When I visited Veracruz on the Gulf coast of Mexico for the first time nearly 15 years ago, I ate several memorable meals, met some very friendly people--and somehow wasn't eager to return. I suspect now that my mixed feelings about the Spanish Conquest may have prejudiced me against the place where the invasion started in 1519.
But so many Mexicans flock to Veracruz every year that at last I gave in to the friends who kept saying, "You don't know what you're missing." Since 1998, I've returned many times to both the port (as everyone calls Veracruz City) and other cities throughout this long skinny state that stretches from northern to southern Mexico. At every stop, I found something to satisfy the nature lover and history buff in me--and I enjoyed the cuisine so much that I decided to write a cookbook on the region's food.
This is not the Mexico of desert landscapes, and the soul here is not that of the Mexican Indian. Much of Veracruz is steamy and tropical, and everywhere you turn there's water and green, green, green. I've gone up mountains and down rivers and trekked through jungles, discovering a culture that is an irresistible blend of Spanish, African and Mexican and is Caribbean in its spirit, music and rhythms.
All of these influences come together in the bustling port, where goods from all parts of the world are loaded onto and unloaded off of huge cargo ships. It is not a beautiful place, but it is a joyful one. I've spent many a night sipping drinks at a café in the zócalo, the town square, listening to dueling bands or watching couples dressed all in white sway to the strains of the elegant danzón, a formal but sensuous dance that originated in Cuba.
Amidst this gaiety I've also eaten very serious food. A few condominium-lined miles away from the colonial arches of the city lies the suburb of Boca del Río, where the streets have as many restaurants as houses. The local specialties capture the coastal style of cooking, which uses not only native ingredients, such as fish and chiles, but also Mediterranean touches like olives and almonds and Afro-Cuban flavors like plantains and tropical tubers.
Veracruz's hinterlands are as rich in traditions and good food as the port city area is. The state capital and cultural center is Xalapa, a gracious little colonial city of lush gardens and charming alleys in the northern highlands that is surrounded by a scattering of pretty towns like Xico and Coatepec. The fog-shrouded hills and cool climate there foster the growth of mushrooms, quelites (wild herbs and greens) and edible flowers, all of which are characteristic of the sophisticated cooking of the area.
At the end of many trips, I go south through the candy-colored town of Tlacotalpan, which sits at the point where four mighty rivers meet, on my way to magical Lake Catemaco. As I gaze at the mist and listen to the songs of the thousands of birds that inhabit the nature preserve, I reflect on how fitting it is that this was the fabled paradise of the ancient Olmecs, the mother culture of Mexico.