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Savoring a Sweet Time at Mexico's Candy Mecca

April 27, 1986|RON BUTLER | Butler is a New York City free-lance writer.

MORELIA, Mexico — In a nation known the world over for its colossal sweet tooth, nowhere are sweets more glorified than in Morelia. In this town 185 miles northwest of Mexico City, the production, sale, distribution and consumption of candy is a way of life.

Traditional Mexican candy (Morelia is filled with traditions) is like none other. It's gooier, sweeter, bolder, with no subtle flavor variations to ponder, no creamy bon-bons filled with perfumed centers, no artificial flavors, no preservatives.

Habit Starts Early

When a Mexican child is rewarded with a sweet, or dulce , most likely it will have the heft and feel of a tortilla filled with beans, and his eyes will dance like a fiesta. Mexican infants are frequently given sugar cane to soothe them.

On a plateau 6,000 feet high and hemmed on three sides by mountains, Morelia is the capital of Michoacan, one of Mexico's loveliest states. An almost perfectly preserved Spanish colonial city, it was founded in 1541 by edict of Don Antonio de Mendoza and quickly became a center for culture and learning.

Morelia acquired its role as the candy mecca of Mexico naturally enough. Its high altitude and subtropical climate encourages the growth of an abundance of ingredients--cocoa, coconuts, pecans, sugar cane, guava, papaya, mangoes, quince and other exotic fruits. The lush rolling hills assure good grazing for cows and goats, whose milk is used in many Mexican candies.

The region's warm, moist climate inspired the creation of ates, popular jellied-fruit candies made in a rainbow of colors and flavors. Originally, ates were a means of preserving local fruits. Nuns of the early religious orders that helped found the city perfected many of the recipes for sweets and confections. They made the candies as gifts for viceroys and bishops.

Two blocks west of Morelia's central Plaza de los Martires (Plaza of Martyrs), a candy market thrives under the graceful shaded arches of what once was part of a Jesuit college. About 30 shops fit neatly into the stone archways, with displays of sticky delights stacked about in orderly confusion. There's La Casa de los Artes Dulces Regionales next to Hueramo Dulceria, and La Moreliana Dulceria next to Suzy's, which was closed. Suzy had a toothache.

Exercise Caution

So as not to gobble up everything in sight, one treads cautiously here, tiptoeing in like a shy swimmer on a nude beach. The most famous candy made in Morelia bears the city's name. Morelianas are flat caramel-like disks of burned milk and sugar that are so light and rich that anyone visiting from elsewhere in Mexico is duty-bound to take back boxes of them for family and friends.

Buyers test morelianas for freshness by bending them. If they give, they're OK. If they crack or break, they've seen better days. (All the stickier candies in the market are wrapped in cellophane.)

The market is immaculate, as is the entire town, with its soaring cathedral, gray-and-pink stone buildings, sculptured gardens and bubbling fountains.

Ates , the jellied-fruit candies, come in many forms, from solid brick-shaped packages to bags of assorted ates of gumdrop size. The recipe, according to one young woman who said she got it from her mother, is to boil three quarts of fruit and one quart of sugar in a copper pot until the mixture is thick enough to see the bottom of the pot when you stir it.

Stacked among the ates , the morelianas , the sugared pecans and the lightly dusted chocolate balls are jars of cajeta , a caramel sauce made from goat's milk. Wearing it smeared from ear to ear is part of growing up in Mexico.

Cajeta , which ranges in color from gold to dark chocolate, is eaten plain, spread on bread, poured over ice cream or, in more refined circles, used as a sauce for crepes, garnished with walnuts or confectioner's sugar.

A Local Nectar

Also for sale are bottles of a light mustard-colored nectar made of eggs and milk, flavored with cinnamon or some other spice and laced with about 10% of rum to give it character. It's used as a dessert sauce or as an after-dinner drink. My bottle had a picture of Daniel in the lion's den on the label.

At the Dulceria Teto I bought a hockey puck-size chunk of chocolate beautifully wrapped in golden cellophane. It turned out to be chocolate flavoring, chocolate de metate , far too strong for nibbling.

Mexico's contribution to the world's list of favorite foods, chocolate, originated with the Indians and was adopted by the Spaniards when they observed hot chocolate being drunk by the Aztecs in Montezuma's courts.

The cocoa bean, the base from which chocolate is made, was used by the Aztecs as money. It was also believed that cocoa made men who drank it more attractive to women.

The Mercado de Dulces is open daily from 9 to 9, and everything I priced, no matter what it was, seemed to cost about the equivalent of U.S. $1.

A Classic Shop

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