Remember Tacubaya!

The month is almost over and I have yet to acknowledge The Pastry War, which ended in March of 1838. I try to mark this — the world’s most famous pastry-related conflict — every year as it’s instructive of the kind of violence that can occur when unruly pastry shop customers fail to give the artisans and staff that serve them the respect they deserve.

Fought between Mexico and (of course) France, The Pastry War was provoked when Mexican soldiers (officers mostly) ransacked the pastry shop of one Monsieur Remontel in the Tacubaya district of Mexico City in 1837. Remontel sued for damages and when he was denied satisfaction took his complaint directly to King Louis-Philippe of France. The French King demanded the sum of 600,000 pesos as compensation, which was a lot in its day, and when Mexico refused, he sent a flotilla of ships to blockade all the Mexican ports along the Atlantic coast. This is how seriously the French take their pastry.

When the Mexican government still refused to pay, the French bombarded the fort of San Juan de Ulúa, and in early 1838 seized the port city of Veracruz. Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna was called out of retirement to defend the city, but was hit in the leg by grapeshot (not a garnish, but the real thing) and severely wounded. The leg had to be amputated (Santa Anna later had it buried with full military honors), but the notoriety and sympathy Santa Anna received propelled him to the presidency for the fifth time in his career.

Was the whole thing really just about pastry? Well, the Mexican government did happen to owe the French millions in unrepaid loans at the time, which undoubtedly served as added incentive (Mexico shortly paid up via a British-backed note). However one should never underestimate the lengths the French government is willing to go to defend the rights of its pâtissiers, even on foreign soil. Careful out there, folks!

13 thoughts on “Remember Tacubaya!”

  1. You know, I’d be interested in reading about the difference in pastry between corn-and-lard baking cultures like Mexico and much of Central America vs wheat-and-butter baking cultures. Mexican food is justifiably universally adored in its many iterations so it seems strange the country gave us both vanilla AND chocolate has –with few exceptions– such an unusually limited bread and pastry culture.

    I have a few pet theories:
    1) Getting variety in baking with corn is more of a challenge because there’s no magical gluten

    2) Lard –still the go-to natural cooking fat for most Mexicans– isn’t as versatile as butter, which is hugely expensive here (as in, a pound can cost nearly a day’s wages)

    3)The year-round abundance of tropical and semi-tropical fruits in most parts of the country meant a sweet tooth could be satisfied easily and cheaply either via fresh or dried fruit or by an ate a sliceable paste of boiled down fruits any time of year.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Hey Rhiannon!

      I’ve written on that somewhere, but can’t quite remember where! As I recall my main point was that the notion that Asians are rice people, Europeans wheat people and Americans corn people is really over-stated. For the last few hundred years at least there’s been a good mix of everything pretty much everywhere. Take Mexico. The Spaniards introduced wheat there all the way back in the 1500’s and today Mexico produces more wheat than you’d think. It’s grown here and there wherever the climate favors it, and in fact in some regions — like the extreme northwest of the country — it’s the dominant crop.

      Between what was grown locally and what was probably also imported, Monsieur Remontel would have had plenty of wheat flour on hand with which to produce his gateaux. Though not many people know it, the French had a big influence on Mexico and one of their legacies is pastry. Immigrants of French ancestry were commonplace in the 1800’s and in fact in 1862 in the French government under Napoleon III actually took over Mexico. They held the country for almost five years. It’s a short time historically speaking, but not so short that the French weren’t able to turn the locals on to the sweets that are the ancestors of today’s panes dulces, pasteles and flans.

      Sigh, now I’m getting nostalgic. There were Mexican bakeries in our old Chicago neighborhood where you’d walk in and they’d hand you a platter and a pair of tongs and you’d start picking…and picking…and picking. Half an hour later you’d walk out with a brown paper sack the size of a trash bag stuffed with enough ultra-light breads and pastries to last you a month. And all of it was wheat-based.

      All of which is not to say there aren’t any Mexican corn-based sweets (sweet tamales come to mind). A lot of the very light wheat pastries found in Mexico were historically produced in cities. Out in the less affluent countryside there are surely other non-wheat sweet traditions. Mexico is a huge country full of variety. It would be fun to thoroughly explore it from a baking and pastry perspective… but I’d probably need a whole other blog to do it!

      Cheers and thanks for the great comment!

      – Joe

  2. I’m baffled to hear that the culture that gave us pan de polvo, molletes, and empanadas doesn’t use wheat flour in its cultural baking. Granted, they don’t use a lot of butter, but it’s not milk cow country and butter doesn’t keep well here.

