Note: the following is adapted from an excerpt of the book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.
If you are eating breakfast at home in Mexico, it will very likely include reheating (recalentado) whatever the family ate for dinner the previous night, plus coffee and pan dulce (Mexican pastries, follow link for guide to finding these in San Francisco). The coffee is often presented, even in restaurants, this way: a jar of Nescafe Classico (instant), a cup of hot water, plus sugar and your spoon. If you are lucky, though, it may be prepared as Café de Olla, that is, made in a traditional clay pot and usually with a cinnamon stick (canela).
According to Equal Exchange, a website reporting on Fair Trade, “Mexico is one of the largest coffee-producing countries in the world, and the largest producer of organic coffee, accounting for 60% of world production in 2000. The vast majority of Mexican coffee, and particularly organic coffee, is grown by small farmers in the southern-most states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. These two states also happen to be the poorest in the country, and not coincidentally, have the largest indigenous populations. Coffee is one of Mexico’s most lucrative exports and close to half a million small farmers and their families rely on the crop for their economic survival.”
Cafe de Olla actually has four ingredients that contribute to is special flavor, the water, the coffee itself, the after-mentioned canela AND the clay pot. These hand-thrown, hand-decorated Mexican clay casseroles impart a subtle but perceptible flavor to foods. A well-made olla is one whose bottom is not too thin, so it cooks well without burning. Clay pots similar to the one pictured below are available at La Palma or Casa Lucas, on 24th St. and Alabama, in San Francisco’s Mission District, or from Mexico by Hand, which stocks a stunning collection of limited-edition lead-free Mexican pottery. The pot shown below, is a “bean pot”. (An olla typical of those used to make cafe de olla can be seen right above the recipe which follows our interview with Peggy Stein). You should have different pots, one for beans (could be a bit bigger) and one for coffee. For bean recipes, see my post about Supper at Rancho Gordo.
We asked Peggy Stein, owner of Mexico by Hand, about using and caring for your ollas and cazuelas (earthenware clay pots and casserole dishes):
Tell us a little about the pottery you bring in from Mexico and the complexities of importing it.
Under the brand name Mexico by Hand, I source exceptional and unique Mexican pottery (you can find pieces for purchase at La Tienda at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco). But it’s a bit complicated when we are asked to show proof or evidence that our pottery is lead-free when customers ask to see a seal or stamp, or some sort of certificate from the government. Because there isn’t one. Really. Though it is the law in Mexico that all pottery designed for food use be lead-free, the Mexican government does not have an inspection system in place to enforce the law, and that’s why so much of the pottery produced in Mexico still contains lead. Of course, it is illegal to import pottery into the United States that contains lead, but the only way or our government to catch “illegal pottery” is through random FDA inspections of imports when they cross the border. Our pottery undergoes these inspections every time we go through customs, and a few pieces out of the thousands we bring in the country are in fact inspected. A box will be opened, examined for lead, and then sealed. We receive a letter from the Food and Drug Administration after each shipment saying that the pieces on our container have “been released”. Mexico by Hand clay cookware and pottery has always cleared the FDA inspections.
Can you cook with clay cookware?
Our cookware is safe for use on the stovetop and in the oven. For electric cooktops, you will need a heat diffuser. Earthenware does not like extreme temperature changes. For example, do not take a cold pot from the refrigerator and place it directly on the stovetop or in an extremely hot oven; it may crack. This is important to remember when you are beginning the cooking process in a clay pot, especially if your pot is new. When you startyour cooking with clay pot, maintain it on low heat for about 5 minutes, then, you can turn the flame up to a medium-high heat.
Here are a few more tips for caring for your clay cookware:
Is clay cookware microwave safe?
Yes, our pottery is microwave safe; but use on lower settings as it can develop hot spots on high settings which can crack the clay. We have microwaved our cups and bowls and they didn’t even get hot– they performed great.
How do I clean my clay pots ?
Clear ceramic glaze provides ease of cleaning. Just use hot water, a sponge and a gentle dish soap. For difficult areas to clean, first soak for a few minutes in hot water and then scrub.
Are my clay pots dishwasher safe?
They are dishwasher safe, but we recommend hand washing to give your earthenware the best care. Being that clay is a porous material, it may absorb dishwashing detergent which can then leach back into food that comes in contact with it.
Do I need to “season” or “cure” these clay pots?
There are many methods for “curing” clay pots. Some say you need to rub the surface with a clove of garlic after soaking it in water for 2 hours. Some of our Mexican friends say you need to cook it first with maizena (corn starch) or atole– basically corn flour. I’m not sure either of these methods are necessary. A simpler method taught to us by a Mexican chef is to just fill the pot with water, bring it to a boil and boil for at least 5 minutes. Let the water completely cool and then toss. You’re good to go! (Author’s note, I have used this method myself, but with milk instead of water).
The pot below is ideal for Cafe de Olla (but is also wonderful for beans).
Recipe for Cafe de Olla from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes
4½ oz piloncillo, roughly chopped (optional)
Zest of half orange, finely chopped
2 whole cloves
3-inch piece of cinnamon stick
¾ cup freshly ground dark-roasted Mexican coffee
In a clay pot or a kettle bring 9 cups of water to boil, combine the ingredients, stirring until the piloncillo is dissolved if you want to offer your coffee pre-sweetened. Let steep at least 10 minutes. Pour through a strainer before serving. For special occasions, it is traditional to add a splash of rum or brandy to the individual coffee cups.