Got Blight? (Part II)

I left off at Adobe Guadelupe, which has to be one of the most beautiful, peaceful places imaginable. The air, full of flowers and vines; the textures of light and shadow draped across washed plaster walls; a sanctuary of both hush and whisper. (Visit; you’ll see what I mean!)

Then back on the bus, to another winery, dinner, and a small, wood-paneled hotel with fountains twinkling in its tiled courtyard. But dinner is the meat of this story, so to speak. We went to Ensenada to visit the retail outlet of another winery (I have notes on all these wineries, but haven’t dug them out in a while, so just know that I can, with help, give proper details on each visit and tasting!) and to have dinner in an old distillery that had been converted into a restaurant.

For dinner, we enjoyed a lovely cut of grilled beef surrounded by vegetables and a potatoes-mashed-with-garlic side dish. (Yes, Ensenada is known for its seafood, but unbeknownst to us, our hosts want us to enjoy their huitlacoche specialty.)

So…we’re a bunch of happy, relaxed, slightly sunburned, slightly-tipsy-from-too-much-tasting-not-enough-spitting wine tourists all eating dinner and toasting anything that moves, or anything that stays still long enough for us to focus on it–and we suddenly realize that this meal we’re eating is absolutely amazing. The beef is grilled to perfection and the sides are excellent–but WHAT is the sauce that accompanies the beef and spills over onto the vegetables and potato? It’s light, but has a definite consistency; something like a homemade vinaigrette, but not oily at all. It’s transparent, but has an appealing black-brown tint reminiscient of a good balsamic emulsion. It has a piquant quality, but not overwhelming–it sort of “lights up” the taste of the beef like a marinade or steak sauce should but usually doesn’t.

I look around; many are mopping their garlicky potatoes (papas con ajo?) in little leftover puddles of sauce. Some are holding it aloft on fork tines, looking at it in the dim light; others are simply hunched over their plates with looks of dazed good fortune. Normally, this type of description would be an exaggeration, but the sauce really is extraordinary, and no one can “place” the taste. We begin questioning our guide: what is this? How is it made? Is there any more in the kitchen?

Our guide–a very nice man who teaches the chemistry as well as the appreciation of wine–smiles at us. Do we really, really want to know what it is? Do we want to deconstruct the recipe, or do we prefer the mystery?

We demand deconstruction–we have to know!–and thus begins our education in the tradition of huitlacoche: a very traditional ingredient in Meso-American culture. The main ingredient that gives our heavenly sauce its indefinable-but-addictive taste: the humble (and completely repulsive) corn smut.

If you’ve ever seen an ear of corn afflicted with the type of blight known as corn smut, you were probably *completely* horrified by it. When corn acquires this particular blight, the kernels puff up into grotesque, blackish-gray lumps on the corn–sometimes so vigorously that it pushes the husks out of its way to peek out at the world. Ugh! If you (and by you, I mean me) were to discover it unexpectedly on your corn, you’d probably throw the ear down in disgust, thinking it was rotten and ruined and…well, blighted.

You begin to understand the scope of the situation: we’ve just enjoyed a fabulous meal with a silky, exotic sauce that we practically licked off the plate–and now we know it was made from corn smut. Most of us on this trip have enough experience with home-grown corn to know what this means…and the looks on our faces clue the clueless in that this is disturbing. We digest the news. Literally.

There’s nothing else for it. We must accept huitlacoche for what it is (a fungus) and get on with our lives. We raise our (replenished) glasses to our new discovery, take a deep breath, and drink (deeply) to the dark mysteries of cultural gastronomy. !Salut!

(Psst…mozo? Hay un huitlacoche mas en la cocina? Es muy maravillosa!)

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