In Mexico City this enormous megapole of around 22 million people, there exists a place blessed by the Gods and forgotten by the guides, the Teutli. It is the sacred volcano of the Aztecs. Standing some 2.710 meters high in the delegation of Milpa Alta, it is a green lung for the centre of Mexico City and only around 40 kilometers from the city center. On its sides runs the green Gold of the Aztecs the Nopal. An incredible cacti of a thousand therapeutic virtues and not forgetting its importance in Mexican gastronomy.
Nopal; the plant of Life, a miracle.
You surely know the Nopal, commonly known as the Barbary Fig (scientific name Opuntia ficus-indica from the Cacti family. We are only now beginning to understand its incredible medicinal virtues. In Aztec mythology Nopal was a sacred plant, it was the Miracle plant, the plant of Life, on the one side a nourishing food and on the other a medecine. In case of fever they would drink its juice. In case of burns or skin infection they would spread the pulp over the wound. Pulp would cure diarrhea, the needs cleaned infections, the Fig fruit eliminated an excess of Bile, the whole leaf applied as a poultice treated inflammation, its roots …. And the list goes on. Today* we know that helps in cases of obesity, purifying the body of fat and it even reduces cholesterol and glycemic readings.
* Nopal is very rich in fiber, amino acids and vitamins, particularly Vitamins A, C, K, B6 and riboflavin. It contains amongst others minerals such as Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron and Copper. Its seeds contain an oil rich in linoleic acid and Omega 6 (up to 60%) Vitamin E and sterols.
Nopal health elixir and gastronomic speciality.
So just a suggestion, wherever you are in Mexico CIty or anywhere else in Mexico for that matter, for around 20 pesos you can offer yourself a shot of this health Elixir. It’s so easy, just stop at any juice stand Jugueria and ask for a jugo verde, it will be comprised of nopal, orange juice, grapefruit juice, celery juice and pineapple juice, it’s truly delicious ! Or when the figs are in season (June to October) try out an agua de tuna for around 10 pesos. Then if you’re really lucky drink a licuado de nopal which is just the extracted juice every morning on an empty stomach for maximum health benefits (the Japanese are crazy about it !) For the foodies amongst you, don’t hesitate to try it out in salads where once its had its needles removed, it’s just thinly sliced served up with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. It’s also served as a veggy accompaniment cooked up like runner beans to go with a meat dish. But probably the most popular is Escabeche with tortilla wraps or in Tacos, where it will have been boiled with onions, chillies and a little vinegar, delicious !
Nopal beer – good for your health !
It’s new and it’s called La Nopalea C and it’s the first beer created from Barbary Figs (Nopal) from Mexico, from Nopal flour. It’s light, a clear blond colour with a little background flavour of caramel. It’s high level of fiber makes it easy to digest and it’s particularly popular with diabetics who miss their beer ! It was born in 2012 when the mexican company Nopalea from Monterrey,the University of Prague, as well as the Health system and a Czech co-op called Ardanas all got together and created it. La Nopalea C* contain 4.8% alcohol and for the moment is only available in some states in Mexico : Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Guerrero, Basse-California and Nuevo Leon.
*it is brewed in the Czech Republic from Nopal grown in Mexico. But it is planned in the very near future to brew it in the state of Nuevo Leon.
Nopal emblem of Mexico
Nopal marked the beginning of the Aztec civilisation but now is an integrated part of national identity in modern Mexico. Emblem of the country it is predominant on the green, white and red flag. According to mythology, Huitzilopochtli the principal Aztec God (a bloodthirsty God) ordered the Mexica people (Aztec) to leave the town of Aztlan to search for a territory to create the foundation of their kingdom. That territory would be shown to them by “an eagle perched on a nopal plant, whilst devouring a snake”. The site they found was Mexico City*. The eagle is also found on the Mexican flag. It represents the sun. It holds in its beak a snake symbolizing obscurity. The eagle devoured the snake to represent the coming of the sun and the dissipation of darkness. The figs represent the indigenous people, future victims, human hearts offed as food to their chosen God. What other flag in the world could pretend to such a scenario ?
*In fact the Island of Anahuac right at the centre of Lake Texcoco.
The Nopal plant has its great spot, the volcano Teutli in Mexico City.
When you’re in Mexico CIty it’s hard to believe that such a place can exist so close to the city. This great green “lung” for the city is attainable on public transport and should take around 2 hours to reach. Take the Blue line (2) from the Zocolo to Taxquena (5 pesos), at the exit make your way to the bus stop for the number 81 (following the direction M). Get of in the village of San Pedro Atocpan. Then grab a taxi to the foot of the volcano (around 50 pesos). You’re at Milpa Alta (“High fields” in Nahuatl) such an appropriate name for this mountainous landscape of volcanoes with the Teutli visible at every glance. Here the countryside has pushed back the City and gives place to the rural world. Perhaps it’s the only place where you can begin to imagine what Mexico City was like at the beginning of the 20th Century. Milpa Alta is today of the the 16 Boroughs (the most south-eastern) that makes up the Greater Zone of Mexico City (bordering the state of Morelos).
At the foot of the Teutli, Nopal cactus as far as the eye can see.
What an incredible sight as you exit the village of San Pedro Atocpan, a sea of cactus (they’re planted into infinity) from which emerges the sacred Aztec volcano the Teutli. To climb to the summit only takes about 20 minutes and it’s a great place for a picnic ! From there the panorama takes your breath away ; towards Puebla the two highest volcanoes in Mexico, Popocatepetl (5426 meters) and Iztaccihuatl (5230 meters) with their snow covered peaks. The towards Morelos, Ajusco (3930 meters). You can also see the south of Mexico City, the canals of Xochimilco, Lake Texcoco (or at least what’s left of it) to the sky-scrappers of Reforma.
Teutli volcano heart of Nopal production
Mexico is in first place in the world for Nopal production with over 810.000 tons annually. Milpa Alta and the Teutli are at the heart of this production (leaves and fruit). It comprises some 5.000 growers on 4.300 ha. These cactus plantations on dry, volcanic ground replaced that of the Maguey Pulquero, corn and bean in the last century, as they are so much more profitable.
This formidable gentleman
After a short climb to the summit, it will only take a little while to walk around this “Formidable Gentleman” the meaning of Teutli in Nahuatl, keeping to the paths between the plant, greeting the farmers sporting their straw hats and going back down to the market in Milpa Alta, where at day-break hundreds of people clean, cut and crate up the Nopal. Creating over 10 tons of residue* every day ! Reassure yourself, today it’s all recycled to create electricity. Like I said, nothing is lost from the Nopal cactus, it’s totally amazing !
*Once broken down, fermented and then heated to 55 degrees, the residue forms a pulp used for fertilizer and gives of an organic gas used to produce electricity.
A few facts
There are about 200 species of Nopal (Barbary Fig) 101 are grown in Mexico and more than 60 are native. According to the FAO (United Nations for food and agriculture) the Nopal or cactus pear is a succulent shrub or tree ranging on average from 1.5-3 m in height. The branches (cladodes or “paddles”) are flat and are grey-green in colour. … are yellow and the fruits range in colour from yellow to red and purple and contain small seeds that are usually consumed along with the flesh of the fruit. You can reproduce from seeds, but easier vegetable multiplication can be obtained from the branches.