I am my mother's daughter. She who possesses the power to leave a box of french chocolate mints empty over the course of a conversation begot she who has a tooth so sweet that a bag of Oreos will beg for its last rights under her mischievous gaze. I'm a unyielding sucker for sweets. I even love suckers themselves, especially the fittingly-named, strokes of Catalán genius that are Chupa Chups. Sugar is surely one of living's best perks.
And living in Mexico can be a sweet-lover's dream; the merengue vendor just passed by our house, his basket balanced on his head as he called out the word like a cello-voiced tropical bird. The variety of sweets savored in this country poses a particularly delicious challenge, since trying them all could be a life-long endeavor. Capitalizing on a remarkable wealth of fruits, nuts, milks, chocolates, grains, chiles, spices and sugars, Mexican confectioners bless taste buds with the likes of ates and alegrías, cajetas and cocadas, palanquetas and pan dulce, and tamarindo and turrones. No list can possibly be exhaustive. Trying to create such a list would be exhausting.
But trying new sweets certainly isn't, which is why Patricio and I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the colonial city of Morelia, known for its architectural eye-candy as well as a tradition of homemade sweets, passed into the community centuries ago by Dominica nuns whose kitchen fires turned a profusion of recipes into fruit-infused delights. Walking the criss-cross of the centro's streets on Saturday night, we stepped into the entryway of an old colonial house, the place where families have set up shop to sell their sweets for so many generations. The soft-spoken, silver-haired woman behind the counter bagged up a half kilo of crystallized figs for us. And then convinced us that the bricks of guava ate, the happy combination of fruits cooked down with sugar, were as fresh as could be and worth every peso we spent.
Her simple shop was one of countless that the city has seen, and we wanted to know more about them. That's why, sitting snugly between stone buildings along what some still call the Calle Real, the Museo del Dulce, or Sweets Museum, was our weekend's principal destination. Entering the small museum means walking through the front building's sweet shop, covered floor to ceiling with--among books and traditional crafts--beautifully-packaged candies and flavored varieties of the egg-based liqueur, ronpope.
The museum itself is a series of rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard, recreating a colonial kitchen and offering models and photographs of Morelia's sweet-making trajectory. Incorporating ingredients used in indigenous recipes, such as native fruits, nuts and honeys, the nuns arriving from Spain brought and expanded upon traditional Spanish recipes. Initially prepared for the reception of dignitaries in the region, the popularity of the sweets grew to proportions that prompted the nuns to develop their business skills, too, selling the sweets through a lazy-susan like torno, allowing the nuns to take and fulfill an order without showing their faces to the outside world.
Bubbling in the kitchen in an earthenware pot was the makings of quince ate (now the term for any fruit paste prepared by cooking it with sugar, it is really a suffix as it is in English, meaning "a derivative of"--think "aluminate"--and was applied to any fruit, hence a quince ate, or ate de membrillo, was once simply called a membrillate). Spooned into small cups for us to try, it became terribly tempting to spirit away one of the ates setting in wax-lined molds on the windowsill.
We left the museum and Morelia on Sunday, with a back seat taken by a healthy mound of sweets and the front seats taken by the two of us, wiser in the ways and stories of our sugary fascinations, and the suspicion that we'd make my mom's mouth water with the news.