passport expired at midnight.

But that’s for another day.

OPPENHEIM — Well, Readers, I’m seriously underdressed for this expedition. Last week the temperature was in the mid-80s in northern Europe, and I packed my bag accordingly. Yesterday morning, I could have used a scarf and sweater when we boarded the bus that took us to the Geisenheim Research Institute (about 45 minutes away), for a presentation by Prof. Dr. Randolf Kauer and to visit one of the school’s experimental vineyards. (We also had lunch in the student cafeteria, where the food was neither better nor worse than the food in any student cafeteria in the world.) Kauer is apparently the only scientist in Europe devoted exclusively to the study of organic and biodynamic farming methods, and he and his students take a rigorous approach to these important subjects.

They’re important for two reasons. First, more and more grape-farmers, estate-owners and winemakers are turning to organic or biodynamic methods to ensure the health of the soil and terroir and to (theoretically, at least) produce better wine. (Still, “more and more” adds up to less than two percent of vineyard acreage in Germany.) Second, the notion of “organic” in this new sense, along with the general tenor of the “green” movement, permeates world culture now; the zeitgeist is green, friends, and marketability and profitability in many industries is tied (however tenuously and temporarily) to the process of going organic.

I’ll hit some high-points of Prof. Kauer’s illustrated lecture here and delve into the implications of organic and biodynamic practices next week when I’m back in the USA. Kauer was well-spoken, engaging and slyly humorous. I mean, you have to like a guy who will stand up in public and say, “What is spontaneous fermentation, I often ask myself.”

Kauer divided organic practices into three levels: (1) Sustainable or Integrated Viticulture, that is “good viticultural practices” that all growers should perform; (2) Certified Sustainable Viticulture, which take #1 and adds guidelines set down by the federal states (of Germany); (3) Certified Organic or Biodunamic Viticulture, which takes points 1 and 2 and adds the guidelines and controls of the various organic associations, such as ECOVIN and Demeter.

These levels of activity are aimed at producing the healthiest soil and the healthiest vines possible, most of the work involving treatment of the vines themselves — reducing vigor, exact training systems and canopy management, creating looser clusters — such treatment being, as Kauer said, “the highest priority.”

The professor spent 30 minutes or so — he was giving us, he said, “a whole course work of information in two hours” — on biodynamic methods, his attitude toward such practices as horn manure, dynamization, various teas and mixtures, following the progress of the moon and stars, being with “an open mind.” When I asked him if, as a scientist, he shouldn’t also take a skeptical approach, he said that he had to balance his openmindedness with his training as a scientific skeptic. “We cannot say at this time if biodynamism is scientifically based. The result of our tests and trials could be that they make no difference.”

One of our group asked if that result would be accepted by the adherents of “bio.” Kauer said, emphatically, “No,” meaning that fanatics for the principles of Rudolf Steiner will not be unconvinced. “We do see,” he added, “that with the use of horn silica the grapes are ripening earlier.”

Because the European wine industry is highly regulated and the American wine industry is not, many of the problems that profoundly engage government bureaus, grape growers, winemakers and producers and the EU in general will seem arcane to their counterparts in America. Besides regulations, many based on historical, regional traditions, that govern permitted grape varieties, plantings, yields, use of sugar and acid and so on, the debates about how organic practices should be regulated are fierce. For example, the use of sulfites in processing wine is very controversial. According to Kauer, producers in Italy want to reduce the amount of sulfur permitted in wine processing by half in organic wines. Producers in Germany, France, Austria and other countries, however, want to use the same level of sulfites in organic wines as are permitted in “conventional” wines, because, the argument goes, many winemakers use less than the permitted amount anyway.

“Sulfite content should not be a criteria for organic labeling and regulation,” Kauer said. “We don’t need such regulation. We already have the regulations against GMOs, and that is enough.” The Italians, Kauer suspects, “are looking toward future marketing,” a stance that perhaps says as much about attitudes toward Italy as it does about the use of sulfites.

After lunch, Kauer met our group at the institute’s experimental vineyard high on a hill overlooking the Rhine and the outspreading valley that looked like a succession of rolling hillsides, villages, vineyards and the distant points of steeples against the cloudy sky.

He explained that the students at the institute maintain sections of conventional vines, organic vines and biodynamic vines side by side in order to track the similarities and differences in the soil, vines and grapes that result. To try and keep all factors equal, the various composts used for the vineyards, whether the composts are produced conventionally, organically or biodynamically, are often measured to make sure that the nitrogen levels in the applications are the same. Cover crops between the rows consist of up to 30 different grasses and flowering plants and herbs, making not only for healthy soil and providing cover for tiny animals and beneficial insects but offering a distinct wild beauty to the vineyards.

