You know Christmas is coming in Mexico not because the days turn chilly but because piles of tejocotes (te-ho-COT-ehs), tiny golden fruits that could easily be mistaken for miniature apples, appear in green grocers and supermarkets. Along with long dried stalks of sugar cane, mountains of fragrant green guavas, and felty brown pods of tamarind, tejocotes are essential for ponche, the steaming, scented, sometimes spiked drink handed out at the parties that keep the streets blocked every night from the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12) to Christmas Eve.
Appealing as tejocotes look, the first bite is a disappointment: woolly, not crisp, bland not sweet. Why are they so beloved? In part because until a few decades ago, when trucks began delivering tropical fruits from the hot lowlands to the high dry plateau that is home to Mexico City, fruits were in short supply, particularly in the winter.
One of the exceptions was the tejocote. Come October, just in time to be used in decorations for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the tejocotes drop from handsome 20-foot trees, covering the ground with gold. Many of these trees, a species of hawthorn (Crataegus mexicana), which are cousins to apples and pears, are semi-wild; others are grown commercially. Although they are not well known in the United States, there are hundreds of other species dotting the northern hemisphere.
In the old days on remote haciendas and in small villages, the fruits were put up in shining syrup flavored with cinnamon or made into a fruit cheese called ate, or candied-like apples, all of which brought out their flavor. Best of all they went into ponche, their abundant pectin adding unctuousness to the drink while they remained whole, and their color added joy.
For years they were unobtainable in the United States and a brisk illegal trade of as many as 9,000 pounds a year crossed the border. Now they are grown in California orchards, so perhaps you can find them in a Mexican or farmers market.
Preferences are myriad for ponche, so although this recipe will get you started, don’t worry if you can’t follow it exactly. Ponche smells heavenly. It tastes even better.
3 feet sugar cane stalk, cut into 6-inch pieces, peeled and sliced several times lengthwise
¼ pound guavas washed and cut into ⅓-inch pieces
¼ pound tamarind pods, peeled and strings removed
A stick of cinnamon (preferably Mexican canela) broken into 3-inch pieces
½ pound brown sugar, preferably Mexican piloncillo
- Add all ingredients to a gallon of water, bring to the boil, and simmer until the fruits are soft.
- A host of different extras may be added: raisins, prunes, oranges, apples, pears, pecans, whatever takes your fancy. Don’t forget that this is a drink, though, not a fruit salad.
- Add a slug of brandy or rum to your mug and you’ll be ready for the Lupe-Reyes marathon, the month of celebrations in Mexico that begin on the Dec. 12, the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Lupe), and continue to Jan. 6, Three Kings’ Day (Reyes).
Rachel Laudan is a historian and freelance writer based in Mexico City. Her book, “The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary History” earned her the Julia Child/Jane Grigson Prize from the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals, and she recently served as keynote speaker at the national meeting of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She is currently completing a book on the history of the world’s cuisines which will be published next year by the University of California Press.
Photo: Tejocotes in syrup. Credit: Rachel Laudan