LIFE FUELED BY BAGELS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAugust 2011 rozinlapaz

“In the end,” says Fabrizio Rozas, “after all this craziness and hard work — in the end, it’s just a bread with a hole in the middle.”

Maybe a bagel is just a bagel. But for Fabrizio and his wife and partner Patty Del Valle, this little bread with a hole in the middle has led them through twists and turns to a new life in La Paz. Their Bagel Shop y La Galería in the historic centre of the city is the end of a journey that spans two continents and several years — an adventure fuelled by bagels.

A Chilean dreams of bagels

Fabrizio was born in Viña del Mar, near the city of Valparaiso, Chile. He became a set designer and, at the age of 28, travelled to Las Vegas. “I came for three months and stayed 12 years.” In the U.S., he designed sets for film, theatre and television and dreamed of moving to New York to work on the set of Sesame Street.

Meanwhile, Fabrizio’s appetite for the breads from his homeland led him to the bagel bakeries of Las Vegas. “In Chile, we love bread. The bagel is the closest thing to Chilean bread.”

He was determined to learn how to bake bagels, a tricky-to-make bread that’s boiled before it’s baked. “I tried to teach myself from books and the Internet. I started making them, and they were horrible.” So he took classes with a chef and became intrigued by the mathematics of baking — especially the formula, developed over hundreds of years, for producing the perfect bagel.

“In class I learned how to make croissants and cakes. In my house, I would do the bagels. Truly, it took me two years to work it out. I would bake three times a week and bring the results to work.”

In Vegas he saved his money and bought a $6,000 machine that divides the dough and forms the bagels. “I bought it and then ate tortillas and beans for six months.”

Fabrizio’s passion for bagels had reached the point of no return.

Patty defies the odds to get to Vegas

Patty del Valle’s journey to Las Vegas started with a chance meeting and an upside-down statue of a saint. She was 18 and had just graduated from high school in La Paz. She ran into a friend who was heading to Las Vegas for a wedding, and the friend invited her along.

“Are you kidding?” Patty replied. “My mom doesn’t even let me go to the beach by myself.” Patty had no passport and no money for a plane ticket. She figured it would take a miracle to get her to Las Vegas.

The friend insisted they ask Patty’s mom, anyway. As for the miracle, she persuaded Patty it wouldn’t hurt to seek a little divine intervention. The two girls made an appeal to the statue of a sympathetic saint. They turned the statue upside-down, a folk ritual added for good luck.

To Patty’s surprise, her mom said she could go. Patty applied for a passport that same day, and her uncle, who worked for an airlines, came up with a free ticket.

Patty’s stay in Las Vegas lasted 22 years. She learned English and earned a university degree in journalism. She worked at MGM Mirage in public relations, representing 200 restaurants and executive chefs.

Along the way, Patty met Fabrizio and got swept up in his passion for bagels.

Leaving Las Vegas

Fast-forward almost a decade. Three years ago in Las Vegas, Patty and Fabrizio reached a turning point. They now had two daughters and were sick of the casinos, the gambling, the city’s preoccupation with expensive cars and a lifestyle that drove people into debt.

They asked themselves, “Do we want to stay in Vegas, or do we want to change our lives?”

They decided to move to Chile. The plan was to stop en route in La Paz for just six months. While there, they would try to make some money selling bagels.

Right from the start, Fabrizio ran into a glitch. He couldn’t find the right flour for bagels. He sought help from the Bread Guy in La Paz, Les Carmona, whose successful Pan D’Les bakery, on Madero on the corner of Ocampo, specializes in fine European breads. “Les was super nice,” Fabrizio says. The Bread Guy helped Fabrizio find what he needed and was generous with his expertise.

So Patty and Fabrizio produced a dozen bagels in their kitchen. They brought them to a friend’s coffee shop and displayed them in an old Sony stereo cabinet that Fabrizio bought at a segunda. Their first customer broadcast his satisfaction the next morning over the ship-to-shore radio program known as “the cruisers’ net.” And Americans started coming. Patty sold bagels in the marinas and on the street. Soon she became known as “the Bagel Lady.”

