Manzanillo Letter December 2012 Part 2

Dear Friends,

Well the turkey is somewhat digested but cleaning up the leftovers will be a challenge prior to returning to our winter digs in Manzanillo. It’s interesting that of the total production of turkey in Canada, 30% is consumed at Thanksgiving and 46% at Christmas. Turkey growers must really ponder how to make their product a more regular menu item? After gobbling down a big feed of the aristocratic bird and seeing leftovers on every fridge shelf, next Christmas seems an appropriate date to gobble again. Of course perceptions of taste change as the palate heals.

On a more serious note, our futures unfold as time and each day march on. We wish for you a great 2013 with much of God’s blessings, and when needed may you have the love and support to help carry or lighten the load.

This second Manzanillo Letter is a continuing exposé of the recent journey into the state of Michoacán, Mexico. Check this very good link:

Michoacán is for sure, agriculturally rich. On a national scale it is the number one producer of Strawberries, Blueberries, Guava, Melons, and Avocado, and competes in the top 2-5 tiers for most other fruits and vegetables. Areas of the state with the highest altitudes produce cooler climate crops while the valleys produce corn and even some sub-tropical plant species. The states name is derived from a native word meaning “Place of the Fisherman”, which is not surprising since in addition to some of Mexico’s best arable land, Michoacán has 210 km. of of coastline beginning about 40 km south of Manzanillo. Certainly the mountainous nature and proximity to the Pacific, coupled with 17 – 20 degrees north latitude and strong sunlight, combine to produce ideal moisture and heat for voracious growth of many plant species, many of which taste good to us. American food giants are firmly positioned to capture the production of this state, creating a strong and vibrant agriculture economy and thus allowing many thousands of families to stay on the land.

Our trip was only an introduction to what Michoacán offers. The beautiful hotel, Villa Montaña, was our first surprise. We had heard that it was a special place but were still amazed by its unique beauty, the setting, and the hospitality we enjoyed. Villa Montaña which overlooks the city of Morelia, was originally built in 1943. In the 1970’s it was purchased by a French Count and to this day belongs to the same French family. The term ‘Count’ was something I’d not heard in a long while and so discovered that it is the reference to French Nobility. It is equivalent to a British Earl, or maybe a Duke.

Each room of Villa Montaña is unique and all have a wood burning fireplace (already needed at night in November). The photo shows the sitting area in our room which was tastefully decorated with a French Country flair. The beautiful gardens and decor attract the eye and person to the outdoors, meaning rooms, even though beautiful, are used pretty much only for sleeping.

All of the grounds are well maintained, and yet peaceful and relaxing. While it all appeared so natural, any gardener realizes this does not just happen. We were told that the family collects the displayed works of art around the world, so every nook and cranny had something art lovers would appreciate.

Our room was entered via the main floor door in the foreground. Ivy climbed the walls, fountains gushed water, and tasteful, well maintained views abounded.

The city of Morelia lies in a valley with construction extending partially up the hills on both sides. It was a small city until a major earthquake in 1985 that resulted in an influx of people. At that time we were told, many people left earthquake damaged Mexico City and fled to cities like Morelia, dramatically increasing its population. It is now home to at least 1.5 million.

The view from Villa Montaña is spectacular,,night and day. Note the cathedral.

Just prior to dinner we posed for the picture below. Our partner Florentino, who acted as our guide, was the photographer of the seven (clean livin’) Albertans. Those not dressed with light jackets or sweaters were still carrying warm memories of Manzanillo where we wear shorts, even in the evenings. In contrast, in Morelia’s morning we could see our breath while we enjoyed coffee on one of the terraces. There was not a one of us who regretted bringing warm clothing.

Dinner was simply, Wow! Imagine a French restaurant commanded by French nobility in the middle of Mexico. While we enjoyed several very good meals on this trip, all agreed that Villa Montaña topped the list.

Next morning after coffee we just had to visit the view we’d witnessed from our fabulous accommodations. Downtown, beside the Jardin and near the church, we had breakfast in an old hotel recommended by our capable guide, Florentino. Then it was off to see a few of the sites.

After visiting several countries in Latin America, we’ve concluded that the Spanish had at least two major objectives when they explored and conquered: One was to bring home riches to Spain, and the other was to Catholicize the new world. Certainly they left their print on all the (now) Spanish speaking world we’ve had the fortune to visit – Mexico and several S. America countries. They didn’t skimp on the Catholic churches/cathedrals in the major cities as they are just spectacular, and Morelia is no exception.

The interior of this church is simply magnificent. Detail is everywhere including painted ceilings that look as if Michelangelo had visited. It’s common to see gigantic architecturally detailed columns, gold leaf covered features, and simply grand vistas of the Christian faith, and this church had them all.

