Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Chocoholic's Peek at History

"The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.
A cup of this precious drink
permits a man
to walk for a whole day without food."

Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II

If ever you needed proof that your stomach is connected to your brain, you have only to reflect on chocolate. Many of us can evoke long-lost childhood memories of Saturday afternoons spent in darkened movie theaters, the familiar, gooey Pom Poms clutched firmly in our sticky fists.

Who could ever forget the M & M ads for the “chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hands?” Or the heavily bespectacled nerd, munching thoughtfully on a chunk of raisin-studded chocolate, cooing appreciatively, “Chunky, what a chunk a chocolate.”

Chocolate however, has its dark side, with grim threats of tooth decay and dreaded pimples clouding our luscious fantasies. But then the basic nature of chocolate has always been bittersweet.
Rich in carbohydrates, it is an excellent source of quick energy and contains minute amounts of stimulating alkaloids: theobromine and caffeine. It is both bitter and sweet; it can be sipped or chewed; it can be found in the lowliest of junk foods or in the most sophisticated confections.

Folk medicine has claimed it an aphrodisiac, while modern medicine accuses it of triggering migraine headaches and more. And, it has been considered at the same time: worthless and priceless. How could anything so sweet be so controversial?

The history of chocolate is a long and checkered and begins on this side of the world in a land where money grew on trees - cacao trees. For hundreds of years in Mexico and parts of South America, cacao beans were the principal currency. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, 150 beans bought one slave. Cacao beans were prized by the Incas, Maya and Aztecs, who demanded them as a tribute from their conquered subjects.

The Aztec nobility, who referred to it as the “food of the gods,” sipped the pungent “Xocolatl” from elaborate gold cups, serving it either warm or chilled by mountain snows. They made it more palatable by blending it with different combinations of maize, cinnamon, and a variety of spices, including one, which has remained a frequent partner to this day - vanilla.

Their culinary expertise of blending just the right amount of unsweetened cacao with a highly seasoned tomato sauce gave birth to a popular Mexican dish that continues to titillate palates south of the border: mole.
Cortés pays tribute to Moctezuma
When Hernán Cortés and his band made the Mexican scene in 1519, they were not taken with the cocoa bean brew and quickly dismissed it as an native concoction. It was not long, however before the enterprising conquistadores realized the economic possibilities in their grip and they set about profiteering from it.

When an anonymous genius stirred sugar cane into the bitter cocoa so favored by the natives, an instant craze was created. The newly addicted Spaniards kept their “find” under wraps for nearly 100 years before the French found out about it. Their secret was so obscure that when the English commandeered a shipment of cacao, they pitched it overboard, thinking that it was sheep’s dung.

In 1657 a Frenchman opened a shop in London, at which a solid chocolate bar, used for making the beverage, could be purchased for 10 to 15 shillings per pound. At this price, only the very affluent could afford to drink it. The reduction in the cost of the beverage was hampered in Great Britain by the imposition of high import duties on the raw cacao bean. As a result, it wasn't until the mid 19th century, when fees were lowered to the uniform rate of one penny a pound, that chocolate became popular. Soon, trendy chocolate houses and clubs began popping up throughout fashionable European capitals.

Despite its enormous popularity, chocolate was exceedingly rich and hard to digest. In 1828, a Dutchman found a solution to this problem by discovering a process for extracting most of the fat, or “cocoa butter” from the beans. The resulting powder produced a lighter, more palatable beverage and the defatting process paved the way for the manufacture of “eating chocolate.”

Some 50 years later, a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter had the idea of blending condensed milk from the neighboring Nestle plant, with his product. “Milk chocolate” was an instant commercial success and Switzerland is still synonymous with fine chocolate.

While the manufacture of chocolate in the U.S. started in 1765 in Dorchester, MA, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that an eccentric chocolate pioneer by the name of Milton Snavely Hershey sweetened Pennsylvania history. In 1903 he broke ground for the town that would one day bear his name and become a tourist mecca and site of one of the world’s largest chocolate factories.