I asked Kauer if, because the sections of vineyards — conventional, organic, biodynamic — are planted next to each other, there was any bleed-through of elements and influences that would have an impact on the trial conclusions. He said that two lines of vines on each side of the sections are not measured and the grapes from those vines are not harvested to avoid contamination by other methods.
Readers, I had intended to write this post last night, but we didn’t get back to the hotel in Oppenheim until midnight, and about the only activities I could manage were brushing my choppers and crashing into bed. I did, however, get up at six this morning to write and post this entry. Yesterday, we also tasted a group of organic wines with Gotz Drewitz, executive director of ECOVIN (and we were not terrifically impressed, particularly with the reds), and then traveled to the village of Oestrich, where the bus had difficulty maneuvering in medieval streets originally intended for goat carts, to the winery of Peter Jakob Kuhn, where he and his wife Angela devote considerable efforts toward biodynamic farming. The wines are splendid — more on them in another post — but is their high quality directly connected to their methods? Then we traveled to the village of Hattenheim, where we had a wonderful dinner at Hotel & Weinhaus Zum Krug, and more on that later, too.

Now it’s nine o’clock, and we’re about to set off on another day of traveling through the Rheingau, visiting estates and tasting wine. I’ll check back with you when I can.

Au revoir, or whatever.

Hello, Readers, I’ll be posting for the rest of the week (if I can keep the batteries on the laptop charged) from Germany, specifically from the Rheingau and Pfalz, where I’ll be touring organic vineyards and tasting wines and figuring out what’s going on with sustainable and biodynamic grape-farming in these ancient places. I’m based in Oppenheim, a very charming city nestled on a steep hill — all the towns are — that rises from the great Rhine river. The image is of a corner in the Old Town of Oppenheim, below the top of the hill where several old churches stand. How old? Well the original edifice of the Katherinekirche was built in 1225; the new addition is from 1459.

Tomorrow, my group will visit Geisenheim Research Institute, down the river a few miles, have a tasting in the afternoon with the director of ECOVIN, taste wines at Weingut Peter Jakob Kuhn, an estate that has been farming biodynamically since 2004, and then ending with dinner at Hotel & Weinhus Zum Krug in Hattenheim and having dinner with more wines from Peter Jakob Kuhn. Then back to Oppenheim to read email and post to this blog, followed by collapsing in bed.

We didn’t have nearly enough time in Puebla to explore the local cuisine, especially the variations on mole that we knew we would find. I mean, there was sight-seeing to do, and museums to go to and archaeological sites, and LL’s conference to attend, but eat we must. What we found was that 1) basically the food in Puebla (this is all in the historic district) rated very good to excellent; 2) it was incredibly cheap; and 3) hole-in-the-wall places could be more authentic and reliable than highly touted restaurants.

First, a few words about mole.

We have been misguided, we gringos north of the border, into thinking that mole is a chocolate sauce served with chicken. In reality, chocolate has little to do with mole and is found in few versions; Rick Bayless, for example, in Mexico One Plate at A Time (Scribner, 2000), uses one ounce of chocolate in a recipe that makes seven cups of mole. It’s there to lend depth and intensity, not flavor.

A great mole — and it’s my feeling that mole owns a rightful place in the pantheon of great sauces — is a marvel of depth and complexity and barely pent yet never overwhelming spicy heat. To achieve this result, most moles incorporate three or four kinds realmole_01.jpgof dried chilies, as well as tomatillos, ground peanuts or almonds, sesame seeds, raisins or plantains, garlic, cinnamon and cloves. Preparation and cooking can take, according to some sources, two or three days. There are no shortcuts

The Nahuatl word, molli (or mulli) simply means “mixture” or “combination” and later came to mean a sauce, as in guacamole, a sauce of avocado. The concept of mole precedes Spanish colonial times, but its first official recorded use was in the 18th century in a meal that Sor Andrea de la Asuncion, a nun of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, concocted, on the order of the bishop, to impress the Spanish viceroy. Her combination of traditional native ingredients, ground together and long cooked, and spooned over turkey, created the model for mole poblano and its variations.