The kitchen oven could handle only six bagels at a time. Production doubled, then tripled, until they reached their maximum of 40 bagels a day. As demand increased, they couldn’t keep up.

Enthusiastic customers offered loans for expansion. Businessmen suggested partnerships. In the end, though, Patty and Fabrizio turned down all offers, cancelled the move to Chile and invested their life savings in what had once been an office for the newspaper, Las Ultimas Noticias. It was a shell of a building with no electricity, no plumbing, no gas. Along with renovating, they purchased an immense rotating oven in which bagels get a sort of ferris-wheel ride so that they bake evenly.

After months of preparation, the Bagel Shop y La Galeria opened in July 2011. Downstairs is a cafe and “bagel bar” with its assortment of bagels, cream cheeses (everything from classic to chipotle), fresh-squeezed juices, coffee and breakfast dishes. Upstairs is an art gallery and meeting space, available without charge for community use.

Fabrizio has no time to rest on his laurels, but he does spend a moment to reflect on his identity. “I have a Mexican wife, U.S.-born daughters. I’m a Chilean guy making Jewish food.”

And, oh yeah, he’s also a man obsessed with bagels. They actually talk to him during his early morning baking. “You’re working with yeast, which is alive,” he says. “You’re always communicating — a bagel tells you, for example, ‘I need more time in the boiling water.’ You never stop learning. And every day, the bagels get better.”

And to come full circle (so to speak), here’s a final thought about a little product that’s “just a bread with a hole in the middle.” Fabrizio says the process for him has been more important than the product: “It’s been an opportunity to meet people, to learn from the community and to share something that we love.”

Bagel Shop y La Galería: Belisario Dominguez between 5 de Mayo and Constitución. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to  2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; closed Mondays. Phone: 12 55878.

(originally posted August 2011)

FLIGHT WITH LA BRUJA

November 2009 rozinlapaz

Ay que bonito es volar
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
Ay que bonito es volar, ay mama
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly! Oh, Mama)

The start of November is when Mexicans celebrate El Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Step outside after midnight and you just may hear, in the darkness, a “whoooshing” sound overhead. It’s an apt time to encounter La Bruja (The Witch) – a hauntingly beautiful melody with lyrics that mix humor, terror and glee.

La Bruja is a traditional Mexican song that reflects a uniquely Mexican attitude towards death. It is also a dance. The country’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz talks about the Mexico’s attitude, so different from the somber kid-gloved treatment death receives at the hands of many other cultures: “The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.”

On Nov. 1 and 2, families visit the graves of loved ones, offer the departed favorite foods and drinks, and build temporary altars. This is a festival for the senses: marigolds and velvety purple coxcombs, candied skulls and fragrant sweet bread with “bones” of dough.

The lyrics of La Bruja are rife with double meanings about a witch who may also be a seductress. The composer is unknown. Salma Hayek sang the song in “Frida,” a film about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. But my favorite version is a duet by Mexican singers Lila Downs (pictured below in red) and Eugenia León (in purple). You can listen to their wonderful duet on YouTube. Go to:

And here are the lyrics of the first few verses:

Ay que bonito es volar
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
A las dos de la mañana
(At two o’clock in the morning)
Ay que bonito es volar, ay mama
(Oh, how lovely it is to fly! Oh, Mama)

 

Subir y dejarse caer

(To rise and let oneself fall)
En los brazos de una dama
(In the arms of a woman)
En los brazos de una dama
(In the arms of a woman)
Y hasta quisiera llorar, ay mama
(I almost feel like weeping, Oh, Mama)

 

Me agarra la bruja
(The witch grabs me)
Me lleva a su casa
(She takes me to her house)
Me vuelve maceta
(She turns me into a flower pot)
Y una calabaza
(And into a pumpkin)

 

Me agarra la bruja
(The witch grabs me)
Me lleva al cerrito
(She takes me to the hills)
Me vuelve maceta
(She turns me into a flower pot)
Y una calabazito
(And into a little pumpkin)
Ay dígame, ay dígame, ay dígame usted!
(Oh, tell me, Oh tell me, Oh tell me, please!)
¿Cuantas criaturitas se ha chupado usted?
(How many children have you sucked dry)

Ninguna, ninguna, ninguna ¿no ve?
(None, none, none. Don’t you see?)
Que ando en pretensiones de chuparme a usted!
(It is you I intend to suck dry!)