Thanks to our enterprising ancestors, today we can sample and savor an endless variety of chocolate. And modern-day chocoholics should gratefully muse that this precious product has come a long way since the satiated halls of Moctezuma.

Should you happen to be in Mexico City, stop by Chocolates Curryer for a sweet treat and a blast from the past. Starting with Curtis Curryer in 1919, his family has been making hand-dipped chocolate for some of the capital's most illustrious clientele. The small "candy kitchen" is close to the tourist path and near the Angel of Independence and other historic sites.

If You Go:
  • Chocolates Curryer, Rio Guadalquivir 77. Col. Cuauhtémoc, Mexico DF.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Small Yacht Cruising

Wind Surf ready to set sail from sunny St Martin
(photo: Michelle Richmond)
Sometimes you just have to drop out of life and go somewhere to recharge your soul. I had the opportunity to do that recently when I was invited to sail on Windstar Cruise's elegant Wind Surf through the Caribbean.

I'm a huge fan of cruises and the sea has always served as a balm for my soul, yet I had never sailed on a small vessel before. It proved to be an amazing experience. Sure, the mega ships offer a plethora of non-stop activities, dizzying entertainment and food galore, but if you yearn for a truly tranquil journey, you should look into a small ship.

If shouldn't come as a surprise that good things really do come in small packages and anyone who loves the sea should jump onboard this elegant vessel. Especially geared for the seasoned, more "mature" cruiser (although there were quite a few "younger" passengers onboard) this yacht promises total "R &R" while still providing the activities, entertainment and dining options of the big box cruise lines - only on a smaller, more polished scale.

One of the best "perks" is that they offer a chance for you to get "up close and personal" with the destinations they visit because of their ability to dock in smaller ports where larger ships can't venture. They're able to drop anchor in off-the-beaten places such as: Roseau, Dominica; Le Marin, Martinique and Basseterre, St Kitts in the Caribbean or places such as Valencia, Spain; Capri, Italy; Split, Croatia and other dream destinations throughout Europe.

Local lore and tales
Along the way, you'll be treated to colorful local lore by the crew, such as the story of Witch Top Mountain in Roseau, Dominica, from which "unfaithful women" were pitched in the 18th century.

You'll also get to bond with fellow passengers because this type of cruise offers a more "intimate" experience. During one such encounter while chatting with one woman, she confessed (under her breath) that she had been raised in Paris by parents who "worked with the CIA." Obviously, I can't reveal her name.

The bridge
A majority of the time Wind Surf is able to travel "under sail," with no engine and glides through the sea, further enhancing the feeling of total abandon. And - unlike other ships - the bridge is open to passengers, 24 hours, adding another fun dimension for sailing enthusiasts.

This particular yacht is an excellent choice because with 156 spacious recently refurbished ocean-view staterooms and suites, it provides a small yacht feel while offering large ship amenities. Staterooms are ample, as are the bathrooms, which happen to be stocked with silky L'Occitane toiletries and soft, fluffy robes. Flat-screen TV with DVD players and a Bose sound-dock for Apple iPods assure entertainment when you feel like snuggling in your stateroom.

Dining choices are exceptionally varied and the cuisine is especially palate pleasing, with menus complementing destinations along the way. Windstar refers it as "destination engagement," with local flavors and entertainment showcasing the ports along the way.

Dining Delights
AmphorA serves international fare in an elegant setting punctuated with Rosenthal china, while the petite Stella Bistro focuses on French cuisine. For a casual breakfast and lunch buffet - indoors or on deck -The Veranda dishes up a host of tasty options. For Continental breakfast, fresh bistro-sandwiches, afternoon cookies and refreshments, the Yacht Club Sandwich and Espresso Bar is the place to be. When the sun goes down, intimate poolside, alfresco dining at Candles provides the perfect place for an intimate tète-a-tète.

Winds Surf's onboard marina makes a big splash

Water sports abound, thanks to the unusual onboard marina, which opens up a host of refreshing options - simply by jumping off the platform at the back of the ship. Complimentary water-skiing, paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, ski-tubing, wakeboarding and snorkel gear are there for the asking.

