1.14.11 Totally Incensed
I didn't do much shopping in Mexico, other than buying entirely too many "traditional" candies at the Mexico City airport. Cajeta, a decadent goat's milk caramel, is a life-long obsession of mine, ever since it was first served to me as a tiny girl in Guadalajara. At the airport stall I discovered a delicious guava paste stuffed with cajeta and pecans that was out of this world, and a sticky yellow coconut confection that slammed me straight back to childhood. In fact, I may have to pick up a copy of Fany Gerson's much-lauded My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treats—hello, sweet tamales, tres leches cake, milk fudge, flan. (Although my waistline is begging me not to do it!) I tasted some of her treats at a Mexican-themed dinner at Txikito last year and they did not disappoint.But I digress. One thing you truly shouldn't miss when traveling in Mexico is the indigenous incense, known as copal, pictured above. It has a very particular smoky-piney-resiny smell that conjures up Indians, Catholic churches and desert nights. I find it mesmerizing, with a rich, heady smell reminiscent of frankincense and myrrh.
Copal refers to a kind of tree, known as copalli in the native Nahuatl language. The sap of this tree has been widely used since pre-Hispanic times for incense as well as for chewing, gluing, purifying meat, varnishing and as a medicine for various ailments. It is still quite common to find it burning in Mexican churches and it's especially popular in homes during Day of the Dead celebrations. The incense comes in sticks or in chunks of resin (white is better quality than black). To burn the solid resin, you need to set it atop lit charcoal pellets. I love the whole ritual of this, but the sticks are definitely simpler.
The smell of copal can be quite strong for some people, but you can light it and extinguish it quickly and it's very effective for banishing any disagreeable smells in the air. It's also nice to burn it outdoors, in a screened-in porch or on a balcony. I just find the concept of incense to be so romantic, very ancient and soulful. Other incenses I like are here and here.