Seven Candies, Seven Churches

De Forti Dulcedo: From sweetness, strength. Celaya’s town seal bears these words, and a short walk through the city center to the numerous dulcerias and cajeta stores helps to explain why. Whether it’s the smell of goat milk boiling into a soft, creamy caramel wafting from a local cajeta factory, the many different variations on that caramel theme created and sold here, or the friendly, open residents, the place oozes sweetness.

Colorful Cajitas de Cajeta
Colorful Cajitas de Cajeta
A city of a few hundred thousand people, Celaya has the feel of a much smaller town with helpful people, short distances, and charming streets, houses, markets, and churches. It is largely considered unremarkable and few foreign tourists visit the area but was near the top of my list of must-see destinations due to its historical and current importance in the Mexican confectionery market. In its early days, the town chiefly consisted of a small convent staffed by Spanish nuns, a few small churches, local Indian farmers, and lots and lots of goats. The story goes that, in search of something practical and profitable to do with the large surplus of goat’s milk available, the nuns remembered a recipe for a milk-based treat from Spain and began boiling sweetened milk until it had a thick, rich consistency. It was stored in little wooden boxes (called cajitas) and from this comes the name cajeta.

Stacks of Delicious Candies
Stacks of Delicious Candies
Celaya’s streets teem with candy stores selling traditional Mexican treats and featuring cajeta - including free tastings of the vanilla, rum, natural, and burnt flavors! (Obviously the tastings were a favorite activity of mine.) The cajeta from Celaya was MUCH better than anything we’d bought in Mexico City - the freshness makes a big difference. It was sweet and lacked some of the bitter, distinctively “goaty” taste that was inescapable earlier in the trip. Besides the tastings, we were able to talk with the store owners, buy more candy than we could possibly eat in a day (for much less money than in Mexico City!) and best of all, arrange a guided visit to a small cajeta factory.

Mmmm Steaming Goat's Milk
Mmmm Steaming Goat's Milk
This factory, La Vencedora, is run out of the back kitchen of the owner’s house. You enter by walking through a long hallway that eventually opens into a large room filled with giant copper pans containing with a combination of goat milk, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and baking soda. Workers move through the room, stirring when necessary to keep the milk from burning. This room was filled with hot steam that carried with it the delicious smell of, well… boiling sweetened milk. Each pot is heated on the stove for about 2 hours until it reaches the desired consistency and color. At this point it is moved to individual jars and then distributed throughout Celaya (but not beyond, as no preservatives were used.) This was obviously a small-scale operation, but it really gave us a feel for how the cajeta is made both today and in the past.

A Wide Variety of Mexican Candy from Calaya
A Wide Variety of Mexican Candy from Calaya
After visiting the factory and seeing the town, my grandmother and I took the opportunity to taste the various kinds of Celayan candies we’d bought - seven of them! In the picture to the left, you can see the large disk of seeds, peanuts, and raisins (based on older Aztec sweets) - this is called a palenquetas surtida and reminded me of a sweetened granola bar. Fortunately, I like granola bars! Underneath the palenqueta are a pile of obleas de cajeta: thick, chewy caramel encased in communion wafers. They’re unblessed, I think! These, along with the cajeta in the colorful wooden boxes, probably looked better than they tasted. Although still good, the caramel was very thick and chewy and the sweet flavor didn’t stand out as much as in the (presumably) fresher jars of cajeta. We also tried a new brand of gomitas which were less flavorful than the delicious ones in Mexico City, and a small wafer of mazapan, a very dry paste of ground peanuts that was really excellent: sweet, crunchy, and begging to be encased in caramel and chocolate.

Abuelita with her Purchase and the Painter
Abuelita with her Purchase and the Painter
***

While visiting the candy stores, we heard rumors of a festival planned for the following day: the Thursday before Easter. Apparently, the tradition is to visit seven churches, saying a prayer in each one. In Celaya, the whole town heads to the center and stalls selling candy, food, drink, toys and art give the evening a party-like festivity. Abuelita and I decided to visit seven churches, in between enjoying the atmosphere and sampling different candies, drinks, and foods.