La Bruja is often performed by dancers who float slowly across the stage, each with a lit candle on the head. you can see versions of this dance on YouTube. Here’s one:

Meanwhile, from a Web forum on Mexican folklore, here are a few spooky stories about the possible origin of the dance:

Theory #1: There was a young couple very much in love. The man gets sent away on a ship and the girl is left very sad and despondent. She can’t bear the emptiness in her heart and so she gets into a small rowboat and, with a candle as her only source of light, heads out to the sea to find him. She’s never heard from again. (From Irene Hernandez, director of Grupo Folklorico Sabor de Mexico).

Theory #2: In Mexican tradition, the presence of witches is related to the appearance of fire balls floating in the air, and thus the women dance with a lit candle on their heads. The slowness of the dance (allowing the dresses to be still) makes them look like they are floating on air.

Theory #3: The song makes reference to the drumming sounds coming in from the ocean. During the time of the slave trades some Africans would beat on the walls of the ships, as drums, for their religious purposes. These beats were carried over the ocean and the peoples on the shore thought it was some witchcraft or a bad sign coming in from the ocean.

Part of the fun of Web research is getting sidetracked. Looking for information on La Bruja led me down a few Internet side alleys. For those who want to do some exploring, here are interesting links I stumbled across:

The real Frida Kahlo Video: It’s a fragment of a documentary from The History Channel Español that uses footage from her life. The accompanying music is the lovely song, Esa Noche (This Night), by the group Café Tacuba:

Salma Hayek singing in the movie Frida: Here you’ll find video of Hayek practising La Bruja in the studio and of her performing in the film:

Singers Eugenia León and Lila Downs: If you enjoyed their performance of La Bruja, you can learn more about these Mexican divas from the Web. YouTube is a rich source of other performances by both singers. And you will find songs and biographical information by googling their names.

(originally posted November 2009)

CHILE OF DESIRE

September 2009 rozinalapz

When you bite into a Chile en Nogada, you get a taste of Mexican history and legend. This is the dish that bewitched the wedding guests in Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate.

The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious — never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them.

In the novel, the first wedding guest to react to the chiles in walnut sauce “immediately  recognized the heat in her limbs, the tickling sensation in the center of her body, the naughty thoughts, and she decided to leave with her husband before things went too far. When she left, the party started to break up.” All the other chile-eating guests quickly made their excuses , throwing heated looks at each other, and left. Everyone was in a hurry to make mad, passionate love.

The platters of chiles proudly wear the colors of the Mexican flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, the red of the pomegranates.

FEAchilesAccording to some historians, the dish that Esquival cast as an aphrodisiac was, in fact, invented in the 1800s by nuns in the town of Puebla. It was August 1821 and pomegranates were in season. The military commander Augustin de Iturbide had just signed the Treaty of Cordoba, granting Mexico its independence from Spain. He was travelling from Veracruz to Mexico City, and planned to stop in Puebla, where there would be a feast in his honour. The Augustinian nuns of Santa Monica Convent created a special dish in the colours of the Mexican flag: green chiles, white walnut sauce and red pomegranates.

Nowadays, Chiles en Nogada are served in September, the month Mexicans celebrate Independence Day. It’s not an easy dish to prepare,  but if you’re determined to try, google “chiles en nogada”  and “recipes.” Take your pick from the dozens of variations listed.

Or look for this dish on the menu at restaurants around town this month. One likely location is El Zarape, which specializes in traditional dishes. It’s at 3450 México street (between Oaxaca and Nayarit).

The last word goes to the magic storytelling of Laura Esquivel:

“The chiles disappeared in the blink of an eye. How long ago it seemed that Tita had felt like a chile in nut sauce left sitting on the platter out of etiquette, for not wanting to look greedy. Tita wondered whether the fact that there was not a single chile left on the platters was a sign that good manners had been forgotten or that the chiles were indeed splendid.”

(originally posted September 2009)