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.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. 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. 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. 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. ***
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.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!