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.
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
Serious candy devotees might want to stop in at Dulceria Atenas (255 Portal Hildago) on the north side of the Plaza of Martyrs. In this classic candy shop many of the local products are sold along with a variety of Swiss chocolates and other imported candies from Europe and the United States. The wares are fine, but the store isn’t as much fun as the market.
The plaza, framed by arches and pedestrian malls, is dominated by Morelia’s magnificent cathedral, whose spires guide travelers to the heart of the city.
The cathedral was begun in 1640 and completed 100 years later. It’s considered Mexico’s best example of Plateresque architecture, an ornate style that resembles decorative silver plate.
The plaza, with its outdoor cafes where businessmen gather for coffee in the late afternoon, workers sweep the streets with palm fronds, old women sell lottery tickets and kids hawk newspapers and gum, has a strong European flavor about it, San Marco without the pigeons.
Several candy factories, or fabricas , have retail shops on the premises. The shops offer good selections, including gift packages and baskets. Except for large bulk orders, shipping is discouraged. Mail in Mexico can be whimsical. The factories are Moreliates (50 Minzita), Jorgito (1459-A Gertrudis Bocanegra), La Orquidea (135 J. Jesus Urbina) and La Estrella Dorada (6 J. Jesus Urbina).
The latter two are not far from the old aqueduct, built between 1785 and 1789, that once carried water to the city from mountain springs. An amazing engineering feat in its day (it still looks hardly used) the stone aqueduct strides boldly into town on 250 arches, some 30 feet high.
It’s as much a symbol of Morelia as is the Las Tarascas Fountain on an island in the highway nearby. The fountain depicts three bare-breasted Tarascan maidens lifting a platter of fruit toward the heavens. It was too sensational for its time, causing many a sober matron to look the other way when passing it.
Morelia was originally named Valladolid, after a city in Spain. The name was changed in 1928 to honor the locally born village priest Jose Maria Morelos, who became one of the greatest heroes in Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain.
With its wealth of historic sites, its near-perfect climate, Old World ambiance and great candy treats, there’s no sweeter place anywhere.
Among Morelia’s many excellent hotels is the Virrey de Mendoza on the main plaza. It was built as a private residence in 1744 and has operated as a hotel in all its colonial grandeur since 1938.
The Villa Montana, in the Santa Maria hills overlooking the city, features multilevel colonial-style villas (63 rooms and suites). The site was to have been the home of actor Tyrone Power, who died before its completion. Director Henry King filmed “Captain From Castile,” starring Power, in Morelia because the city could double perfectly for Old World Spain as well as Mexico.
New is the Calinda Morelia, a Quality Inn property about 10 minutes from downtown, with 126 rooms, a pool and tennis courts. It’s next to Comercial Mexicana, a shopping complex that has department stores, a supermarket, three movie theaters and boutiques.
There’s also a Sanborn’s that evokes the Paris drugstore craze of a few years back, complete with a cocktail lounge, live band, shopping, bakery, restaurant and a dress-up crowd that turns out nightly at the complex to see and be seen.
The Casa de las Artesanias is three blocks from the cathedral in a former convent that was built in 1531. Excellent crafts there include lacquered trays, plates and boxes, pottery and woodcarvings. It is open daily.