by Sally Wilson; pictures: Ana Lorenzana
Firstly, a confession: I was the kind of kid who answered “rainbow” when quizzed on my favourite colour. The same generosity has followed me into adulthood when it comes to paletas. On hot days you’ll find me mesmerised in front of the freezer at the local paletería, trying to choose between frozen wonders like watermelon, hibiscus and mango with chilli. But what I lack in decisiveness I make up for with enthusiasm, because on a hot day in México I crave nothing more than a paleta–one from each part of the colour spectrum, please.
For me, Mexican food is about simplicity and complexity. Complexity that exists in the layers of spices slow cooked into meats; in the regional differences between everything from stuffed peppers to sweets, and in the shapes and sizes of pastries sitting on top of bakery counters all across the country. Simplicity that comes in the form of whole foods like avocados, an ear of corn, and a cupful of sliced mango, or in the comfort of hot tortillas, quesadillas topped with wilting squash flowers, or a perfectly rectangular ready-to-eat paleta.
The first bite into a good paleta undoes the lid on a secret: let’s call it summer or our collective memory of all summers–been, gone and still to come. Try eating a paleta without grinning, or at least slowing down and relaxing a little. When you think about it, a paleta is a mighty powerful thing for what is essentially frozen water or milk, sugar and flavour all bundled together on a stick. Eating one conjures up simplicity from the depths of a complex world, and allows us to, well, suck on it for a bit.
I developed a taste for paletas in downtown Querétaro, where I lived earlier this year. I’d wake up, look out the window and ask myself whether it was a paleta kind-of-day. Invariably it was just that: a paleta kind-of-day. Even in winter, Querétaro turns on weather warm enough to melt the most frozen of treats, sometimes faster than you can eat them. So, in the afternoons, I’d walk to Paletería y Nevería Colonial and test everyone’s patience as I debated the pros and cons of strawberry versus coconut versus limón.
I quickly became a regular. Other regulars always made their decisions quicker than me. I watched as teenagers filed in after school and left biting, sucking and slurping on flavours like arroz con leche, piña and sweetly flecked nuez. Someone my grandfather’s age visited twice a week for a paleta de cajeta, which he savoured almost philosophically while watching a telenovela in the corner of the shop. Then there were the ones who appeared at La Colonial for the owners’ signature flavour: mantecado–vanilla, cinnamon, raisins and tiny squares of acitrón and candied pumpkin, combined in a top-secret ratio.
That flavour–mantecado–is handmade by Alicia Sánchez, and tastes singularly of Querétaro for me. The acitrón bobs up like a symbol of the semi-desert and dives with the pumpkin into the more classic sphere of sweet, spiced milk and raisins. Perhaps there’s a flavour to match the local character of most parts of México. Let’s say piña (colada) for Cancún, mango and chamoy for Mexico City, and a classic fresas con crema for the spiritual home of the paleta: Tocumbo.
If you were to ask me where the paleta comes from, I’d say it was invented spontaneously on a hot day from need and desire, and then marched on to notoriety with the advent of electricity and the deep freeze. But conventional wisdom says they came from Tocumbo, Michoacán, and there’s a Big Paleta standing on the town’s main street to prove it. I come from Australia, where we have the Big Pineapple, the Big Banana, the Big Lobster and the Big Beer Can, so I’m a true believer in staking claims and celebrating food culture on a grand scale.
Tocumbo’s gift to the nation is, nowadays, delivered via the thousands –if not tens of thousands– of La Michoacana shops all over the country. The innocent face of a girl holding a paleta is as pervasive as Pemex. And whether it’s La Michoacana, Flor de Michoacán or an indie you prefer, paleterías criss-cross México like a barometer of authentic desires. Give me a 14-peso paleta de agua and ten minutes of free time and I’m a satisfied woman. And satisfaction is the key; it spills over into the faces of paleta-eaters everywhere.
On a street somewhere in the Yucatán, there’s a couple holding hands and using whatever hands are free to navigate their way through matching paletas de mamey. There are families, friends and people on first dates walking the maleconesof the Baja California Peninsula and strolling in circles around zócalos in Oaxaca and Guadalajara, talking and laughing and slurping up paletas as they playfully threaten to melt. Love is a flavour that is found in every good paleta, and it often lasts beyond the final lick.
It does pay to be picky when choosing your paletero. I want experience, popularity and kindness; a person with a cult-like, cross-generational fan base, and a shop with high foot traffic. Someone who makes the paletas daily, according to secret and widely lusted after recipes, and who, in summer, sells out of at least two flavours by the early afternoon. A good paletero will never, ever have a gloomy face. And they will never sell you an aged, over-frosted paleta.
That’s why I naturally drifted to La Colonial, where the doors are open 365 days of the year and the paleta-making tradition has crossed three generations. Originally, the family business was run from a paleta cart, but moved into a permanent shopfront in the 1970’s, where they’ve been selling paletas and hand-churned helados ever since. As a consumer, it’s easy to associate paletas purely with brevity, heat and instant relief. But hop across the counter and it’s a downright chilly business.
Twin freezers filled with salted water take up most of the space in the engine room of La Colonial. They chug along, emitting a glacial, half-discernable fog along the countertops where jugs of homemade paleta mixtures brace themselves to be poured into moulds, lowered into the frigid ocean of the deep freeze, and finally stabbed with a stick. When the paletas emerge forty minutes later they’re piled ten, twenty high onto trays –like slippery Towers of Pisa– before being slid into individual plastic wrappers and re-settled into the front-of-house freezers for sale.
You can turn a simple thing into something more complex. You can spike a paleta with spirits, in-fill them with caramel, or dip them in chocolate and smother them with crushed biscuits and coconut. Sometimes though, fresh, natural flavours are all you need and that’s the time-honoured philosophy at La Colonial. For their paleta de agua mixtures they use seasonal fruits, and for their paletas de leche, raw milk that’s heated up in copper pots with a classic range of ingredients: perhaps strawberry marmalade one day, and chocolate the next.
Whatever the flavour, I love the first bite into a paleta. I love the toothy cut-out that it makes and the race that quickly starts –paleta-enthusiast against the elements– to see who, or what, will overcome the ice first. México is a paleta nation as much as it is a taco nation, but there’s something more whimsical, something inherently unnecessary about a paleta that just makes me crave it more. All over the country –from Sinaloa, Guerrero, Nuevo León to Chiapas– people are eating paletas, joyously and unguarded. And that’s something to hold on to, I think.