Saturday, September 01, 2012

playing house with allende

Friday was my last full day in San Miguel de Allende -- for this trip.

I decided to do something I have wanted to do for two years. Visit the Casa de Allende Museum.

The Allende in question is not the dead Chilean president, but the equally dead hero of the Mexican Independence -- Ignacio José de Allende y Unzaga.  The house in which he grew up and lived in is till located on the main town square.  But it is now a regional museum and a place of hero worship.

The building has the feel far more of being a museum than of having ever been a family residence.  Mount Vernon, for instance, has the feel that you could run into Washington in the next room.  Not so the Allende house.

It may be the fact that this is a town house centered on all of the formality that only Spanish society could create. 

The house has two stories built around a central courtyard.  The rooms on the first story are filled with historical exhibits.  The second floor attempts to replicate what the house may have looked like when Allende lived there.

Do I need to introduce you to our hero?  Why not?  Just a few words.

Allende was the military brains behind the first stage of the Mexican War of Independence against Spain.  Even though he was a creole (having been born in Mexico of Spanish lineage), he had served as an officer in the local militia.

There is a dispute amongst Mexicans about who was the true leader of the independence movement -- Allende or the warrior-priest Miguel Hidalgo.  But most people agree had Hidalgo listened to the military advice of Allende, the pair may have not have been executed only months after the movement began.  Nor would their heads have ignominiously hung on a building in Guanajuato for years.

The museum covers the independence movement in depth. And because the city bears his name, you can guess how the locals rate Allende and Hidalgo against one another.

The exhibits were refurbished for the bicentennial of independence two years ago.  And they are very good. 

The history of the region is chronicled in some detail with information in Spanish and English.  No one should walk away from the house not knowing a lot more than when he walked in.

Here is an example.  Knowing how much I like flags (bandera de méxico), you can imagine how I reacted to this plaque about the flags carried by Allende's troops.  (You may need to enlarge it by clicking on it to get its full effect.)

Better yet, the words were supported visually with an exhibit of the front of the flag -- with its reliance on the quintessential Mexican religious icon.

And the equally secular reliance on Mexican symbols on the reverse.  I was surprised at the use of a blue background -- a color I do not associate with Mexican iconography.

Not missing a beat in the souvenir category, commemorative dinnerware was also available to support the independence movement.  For some reason, the "I love Queen Liz" coffee mug seems to be missing.

On a more personal level, a couple of the rooms include personal memorabilia associated with Allende -- and some of the personal tragedies of his life.  Such as the death of his eldest son in battle in his father's presence, and the death of his young wife.  There is a rather bittersweet note in the small dowry box on display.

The rooms in the house are quite formal.  As betokens one of the great families of San Miguel.

That is evident in the extremely formal drawing room where people of substance were entertained.  To my eye, it looks far more like a ball room.  But that was also one of its purposes.  There is a good possibility that plans for the uprising against Spain were imagined in this room.

Even the more informal sitting room, where the family would gather together, has as formal edge.  But probably no more formal than the living rooms of the contemporary elite in Mexico.

Strangely, I found the kitchen to be the most emotionally accessible room in the house.  Not because it looks like any kitchen I know (though my great grandmother would probably immediately recognize everything in it), but because it was the only room in the house that had a human scale to it.

And, as you know too well, food is always a measurement of humanity for me.  The kitchen caused me to start thinking about where I should have lunch.

On my first day in San Miguel, I talked to an expatriate at the Ford dealership.  He told me some of the best Italian food in town could be found at Mare Nostrum.

I took his recommendation seriously enough that I walked to the restaurant three times.  The first two times, the restaurant doors were closed even though I was there after the theoretical opening time of 1 PM.  And from the narrow entrance, it did not look like much.

But when I walked over on Friday, the door was open.  And like so many things in Mexico, the exterior was an illusion.  The moment I walked through the door, I felt as if I had entered a culinary oasis.

What can I say about the decor?  I ate on the patio.  The look was pleasant and cheerful.  But not very evocative of Italy.

The menu resolved that issue.  For a small place, it has a huge menu.  Appetizers.  Salads.  Classic and house pastas (with choices of spaghetti, tagliatelle, or pappardelle).  Ravioli.  Risotti.  Fish and shellfish.  Meat.  Pizza.

If it is Italian and can be put on a plate, the chances are you will find it on the menu.

I chose pasta Isolana with tagliatelle.  It was a house specialty with a sauce of nicely-anised Italian sausage and a delicate tomato sauce topped off with the addition of red wine.  It was good enough that I mopped up the last bit of sauce with a rather indifferent bread.

And for those of you who have gone meatless, there are plenty of vegetarian choices on the menu.  For those of you of a more radical bent, I do not know if the vegetables were executed or died on their own.

The meal was good.  But, better yet, the restaurant gave me an opportunity to use a bit of my rusty Italian skills.

Now, we will see what type of skills I will utilize in Morelia -- the next stop on my two-month, two-nation odyssey.


DonCuevas said...

Steve, we wanted very much to love Mare Nostrum. The chef owner is a charming man who conversed with us in choosing our meal. Unfortunately, for us, much of what we had was very disappointing. You can read the details here, on my blog.

When do you arrive in Pátzcuaro?

Saludos, Don Cuevas

Steve Cotton said...

The first taste of the sauce reminded me of Prego.  But then I caught some of the more subtle flavors.  I would try it again simply to see how some of the other dishes taste.  The menu is jut too big,

Shannon Casey said...

Steve, first, we enjoyed seeing you during your visit here, and second, I am ashamed to say that after living in San Miguel for a year I have yet to visit the Casa de Allende Museum. 
Since Independence Day is quickly approaching, I guess now is an ideal time to rectify that situation. 

Steve Cotton said...

It certainly was for me -- a god time to visit.