With Semana Santa behind me, I had plenty to work on and get ready for. First up was a seder on the last night of Passover. Rache and Kurt, who hosted the big brunch a few weeks before, were hosting a sizable group. Some people with kids, some without. Some people vegan. Some people gluten-free. And yet, in addition to my normally gluten-free brownies (made vegan for the occasion), Rache asked for challah (the real deal) for the little ones. You could tell this would be no ordinary seder.
I had never been in Antigua for Semana Santa, and in fact, many of the people who live here leave town during Holy Week. It is the busiest, most crowded time of year, and while I wasn’t exactly excited about how hard it might be to get around, I was interested to see what the craziness was like.I’d been warned to do all my shopping before the weekend, get any cash I needed from the ATMs before they ran out, and otherwise lay low. Nevertheless, on Monday morning, I headed out to the gym. Things seemed pretty calm so far, as maybe everyone was sleeping off the Domingo de Ramos celebrations. A little bit later, though, I had to head across town to pay for my seder meal for the second night of Passover. Things were definitely busier near the calzada, but not much more than normal.
I was fortunate that a Chabad had opened in Antigua, as my local Jewish friends were either not hosting seders or weren’t doing so until later in the week. Without my belongings here, I couldn’t dream of hosting my own. So, that left Chabad. However, with my sister also not attending a seder for the first night, we had decided that we’d all “go to” my mom and Michael’s seder, via FaceTime.
We were each prepping our own portions of the meal, and that meant I had a lot to do that afternoon. I obviously wasn’t doing a full seder spread with only one small saucepan to my name, but I had an oven and I had some supplies. First and foremost were my mom’s toffee bar cookies. A shortbread crust made with matzo meal, topped by chocolate and walnuts. These are so good.I made a full batch of these even though it was just me. It was going to be a long week, right? I let them chill to make it easier to cut and moved on to other tasks: preparing gefilte fish for my appetizer, and roasting chicken and broccoli for my dinner. I didn’t have time to make charoset, so I splashed some walnuts in red wine and placed it in a bowl for later. (Let me say that it was a slightly undercooked batch, but it had been in the oven for so long I was worried that something was up. That meant when I went to cut them, a decent chunk of them fell apart. And so, being the valiant warrior I am, I ate those broken pieces. As it kept happening, I realized that this selfless act came at a cost. I no longer had an appetite for the dinner I’d next placed in the oven. Oh well.)
I was finishing up my seder meal prep just as it was getting to be seder time in Los Angeles. The chicken wasn’t cooking as fast as it should, which confirmed for me that my new kitchen oven had a problem. (Something to deal with later.) The group texting had commenced but FaceTime hadn’t. My mom had taken pictures of the haggadah (Passover prayer book) and emailed it to us, so that we could follow along. As we were about to begin, that’s when I realized that during the course of my busy day I neglected to get wine! This was a necessary part of the seder.One of the many benefits to having little tiendas on every block is that you’re never far from something you need. And in this case, I remembered which tienda sold wine. I grabbed a bottle of red for Q50 (about $7) and hurried home. While I didn’t get the joy of my mom’s food, I did get the company. She had a small seder, but with Maggie and I “in attendance” I think it was a fun night for all of us. We went around the table during the service, just as if we were there in person, and ate our matching food at the appropriate times. We both signed off soon after the main meal started, but it was a great way to spend the first night of the holiday. With a belly full of toffee bars, some matzo and gefilte fish (and wine), I called it a night.
Mindy and Carlos were headed to Lake Atitlan with some visiting friends, and had placed an order for babka and cookies. So despite the fact that I was’t supposed to even have that stuff in the house (due to Passover), I got to work. Just had to remind myself: no tasting the scraps.
Any time I had the urge to taste what I was working on, I just pulled some toffee bars out of the freezer. Two at a time, as if that would somehow force discipline. It didn’t. Carlos came by in the late afternoon to get his order. I had been hoping he’d have with him the fifty-pound sack of rye flour that his brother-in-law had picked up in the city for me, but it was at his mother’s house. Oh well. Maybe on Wednesday.
