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Mexico’s saucy underbelly

Mexico’s saucy underbelly

Henry Tricks finds the succulent side of a strife-torn region

Henry Tricks finds the succulent side of a strife-torn region

Henry Tricks | October/November 2019

Not many globetrotting beach bums make it to Playa Ventura on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Those who do tend to stay a while. I am one of them. I first visited the village, which lies two hours south of the nearest city, Acapulco, about 20 years ago. It has hardly changed. The village has only a few shops. There are no high-rise hotels. The electricity remains hit-and-miss. Activity is fairly binary: swim in the sea, or eat under one of the thatched shelters, or palapas. Most of the food comes out of the sea in front of it but variety is not its selling point. Every seaside restaurant serves fish in one of only four ways: grilled, grilled with garlic, grilled with chilli guajillo, or baked with tomatoes and epazote, a local herb.

I had never heard of the village before I first visited it in 1996 with Aida, who was then my girlfriend. “That’s the way it should be,” she said. “Keep it to yourself.” The visit was a rite of passage in our relationship. If I hadn’t have approved, I would have been dumped. Instead we got married and built a house there.

It can be a maddening place. Before building our house, we hired a neighbour to build a simple palapa on the beach. It took two years. Every time we gave him money to buy timber, he’d blow it on huge parties. After 20 years our house is still a work in progress, with loose electrical wires and exposed brickwork. But we have learned to live with that. When we finally put the concrete roof on in 1999 many locals joined us in the communal ritual of hauling up the cement in buckets, swigging tequila out of the bottle in the blazing heat. They still remember the party afterwards, though for me it is a blur.

It is hard to get to Playa Ventura. The village is in Guerrero, a state so crime-ridden that the American government advises its citizens not to travel there. There’s a flourishing heroin trade in the Sierra Madre mountains that run down the coastline. Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest states, and corruption and misrule are rampant. To reach the village by car, you have to bypass Acapulco, which was once a haven for the Hollywood jetset but is now among the world’s most violent cities. On the coast road from Acapulco you never quite know whether those manning the impromptu checkpoints are police, gangsters – or both. But as we drive the final stretch, my family and I hang our elbows out of the windows and feel the hot breeze, redolent with the scent of coconut palm, banana plants and bougainvillea. Then we crank the music up.

On arrival, we go down to the beach and order our first meal: fish plucked from the sea that day, and oysters yanked from the rocks in front. The next day we all go for a swim. Early on in our time in the village we started swimming out to sea with Gaudencio Ventura, known as Gencho (pronounced Hencho), and his fellow oyster-divers who had nicknames like Chicken, the Little Devil and Captain Big Cheeks. At the time they were lean youths making a living by free-diving for oysters, lobsters and whatever else they could glean from the ocean floor. Another friend in the village derisively calls them “hunter-gatherers”. Gencho, now in his 50s, has grey hair and a paunch, but is still the greatest fisherman in the village.

One of 21 (or so) children, Gencho is the son of the Don Pancho, the village’s patriarch. The family, which gave its name to the village, was a politically powerful clan of cattle ranchers, led by pistol-wielding Antelmo “The Devil” Ventura. But they fell out with another group of ranchers in a deadly feud that lasted years. Eventually Don Pancho (who is still alive) set up a hut by the beach, and his war-weary family joined him.

Decades back the ocean teemed with oysters, lobsters, mackerel and other seafood. Divers came from Acapulco to teach the cattle-farming Ventura family how to harvest the sea. As a 13-year-old, the young Gencho remembers hauling out hundreds of oysters and buckets of lobsters in half an hour.

In the early days the haul would be shipped to the restaurants of Acapulco, providing Gencho and others with a tidy income. But Playa Ventura never grew rich off the trade. The two main products, oysters and lobsters, are symbols of opulence, yet many residents still live below the poverty line. Fishing is a hand-to-mouth, precarious existence and the Pacific can be untrue to its name: divers pay homage to the sea before they enter.

Diving exemplifies two things about Playa Ventura: the feeling of being not just on nature’s doorstep but over its threshold, and the freshness of what you eat as a result. In front of our house a sandy beach stretches for miles. We share it with giant turtles that, after years of swimming, return to the place of their birth to lay eggs. It’s not unknown for a mother turtle to overturn a beach bum’s tent if it’s in the way of her breeding ground.

Behind the house is a ten-mile-long lagoon that comes alive at dawn with the call of birds, and is home to freshwater fish as well as the occasional alligator. Along the coast a narrow spit of sand, known as la barra, separates freshwater from salt. About once a year in late summer, when the rains have fattened the rivers and the lagoon is ready to burst its banks, the sand spit washes away and shoals of sea bass lying in the stagnant water can suddenly thrash their way out to sea. A feeding frenzy ensues for sharks and other marine predators, as well as swirling, diving birds and villagers who rush to cast their nets, crying “la barra is open”.

The outside world has encroached little on Playa Ventura. But this summer, for the first time it staged a gastronomic festival aimed at putting the village on the map. It was hosted by Gencho’s son Romario, whom I first encountered as a toddler. This year he became famous across Mexico when he reached the final rounds of Mexico’s “MasterChef” for his signature dish: turkey in a spicy sauce, made to a local recipe. He has moved breathtakingly fast to bring his fame to bear on his hometown.

Playa Ventura has little trouble pulling together a booze-up but a festival, with visiting state dignitaries, sponsorship, speeches, folk dancing, journalists and mountains of food prepared by 30-odd cooks from around the region, seemed a tougher call. Yet come midday on a sweltering Saturday in July, a tuba and a trumpet struck up under Gencho’s palapa, myriad drummers emerged, and the village was whipped up in a frenzy of excitement. A troupe of elderly women in flouncy skirts gathered, along with drag queens, hairy men with balloons in their bras, a man charging at women in a bull costume, not to mention a pink poodle. We all donned wigs and masks and danced through the village to thumping music, sidestepping pools of wet concrete left by bemused builders who clearly thought the procession would never take place.

I was stunned to encounter tables groaning with plates of seafood in pungent salsas, soups rich in local herbs served in gourds, paella-like rice dishes, a mole full of iguana meat, and “old man’s head”, a banana-leaf tamale of chicken in hierba santa. When people think of exotic Mexican cuisine, most imagine the chocolate mole of the neighbouring state Oaxaca, which dates back to Mexico’s pre-colonial past. Yet the only time we have ever eaten anything richer than fish is during festivities such as the consecration of a shrine. This was a culinary diversity the likes of which I had never seen before in woebegone Guerrero.

The signature of this area is its racial mix. Unlike the rest of Mexico, the region includes Mexicans of African descent – slaves who were freed, shipwrecked or fled America. For the first time, I saw the influence of that heritage in the food. Banana leaves are used in cooking, as well as plantains and tamarind fruit. The festival showed other historical influences too: it included spices that were originally imported from the Philippines in the 16th century, which came through Acapulco on the same galleons that took silver from the mountains nearby to Asia. A local congressman Alfredo Sánchez Esquivel kindly handed me a plateful of food. “This is typical of the Afro-Mexican community,” he said. “They are poor. People with scarce resources tend to put everything they have into a soup or a sauce, because it goes further. They use the whole fish. The magic is in the sauce.” When I told him he sounded poetic, he responded firmly: “There’s nothing poetic about poverty. It’s real.”

A large sign hung above us declaring that Playa Ventura is “Guerrero’s fourth-biggest tourist attraction”, a new phrase that is now being repeated endlessly by locals and tourist promoters alike, anxious to turn the place into the next coastal resort (government officials are apparently already buying up its land on the cheap). A plan already exists to develop a six-mile strip of coastline from Playa Ventura, with paved roads, boutique hotels and restaurants where at present stand miles and miles of swaying palm trees.

It will hardly be the next Acapulco. But it’s a grain of hope for some villagers. One of those is Luis Pérez, an entrepreneurial restaurant owner and operator of kayak tours, who believes in progress so much that he recently paved the village square, leaving a hole in the middle for a Christmas tree. He hopes that tourist development will mean politicians will no longer treat Playa Ventura as a place to remember only at election time. But for all the dreams of development, nothing is done quickly in Playa Ventura. By the time the tourist bounty arrives, perhaps we will even have finished fixing up our house.