You can take the boy out of the city. But you can’t take the city out of the boy.
I was 25 years old when I landed my first big job. I had somehow wheedled (I think the word has an h) my way into becoming editor of a magazine called Canadian Farming. Always being a big city boy, you could bet the farm that I would have no idea what to do the first time I was up to my ankles in cow dung.
But I had a sage, a mentor, a guiding light to show me the way. My head writer was a seasoned old pro called Warren Nelson. And Scoop, as we called him, had tramped through that same barnyard years before. Prior to becoming an “expert in agronomy”, he’d worked for a big city daily. And he’d dipsy-doodled his way through some sticky situations on the way to muddying his boots.
My favorite part of the job was the road trip. There was often no reason for me to tag along. But there was no way you could ever stop me. We’d hit the highways. And then the byways. Joe Venuti and Toots Thielemans bowing and blowing on the eight track. The town names began with two letter Rs and a number. The country lanes all had the letters S-I-D-E in their names. And I loved cruising every one of them.
I learned how to pick cherries with the stems on. I learned how to herd sheep. I learned to never stand behind a manure spreader. I learned how to castrate a pig. I learned how to tap maple syrup. I learned how to milk a cow. I learned how to drive a combine. I learned more than a few farmer’s daughter stories. And I learned how to drink an awful lot of rye and gingers.
But summers were short. And in the winter, the people we’d interview, the most successful farmers, changed their addresses from RR# this to Boca Raton or RR# that to West Palm Beach. And even Scoop couldn’t teach me how to expense a trip to Florida.
I moved on. To Canada’s biggest city. But boy did I miss the whinnying of the horses. That bite in the season’s first apple. The sunflowers turning their heads. And, more than anything, the smell of the new mown hay.
That’s probably the biggest of all reasons why I found myself, this week, looking over a verdant field of alfalfa and watching two huge shouldered horses pull a plow through what was probably once a cactus field.
Lydia-jane Failing and I had been exchanging emails about our mutual search for free range chickens and, when she realized that she had wheels and we hadn’t, offered to chauffeur (or is it chauffeuse) Don Day’s Wife and I plus her terrier Boo out to the country for lunch.
The country, in this case, wasn’t far from the city. Only two or three clicks past San Miguel de Allende’s Bodega Aurrera, our Walmart with a thick Mexican accent. But it was like watching the whole world turn from brown to green.
We were at De Temporada, two words that mean seasonal en espagnol. It’s the restaurant that takes the farm to table food concept one giant step further. Because in this case the table is right on the farm. And, though you may have never visited the restaurant, if you’ve ever eaten in any other San Miguel restaurant, you’ve probably eaten food from Rancho La Trinidad, the farm where De Temporada is located. For years, they’ve been supplying local chefs with some of the best organic greens I (and you) have ever tasted.
Though I’ll always prefer full service, I didn’t mind the system that De Temporada uses for ordering. There’s a counter and a lot of frequently changing blackboards. You choose what you’ll have and, when it’s ready, it’s brought to your table.
We started lunch by breaking one of Don Day’s color (but not golden) rules. Never drink blue or green drinks unless they have alcohol in them. De Temporada does not serve wine or beer or anything that fizzes for that matter. They serve agua frescas, something I’ve always enjoyed more for the pronunciation than the taste. This one was very green, like the kale smoothies my daughter sings sonnets about. It consisted of fruit juices and alfalfa, something I thought I learned, back in those Canadian Farming days was for horses not humans. I’m not saying I disliked it but I would have much preferred a cola. But then again, if De Temporada served colas, they wouldn’t be De Temporada. And I did learn that the restaurant has no qualms with people bringing their own beer or wine as long as they pay a very fair 50 pesos corkage for the wine.
Our host at De Temporada was Iliana Lanuza, a slim, early thirtiesh woman, with tousled hair and hazel eyes, who appeared to be hiding behind those highly fashionable glasses that still, to an old fashioned guy like Don Day, look like the glasses Edith Prickly wore on SCTV.
Iliana has this abrupt, matter of fact, but very alluring feminine manner that suggests this is my restaurant, not your restaurant, but, nevertheless, makes you want to try everything on the menu. It’s a short menu so we came close. I decided on De Temporada‘s two signature entrees, gnocchi and pork belly. Don Day’s Wife decided on the pork belly. Lydia-jane chose the bruschetta. And I also asked for a lettuce salad for us to share, remembering that De Temporada had quoted M.K.F. Fisher, one of my favorite food writers, on their website.
“Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”
The salad had at least three different lettuces, a couple of cherry tomatoes and a vinaigrette dressing where it should be, on the side. It was topped with a light shaving of goat cheese and sunflower seeds. It was testament to the value of freshness. Greens are so much better when they’ve just been pulled out of the ground rather than pulled off a truck. Don Day has always been an artful salad dodger but lettuce like this could make me give up my unhealthy ways.
The bruschetta had a pesto base and was topped with tomato, cheese, bacon and swiss chard. 80 pesos seemed a lot for bruschetta when I saw the price on the board. It didn’t when I saw how much we got.
“It could use a little more zip”, said Lydia-jane, “even a bit of salt and pepper”. But again it had that freshness that set it apart from others.
