In Mexico today, cooks who specialize in moles are termed moleros, and they even have their own competition, the Feria Nacionál del Mole, National Mole Fair, held every year in October at the town of San Pedro Atocpan, just south of Mexico City. At the fair, thousands of people sample hundreds different moles created by restaurateurs and mole wholesalers. This fair is the Mexican equivalent of national chili con carne cookoffs in the United States; the moleros take great pride in their fiery creations and consider each mole a work of art in the same way that chili cookoff chefs regard their chili con carne. Often the preparation of a family mole recipe takes as long as three days. Their recipes are family secrets not to be revealed to others under any circumstances; indeed, they are passed down from generation to generation.
“If one of my children wants to carry on my business as a molero and is serious about it,” molero Villa Suarez told reporter William Stockton, “I will tell them all the secrets when the time comes.” But he went on to indicate that if his children were not interested in becoming moleros, his secrets would die with him.
The color of a particular mole depends mostly upon the varieties of chiles utilized. A green mole consists mostly of Poblano chiles while a red mole could contain three or four different varieties of dried red chiles, such as chiles de arból, or cascabels. The brown and black moles owe their color to pasillas and anchos, both of which are often called “chile negro” because of their dark hues when dried. The dark color of mole negro can also be the result of roasting the chiles until they are almost black, as is the custom in Oaxaca.
Other than chiles, there are literally dozens of other ingredients added to the various moles, including almonds, anise, bananas, chocolate, cinnamon, cilantro, cloves, coconut, garlic, onions, peanuts, peppercorns, piñons, pumpkin seeds, raisins, sesame seeds, toasted bread, tomatillos, tomatoes, tortillas, and walnuts. Undoubtedly, some moleros add coriander, cumin, epazote, oregano, thyme, and other spices to their moles.
Moles of different flavors, smells, colors and textures are made, but the specialty is mole almendrado (almond mole), which was invented here and made with between 26 and 28 ingredients, always with a base of three chili peppers: mulato, pasilla and ancho. In 1963 a group of moleros formed a mole cooperative of sixty partners who banded together for the good of their craft. They shared equipment such as pulverizers and mills, and eventually
organized a fair exclusively dedicated to mole, so they formed the Feria Nacionál del Mole, the National Mole Fair, held in conjunction with the fairs of the local pueblos.
By 1982, the fair had grown so large that the committee moved the location and the date to accomodate all the visitors. The mole fair became a national event and was eventually placed on the Secretary of Tourism’s calendar of fairs and fiestas. Each year bigger and better events were presented. As a result, restaurants began featuring more mole specials and tourists had more opportunities to experience the various moles. The National Mole Fair has certainly become one of the premier hot sauce events in the world. It is coming up on October 24, 2010 in San Pedro Atocpan. The annual festival has crafts, food, traditional Mexican music, carnival rides and other fair attractions. Today, over 2,600 people actively participate to bring the event together and prepare about 400,000 plates of different mole dishes such as pork chops and rabbit in adobo, chicken and turkey in mole almendrado (almond mole) and mole verde (green mole) but the favorites are enchiladas made with various traditional moles.
But Puebla is not the only state in Mexico with a reputation for moles. Oaxaca, in the south, lays claim to seven unique moles–and dozens and dozens of variations. Susana Trilling, who owns the Seasons of My Heart cooking school located outside of Oaxaca city at Rancho Aurora, was our guide to the moles of Oaxaca. During a trip to her school, Dave was given lessons on preparing the famous Mole Negro Oaxaqueño, while Susana described her experiences with the seven famous moles. She later wrote about the moles in a Chile Pepper magazine article entitled: “My Search for the Seventh Mole.” Susana wondered about the number seven, because there are seven regions in the state of Oaxaca, and, of course, seven days in the week. But then she read Tradiciones Gastronómicas Oaxaqueñas, in which the author, Ana Maria Guzmán de Vasquez Colmenares, noted: “There must be something magical in the number seven, for the number of Oaxacan moles coincides with the wonders of the world, the theological virtues, the wise men of Athens–and for their wisdom which elected the number seven to represent justice.”
