In San Sebastian: Organic Coffee, Haciendas and the Casa Museo de Doña Conchita Encarnación
Early Friday on the day before we were to leave Puerto Vallarta, we drove to San Sebastian de Oeste, once a booming mining town in the Sierra Madres northeast of the city. Our journey to us through green jungles and blue plantations. The latter are agave farms, owned for generations by jimidores or farmers who specialize in growing, harvesting and distilling the pinon or heart of the agave into gold and silver tequila and resposado, a type of tequila aged in oak.
San Sebastian, now on the way to nowhere, was for years been a major stop between the Bay of Banderas on the Pacific Ocean to Guadalajara. Its mines produced riches of silver and gold and the population swelled to 30,000. Now less than 1000 or so people live in the village.
When San Sebastian was at its glory, the residents of Puerto Vallarta, then a tiny port and fishing hamlet called Las Penas, were harvesting salt–a necessary ingredients for smelting the ores taken from the mines– loading it onto mules and trekking 4500-feet up to San Sebastian. The road we traveled taking us across a bridge and on the the dirt packed main thoroughfare is the same as trod by those mules centuries ago.
Founded in 1605, San Sebastian’s boom lasted until the early 1900s and because it was so remote, civilization never came again to sweep away the historic buildings dating back centuries.
Though time eroded the population, there are many still here whose ancestors were part of the wealthy days of silver and gold.
Walking along the cobblestone streets, past walls dripping with red, purple and orange bougainvillea, we take a turn past the town’s zocolo centered around an ornate gazebo and lined with shops, Hotel Los Arcos de Sol, a hacienda style white washed building dating back more than 200 years and a restaurant that gets good reviews as well as several small stores. But we didn’t stop to shop but instead went inside Casa Museo de Doña Conchita Encarnación the small museum run by Lupita Bermudez Encarnacion, the great times four granddaughter of a Spaniard who came here to run Santa Gertrudis, one of the mines here, in the 1770s.
The museum, once the home and office of Santa Gertrudis and built in 1774, was packed with an array of family momentos, furniture, silver studded trunks, books, photos, clothing such as lace and satin christening gowns more than 150 years old and odd artifacts including 3D pornography with its own special reader dating back to 1904 and a 19th century photo of the family holding a cadaver.
One of the traditions in San Sebastian, Lupita tells us, was that after someone died, the strongest men of the house would carry the body to the porch and a photographer was summoned often from a distance to take photos of the corpse. It meant working fast to beat the clock before rigor mortis set in. intense heat hurried along the body’s decay or both.
San Sebastian was founded by three families who immigrated from Spain and to keep their blood lines pure, they only intermarried with each other. So through the centuries uncles married nieces and aunts married nephews. Thus Lupita says that her mother, Dona Conchita, married a man who was her cousin and nephew and so Lupita’s father was also her nephew, cousin and uncle.
In 1910, as the Mexican Revolution raged, Lupita’s family’s wealth disappeared but the rich family lore continues. Our guide Victor Avila translates Lupita’s many tales. We learn Lupita’s great uncle Jose Rogello Alvarez (and who knows how else they were related) and other men, carrying rifles and riding on horseback, guarded 40 mules loaded down with silver and gold as they made the five day trip through the mountains to Guadalajara. The trip took five days there and back. Of the many runs they made–at least five a year– bandits only managed to rob them twice. Even then the weight of the metal made it impossible to carry only a small amount away.
Laborers in the mine were paid by money printed in the office here by Lupita’s family which made spending it anywhere else except San Sebastian almost impossible.
Plantacion de Cafe
At La Quinta Café de Altura, an organic coffee farm owned by Rafael Sanchez, his wife Rosa and Lola, Rafael’s sister are the fifth generation family members to grow coffee here.
The family, in a building dating back more than 130 years, tend 11 acres of coffee trees, some as old as the house, handpick 30 tons of beans each year, dry, roast and grind them, making blends such as a mixture of ground beans with cinnamon and sugar for the traditional, and now often hard to find, Mexican coffee. Tastings are available and so are Rosa’s homemade candies such as guava rolls and sweets made from goat’s milk. In an interesting aside, we learn that the Sanchez’s parents married early (the Don was 15), a 68-year union that produced 21 children. Their grandfather did even better, having 28 children, though that took both a wife and several mistresses.
Walking along the cobblestone road, past a massive 300 year plus ash tree and cascading white frizzes of el manto de la virgin, we enter Comedor Lupita. Here terra cotta platters loaded with chicken mole, fresh handmade tortillas (in America they’d be called artisan tortillas), refried beans and something I’ve never tasted before – machaca, a dish of dried beef mixed with spices and eggs, are heaped in front of us. As we eat, we watch the family busy behind the tiled counter, making even more food.
Through the windows we see splashes of bright purple from the masses of bougainvillea that drape the stone exterior walls and here the sounds of caballeros, their horses’ hooves striking the centuries old street. We sip our sweet agua de Jamaica water and feel time slipping backwards into the past.
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 4 limes
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
2 lbs. skirt steak, cut into strips
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes with green chilies
1/2 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce (Tabasco or a Mexican brand, such a Valencia)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons oil
Whisk all the marinade ingredients together, and then add the skirt steak. Marinate at least 6 hours or overnight tablespoon Remove meat from marinade, drain, and pat dry. Bring to room temperature. Discard marinade.
In a large heavy pot, heat oil. Sear the meat well on both sides, in batches so as not to crowd them. Remove the meat as it is browned and set aside.
Drain fat. Add in the onion, peppers, and garlic, cook until tender, then add tomatoes, broth, pepper sauce and spices. Bring to a boil, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot. Return beef and simmer, covered, for two hours, stirring from time to time until tender. Cool and shred.
Lay meat on a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 250º for 20 minutes or until meat is dry.
Machaca con Huevos
2 chopped scallions (white part only)
1 hot green chili
1 cup dried machaca
Sauté scallions and peppers in oil until tender, add tomatoes and beef until heated. Remove from pan, add eggs and cumin. Scramble, then stir machata mixture. Garnish with cilantro and serve with hot tortillas.