In late July and into September, markets in Mexico start having a peculiar resonating sound that resembles light wood or sticks being hit against each other. Melodious calls and chatter invite passersby with, ¡Nueces, nueces de castilla! In other words, There are walnuts, lots of walnuts everywhere! Walnuts are picked from the trees that grow right at the foot of the Popocateptl volcano in Atlautla, Estado de México and they’re brought down to the valley on large hand woven baskets. The cracking of the walnuts enlivens the markets in one of the most festive times of the year as the date of El Grito and the anniversary of the Mexican Independence approaches on the 16th of September. The nueceras, or walnut vendors beat the nuts quickly and efficiently with only three or four knocks to crack them and reveal their sweet, tender fleshy inside that is used for the nogada sauce; a creamy, fragrant blanket that will be spread delicately over one of the most emblematic and historical dishes of Mexico: Chiles en Nogada.
Along with the walnuts, your eyes will delight in the shimmering glitter of ruby-red pomegranate seeds neatly mounded in petite mountains that vendors proudly display. The pomegranate seeds or granadas as they’re called in Mexico, are like glistening jewels that decorate and add crunch to the chiles en nogada. Undoubtedly, its one of the most impressive and delicious manifestations of the Mexican culinary arts.
But those are only two of the star ingredients in the dish. The creation was born out of the convents of Puebla in which the Augustine nuns took advantage of up to one hundred seasonal ingredients and utilized them in their ripest glory. Grilled poblano chiles are stuffed with a spicy, fruity meat picadillo and sparkly pieces of acitrón, the dried candied flesh from the biznaga cactus that grows in the dessert; then they’re lightly dipped in an airy merengue batter called capeado and fried. Finally, they’re cloaked in the most creamy, walnuty delectable nogada sauce finished with a touch of dry sherry and decorated with granada seeds and fresh coriander leaves.
As with all things wonderful, industrial harvesting has had a negative effect on the cati. The biznaga cactus grows very slow and over the years it has become a highly threatened species. In recent years, in order to protect the species, harvest of the cactus has been made illegal, negatively affecting the indigenous populations that would harvest the cactus on a small scale as they have been doing for thousands of years for their sacred ceremonies, as well as for food and medicine. In the caves of Tehuacan, Puebla, there is evidence of the use of biznagas dating back to 6,500 years.
There are several versions on when exactly the Chiles en Nogada first made their appearance on Mexican tables. But there’s no doubt that they made they’re historic debut around an important celebration which occurred in 1821, when the self-declared emperor, Don Agustin de Iturbide signed The Act of Independence and The Córdoba Treaty after The Mexican War of Independence in 1810.
In the kitchens of the convents, the nuns were in a joyful patriotic frenzy and in the spirit of the celebration, they decided to honor the entrance of Agustin de Iturbide with a delectable dish which would also serve as a tribute to the Tri-Color army or Ejército Trigarante who fought for independence and donned the colors: green, white and red on their flag: Mexico’s National flag. It coincided exactly in the month of September when the nueces de castilla or walnuts and pomegranates are harvested along with many of the other seasonal fruits.
Chiles en Nogada are a great source of national pride and a tradition in Mexican kitchens; it's a Baroque dish clearly symbolic of the Mexican flag with its vibrant green, white and red; green for the chile and coriander leaves, white for the nogada sauce and red for the pomegranate. It sets it apart as one of the most historical and unique in the world and it rightfully became Mexico’s most patriotic dish.
Chiles en Nogada require many separate preparations, but don’t be intimidated. All of them can be prepared well in advance and the capeado is the only last minute effort. It's my favorite season and I just take it one step at a time.
Finally, when you serve the commemorative dish to your guests, it will surely impress- con gusto!
¡Que chula es Puebla! How beautiful is Puebla!