When I was a little kid, I was raised mostly by my grandparents. And, when I was a little kid, I had a favorite treat. It was called an ice lolly. And it combined fruit juice, sugar and this amazing invention called ice.
Now this invention may not seem particularly inventive if you, like me, didn’t spend their early years in Europe where, despite my grandparents running a bar, I had never seen an ice cube, never mind a refrigerator in my life.
But there was this van, this amazing electric-powered van, that passed in front of the bar at approximately 6:15 pm each and every evening except Sunday. And the driver of this van would stop and shimmy and slide from the driver’s seat into the back of the van, slide open a window (another fairly amazing feat) and rotate this carillon that I was sure awakened the appetites of the residents of the Necropolis of St. Andrew that bordered the bar.
I never knew how but, somehow, the driver of this van was able to sell frozen lollipops in orange, lime or grape flavors that never melted until they were kissed by your lips. On most days I looked longingly at the van through my bedroom window but, on Saturdays, I would receive my pocket money, a silver sixpence, and one third of it would be allocated to an orange flavored ice lolly.
I would eat it painstakingly slowly, only placing it in my mouth when enough ice had melted on the outside to start the juice running down the stick to my fingers. By the time I was finished, my hand would be a syrupy mess and some of the juice would be approaching my elbow but the pleasure wasn’t over. I could now play the game of sticking and unsticking my fingers and, on the first day it rained (which was never a long wait in Britain), my stick would be entered in the neighborhood gutter race.
When I was ten years old, my parents decided that we would be better off in the new world and, despite my kicking and screaming, “What if they don’t have ice lollies?”, off we ventured to Canada where, thanks to my father’s job building Studebaker Commanders, I could afford even more than one ice lolly a week because, in Canada, when you bought one ice lolly, you got a second one for free.
They had a different name, a name much more grown up and appropriate for a kid learning what the word adolescence means. They were called Popsicles. And even though they now came in two additional flavors than ice lollies, banana and cherry, neither tasted particularly like bananas or cherries so I was still an orange guy.
What I did love was that two for the price of one deal where you got two stuck together in a paper bag for a nickel. My problem was that, despite my mother’s warnings, I could never get them home fast enough to break them apart with a knife as my most patient mother recommended. Instead, I would attempt a manual separation, usually with the help of the corner of a building, and end up with a horizontal rather than a vertical break which demanded the immediate consumption of both halves.
Though I did experience the early days of the transition from wooden sticks (just in case you wondered, they were birch) to push-up plastic bags, I virtually forgot about these frozen fruit delights. Until I started to spend part of my life in Mexico. For Mexico has taken this simple sweet treat to new heights.
In Mexico, these frigid fruits are called paletas. They come in virtually every flavor imaginable. And there’s perhaps nothing more Mexican than seeing a young family sat on a bench in San Miguel’s Plaza Civica eating a red, a white and a green paleta. Paletas are consumed by people of all ages, including ancient people like Don Day. And they are better. Much better than any flavored ices you’ve ever had.
Why are they better? The answer is taste. And why is the taste better? It’s simply a matter of ingredients.
Popsicles are usually composed of water, sugar, corn syrup, gum, stabilizers, artificial flavoring, and artificial colors. Paletas are usually composed of fruit juice. Any more questions?
Though there are tales of the Aztecs bringing ice from the Popocatépetl volcano and mixing it with fruits, the exact origins of the paleta are unknown. How it became so popular though is well documented.
In the early forties, in the town of Tocumbo, in the state of Michoacan, there was a little ice cream shop called La Michoacana.
Business was good but the locals didn’t have a lot of money to buy a treat like paletas. So, in 1946, brothers Ignacio and Luis Alcazar and their friend Agustin Andrade took off for the capital and opened a paletaria (did you ever notice how Mexico has a single word for every business) called La Michoacana. Soon there was a second La Michoacana and a third and a fourth and a tenth and a hundredth and a thousandth. Friends and family came and bought and sold franchises and almost emptied the little town of Tocumbo.
La Michoacana bred La Nueva Michoacana which led to La Michoacana Real and La Reyna de Michoacana and La Michoacana Original and La Nueva Reyna de Michoacana and enough other variations that could have kept a dozen law firms working 24/7 in the U.S. Today there are over 15,000 La Michoacanas, including at least a couple that I’ve been known to frequent in San Miguel de Allende.
The one most people know is at the Northeast corner of Mesones and Juarez, the corner that’s better known as old gas pump corner. It’s a slick looking store with fancy artwork, servers in uniforms and about as much charm as any chain.
If instead you cross the street though and start to walk down Insurgentes, on the first block, on the north side, just after you pass the little square and before you get to Reloj, you’ll see a sign above a door also saying La Michoacana. This one looks like I think a La Michoacana should look. It’s a carnival of color which leaves you terribly tongue-tied trying to decide what to order. Because I don’t want to appear indecisive, I always order the mango chile paleta. It’s hard to think I could do any better.
Now I mentioned earlier that the difference between a paleta and the commercial frozen ice treats north of the border is that usually the paleta is made of only fruit juice. But not always. Sometimes it gets even better. With chunks of fruit, maybe spices, perhaps nuts.
The mango chile paleta at La Michoacana on Insurgentes is actually more fruit than juice and just a hint of ancho that anyone other than the most piquant-evasive could handle.
Most paleterias will have at least ten different flavors and many more than twenty. They’ll usually be divided into paletas de agua and paletas de leche (or crema). You’ll find one of the biggest selections in San Miguel de Allende at La Reyna de Michoacan at the corner of Ancha de San Antonio and Potranca. It’s another funky looking shop with almost as many signs as it has paleta flavors. If I’m eating tacos at the Saturday organic market, it’s just a block away for a paleta dessert.
So here we are in the hottest, muggiest of San Miguel days…OK make that here you are as I’m in Toronto in about the only month where the weather is better than San Miguel de Allende…and I thought I might help you search through those never ending lists of flavors to some of the ones you’ll find in San Miguel and, if your palate is similar to mine, you might enjoy the most.
Pepino and chili. This, to me is the ultimate grown-up paleta. Can you even imagine a kid, any kid anywhere, ordering cucumber?
Pie de limon. Key lime pie on a stick. A frozen version of one of the world’s all-time favorite desserts. Need I say more?
Rum and raisin. It sounds a little weird (even to a guy like me who likes his rum) but I ordered rum and raisin ice cream in Havana a few years ago because of some distant memories of an ice cream in my youth. Then I had a rum and raisin paleta in San Miguel. And I was hooked.
Pistachio. Because it’s like eating pistachios. And I’m like a magician when a bowl of pistachios is placed in front of me. They disappear.
Grosella. When I experienced my first pucker from the paleta made with this locally grown, star-shaped yellow currant I went looking for the fruit. I’m still looking but still haven’t found it any form other than frozen.
Mamey de leche. The perfect balance of sugar and cream from a fruit that’s about halfway between a sweet potato and an avocado. I can’t eat it without breaking into an old Jolson song.
Plátano rostizado. It must be the roasting that makes this creamy concoction so much better than plain banana. That plus a little vanilla and cinnamon.
Mango and chile. And let us not forget, of course, my all-time favorite flavor and, according to my favorite palatero (yes the people who make them have a name), the favorite, in terms of sales numbers, of San Miguel de Allende. Don’t even think about reducing those numbers.