Monday, January 30, 2006

Eating out in Antigua, Guatemala: Part 1

As in that other rather ill-fated urban grid laid up close to a bulging volcanic blemish, the homes of rich and the poor are fairly evenly spread across Antigua. Wherever a private residence has neglected to take up a whole manzana the spare square metres of the block have tended to be filled by humbler homes. The nearest thing to a des res district here is an avenue in the north eastern sector with lawn-fronted mansions and a long line of jacaranda trees resplendant around Easter-time: the Alameda Santa Rosa.

Many of these are second homes for capitalinos, encharged during their often extended absences to the care of paid guardians who − we have often reflected − enjoy quite an enviable life. One such is Doña Tona, a dark, abundantly fleshy mestiza that has established one of the most successful small-scale catering businesses in town, doing very nicely indeed for several decades out of the Antigueños' fondness for reassuringly familar, everyday things you could literally partake of almost everyday if you wanted to.

Emerging from an imposing set of wooden garage gates six nights a week around 7pm, Tona sets up a rectangle of benches on the path beside the lawn − covered by an awning in the wet season − and then sits down beside it surrounded by a buffet of covered earthenware pots, carried out and positioned by her young helpers. Soon smart SUVs with polarised windows are parking on the avenue and their occupants greet each other tentatively ("") before squeezing onto free space on the benches. Neighbours often appear with plates and jugs in order to carry back Doña Tona's goodies to their own dining tables.

It's a smorgsgabord of chucherias tipicas. rellenitos (plantain filled with frijoles: sweet refried black beans), chuchos (a thick, meat-filled corn dumpling wrapped in tusa: fibrous cob leaves.), tostadas (a large circular corn tortilla covered with guacamol or frijoles, chopped cabbage and a red or green chilli sauce) tacos (potato-filled crispy tortilla cylinders) and dobladas (softer, folded tortilla semi-circles most often filled with chicharrones: pork crackling).

And there's a choice of different atoles to drink each day: atol blanco with a dollop of black beans and chilli, atol de ava (broad beans) atol de elote (sweetcorn) and my own personal favourite, arroz con leche: like a viscous rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon.

Her huge, antique clay pots keep the food hot for hours after she prepares it. Sunday is usually the busiest day, when Tona appears with more elaborate dishes such as chiles rellenos (stuffed piquant peppers) pepian, revolcado, hilachas and tamales, both for the locals and visiting well-to-do that pass through the Alameda before hitting the road back to Guatemala City.

On most evenings a few people gather in the pools of dusk beneath the jacarandas waiting for the sign: if the light above the garage door illuminates after the sun has dipped behind the conjoined peaks of Fuego and Acatenango, they know that Doña Tona will be coming out again that night.

Antigua guards its secrets pretty well, but it seems that almost everyone is in on this one, except perhaps the transients.

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