Many Mexican chefs and cookbook writers regard mole not as a sauce but as a dish, and we noticed in the three restaurants poblana_01.jpgwhere we ate that meat — mole is typically served with chicken or turkey and sometimes pork — plays a minor role. The emphasis is on the mole. This was apparent at La Poblana — “the girl from Puebla” — a tiny restaurant not far from our hotel (the Camino Real), where we stopped for lunch. As far as we could figure out, two sisters were the cooks and a daughter of one of them served as waiter, or perhaps they were three generations. The cooking took place in a back room, while the giant sandwiches called cemitas were prepared at a counter in the small dining room. We ordered the “house” cemita and a plate of enchiladas with mole poblano.

The cemita was stupendous. It consisted of a large roll, from which the white bread part is torn away, filled with sliced, slow-roasted pork, avocado, tomato, quesa fresca and another kind of pale white cheese in strings, all of this topped with a dark brown sauce that gently smoldered with spicy heat.

The surprise was the enchiladas; we couldn’t see them. The plate held what seemed to be a pool of glossy, dark brown sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds and a few sliced white onions. The three enchiladas, it turns out, were simply corn tortillas folded over a few bits of chicken; they were nothing like the enchiladas we get in Mexican restaurants in the United States, not even in family-owned, home-style poblana2_01.jpgMexican restaurants, and it was clear that they served as a vehicle for the presentation of the mole, not the other way around. The boldly aromatic concoction seemed composed, once tasted, of seamless layers of heat and spice, the forceful flavors balancing a hint of sweet fruitiness, the sweet spices balancing the intensity of the inextricably mingled chilies, the nuttiness inseparable from the mole’s roasted, coffee-like character. It was wonderful. And the cost of this meal — cemita, mole enchiladas and two bottle of water — was under $10.

We chose to eat at Meson Sacristia de la Compania because it came highly recommended on a list of restaurants passed out by the organizers of the conference we were attending and because it was written up in 2005 in The New York Times in an article about Puebla. The writer called the restaurant’s mole “the best multidimensional mole poblana in the city.” Alas, success seems to have spoiled Meson Sacristia. The famed mole poblano tasted like — chocolate sauce. In fact on the menu, just so North Americans get the idea — and the restaurant was packed with North Americans — mole poblana is described as “chocolate chili sauce.” No, sorry, we can get “chocolate chili sauce” in the States.

The restaurant occupies several connected rooms of the ground floor of a small hotel, painted bright blue with pink trim, at the end of the Callejon de los Sapos (“Alley of the Frogs”). sacristia2_012.jpg It’s crammed with old furniture, possibly real antiques, and art of all sorts, and, on the Saturday night we were there, with patrons; it’s a homey place but uncomfortably crowded. We decided to order the whole range — appetizers, soups, entrees and a dessert — assuming that this would be our best dining experience in Puebla. Indeed, the two soups we had were exemplary — I loved the idea of taking a charred chipotle chili and crumbling it into the soup — as was the flan at the end of the meal. Zucchini blossom mantel_01.jpgquesadillas, however, definitely did not bloom. LL’s manchamantel (“tablecloth-stainer”), a tropical mole or, as the menu stated, “a sweet/salty stew” of pork, ancho chilies, plantains, sweet potatoes and pineapple, was more interesting than memorable. The blue objects on the plate, the manager told us, were “like potatoes but not potatoes.” I chose the restaurant’s selection of four moles, each presented in a small bowl. The best (at the top in the accompanying image) was the exceptionally fresh and lively green mole based on tomatillos and jalapenos. I also like the milder mole amarillo or yellow mole. But the disappointment, as I mentioned, was the mole poblana, which was so chocolate-y that it was unpalatable. It seemed to have abandoned the principle of fourmole_01.jpgintensity, depth and complexity required of a great mole for the sake of pleasing non-Mexican diners. The cost of this expansive meal, including wine and bottled water, was about $70.

The next afternoon we asked one of the owners of an antique store (he spoke excellent English) where he would eat mole, and we mentioned that we had dined at Meson Sacristia de la Compania the previous night. “Oh, no,” he said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand and a roll of his eyes, “that place has really declined. It’s now only for tourists. We just go around the corner to Fonda La Mexicana. It’s excellent, and nobody knows about it.”