Dolls for Sale
Dolls for Sale
The main problem in a festival such as this is that the churches all start to blend together. We were going strong until about church number 5, when we had to start walking further and further out of the center of town to find churches as yet unvisited. Making it to all seven ended up feeling like quite an accomplishment! I’m not a religious person, but in the last church I did think nice thoughts about everyone I know so hopefully there’s some luck coming your way!

***

There are lots more pictures posted in the Photo Gallery here or Flickr (Flickr recommended.) I especially recommend the Seven Churches photoset or the Cajeta photoset. Thanks for reading and please leave a comment!

« Mexican Candy: Squash, Goat’s Milk, and Cactus
Easter Treats »

01
Jonathan
posting from Canada
March 21st, 2008 10:18 pm

Glad to know you’re having a lot of fun! I miss you

02
Ramsey
posting from United States
March 22nd, 2008 9:51 am

Sounds like you are having a great start. I hope you have a good toothbrush!!!

Your packing list inspired me to check out the Diva Cup. Haven’t tried it yet but the sales person raved!

Caramels are my favorite. I’ll have to take a trip to Mexico some day.

03
Brook
posting from Sudan
March 22nd, 2008 12:30 pm

Glad to see you’re off and running, happy we were able to help you on your way and looking forward to what you get up to these next months.

04
Yossi
posting from United States
March 22nd, 2008 12:56 pm

Smells very sweet! Any wait for you to take some smellipictures?

Life is short, keep it sweet ;-)

05
posting from Mexico
March 22nd, 2008 1:39 pm

Ramsey: I’ll send you the website for a support group for the Diva cup - it can be a little intimidating without it :D

Brook: Wow, Sudan! Thank you so much for the help; hopefully I can live up to it. Congrats on MTV!

Yossi: I wish I could encapsulate the smell of some of the places I’ve visited so far!

06
Dad
posting from United States
March 22nd, 2008 2:34 pm

Cajeta - Ummmhhhhh

Thanks for the update Malena- It seems to me that a city that specializes in cajeta and is practically unvisited by tourists is a find in itself. I hope your discoveries continue.

Love you

07
Mom
posting from United States
March 22nd, 2008 5:43 pm

So glad to hear from you. You’re making us all want to travel along. I loved the 7 churches and we can all use good vibes being sent out to us.
Love you,
Mom

08
Gabi
posting from United States
March 23rd, 2008 4:40 pm

What is Easter without a little candy?

My teeth hurt. In a good way.

09
Aunt Jeanne
posting from United States
March 23rd, 2008 9:29 pm

This is such a treat to tag along on your adventure, seeing, smelling, and almost tasting all the goodies you describe. Having dislodged a gold crown last week while eating a jelly belly bean, the chewy caramel is not so tempting to me. I love all your colorful photos. I am particularly fond of dark chocolate and look forward to your visit to Oaxaca, and perhaps some mouth watering photos of chocolate to go along with an explanation of the area’s chocolate heritage. So glad Ecuador is on your itinerary…cocados and more choclate…mmm. Be safe and enjoy!

10
Shawn
posting from United States
March 23rd, 2008 10:47 pm

Hi! I don’t know you, and came across this site rather by accident, but I sure enjoyed your story. Celaya sounds quite charming. Thanks for sharing and I’m looking forward to your next post :)

11
posting from Mexico
March 24th, 2008 6:46 am

Thanks Mom and Dad! Don’t worry, I’m safe…

Gabi - it’s weird, I haven’t seen any special Easter candy. Guess it isn’t part of their culture like it is outs.

Aunt Jeanne - thanks for the sponsorship! I’ll be in touch about what to send you later, but it sounds like chocolate :)

Shawn - Glad to hear from you!

12
alexis
posting from United States
March 24th, 2008 6:03 pm

sista! glad that you’re still alive, the websites looking really good! keep living and all.