Then I headed across town to Chabad. I had no idea what to expect. When I’d stopped by on Monday to pay for the seder, the place had about 8-10 Israelis or Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn milling about and prepping. I figured for the seder, there’d be more of an ex-pat crowd. I showed up just before 6:30, as I’d been told, and was met with quizzical expressions from the same group of Hebrew-speakers. In broken English, “What are you doing here so early? Dinner isn’t until 8.”
I explained that the rabbi running Chabad, Levi, had told me 6:30, and they shrugged their shoulders. So I hung out with them and waited for the other guests to arrive. Around 7:15 or so, an Israeli who lives in Antigua showed up, followed soon after by his Guatemalan wife and their 3-year-old son. All lovely people, who did speak English. The man, Yishai, is actually an importer and brings in all sorts of Middle Eastern stuff – like tahini and seeds and grains. What a fortuitous meeting!We chatted and relaxed, snacking on matzah and grape juice as the Chabad crew (most of whom had traveled to Antigua to help Levi open the place and get through the first Passover) worked in the kitchen. 8:00 pm came, and still lots of activity in the kitchen. And no other guests. 8:30, still going. I asked if I could help. Politely declined. 8:45. OK, maybe I can help. I helped form these small carrot-filled ground beef patties, which were then FRIED. Yes, we were having fried hamburgers. Did I want to try one and make sure it tasted good? You bet! I was starving.
Finally, around 9:15, we sat down together to begin. And Yishai and his family and I were the only guests. Which was kind of fun. The service itself was almost all in Hebrew, which was fine with me. When Levi reads in Hebrew, he reads fast. Which meant dinner came quickly. Loads of veggies, and the little fried burger patties with french fries, and it was a fun time. They even brought out some local fruits and melted chocolate (for dipping), as dessert.
We wrapped up the service with some final prayers and songs and after 11:00, I headed home. Wearily! What a day it had been.
The next morning, I headed to the outskirts of town to meet with Felix, the bread baker who runs a cafe at Caoba Farms. I was eager to talk to him about his process, his ingredients, and how we could possibly work together. Having had no professional bread training, he was interested in picking my brain.
It was a great conversation and, with a few interruptions (he was at work, after all), we talked for over two hours. We shared knowledge and experiences, talked about ingredients we each used, and discussed how we could work together. That could be in buying ingredients together to save money; importing ingredients together to make it more cost-effective; and possibly complementing each other’s work with our products. I had found a source for unbleached flour in the city that should be better for bread than what we were each using (me: softer flour, unbleached; him – stronger flour, but bleached), and he offered to go pick some up for each of us. We finally went our separate ways, but I was excited about what we’d discussed. One of the great things about Semana Santa is that the street vendors are out in force. Especially at La Merced, where I ate pupusas for lunch on Monday and Tuesday, if I recall correctly. On Wednesday though, I went for a different type of meal. A lady, Doña Tonita, sets up a little restaurant in front of her house on a picturesque street near me. She has a full menu of Guatemalan dishes, and I finally used this lunchtime to sample her fare.
Pepián is my go-to Guatemalan dish, and if done well, I’m a very happy camper. Hers was fine. Not the best I’d had, but still a good lunch. Perhaps I’ll try some of her other menu items on future visits.
Before leaving town, Carlos told me that his mom would drop off the sack of rye flour at their house, and I could get it on Thursday when the cleaning lady was there. So I walked up, planning to call a driver or tuk tuk to take me back.
But having carried sacks of flour on my shoulder in bakery work, as I walked to their house I thought to myself, This really isn’t that far. I can save some money and just haul it back myself. So I did. Very slowly. It wasn’t the smartest idea. But when I arrived home, sweaty and sore, I did have my very own sack filled with fifty pounds of rye flour. And that made me very very happy.I showered, made some lunch, and then headed out to explore a bit. Town was certainly getting more active, so I thought I’d see what was going on.
This hotel is on the site of a former monastery, I believe, and is a beautiful property. One of the largest and most luxurious places to stay in Antigua, it’s filled with museums and galleries, restaurants and shops, and plenty of beautiful vegetation and birds. I hadn’t been yet since arriving, and this seemed like a perfect time to explore the grounds. (Plus, I believed that the gourmet chocolate shop onsite sells the same five-pound bars of chocolate that I get from my supplier. I thought I’d see if it was true, and what the price was.)