Spend an hour just wandering inside a church such as this and you’ll still feel you’ve not seen it all. Mexico’s churches seem to be located near the seat of government (probably a good idea) and this one was no exception with the Governor’s offices just across the street. Certainly the poor and wealthy alike come to this central area, and especially to this church. This magnificent building is a tribute to the Christian faith and by its sheer size and magnificence, casts a spell on anyone who enters.

The pipe organ was incredible. It ‘ominously’ played during the time we viewed this spectacular cathedral. Check this link:
We were unable to find anyone playing so concluded that technology somehow was sending messages to the pipes.

The route to Patzcuaro and Santa Clara de Cobre took us deeper into the agricultural heartland of Michoacán. It’s post harvest time and most of the corn has been cut and stooked (for lack of the proper Spanish word). This almost looks like a painting but is in fact what we drove by for many miles. Gradually the geology changed becoming more mountainous with beautiful long needled pine trees lining the road and less valley land. This is where we began to see mountain side-hills planted to Aguacate (in English, Avocado). The Aguacate is native to Mexico but is now grown around the world. While aguacate is the real and original Spanish name for this fruit, it’s native name was something different – a word that also referred to ‘testicle’.

Near Patzcuaro and a secondary reason for our visit, we picked up the console shown in this photo for Perla Del Mar. Santa Clara de Cobre (Cobre is Spanish for copper), is a town where artisans form all kinds of items from copper. This console has a copper top with blued copper inserts around the top, on the drawer fronts and below the drawers. The wood is local pine that has been eaten by termites and then treated. The result is a piece of furniture that is stunningly beautiful.

The owners of this copper store and factory are Alfredo and Lulu. We met them at the huge Feb. 2010 Expo Mueble furniture show in Guadalajara and have since bought several pieces from them. It was special to visit them in Santa Clara de Cobre and see their workers fashion items from scrap copper. Below 4 men are perfectly timed while pounding with sledges on a red hot piece of copper that will after several more heatings, become a thin workable sheet.

Lulu explains how a worker changes the shape of the neck of a pot. It would be surprising to us if these guys are not totally deaf by the time they’re 50 with hammers pounding around them all day. Without a doubt, they are artists of copper.

The finished product is the reward. Copper items are everywhere in this town, enough to totally confuse the buyer. Great work by dedicated and talented artisans who form every style of almost any shape one could imagine. In addition, if you know what you want and it can be made from copper, they’ll make it for you.

Lastly, there’s much more concerning Avocados, and our partner Florentino has a 14 hectare ‘ranch’ near Uruapan. It’s not what we’d call a ranch in Canada but that’s how in Mexico they use the word. His major crop is Avocados with blackberries growing on the lower land where drainage is not as good. Florentino told us that Michoacán produces 30% of the world’s Avocados, and for sure they are a native plant to Mexico. Avocados need significant moisture, a cool climate without frost, and well drained soil. This red volcanic soil seems perfect for this valuable crop. Yields in ideal conditions can be amazing – up to 1000 kg. from a large mature tree.

In this photo taken near the city of Uruapan on Florentino’s ranch, you can see avocados in the foreground and rows of blackberries in the valley bottom. Natural water flows from higher elevations and supplies inexpensive water to this deeded land. Small avocado trees have recently been planted as he works to increase plant populations.

Do you think Uruapan’s restaurants serve interesting dishes with Avocado as the base? In fact, more recipes than you can imagine, and good!

Hope you enjoyed what amounted to a quick tour of the very interesting state, Michoacán. The attempt in the last email to communicate the state’s pronunciation may have been incorrect, however it was the way I hear it. More skilled ears use this helper: mee-CHO-ah-CAHN

Michoacán, located somewhat in the middle of the country, is middle in size with an area that is 16th of the 32 entities that form Mexico. It produces just over 2% of the GDP and has a slow growth rate, probably because it’s economy is very traditional. While we saw only a portion of the state, we visited a town where every shop makes only wood furniture and there’s another that makes only musical instruments. It seems strange to us that these specialty producers congregate in one place and have competition around every corner, but a good socio-economic explanation probably exists. Each store is very protective of their items for sale however and allow no pictures – probably for fear they’ll end up in the hands of a neighbour.

In summary we stayed in 3 wonderful hotels and were treated as special guests in each. Any one of them would be the right place to stay should we return. English was spoken by almost all of the staff and in most cases we were presented with English menus. Good food is appreciated by people from all nations, and the best available in every situation was served.

We saw enough to make us want to return. The quandary about returning is that there are many unique places to visit in Central and Southern Mexico, enough to keep us busy for years. All participants on this trip seem to agree though that we missed too much to not visit Michoacán’s interior again, and maybe in hindsight we moved a little too fast. A visit to see the Mariposa Monarca Reserve is still near the top of the list, so that coupled with the good memories of Hotel Villa Montaña means the next Michoacán visit will probably occur soon.

Sorry about the size of this email, but there just was no short way to relate this to you.

Hope you enjoy,
Mark & Vicky

Leave a Reply