On my first weekend in Querétaro, Licha, my host señora invited me to accompany her on a weekend shop to the sprawling mercado where she has shopped for well over 20 years. It’s the traditional type featuring stalls of specialty goods jammed tightly together―their smells blend into a visceral memory of either pleasure or disgust.
These endearing mercados are slowly becoming squeezed out by large megastores similar to Wal-Mart and other one-stop discount outlets. It’s tough to compete against a blinding array of conveniently packaged and processed goods at cheap prices. However, in this city, the long-standing mercado is where the hard-core locals tend to shop. This is a page ripped out of the history book: valued relationships are built from frequenting the same vendors year in and year out. There is an easy flow to the rumble of conversation―it’s rooted in a well-worn rhythm etched in time. They know about each others’ families and the sense of community is clearly evident.
Some mercados cover city blocks several stories high, with similar products allocated to particular levels. In Querétaro, mercado Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez "La Cruz" covers much of a city block with an open air flea market guaranteed to attract even larger crowds on the weekends. Here, Licha does a quick inspection of her favorite stalls, and then, based on the shopping list she carries in her head, she circles in on the best and cheapest offerings available. There’s the initial banter back and forth with a discussion of her current needs, and once that is sorted out the merchant proceeds to fill her order as she stands by, watching hawkishly. Clearly, the señora has an established reputation that she guards closely, and in doing so, she receives the very best cuts of meat and freshest produce at the cheapest price available.
If there is one thing I have learned from Licha thus far, it’s about chilies ―and this señora knows her chilies. She stops at her stall of choice and picks over heaping bags of dried pasilla, negro, and ancho chilies. Over the course of the week these would flavor the dishes that she prepares, and what a difference they make!
One evening we had beef in a deep chile-flavored sauce that she called guisado. I had noticed it on many menus and wasn’t exactly sure what it was. Turns out, it is a generic term, similar to the way we use “stew” in the US. However, this was no bland stew; it was an elegant, well crafted affair deftly balanced by an experienced hand: the meat― a strip steak of sorts― had been sliced into small pieces and gently simmered in a pre-cooked and pureed sauce simply constructed with a bit of onion, poblano pepper, dried negro, pasilla, and rojo chilies. She tells me she’s not a big fan of refried beans, but since she offered them here, they must complement the guisado. Homemade corn tortillas, lightly toasted on a comal, were the best utensil for mopping up every bit of the lingering sauce. It’s the little touches, and in this case she passed peeled cucumber slices with an optional squeeze of fresh lime―not traditional, but certainly the perfect fresh note for these flavors.