I did verify that the store had the chocolate, and while it was about $2 more than what I pay with my free deliveries on Thursdays, it was good to know that in a pinch, I could get it for almost the same price. More importantly, and strangely, they were selling bottles of organic tahini for about half the price of the crappy brand sold at the Bodegona. Not sure why, but if Yishai didn’t come through for me, this could be very helpful.
As dinner time approached, I decided it was time for pupusas at La Merced…again. But I didn’t time this very well, as a procession was coming through that block just as I was approaching. While much too crowded for my taste, once the procession passed through, the crowd reduced enough that I could make my way to the pupusa lady.
I had been told that Good Friday was the worst of the days, as it comes to tourists. I don’t remember exactly what I needed in the morning, but I went across town to run an errand before heading back to the safety of my home.
At lunchtime, I headed just a few doors up. A home there had been running a restaurant out of their kitchen throughout Semana Santa, and it was always full of people. They had tables with tablecloths, a menu posted on the door, cooks in aprons…it all looked great. So I decided to try it.
I got grilled steak, with tomato sauce, guacamole, beans and tortillas. It was a delicious meal! I asked how often they operate, because I didn’t recall seeing them open like this before. They explained they only opened during Semana Santa. However, I could always knock and let them know if I want lunch or dinner and they’ll prepare it. They said they’d be open the next two days, so I planned to stop by. Forget pupusas – this was the real deal. (And cheap too – the meal above was Q30, so about $4.)
Later in the afternoon, I headed up to the same corner as a few weekends ago to watch alfombras being made. As well, one of the two Good Friday processions was scheduled to pass by in the early evening. So I had myself a prime seat.
I walked home as this procession seemingly came to a close, only to hear more commotion outside the window a little bit later.
But the fun didn’t stop there. Around 3:00 am, I was awakened by the clamor of the another procession band as it passed by the house. I knew ahead of time that this second Good Friday celebration was coming through late (or early, rather) but was hoping I’d sleep through it. I didn’t.
But it’s hard to complain. I moved to this beautiful city just as its busiest season was heating up. And now, with Good Friday in the rearview mirror, things were about to get back to normal. Saturday would be busy, but Easter would be calm, as most people spent it in church or with their families. And with a return to normalcy, it also meant a return to people working. That meant my convection oven getting hooked up, my stuff from LA arriving, and getting all the pieces in place for the bakery. I couldn’t wait!
To pick up where I left off, I headed to the bank last Friday afternoon with all my documents. Fingers were crossed that the banker would not send me off to locate more items. And while she took her time processing everything, in the end, all was in order. As she worked, I asked her if I could also set up a personal bank account, and she said, “Sí.” But when we wrapped up the business stuff, it turned out that her “yes” was in theory, not in practice. I needed to produce all the same documents – again – and return to set up my own account. Really? Really.
I headed up towards La Merced, one of the big churches in town. With Semana Santa (Holy Week) essentially kicking off with this weekend, I figured there would be plenty of activity at the church. Sure enough, there was, and with my bakery business account finally in process, I decided to celebrate with street food!
With the play in the rearview mirror, I was now focused on the bakery and getting things moving. But first, on Sunday, I took a day for myself. With the largest procession of the Lent season making the town incredibly busy, I spent most of the day at home, away from the madness.
I wanted to start testing out different flours for the sourdough bread, but realized that without most of my equipment, I didn’t even have enough containers for mixing and maintaining the dough. So I went on a quick errand to the Bodegona and picked up some good sealable containers for making bread.
Last week wasn’t completely about the production of Beauty & the Beast I’d agreed to help on, but it often felt like it. When I first told Mindy I’d assist, I said I’d attend any rehearsal that didn’t conflict with any of the bakery prep work I had to do. She said that was fine. But, as it turned out, I cared enough about the success of the play that I didn’t end up missing anything (nor did any bakery work fall to the wayside).
The good news, of course, is that with my belongings from LA still en route, and the necessary paperwork from my lawyer still being drawn up, there wasn’t much I could do on the bakery side anyway. Nevertheless, I made my non-rehearsal times as productive as could be!