Where Green is Gold (Food Arts)

Originally published in Food Arts, May, 2008

Here in Michoacán they say, “An avocado a day keeps the doctor away.” It’s a practical prescription, since here avocados, costing about a dollar a pound, are cheaper than apples. The state of Michoacán is the center of avocado-land, which is in the center of Mexico, two hundred miles west of Mexico City.  Stretching from the volcanic mountains of Sierra del Centro to the sea, the region named as “the place where fish abound” is a green valley of waterfalls, streams, lakes and–above all–thousands of hectares of avocado orchards, watered by a 30-inch rainfall six months of the year. That combination of rain, volcanic ash and a temperate clime is irresistible to the avocado tree, which began life in Mexico and Guatemala some 12,000 years ago and has now made Michoacán the avocado capital of the world.

Michoacán produces 90% of Mexico’s avocados and Mexico produces nearly half the avocados in the world, over one million metric tons a year, four times as much as Mexico’s nearest competitors–Indonesia and the United States. To find out what an avocado is, this is the place to come. Botanically the fruit is a berry with a large seed and is pollinated by bees; growers rent hives and place them in the orchards every two weeks. Avocado honey, by the way, is dark, full flavored and unfortunately available only locally.  Everyone knows that the Aztecs had a sense of humor when they named the heavy globes dangling from the branches ahuacatl, or testicles, which became Spanish aguacate. Today in Michoacán everyone knows these green balls mean gold.

While hundreds of avocado varieties evolved in Mexico over the millennia, the finest, the black pebbly-skinned Hass, ironically has neither a Mexican name nor origin. It was developed first in Southern California, in 1935, by Rudolph Hass, a mail carrier in Whittier, who patented the new cultivar because it had a richer deeper flavor and creamier texture than any of the smooth-skinned varieties like Fuerte and Criollo, which had become dominant commercial varieties. To find the heartland of the Hass avocado, you travel to Uruapan (your-WA-pan), in the very center of Michoacán, where 4000  growers and 28 packers on orchards covering around 45,000 hectares have formed a unique cooperative, the Avocado Association or APEAM (asociacion de productores y empacadores, exportadores de aguacate de michoacán), to guarantee quality and develop trade. To this end, they’ve worked out a unique alliance between the USDA and Mexico’s equivalent, SAGARPA, which has devised protocols for a “certified” safe product to be shipped to all 50 of the United States. This is a recent development, since California avocado growers were effective earlier in limiting imports from Mexico.

The name Uruapan means “the place where everything blooms,” which encourages the resident monarch butterfly population and which has special advantages for avocado growers. The varied elevations in the area (from 1800 to 8000 feet above sea level) provide ideal conditions for a year-round production of fruit, furthered by the fact that in this climate the trees can have three blossoming periods per year: an early one (flora loca) from July to September, a major one from October to January and a late one in March. This means a grower is able to harvest about 16 metric tons of fruit per hectare. While the fruit requires nine months from blossom to maturity, the mild climate allows fruit to remain on the tree as long as a year, during which time it becomes richer in oil and deeper in flavor. Harvesting must be done by hand, as harvesters use a long stick with a bag attached, so that no fruit falls on the ground. If it does, it can’t be shipped. The packer visits the orchard to determine the exact harvest time of the fruits on each tree. Fruit is always picked green because it doesn’t ripen, gradually turning completely black, until after it’s been cut. Once cut, it takes about 2 weeks to ripen, and can be stored, refrigerated (39 to 43 degrees F.), for a number of weeks.

Visiting avocado-land, I expected avocado green to show up on menus from soup to dessert, and it did. “Like butter” is the way the Conquistadors first described this New World fruit and, like butter, avocado smoothes whatever it touches. Although I’m sure I ate my weight in avocados during my three-day visit, only once did I have that lingua-franca of avocado usage, guacamole. Instead, avocados blossomed in a variety of appetizers combined with local produce and served up by a global variety of chefs.  At Uruapan’s Bistro 21, a French-born and trained chef, Guillaume Morancé, began our lunch with a ceviche de atun fresco, a mini-mountain of fresh tuna embraced by sliced avocados at the base, garnished by salsa and cubes of queso. He followed this with mil hojas de tomate con aguacate et camarones,  shrimp atop tomato slices atop avocado slices on a plate dotted with  Balsamic cream.

At the Mirasoles, a 17th century mansion in the magnificent world-heritage colonial city of Morelia, a young Mexican chef, Maira Tellez, who’d trained in Mexico City and achieved chefdom at age 25, served a molded rectangle of avocado walled in by smoked salmon. At the Villa Montaña Hotel and Spa, overlooking the twin cathedral towers of the city, chef Manuel Morfin , trained in Acapulco, started our meal with ensalada villa montaña, a mixed salad of avocado, jicama, asparagus and lettuce, served on a heart fashioned from tomato slices. He ended it with mil hojas de aguacate con frutos rojos, a sort of avocado napoleon, in which crisp pastry wafers (which they call “laminated bread”) were layered with sweetened avocado puree dotted with strawberries.

My single guacamole was served as an appetizer at luncheon in Priscilla’s Restaurante in Pátzcuara (PATS-cua-ra), within La Mansion de los Sueños Hotel, another gem of colonial architecture in another gem of a town. In a garden patio of frescoed walls, we scooped up our guacamole with chips (the only time I saw tortillas the entire trip) while we drank avocado margueritas and debated whether we preferred a salt or sugar crust around the rims. The drink itself mixed avocado puree with tequila, fresh lemon and lime juice, Controi  (the Mexican version of Cointreau) and jarabe, or simple sugar syrup. The guacamole and chips could be explained by the fact that Priscilla Madson was an American from San Diego, who’d bought the property in 1998 and opened it as a hotel in 2001. Her chef, José Luis, tucked avocados into each course. The “Mich Soup,” a traditional fish soup of Michoacán–tiny local whitefish in a broth flavored by cilantro, fresh vegetables, chayote and cactus atuna–was garnished with a sprinkling of cubed avocado. “Three Colors of the Mexican Flag Salad” displayed the red of tomatoes, the white of onion and asadero cheese and the green of lettuce and avocados. The crisply fried flank steak was covered with a blanket of bean puree and an avocado sauce flavored with green chilies. Finally the chef soothed our palates with  a pale green creamy avocado ice cream.

A pair  of boys played guitar on the balcony, the sun  shone bright, the flowers were all abloom in vivid Almodόvar colors. I sipped my glass of Mira zinfandel from Baja, which was excellent, and thought of the organic avocado rancher in Uruapan, Augustín Audiffred Ayala, who’d  said how happy he was to be an avocado grower. Every day, he said,  he’d arrive at the orchards by 10:00, watch the bees pollinate the blossoms, fill his lungs with clean air, feel the sun filling the fruit with green oil, retire to  “strong lunch” (our dinner) at 3:00, then take a nap. It’s a good way to turn green to gold.

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Posted on May 1, 2008