I’m always nervous about gnocchi and especially nervous in Mexico where potatoes are much lower in starch and sugar than most of the rest of the world. Sometimes these potato dumplings can be as heavy as those big ball bearings I played marbles with as a kid. Sometimes they can be fluffy clouds of joy. I pronounced these much more the latter but Don Day’s Wife didn’t quite share my enthusiasm. She thought they should have been a touch firmer in texture; I liked their softer, melt-in-the-mouth consistency.
The gnocchi was bathed in a tomato sauce with broccoli and meatballs and a generous topping of cheese. The meatballs were fine ground, golfball size and very tasty.
There had been a big reason I’d been wanting to go to De Temporada almost since the day they opened two years ago. Everyone who’d been there told me the same thing: “You have to have the pork belly.” Having pork belly is something you don’t have to tell Don Day he has to have. And, despite Mexico’s love of pork, it’s not something that’s easy to find in this town. I’ve even given up watching CNBC, for when the segment comes up about futures trading and they start talking about the price of pork bellies, I tend to drool on my shirt.
When you do get pork belly in San Miguel de Allende, it has often been trimmed far too thin with all of the rind and much of the fat gone. De Temporada‘s pork belly was a nice chubby belly with a very interesting spice rub. We had a little contest at the table about what the dominant spice was, with Don Day finally stepping out and saying it’s definitely cloves. Don Day, of course, was wrong.
“It’s allspice”, said Iliana, in her self-confident voice. “Allspice along with pepper, orange and sage.”
“We cook it the only way it should be cooked, at a very low heat, for a very long time, about four or five hours.”
Our host still seemed a little brusque, a little too sure of herself but I was beginning to warm up to her. Particularly when, like Don Day, she proved to have an insatiable hunger for food facts. I think I might have caught Don Day’s Wife and Lydia-jane yawning when Iliana told us that allspice may not have had its beginnings in Jamaica but in her very own Mexico. But I love chewing on info like that.
Iliana has one of those fascinating accents that combines Mexican Spanish with I wasn’t sure what. I thought I detected some London English and perhaps some Paris French. I was right about the English but wrong about the French. Her mother is from France (her father is Mexican) but though Iliana spent eight years in England, part of that time writing a university thesis in food sociology, she has hardly ever spoken a word of French.
Though De Temporada is located in the country, it’s certainly no country club. The restaurant was constructed mostly out of recycled wooden pallets. Our table was an old cable spool. I thought it was shabby chic. Others may simply think it’s shabby. But it does seem a natural fit for the people who search out organic ingredients in their meals. Though the restaurant finds it impossible to be 100% organic and still put interesting food on its tables, De Temporada does try to at least source what isn’t officially classed as organic from ecologically responsible suppliers.
“I wanted to have a seasonal menu…with bold flavors that are not always found in most kitchens in Mexico, where my main food source was the farm where I grew up,” said Iliana. “Buying local ingredients is also part of my philosophy. I find it almost impossible to buy only local sourced ingredients…if you wish to create an interesting menu for customers it is necessary to source some of your ingredients from a local supermarket.”
“I do cook with the best quality ingredients and try to find the national companies with good ecological practices. Contrary to what many people think, Mexican modern cuisine does not use a variety of ingredients…food is very much repetitive, using the same ingredients in different ways.”
It was dessert time and dessert time at De Temporada is ice cream time. The restaurant not only makes its own, it teaches other people to make their own. And without the need to haul out that ice cream maker you got for a wedding present and that now gathers dust in the far reaches of a kitchen cupboard. On their website, which I think is the best of all San Miguel restaurant websites, they include a video that teaches you how to make your own ice cream in less than five minutes.
The only thing Don Day might add to the video is if, like me, you don’t stock sprinkles in your kitchen, do as I do and sprinkle liqueurs instead.
There’s a long list of ice cream flavors to choose from at De Temporada and a lot of them you won’t find at your local Baskin Robbins. Parsnip, maple and nut anyone? Maybe tomato?
Don Day’s Wife went very conventional with a classic. She chose the world’s second favorite flavor. She chose chocolate. De Temporada‘s style of ice cream is not a rich, creamy style and, for that reason, we didn’t think it worked well flavored with chocolate.
Lydia-jane chose a sherbet. Iliana uses an unusual recipe for her sherbets using egg whites as the stabilizer and I liked the way there was a hint of meringue taste to it.
The last ice cream was the winner. My lemon and ginger. The fresher, icier style perfectly suited the flavors. Don Day’s Wife gave me her I like it smile. Lydia-jane said, “That’s got a little zip. I really like the zest in it.”
We were running late and, while the ladies headed for the car, I stopped to say goodbye to Iliana. It was then that she said something that no woman has said to me in over 20 years. In that beguiling voice, she said, “Would you like me to take my glasses off?” OK, it probably had something to do with me pointing a camera in her face. But, nevertheless, those words left a lasting impression. It had taken me a while to like Iliana Lanuza and her restaurant but now I knew that I did.
Iliana also said, “Eating is one of the most pleasurable and social activities that a person can do in their lives.”
I think a very different but delightful place for that activity is at De Temporada.
De Temporada is located at Camino a San Miguel Viejo, Kilometer 8, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open Tuesday to Saturday, Noon to 5:00 pm. You’ll find their website at www.de-temporada.com.