    My mother in law’s pan de polvo recipe is so secretive that it’s only known by three women. It used to be four, but one of us died suddenly at a young age. Now there’s a certain amount of speculation over whether the recipe is cursed.

    1. Hey GL! There certainly is a lot of wheat in Mexico. See the comment I just posted — you may well have something to add to it!

      And cursed recipe you say…maybe you’d better not share it with me. Though I have to say I do have a weakness for short bread!


      – Joe

      1. Pan de polvo, aka Mexican wedding cookies, aren’t really shortbread. It’s more like little bits of slightly sweetened lard pie crust, cut out and dredged in cinnamon sugar. The most traditional recipes I have (the ones that call for multiple pounds of lard and make literally a thousand cookies) aren’t much more than that. My mother in law’s recipe is a little more cookie like and has a few other secrets. They’re very popular. She must go through 10-20 pounds of lard at Christmas time baking for gifts.

        The first time I made them, their texture was all wrong and I was extremely depressed over my perceived failure. But on my next visit, I discovered the texture problem was due to my cookie sheets! A neighbor ruined one of her 30 year old cookie sheets and her replacement cookie sheet produced cookies just like my attempt. Which is a lesson to keep in mind when trying to replicate any family recipe – sometimes it’s the tool!

          1. I actually live in Mexico in one of the hot culinary areas, so I’m fairly hip as to what’s currently going on in the Mexican food culture and its history (including the French part, which, as a Texan, may be the only time I’ve ever rooted for Santa Anna.) Yes, most baking is done with wheat here, but there just isn’t near the variety of feet-on-the-ground baked goods available to the general public as it might be reasonable to expect from such a food-rich nation. I’m chalking it up to the lard (which I adore, just not in the vast majority of baked goods.)

          2. Well then I guess I’m the one with the heuvo on my face, aren’t I? 😉

            My guess is that there just wasn’t the tradition of sweets in the countryside to begin with, other than fruits and things like that as you say. I continue to be amazed by the fact that so many pre-Columbian languages are still spoken in Mexico, some by only a few thousand people (or fewer), some by many hundreds of thousands (like Nahuat or Zapotec for instance). I once had the experience of trying to communicate with someone in Chicago in my extremely broken Spanish and only getting a blank stare in return. Later I discovered that even though this person was Mexican, he didn’t speak Spanish.

            I tell this story to illustrate that rural Mexico is not only vast it’s highly varied and probably rather resistant to change in many parts…even after hundreds of years. Our tradition of making pastry goes back to the Greeks at least. It’s culturally part of us, and you’re probably right that it’s tied to the versatility of wheat to some extent. Sweet baking has simply never been a part of a lot of rural Mexican culture. Candies are probably a different matter. Ever been to Morelia by the way? The fruit candies there are simply amazing.

            Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking question! I enjoyed the trip!

            – Joe

  3. Joe, do you by chance happen to know who the artist of the header painting is? It is splendid and even though I used to work with art, I just can’t recognize it.

      1. Thank you very much. A wonderful example of what it means to be a master of light. And he fully deserved his gift as this quote proves: “I am a painter of history, sire, and I will not violate the truth.”

        1. Isn’t that the truth. I don’t know nearly as much about art as you do, but I’m a sucker for angular light, whether it’s Vernet or Hopper, I love the drama of it.


          – Joe

  4. I am Mexican, so I might as well give this issue a go.
    I think that if you want to explain a country’s gastronomical production you have to consider the material (ingredients, techniques and technology available) as well as the social aspects (ideology, but also a nation’s taste).

    Yes, we did give the world the gift of vanilla and chocolate, but both have been transformed to the culinary heavyweights by tasty European additions like milk and sugar, and therefore could not be developed before their arrival. This whole “lard and corn” thing—what does it refer to? Because pre-columbian America didn’t have animals to produce any animal fat for them. So “corn and lard”, while it does describe Mexican food to some extent, has to be applied to post-conquest America (and then you should take into consideration wheat, sugar, cream, etc).
    Also, Mexican food is not oven- but stovetop- based. Another thing to take into consideration is that we were colonized by Spain, which is not too big on the baking tradition. And finally, an observation made by my sister: tropical countries in general don’t develop desserts because, frankly, nothing can beat a ripe tropical fruit for sweetness and freshness (and who would want to bake in the extreme heat?).

    I think all these factors have played against Mexico developing its own traditional pastries. We do have a sweet bread tradition (for breakfast or evening chocolate), and a vast variety of traditional candies, but on the whole our sweet tooth is taken care of by imported recipes.

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