A small salt water pool, two hot tubs and small gym with ongoing classes offer yet more fitness options.

Soothing WindSpa houses a full-service salon and spa (for men and women) with massages, body treatments, aromatherapy, facials and a full roster of nail and hair services. 

When the sun goes down, sexy Compass Rose comes to life with live music and frosty drinks, offering the perfect place from which to view the stars sail by, while the Lounge Bar on the Main Deck offers live nightly shows. For those in search of "games of chance," a small Casino fills the bill.

Gliding past Martinique
Our first port-of-call on this voyage was Le Marin, Martinique. Sitting on my deck with the water rippling toward me like a soft caress, I could feel myself start to slowly unwind. The rest, as they say…..is history.

If You Go:
  • For more information visit: http://www.windstarcruises.com

Disclosure:  I was hosted by Windstar on this cruise. I was not compensated for this post and any opinions expressed here are my own.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Magical Puerto Vallarta

There is a magic to Puerto Vallarta, which defies explanation. You just have to spend some time there and soak up its unique atmosphere to understand.

Whether it was this mystique that fueled the fiery attraction between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton when he was filming “The Night of the Iguana” here in 1963 - and what prompted director John Huston to claim it as home until his final years - is hard to say. Yet, the torrid affair and the onslaught of paparazzi that came with it, carved this scenic haven onto the international map forever, drawing Hollywood types and savvy sybarites ever since.

Long before the adulterous duo made Puerto Vallarta their favorite trysting place, the Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags) was a refuge for ships seeking shelter from Pacific storms and marauding pirates preying on Spanish galleons.

Nowadays, this sultry area straddling the bay in the state of Jalisco has a cachet all of its own. And unlike other beach resorts in Mexico – downtown PV (as it's known to English speakers) – has managed to escape the inevitable “gringo-ization” of other Mexican resorts and has retained the unmistakable flavor of “old” Mexico…the real deal.

Colorful facades highlight buildings in Zona Romantica
(photos: Michelle Richmond)

North of downtown, the Marina Vallarta area has blossomed in recent years into a strip of all-inclusive resorts, internationally renowned properties and large retail chains – many of them, US favorites. Further north, in the state of Nayarit, newcomers like Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita, add a totally different feel to the overall destination, which people tend to list under the general heading “Puerto Vallarta.”

A short taxi ride into town lands me in the center of this colonial gem by the sea. I’ve chosen the Hacienda San Angel to be my home away from home. An enclave of five Mexican villas, one of which was given by Richard Burton to his then wife Susan as a Valentine’s Day gift, its colonial tiles, fine woodwork and rich antiques, lend credence to the Mexican adage, “mi casa es su casa,” (my home is your home). Hidden gardens and stunning views of the Bay and the landmark crown atop PV’s Basilica are exceptional perks, while its location, just steps from downtown affords easy access to PV’s activities.

Around the corner Casa Kimberley, given by Burton to Taylor long ago sits in silent tribute to their shattered marriage. Burton subsequently purchased the house across the street and a bridge links the two to this day.

The original downtown area – the heart of PV - with its small white-washed adobe buildings, red-tiled roofs and steep cobblestone streets winds its way from the lush Sierra Madres, spilling out onto the seafront making it easy to explore on foot.

La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is the heart of Puerto Vallarta religious life and the focal point of an elaborate 12-day festival each December. Construction was carried out over a 12-year period beginning in 1929. It boasts hand-carved columns, decorative moldings and other rich detailing. Its ornate crown was replaced after it was damaged in a 1995 earthquake.

Iconic crown is symbol of PV

On Sunday nights the small main square comes to life with a concert band and dancing in the park and elote (grilled ears of corn slathered with mayo and sprinkled with chile powder) served for "fortification."

There are two distinct neighborhoods downtown: Viejo Vallarta (Old Town Vallarta) and the Zona Romantica, (Romantic Zone) also known as Playa los Muertos (named for an alleged bloody battle between pirates and local Indians hundreds of years ago).

