Preparing for Da de los Muertos at La Zamorana Candy Co. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
There's an endearing sweetness in seeing camote and calabaza candies drying on metal racks inside a nondescript warehouse space in East Los Angeles. Maybe it's because with a half-dozen jamoncillo, or milk fudge, perfectionists hard at work for Día de los Muertos, La Zamorana Candy Co. feels more like an oversized family kitchen than a wholesale business.
"We don't really do things like those sugar skulls you see everywhere," says 22-year-old Vicente (Vince) Mendez Jr., a soft-spoken Cal State Long Beach senior, as he pulls out a sheet pan filled with sugar-coated tarugos, tamarind pulp candies rolled into small balls.
The Mexican American Mendez family prefers to pay homage to tradition by making candy the old-fashioned way — by hand, using recipes passed down through generations.
But staying in the jamoncillo game for more than 50 years has required more than just long hours and some great family recipes. Vince's father, 53-year-old Vicente Mendez, installed most of the modern candy-making equipment in the factory, including a clever slicer that he made with guitar strings. Those upgrades have kept up the milk fudge status quo, but it will be up to the youngest confitero to keep the family's candy-making heritage alive in an increasingly competitive global economy.
But first, Vince has a few things to learn about making tarugos.
"Papá, qué es?" Vince asks, pointing to the crimson-colored spices coating the tamarind balls. He often serves as translator for his father, who in return offers his candy-making knowledge (the tarugos are coated in a paprika, chile de árbol and cayenne spice blend). "I'm just getting into the candy making, that's really more my father's side," Vince explains.
The family business began in 1957 when José Mendez immigrated to Los Angeles from Zamora de Hidalgo in Michoacán, a state still regarded as the candy capital of Mexico. "My grandfather was from a generation where you learned to do everything," says 28-year-old Enrique Mendez, Vince's brother, via telephone from his home in Las Vegas, where he works as a strategic planning administrator. "You make shoes, candy, any little thing to get work and get things started."
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Hitting the streets of East L.A. with a basket of creamy jamoncillo and coconut-flavored rosquilla proved to be the most viable business plan for José, who tweaked recipes he'd learned from his father, a candy and bread maker.
Within three years, curbside sales had picked up enough for José to rent a small commercial facility. By the mid-1970s, Vicente was peeling sweet potatoes for camote and squash for calabaza alongside his father. "Dad is the one who has been the pioneer in mechanizing things," Vince says. His grandfather and grandmother recently passed away.
At La Zamorana, "mechanizing" applies more to improving the quality of those cocadas horneadas (baked macaroon-like coconut candies) than increasing production yield. Some of Vicente's improvements involved installing a handful of modern appliances, such as a small convection oven that helps give those coconut candies a consistently golden-brown crust.
The most innovative technology at the factory is homemade. When hand-slicing large quantities of jamoncillo became tricky, Vicente tinkered around to make a hand-operated press that cuts each slab into dozens of straight-edged pieces. The contraption works like an egg slicer, only here the slicing "blades" are steel guitar strings secured to a rectangular metal frame with adjustable tuning pegs for easy tightening.
"We picked these up at the guitar shop for Dad when he was trying to figure out what might work," Vince says. "They thought we were crazy."
But even with all the upgrades, much of the equipment at La Zamorana has remained the same over the years. "These are cazos de cobre," says Vince, pointing to several copper caldrons from Santa Clara de Cobre. Since the 16th century, coppersmiths in the small Michoacán town have been hammering the pots for making candy and large batches of carnitas.
This time of year, the pots are usually filled with boiling sugar syrup to meet the holiday demand for camote and calabaza candies. Knobby chunks of hand-peeled sweet potatoes and banana squash or Mac pumpkins (when farmer-direct supplies of squash are low), require four dips in the boiling syrup followed by several hours of drying time each time. A little slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), the same ingredient used in masa, helps prevent the vegetables from breaking apart as they cook.
It's a laborious and time-consuming process that yields a delicately flavored candy with a jewel-toned complexion and a slightly gummy texture when sliced. They also come with a bonus prize — leftover sweet potato and squash-scented sugar syrup that gets boiled down to a solid for piloncillo.