the jetta hugged each curve in the two-lane road, patricio behind the wheel, as we made our way up into the forested hills toward villa del carbón. not unlike the small highways that link one old coal-mining town to the next in northeastern new mexico and southeastern colorado, it was easy for me to imagine that my hometown wasn't too far away. but the scenery wasn't the sole reason for remembering raton; villa del carbón, or "coal town," is also a place with strong links to a mining history. i wanted to see what it was like.
built among ancient otomi villages, villa del carbón looks nothing like the place where i grew up; whitewashed walls and terracotta roofs line the streets shooting off the plaza. the town's shops also share a single motif: leather. once known for its coal production, fueling the railroad that ran through nicolás romero, it's clear that the town now enjoys a reputation for craftsmanship that can clothe a person from head to foot.
patricio and i made a weaving pattern up and down the streets, in and out of small businesses where the owners and clerks continued to let us know that we could, "ask any questions, without obligation." it's the speech we hear in privately owned shops all over the country, the trademark of small scale vendors who want to make their customers comfortable, offering their wares up for inspection without any obligation to buy.
we took them at their word. trying on sleek jackets and puffy shearlings, running our fingers over real armadillo and faux crocodile neck, sticking our hands inside tiny, furry, munchkin-sized boots, patricio and i oohed and aahed, laughed and scoffed, considered and thought, but didn't buy a thing. we decided to leave that for the real cowboys that call the town their home. charrería, or rodeoing, is big business here, too.
so instead of long-term investing--in coats, to keep our bellies warm--we opted for the short-term investment that would keep our bellies full. along the edges of the plaza, underneath balconies keeping cool shadows in place, a different kind of temptation awaited. not quite as scary as a pink of pair snakeskin boots, the things we tried still share an air of the exotic.
the first offerings to grab our attention were the bags of pinole and tamales atop her wooden display crate. clicking on the picture to the right, the pinole is a beige-colored powder in a clear plastic bag, perched on the lower-left edge of the crate. a mixture of toasted cornmeal and sugar, pinole can be eaten alone or used to make atole, a think porridge-like drink. eaten straight out of the bag, it dries up the mouth in an instant; providing the spanish equivalent to the saying "you can't walk and chew gum." arguably a better way to say that two incompatible things can't happen at once, the phrase says "you can't whistle and eat pinole." i've tried it. it's true.
after paying for the pinole, patricio asked what was inside the charred corn husk wrapping of the tamales. the answer both rhymed and made patricio's eyes light up: charales. small river minnows or guppies, i'd only seen them prepared á la my mother-in-law, stewed in a base of chile and tomatoes. the woman drew out a bag of charales for us to try and we both took a pinchful, a small taste of what the tamale had in store. salty, fishy flavors aren't my favorite, but the sampling left patricio licking his chops. he couldn't pass up the purchase. the tamale became his.
two bags of snacks in hand, we passed by stand lined with plastic cup sweets--a few rows of flan, a few more with something new to me. i'd seen chongos zamoranos on menus before, and decided the time had come to put a taste to the name. chongo, or chignon, describes the chunks of cheese-like curdled milk, swimming in a sweet caramel sauce. a treat with origins in the michoacán region of zamora, it now counts another among its ranks of devotees: me.
finishing off our chongos, we sat across from a quesadilla stand that advertised in big, bold letters their spring-season addition of escamoles. in a guise much like cooked barley, these small, whitish spheres carry a price much higher than a common grain. understandably so; ant eggs aren't as plentiful or as easy to harvest. prepared in butter, with onion, garlic, chile, salt, and the fragrant herb epazote, the escamoles were served up quickly with a thick, warm tortilla. they disappeared almost as fast.
to the sound of the church bell's first call to mass, we rubbed our bellies and walked slowly back to the car. less than an hour from home in nicolás romero, it felt like we were much farther away. under the shade of tall trees, without traffic's big roars, villa del carbón had quietly become our beautiful saturday escape.