The Wine Country Online

Musings from Sonoma County's Slow Food Conviviati

The Cow That Walked to Town

By Jack Burton

"El Castillo" Xuantuaich ruins, Banque Viejo, Belize

I had been sleeping deliciously, tucked into the night sounds of a place with few trucks, the occasional autobus, and people on horseback. There was a cool breeze and I could hear a river off in the distance.

Xuantuaich ruins, Cayo district
Rita, her son and mom, Hotel Maya, Banque Viejo del Carmen
Pete hitting the Mopan River, Banque Viejo
A lazy watchdog "guards" "El Castillo"
Banque Viejo del Carmen is a quiet market town in the Cayo District of Western Belize. I had arrived there by bus on a journey into the Peton of Guatemala. The sleeping had been good in the cool highlands after a steamy few days immersed in the funky turpitude of Belize City.

I was up and early out of bed with the first clatter of horses' hooves on the street. There were roosters bragging all over town, the crazed bray of a donkey, and the raucous, swirling morning chatter of wild parrots.

Rita was sweeping the steps of the Hotel Maya. She was the resident cook and there was a fire going in the patio kitchen with a big pot of water on for washing. I was out on the street enjoying that jungle misty time between the black of night and daybreak when I saw the cow walking to town.

It was a skinny old cow that followed the carnisero into town. I saw them, the carnisero, the cow, and a man and a woman. They had come along a path out of the hills. The carnisero had the tools of his trade bundled on his back. It was a simple kit, a machete, a handsaw, two knives, and an ax.

She was a tired old cow on the end of a rope. I'm sure the family who owned her had been sorry to have seen her off on her walk. They had probably given some thought to all the milk she had provided and all the seasons of new calves past. I am sure that they kept one of her offspring. One fresh young heifer, an anticipation of many more calves and a river of milk.

The carnisero had struck a percentage deal with the family back in the hills. He rented a stall in the public market and the cow was destined to become a wealth of useful products for the people living in and around the quiet town on the Mopan River.

The Mopan River falls away out of the Maya Mountains to join the slower, lazy waters of the Savana Forest as they make their way to Belize City and the Gulf of Mexico. The river is a constant and refreshing presence in the quiet town and serves the people well as a fluid highway, a laundry, bathing place, and a source of fresh fish.

It was market day and whole families were arriving from up and down the river in their traditional dories fashioned from a single mighty log. I saw one family, their dory piled high with garden goods. There was not one inch of extra space in the vessel and the family dog was swimming along behind, not wanting to miss a day on the town and a mooch about for market scraps.

Banque Viejo is a place sporadically connected to the broader culture and was only marginally refrigerated when I paid my visit in 1986. A cold beer was almost always available, but keeping and preparing food was still a daily craft and nothing is taken for granted at a table set in the hills of a small Central American town. The cooks and diners are intimate with their menus.

Today there would be fresh beef in the market and for miles around there would be beef for the soups, tamales, simple stews, and asados favored by the local descendents of ancient Maya temple builders and intrepid European seafarers.

Rita had seen the cow too. She told me that there would be a special beef soup for supper as she put more wood into the outdoor adobe stove.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the nearby Maya ruins, visiting the market, swimming in the river, and anticipating my supper.

Rita's soup was indeed a special one! For me, it is the beef and vegetable soup against which all others are compared. I think often when I am cooking, about the luck of having experienced such a soup, and try as I might, I have never duplicated the remarkable flavor of its simple broth.

That flavor is a testimony to the particular quality of the beef. It is a fitting and lingering culinary memento of the cow that walked to town.

Towne Butcher Julian Requena, Public Market, Banque Viejo

Soup Cow Beef and Vegetables
1.Quickly brown 5 pounds of beef neck bones and one pound of beef shank over a bed of coals, making sure the meat and bones do not take on too much smoke.
2.Combine the beef with enough water to cover it in a large pot with the following ingredients that have been toasted on a hot comal:
     5 cloves Garlic, unpeeled
2Ancho chilies, dried and seeded
2 tCumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 TRock salt
3.Bring the pot to a boil and skim well. Reduce heat and gently simmer for 3 hours.
4.Add and continue to simmer for 30 minutes to an hour:
2Onions, quartered
1 #Carrots, in chunks
1/2 #Tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1/2 #Celery, in chunks
5.Shake the meat from the neck bones and discard them. Reserve the neck meat and shank meat to shred with your fingers, moisten with broth and serve on the side. Reserve any marrow from the shank bones. Fish out the chilies and garlic cloves, squeeze the garlic out of the peels, grind the chilies in a matate and return chili paste, garlic and marrow to the broth.
6.Serve the vegetables and broth in earthen bowls garnished with cilantro leaves. Accompany with the shredded meat, hot corn tortillas, a bowl of simple rice, fresh salsas, pickled vegetables and chilies, fresh limones, salt, and plenty of cold beer.