The recently refurbished seafront promenade, known as the malecón, is the focal point of local life here. Whimsical sculptures by local artists line the 11-block strip of boutiques, cafes and cozy bistros which provide activity all day and late into the night. At its southern end, a series of lighted arches act as the stage for live music or performances by jugglers, dancers, comedians and art exhibits.

Culturally and gastronomically speaking, PV ranks second to Mexico City. Each year, in November, the International Gourmet Festival draws award-winning local chefs and more than 20 guest chefs from around the world, to showcase their skills at venues around town. Throughout the year there are cooking classes, wine, tequila and beer tasting events and an annual film festival.

Whimsical sculptures on Malecón

Some of Mexico’s top chefs and numerous chefs from around the world have settled in Puerto Vallarta and opened restaurants here.

One of the most popular - El Arrayán - is tucked into an old house and serves traditional Mexican fare. The Margarita El Arrayán is legendary. Owner Carmen Porras is hospitable and very proud of her establishment. During the low season, she offers cooking classes, which include a visit to the local market with the chef to purchase the ingredients.

Café des Artistes is part art gallery, part gastronomic haven and a total class act with the distinction of being one of the best restaurants in Mexico. Owner Chef Thierry Blouet is one of only 340 chefs admitted into the inner circle of the “Maîtres Cuisiniers de France,” the highest qualification in the world of gastronomy. With a selection of more than 350 wines and cuisine which is not only pleasing to the palate, but is a visual feast, Café des Artistes has been dubbed, “French with Mexican touches.”

Art galleries run the gamut in Puerto Vallarta, from those representing pottery from all over Mexico to individual artists selling their own works. During the high season, from November to mid-April, the art galleries of both Marina Vallarta and Vallarta Viejo offer art walks.

Once a month each area’s numerous art galleries host evening cocktail inaugurations to exhibit the latest work of their honored artists. Maps are given to attendees to find the galleries - all within an easy walk from each other. These “Art Openings” are the highlight of the season and have a large following.

If You Go:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Shopping a la Mexicana

(photos: Michelle Richmond)
Centuries ago the Aztecs established an event, known as Tianguis ("marketplace" in Nahuatl), launching a cultural phenomenon known as regateo (bargaining), which lingers to this day throughout Mexico.  

Open-air markets were set up on different days and in distinct areas of Tenochtitlán - as the ancient capital of Mexico was known - providing locals not only with vegetables and basic foodstuffs, but also a social happening.

Legend has it that it was here that marriages were arranged, sacrifices plotted and – best of all – where bargains were bountiful. Often, goods were bartered, but when prices were quoted, counter-offers were made and the sport began. 

Whether fact or fiction, the art of regateo remains a basic fiber of life today in markets throughout the country.

A good rule of thumb is that most handicraft stores (unless government-run) are open to haggling and markets specializing in handicrafts expect it. Think of it as a quasi-national sport, one Mexicans relish con mucho gusto (much pleasure), so indulge yourself and you’ll walk away richer for the experience.

Mexico is a mecca for shoppers and whether you’re inclined to embark on a shopping spree or not, you may find yourself caught up in a frenzy of buying. Shopping here is so varied and wonderful that it is virtually impossible for even the most blasé traveler – male or female – to return home empty handed.

With this thought in mind, you should take at least one empty suitcase with you when traveling south of the border as temptations can be found at every turn.

In larger cities such as Mexico City you'll find items from around the world tucked into sleek shopping malls, famous-name boutiques, swank galleries and trendy designer shops but you will find the “real” Mexico in other places.  
Rustic markets bursting with handicrafts, workshops where glass, silver or candles are creatively fashioned and shops – often government sponsored - specializing in artesanias (handicrafts) beckon.
The brightly colored treasures are true works of art and well worth the experience of exploring the soul of Mexico. 