Fonda La Mexicana was indeed just around the corner and was, as the gentleman said, excellent and also immensely appealing. The restaurant is a model of a clean, well-lighted place, a medium size space, open to the street, with polished wood and tiles and plaster and dignified but helpful waiters wearing long white aprons. LL started with a delicious zucchini soup in a milky broth; I ordered a bowl of guacamole. The mole poblano, one with chicken, the other with pork, was as dark and glossy, as vivid and vibrant as it should have been, though a touch fruitier and less coffee-ish than the mole we had at La Poblana, a fact that’s testimony to the differences that must characterize mole from restaurant to restaurant and from household to household. The tab here, including a bottle of wine, was about $25.

Now, a word or two about wine in Puebla. I was, perhaps naively, disappointed that we saw no Mexican wine, despite the fact that the Mexican wine industry, located mainly in Baja California, grew tremendously in the 1990s and into the 21st century. No, mainly what we saw was beer, though our hotel cafe and bar offered wine and so did several of the restaurants where we ate. Inevitably, I suppose, the wine was Spanish and Chilean. At the hotel we drank quite a bit of the Marques de Carceres Blanco by the glass. At Meson Sacristia de la Compania, a bottle of Torres Gran Sangre ded Toro red wine cost about $5; at Fonda La Mexicana, a bottle of the Concha y Toro Casillero de Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon was even less.

The image of mole cooking in a pot by J. Brophy for, to accompany an excellent post on mole by Chris Carter; go to

That’s the official name of Puebla, a city about two hours by bus southeast of Mexico City. LL was invited to speak at a baroque_01.jpg conference there last week, and I decided to go, just for fun: No wine tastings, no business lunches, no laptop or cell phone. Of course, one does have to eat.

Founded in 1531, Puebla was the first city started by the Spanish in Mexico not built on the site of an Indian town. Located pinkchurch3_01.jpg between Vera Cruz, on the Caribbean coast, and Mexico City, Puebla grew to be a major trading center and the heart of an important agricultural region. It lies in a vast basin dominated by three volcanoes, one the famous Popocatepetl, 30 miles to the west of the city. Puebla today is a metropolis of 1.5 million, yet its historic town center, crowded with 17th and 18th century houses and palaces (even a few still from the 16th century), monasteries and convents (now mainly converted to hotels, museums or government agencies) and highlighted by the stone and gilt frosting of Baroque churches, feels like a small town.

The architecture of Puebla is noted for its exuberant plasterwork, the intricate patterns of bricklaying and tilework and its bold exterior colors: pink and lime green, chrome yellow, mauve and purple. Like similar towns in Italy and Spain, this brickwork3_01.jpg wealth of detail is softened by a patina of neglect and shabbiness that only adds to the richness of its timeless effect. “This is where we live and work and where our grandparents and their grandparents lived and worked,” seems to be the attitude; “this will all be here when our grandchildren live and work here. Why change?”

And live they do. Puebla has a street-life that starts about noon and doesn’t let up until midnight during the week and later on Friday and Saturday. The city has beautiful and well-used parks — the blooming jacaranda trees were particularly market_01.jpg abundant last week — but every street corner becomes a platform for human work and play. Music comes from everywhere and its contending presence increases as the night proceeds; high in the air echo church bells and the angelic harmony of choirs, mariachi bands and American hits from the 1970s and ’80s. Markets like the “Little Plaza of the Toads” are filled with vendors selling every conceivable object of human effort and desire and silliness, the sober antique and the gaudy contemporary, it seems, having been drawn irrevocably from all the Americas to this ancient crossroads.

Where there is street-life, there must be food. I have never been in a city where so many entrepreneurs set up charcoal braziers on corners and curbs and plazas to cook in the open air and feed the thousands of people who apparently feel it is their duty cooking_01.jpg to party endlessly. Men and women chop and slice, grill, shape and roll out tortillas — and we have never had tortillas this good in the U.S. –  offer exotic fare of unusual colors and sweets of infinite shapes and textures. The Poblanos, as the inhabitants of Puebla are called, love food; every block of the old town holds numerous restaurants, some grand affairs, others tucked into any space available, a narrow store-front or a niche that used to be the entrance hall of a palace.

By the way, we saw more Volkswagens in Puebla than I have seen in one place since I was in graduate school in Iowa City 40 years ago. volkswagen_01.jpg It turns out that the major industry in town is the largest Volkswagen factory in the Western hemisphere.

Well, that’s an overview that I hope gives you some of the flavor of Puebla, a city that we would return to in a flash. In a post coming in a few days, I’ll write about the food of Puebla, our search for the best mole (mo-lay), a sauce the city claims to have invented, and the (I guess not so startling yet disconcerting) lack of wine.

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