“There may be seven moles,” say the locals, “but thousands and thousands of cooks each has their own private version of all of the moles, so how many does that make?” One magazine writer suggested: “Oaxaca should be the land of 200 moles!” For the record, the seven moles are: mole negro, mole coloradito, mole verde, mole amarillo, mole rojo, manchas manteles (“tablecloth stainer”), and mole chichilo. They are all descendants of clemole, believed to be the original mole of Oaxaca. It was quite simple, being composed of ancho and pasilla chiles, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and coriander.
The origin of these clemoles predates the Spanish conquest; mole ingredients have been found in the tombs at Monte Albán and moles were probably served at the Zapotec palace at Zaachila. About 500 B.C., the Monte Albán culture, in the Valley of Oaxaca, began exporting a new type of pottery vessel to nearby regions. These vessels resembled the hand-held molcajete mortars of today and were called Suchilquitongo bowls. Because the molcajetes are used to crush chile pods and make salsas today, the Suchilquitongo bowls are probably the first evidence we have for the creation of crushed chile and chile powders. Scientists speculate that chile powder was developed soon after the Suchilquitongo bowls were invented, and both the tool and the product were then exported. As fresh sauces, pastes, and moles were made and ground daily, a means of storing these items was necessary. The use of ceramics permitted the Native Americans to set the mixtures aside and use at a later time. This simple progression of storage also permitted flavors to develop and allowed the sauces to become more rounded and mellow.
A carved glyph found in the ceremonial center of Monte Albán is further evidence of the early importance of chile peppers. It features a chile plant with three pendant pods on one end and the head of a man on the other. Some experts believe that the glyph is one of a number of “tablets of conquest” which marked the sites conquered by the Monte Albán culture.
The Oaxacan moles are characterized by unusual chiles that are unique to the region. In a discussion with chile vendor Eliseo Ramirez, Dave learned that there are sixty chiles grown only in the state of Oaxaca and nowhere else in Mexico. Of those sixty, he carried about ten. Some of these unusal chiles in clude chiles de agua, which grow erect and are pointed at the end. The chiles chilhuacle, which are short and fat, come in two varieties, black and red. The red variety is called “the saffron of the poor” because a small amount of ground chilhuacle rojo gives are similar coloring to foods. Other unique chiles are the red-orange chiles onzas, the yellow costeño, and the pasilla Oaxaqueña (sometimes called pasilla Mexicana), a smoked pasilla that adds a chipotle-like flavor to moles.
In the market, Dave also learned an easy way to make moles. Instead of tediously grinding all the ingredients on a metate, the cooks would go to the Benito Juárez market, buy all their chiles, nuts, and seeds, and have them custom-ground in the special molinos, or mills in another section of the market. The result is a dark paste which is later converted into a mole sauce.
Susana Trilling describes the more tedious process: “The chiles are toasted black, soaked and ground, and blended with fried tomatoes, tomatillos, and roasted garlic and onions. Then come nuts and seeds–some toasted, some fried. Almonds, peanuts, pecans, chile seeds, and sesame seeds. There are almost always more sesame seeds than any other seed or nut. They have to be fried slowly and carefully, with lots of love and attention. Hence the affectionate Mexican dicho (saying): “You are the sesame seed of my mole.”
There are other special ingredients which characterize the different Oaxacan moles. Avocado leaves, difficult to find in the U.S. and Canado, are used in mole negro. Fresh green herbs such as epazote and parsley are the source of the green color of mole verde. Pineapple and banana are added to manchas manteles, while string beans, chayote and chiles costeños are ingredients in mole amarillo.
Many different meats are added to moles, from chicken to beef to fish, but by far the most common meat served is turkey. In fact, turkey is so important in mole negro, that Mexican writer Manuel Toussaint noted that the turkey in the mole was as important as the eagle in the Mexican flag, and another writer suggested that to refuse to eat mole negro was a crime of treason against the homeland!
Moles, of course are served with tortillas, which weren’t always popular with foreign visitors. In 1828, Claudio Linati wrote: “These tortillas, rather tasteless, are indigestible for the Europeans who don’t like to season them with chile as the native people do, as this sometimes provokes intestinal upsets and obstruction in the digestive organs.” However, the Europeans eventually learned to enjoy tortillas with their moles, as is evidenced by tourists in restaurants along the zócalo dipping their tortillas into bowls of mole amarillo.
MexGrocer.com has a good selection of moles here.
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