Christmas in Mexico means posadas, the traditional parties which take place on nine consecutive nights, from 16 December to Christmas Eve. They involve candle-lit processions and time-honoured songs, piñatas and a sweet, fruity punch known as “Ponche Navideño” or Christmas punch, which is served to posada guests in Mexican homes, as well as on the street corners, where it scents the night air with its sweet, plummy steam. The adult version, needless to say, is well spiked with rum or brandy, sometimes tequila, and the punch itself features some very specific ingredients like sugar cane, “tejocotes” and guavas, which are not easy to find outside Mexico itself.
The tejocote, also identified as Mexican hawthorn, is a member of the crab apple family and was valued by the Aztecs for its diuretic properties. It is small and golden, its texture mealy, its flavour sharp with a hint of sweetness, rather like a tart green apple, which actually makes a good alternative. Sugar cane is sometimes available in Caribbean shops or markets, but luckily is not an essential component of the punch. As for guavas, I have occasionally come across them in large supermarkets during the autumn, but if I cannot find them, I just replace them with cubes of fresh pineapple. Fortunately the other elements do not require any gastronomic detective work or tracking down: prunes and raisins, cinnamon and cloves, dark brown sugar, oranges and lemons, all regular inhabitants of the home refrigerator and store cupboard.
The following recipe is my version of Ponche Navideño, not authentic but very good and guaranteed to get any Christmas party going with a bang. Needless to say, it is a totally adult version!
Ponche Navideño – Mexican Christmas Punch
1 ltr/4 cups water
200 g/7 oz dark brown sugar
50 g/2 oz pitted prunes, quartered
50 g/2 oz raisins
2 cinnamon sticks
150 g/5 oz tart green apples, cored and thinly sliced
500 ml/17 fl oz fresh orange juice
150 g/5 oz fresh pineapple, peeled weight, diced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
50 g/2 oz walnut halves
250 ml/1 cup dark rum or to taste
Fresh lemon juice
Place the water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Turn the heat right down, add the prunes, raisins and spices, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Stir in the apples, orange juice, pineapple, lemon and walnuts, and cook for 5 minutes longer – the aroma at this stage will be heady, hypnotic and oh so festive!
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the rum.
Taste the punch and if it is a bit cloying, squeeze in some fresh lemon juice. It should be quite sweet but not sickly. And if it is not boozy enough for you, feel free to increase the quantity of alcohol....
Ladle into thick glasses or china mugs and serve immediately, with long-handled spoons to eat the fruit and nuts. The Christmas season and festivities have begun!