If You Go:

Following are some tried and true bargaining techniques in Mexican mercados. Find one that works, perfect it – and go for it. Don’t feel guilty. After all, this sport was started by the ancient tribes of Mexico.
  • Ask for the price; make a counter offer, acting somewhat disinterested. Move slowly away, glancing longingly at the object of your “affection.” When you hear a price you like, focus and start serious negotiations.
  • Walk determinedly into the shop, make a quick scan of the merchandise, then do some fast, no nonsense dickering. You’ll get better deals when buying in bulk.
  • Clench teeth firmly, pick up the object of your desires, clinging to it tenaciously until you hear a price you like. Keep on countering until you wear the clerk out.
  • Looking vaguely bored, ask for the price, giving a disdainful snort when it is quoted. Move slowly out of the shop, hoping the clerk will follow with a better offer. If not, swallow your pride and start from scratch.
  • If you don't hear a price you like, just keep on walking. Chances are you'll find the object of your desire - at a better price - in a nearby stall.

Doing Business South of the Border

There is a kinder, gentler, more genteel world south of the border, a world where gentlemen still carry a woman’s bags, chivalrously open doors for her, and heroically give up their seats for her on a packed bus. 

It’s the proper thing to do and in Latin American countries where machismo is alive and well and seemingly here to stay, there is also an unspoken etiquette for getting down to business which savvy business travelers should be aware of. 

Nowadays, with global negotiations catapulting us around the world with just the click of a mouse, it's often difficult to change gears and soften that hardened “edge” which many of today’s US executives have acquired.

Happily, Latin American businessmen - and women - are eager to work with visitors to their country. It’s all a matter of attitude - yours.
  • Hora inglesa - It’s very important, when making plans in Latin America, to clearly define the time of your appointment. In Mexico, if you ask someone if the agreed time is, hora inglesa (English time), you are asking if they will be punctual. If they respond with, hora mexicana, expect them to be “a little” late.
  • If they are late, deal with it politely. Surely, you’ve heard of mañana time? The best thing you can do is kick back, have another cup of coffee and read the paper while you wait. Then, greet them with a warm smile.
  • That is not artillery you see lined up on the table: those are cell phones. Celulares reign throughout Latin America and you will inevitably see them lined up alongside the entrée in every restaurant you visit.
  • No, the restaurant, club, airport etc. is not on fire. This is still a smoking society. Just take shallow breaths and deal with it amiably. You're not going to change it so accept it.
  • "Schmoozing" over a very late dinner. Things typically get a late start. Smile and enjoy yourself and no, you will not turn into a pumpkin at midnight.
  • Dealing with the inevitable long “liquid lunch.” Alcohol is standard cultural procedure. Just sip slowly - especially in high altitude cities.
  • Hand-shaking traditionally leads to a peck on the cheek between men and women, or two women. This is not a sexual harassment issue - it is merely a “touchy, feely” society.
  • "San lunes” or “San viernes” - Try not to schedule appointments on Monday or Friday, because these days typically disappear into long weekends.
It’s important to remember that you’ve crossed into a different cultural zone as well as time zone and things are done at a less frenetic pace than you’re accustomed to. This is a very polite society so smile sincerely and often, and remember the adage: “When in Rome........”

Mexico's Hungry Ghosts

Day of the Dead altars are part of the celebration

Early November is one of my favorite times to be in Mexico. It's fiesta time "south of the border," as residents give vent to an ancient celebration known the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). A country with roots deeply entrenched in ancient Indian and colonial Spanish cultures Mexico's unusual celebration coincides with Halloween in the US.

The ancient peoples of Mexico were obsessed with death and believed that it was necessary to die in order to be born again. To guarantee this rebirth, they set aside two months in which to honor those who had gone before them. The ninth month of the Nahuatl calendar was dedicated to children; the 10th to adults. During this celebration, human sacrifices were made to insure the flow of fresh blood, so vital to regeneration.

Abundant offerings were laid beside the sacrificial stone, as young men attired in feathers and jewels gyrated around it to the beat of Nahuatl music. Although this was basically a solemn occasion, it was fiesta time in the Aztec world and a good excuse to drink pulque (a potent brew made from cactus).

