Every culture loves sweet snacks and Mexico is no exception. However, one nice difference about Mexican sweets is that they’re usually made with healthful ingredients like fruits, honey, nuts, and corn. And no where will you find a richer and sweeter experience than in Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán.
Morelia is a colonial city filled with beautiful buildings, many dating back to the 15th century. A great place to start your exploration of dolce Michoacán is Morelia’s Candy Museum (Museo de Dulce) on Ave. Francisco Madero in the historic heart of the city. For 12 pesos (about $1) a costumed guide will tell you about the history of Morelia and give you a tour of the ancient process of making ate, the candied fruit made famous in Michoacán.
We are met by an attractive young woman dressed in a brilliant white cotton skirt and blouse embroidered with Mexican and Native Indian symbols. She takes us into a room with walls filled floor-to-ceiling with old photos of early Morelia (1700s to the 1950s). She tells us that most of the buildings in Morelia are built in Baroque style. However, during the 18th century, President Portirio Días favored Neoclassical so the buildings built during the president’s tenure are Neoclassical. There is also a picture of the first house built in Morelia (it now houses a Burger King!). In addition, there are photos of early candy making in the city.
Many of the candies of Mexico originated with religious orders like Dominican nuns that came from Spain where they sold candy to support their convents. These European sisters also brought sugar to Mexico. (Before Europeans, Native Mexican Indians made sweets with indigenous ingredients like honey mixed with seeds).
In 1595, the Dominican nuns introduced Morelia to ate, a sweet made from fruits boiled with sugar. To remove the water from the candy, the sweet hot fruit was spread onto sheets and dried in the sun. The candy was then sprinkled with sugar and cut into squares. The nun’s ate became so popular that commercial companies started making the sweet.
We move into a room with a kitchen set up with big copper kettles and other candy making equipment that demonstrates how ate was made commercially. The museum also has a small model replica of an early ate making factory powered by steam.
Our tour ends with tastes of freshly made ate. A woman places fruit and sugar into a small copper vessel heated by a wood fire. She vigorously stirs the boiling mixture with a wooden spoon to keep the mixture from burning. This is how cooks make ate at home. This ate is made with membrillo (quince), but the candy can be made with a variety of fruits.
Every few minutes, the cook lifts the spoon to check the viscosity of the candy. When it sticks thickly to the spoon, it’s ready. Then she spreads the mixture into a mold to cool. Before serving, she’ll sprinkle the candy with sugar.
She offers us samples of ate in small plastic cups. The sweet, jelly-like confection contains tiny seeds and textures of the original fruit which makes it chewy. Ate is often served with a tart white cheese as a dessert.
We move into the museum’s candy shop. It’s filled floor-to-ceiling with confections and the clerks are dressed in long, turn-of-the-century dresses. Ate is one of their best sellers and they offer it in a variety of fruit flavors, including mango, strawberry, peach, pineapple, guava, and crab apple. They also sell caramel-like candies made with cajeta, similar to caramel, but with a more granular texture. There are marzipan candies (made with ground peanuts), tamarind-based candies like Pulparindo, that tastes sweet, hot, and sour, and, for those who love sweet heat, confections like dried mango con chile.
Sweets in Morelia aren’t just found in stores. The city has also plenty of shady green plazas filled with vendors selling candy and other sweet snacks, some of them indigenous to the area, others popular throughout Mexico.
At a handicrafts market, I purchase three packages of caramelized sugar glazed peanuts for about $1. There are also sweet sesame balls and peanut patties. These delicious sweet snacks offer sweet with a bit of protein and make a great pick-me-up for travelers.
Several vendors in Morelia sell gaspachos, cups of chopped watermelon, jicama, pineapple, and cantaloupe served with hot sauce and crumbly white cheese. You’ll also find stands where they sell a variety of Mexican cookies or other sweet, baked goods. One of my favorites is coconut macaroons, big mounds of baked sweetened coconut. Another great sweet street treat is churros, long pieces of deep fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. They’re crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and simply delicious.
Michoacán is also famous for ice cream. In Patzcauro, a picturesque mountain village about 30 miles from Morelia, several vendors sell ice cream under shady porticos that face the central Don Vasco Plaza. Children and adults line up for gelato-like ice cream that comes in a huge range of flavors including leche (milk), café (coffee), chocolate, pineapple, pistachio, and even tequila. I ordered one called pasta, which had a cajeta (caramel-like) flavor.
So when you’re in Michoacán or anywhere else in Mexico, take a sweet break and try some of the country’s confections. They’ll put a sweet smile on your face. www.michoacan-travel.com/
– Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor