Mexicans are so obsessed with mole – their beloved chilli-chocolate sauce – that it even has its own festival. Richard Sterling tucks in
I was alone, on Christmas Eve, in the oasis town of San Ignacio, in the middle of the Baja desert. A mariachi band was playing on the square, kids were disporting themselves in the dusty streets, ice cream peddlers were hawking their wares.
But I only had a mind for a come-hither aroma that was wafting at me from down a lane. Intrigued by its complexity, I followed. It was something deep, dark, rich and pungent; something almost floral yet smoky. What kind of outlandish combination was this?
The source was a tiny café, where a moustachioed man was worrying over a pot of rich, brown stew.
“Que es?” I asked. What is it? He smiled with a modest pride: “Pollo con mole poblano” – chicken with chocolate sauce. Odd. But I tried it. And the bitter chocolate, stinging chilli, sweet spices and seeds – all reduced to a smooth, rich sauce – sang on my tongue the sweetest Christmas carol.
That was back in the early days, when I learned that mole is the signature sauce of Mexico. So important is mole to the Mexican gourmand that every October the town of San Pedro Atocpan, near Mexico City, celebrates the stuff with a huge fiesta. Most of the 116,000 residents are in some way involved with the sauce; it’s a cottage industry here, made in home kitchens in small batches. Every year at the National Mole Festival the air is thick with the smell of moles of all kinds – and the streets thick with visitors out to taste them.
Whence came this outlandish mix? The first written reports of it date back to the 16th century, from the Mexican town of Puebla de los Ángeles. There is some dispute about who first decided to throw together some 15 to 20 seemingly random ingredients and give it the Aztec name for ‘concoction’. The popular story is that the pious yet gastronomically inclined nuns of the local Convent of Santa Rosa did the deed. Called upon to entertain the archbishop at a time when supplies were low, they prayed for inspiration. An angel
Perhaps a more pedestrian explanation is available. Spanish conquistadores reported that the Aztecs often drank cocoa flavoured with chilli and cinnamon. And many a Spaniard who settled in ‘New Spain’ thought the libation not only tasty, but good for the body. So the outlandish mix of chocolate, chillies and spice was well established.
Over time the single complex sauce evolved into a family of them. Some say there are eight moles; others insist six. But no two cooks will ever produce the same mole. The number of ingredients ensures an infinite variety.
Mole types are determined chiefly by the kinds of chillies used. Mole poblano, uses pasilla, ancho and chipotle peppers; it’s the chipotle that gives the sauce its smokiness. There is also rojo (red), negro (black) and verde (green) mole.
Nowadays you can buy the magic mixture ready made in a jar. And it’s not bad. Of course the best place to buy and enjoy mole, any time of year, is in San Pedro Atocpan. But, somehow, it’s tastes a lot better in October.
1. Cut the chicken into pieces; fry in butter.
2. When browned, add tomato paste and chipotle chillies. Cover with chicken broth; simmer till done.
3. Remove seeds and stems from chillies; fry with pumpkin seeds, peanuts, almonds, cloves, allspice, aniseed and cinnamon.
4. Transfer to blender and add chocolate, tomatillos, onion, garlic and toasted bread. Blend into smooth paste.
5. Add paste to chicken; slowly mix in enough stock to produce a gravy-like consistency.
6. Remove from heat; remove chipotles and add lime juice.
7. Serve sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
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