The traditional early morning greeting in Mexico is highly evocative. Mexicans do not for instance say to each other “Como estás esta mañana?”, how are you this morning?, but “como amaneciste?”. “El amanecer” means the dawn and to ask somebody at the beginning of the day “how did you dawn?” seems so apt, with its connotations of freshness, vitality and new beginnings. Needless to say, the early hours of the morning are not the ideal time for a large meal, and Mexicans are more likely to “break the fast” with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee spiked with cinnamon and a “pán dulce” - literally sweet bread but more precisely one of a myriad selection of rolls, from pretty cocoa-dusted “conchas”, shells, to custard-filled croissants, “cuernos”, and “borregos”, sheep, with their coating of grated coconut. However, as the “mañana” progresses, appetites are kindled and now is the time for the “desayuno”, a meal in itself and an opportunity to sample one of Mexican cuisine’s countless and boldly flavoured egg dishes – but that is not all, as breakfast in Mexico always features an enormous variety of choices, some of them light and fresh, others decidedly rib-sticking and nourishing.
Street and market cooks get their stoves and charcoal braziers going virtually before it is light, and they will rustle up for you eggs and beans, chilaquiles and tamales, corn-based “atole” and chorizo quesadillas – but as I was reminded on a recent trip to the tiny central state of Colima, there is no better place to experience a full-blown Mexican breakfast than a provincial hotel, where the majority of the guests are corporate - men and women who have business in the area or are participating in some kind of conference and require sustenance mid-morning. The dining-room in the lovely, colonial Hotel Ceballos in the state’s capital, Colima City, was a hive of activity at 10.30am on a weekday morning, the tables filled with “suits”, the waitresses buzzing around, the chef behind his giant griddle stirring and frying for all he was worth.
The hot and cold buffet was set out in a horseshoe shape, with the cooked dishes kept warm in large stainless steel chafing dishes. At the left foot of the horseshoe, a selection of sliced tropical fruit – papaya, pineapple, melon, watermelon, banana – sat on a bed of ice, along with freshly squeezed juices: orange and grapefruit for the unadventurous, “verde” or green which was strong on parsley and celery, “energía” based on carrot and beetroot, even “antistress” to set one up for a challenging morning session. There were also yogurts and muesli, soaked prunes and baskets of fresh breads.
Having stocked up on vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants at the fruit bar, it was time to move on to the proper Mexican food and discover what the chafing dishes concealed. They were all labelled, and as I lifted the lids, the scent of chillies and coriander, epazote and tomatillos, savoury chicken and beef, earthy beans and crisp golden potatoes wafted hypnotically over me, making it impossible to choose. The menu changed every day but in just one desayuno, I sampled this incredible assortment of dishes:-
- Puntas a la Pasilla Negra, beef in black pasilla chilli sauce
- Menudo, tripe in a spicy red marinade with lime wedges to squeeze over it – quite a test at this hour of the morning!
- Chicharrón en salsa verde, pork scratchings bright with green chillies and tomatillos
- Chuletas a la mexicana, a cut reminiscent of spare ribs, golden, glistening and utterly savoury
- Mole rojo de pollo, chicken with red chillies, aromatic and not too spicy, with a bowl of raw onions and some dried Mexican oregano to add an extra dimension of flavour
- Chilaquiles rojos o verdes, tortilla strips in a red or green chilli sauce; “queso fresco”, fresh cheese, and sour cream were on offer beside the chafing dish, ready to be spooned over the chilaquiles
- Tocino y salchichas, bacon and sausages
- Frijoles, beans, without which no Mexican breakfast would be complete; and there was grated hard cheese to sprinkle over them
- Papas gratinadas, potato gratin, creamy and luscious under their golden crust
But this was not the end. At the far right foot of the horseshoe, a board displayed the specialities which the chef would make to order and at lightning speed as you watched:-
- Huevos al gusto, eggs to taste, which could be anything from “rancheros”, “a la Mexicana” or “motuleños” to plain scrambled or fried sunny-side up to go with the chilaquiles
- American-style “hotcakes” and “French toast”
- Fresh tortillas – he actually put a ball of “masa” in a tortilla press and then cooked the amazingly fragrant tortilla on his griddle
- Gorditas, fat little masa cakes which are eaten instead of bread and suit the Mexican dishes so perfectly
By now my stomach was feeling nicely full – or perhaps full to bursting as I had tried pretty much everything! – and I had room for nothing more than a cup of hot chocolate before setting out to enjoy the rest of the day. After all, lunch was still several hours away.