Colorful "ladies" dot the area
(photo: Michelle Richmond)

The evolution of the Aztec empire was cut short by the Spanish conquest and it was not difficult for the conquering priests to persuade the recent converts to shift their months of the dead to a two day celebration, known as All Saints and All Souls Day. The meshing of pagan and Catholic rituals which resulted formed an interesting tradition in Mexico which lingers to this day.

This link to the past is long and not always clear but it is almost a sacred tradition. November 1 is set aside for the children who have died; the 2nd is for adults.

Grave Parties
On these two days, everyone feels morally obligated to go the cemetery to honor their dearly departed and convivir (spend time) with them and in true Mexican style, a social happening takes place.

Typical Mexican dishes are reverently prepared and toted - along with several bottles of the preferred drink - to the gravesite. Tombs are decorated with the flower of the season, the pungent tzempazuchil (marigolds) revered by the Aztecs and candles and incense are laid around the grave. Once the stage has been set, the gathering begins around midnight with prayers, ending in the wee hours of the morning with drinking and raucous toasting to the “continued good health” of the deceased.

Tombs are decorated for the occasion

Though this rowdy practice has been banned in many cemeteries, it has become a tourist attraction in some parts of Mexico. In Mizquic, along the southern outskirts of Mexico City, or on Lake Patzcuaro’s island of Janitzio, in the state of Michoacan, worship of the dead with all its pageantry is alive and well.

Food for the soul
In many towns, the homage takes place in the home, with altars festooned with flowers and photos of the late loved one prominently displayed. On the November 1 feast of the children, a large table is laid out, laden with offerings of flowers, fruit, candied pumpkin water, toys and candles. These gifts are left out all night so that the spirit may partake of the “essence” of the offering. The following morning, the “leftovers” are consumed by the family, with the thought that they have shared a meal with the missing family member.

 A hardier meal is set out on November 2 in anticipation of the adults with additional treats, such as pan de muerto, a sweet, doughy bread with crossbones emblazoned on its crust, added to the menu. Flowers, candles, incense, a bottle of tequila, if he enjoyed a nip, or a pack of cigarettes if he smoked (even if this was what killed him) are carefully set out for the “visitor."

Small death figures made of marzipan, gruesomely fashioned for the ritual are the highlight of the feast. Skulls with the names of the living etched on them, and skeletons decked out as brides, soccer players, musicians and beggars complete the bizarre scene.

Macabre cyclists
(photo: Michelle Richmond)
According to ancient tradition, eating these macabre confections is the Mexican’s way of laughing at death and proving that he does not fear it - a macho act of sorts. Another common way of celebrating the Day of the Dead - and the most palatable - is with calaveras or witty poems and epitaphs penned for relatives, friends, or celebrities who are still among the living. These written or drawn eulogies were made popular at the turn of the century by Jose Guadalupe Posada, a political satirist. Today they are used mainly to poke fun at friends, or to mock the Grim Reaper.

Mexico City’s popular Bazaar Sabado boasts one of the best Dia de los Muertos displays, amid its delicately fashioned arts and crafts. Ignacio Romero, founder and director of the Bazaar fights to keep Mexican tradition alive and does so with a brilliant display of marigolds and fiery decor. Multi-colored candles line a long table brimming with tamales, tacos, pan de muerto, fruit and candied pumpkin as well as jugs of tequila and pulque.

Carved wooden skeletons masquerading as a ghost orchestra face off with sugar skulls, each with the name of one of the Bazaar’s employees etched into it. At the end of the festival, the employee eats the skull bearing his name - another act of defiance.

Mexico’s fascination with death is legendary and although the celebration is beyond the comprehension of most outsiders, the event is an interesting one to observe. Whether this is just another excuse for a party, a way of discharging the soul, or merely a show of machismo, there is no doubt that death takes a holiday in Mexico each November.

Fiesta time in the land of the Aztecs
(photo: Michelle Richmond)