As I walk into the Museo de las Dulces de Morelia on Avenida Morelia, the hot perfume of fresh candy hits me like a wave, mingled with the acrid smell of cooked fruit pulp.
This is another place where you can go shopping in a museum. Shelves of packaged or bottled sweets; obleas (wafers of goat milk candy); rompope, which is made of milk, cinnamon, egg and sugarcane liquor; candy-covered almonds, cookies, candy with strawberries, nuts, chocolate and coconut; fruit liquor made from figs, peaches, plums and apples.
And then there's the ate (ah-tay) made of a variety of fruits which is a trademark (one of several) that define this city. Myriad variations of this delicacy fill the shelves: laminillas, which are long strips of ate, and jalea, a type of ate made without fruit pectin, exude an intoxicating aroma that mixes with the smells of other candies and pastries, teasing the imagination, awakening the child in me.
Beyond the carnival of sweets, I step back in time, where museum employees dressed in 18th and 19th Century clothing demonstrate how people used to make ate. I enter an old kitchen with a round table and gourds, iron pots and ears of corn hanging from a wooden timber; clay pots sit atop a round stone kitchen island.
A woman in a gingham dress demonstrates how membrilla (quince fruit) pulp was once mixed with sugar and heated in a copper pot. She stirs the mixture with a wooden spoon, the propane fire (they do make some concessions to modernity) releasing the sweet, yet pungent, aroma into the air. The woman holds up the wooden spoon to show it doesn't drip.
The city's sweet tradition was started by a group of nuns of the Dominican Order of Santa Caterina de Sienna in 1595. The ate process originated in the Middle East, and Spain developed the technique further.
Here in Michoacan, the Indians already had a long tradition in pre-Columbian times of sweetening their foods with honey made of nectar from maguey, mesquite and prickly pear. As the nuns settled here, they began applying the ate process to local fruits, such as peaches, apples and guavas.
I walk farther back to a room where I watch a 10-minute film about the history of ate, and then a young man in puffed sleeves, tights and floppy cap explains a model of an 1840 factory with processing equipment and storage facilities where ate was made.
Raw paste is dried in tiny ovens, and figures of workers frozen for a moment of time roll out laminillas, and the finished product waits for pick up in storage facilities.
I leave the museum, passing through the old kitchen where the woman demonstrates for another group of visitors. The aroma of cooked pulp conjures images of old kitchens, strong hands rolling out strips of ate, unfettered heat peppering foreheads with eager perspiration, calloused wooden spoons stirring generations of fruit pulp over laboring ovens, loads of fruit being carried over strong shoulders to warehouses before their sweetness is liberated from their cloisters and reborn into a culinary magic; the cooks provide a doorway to that rebirth, like a caterpillar stepping through its chrysalis to become a butterfly.
I return to the present in the front part of the store; foot tall bottles of fruit Iiquor sell for about $17, smaller bottles sell for just under $3. Rolls of apple candy filled with cajeta and nuts go for about $2. Bars of ate in subdued colors of sea green or cinnamon run from less than $2 to just over $4.
I buy a package of ate and step outside to sample a thick, jelly-like dessert, sticky and joyously sweet, whose taste leaves a memory of its infectious delight.
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