Nieves de Garrafa: Mexico’s Ancestral Frozen Treats
Nieves are an artisan, hand-churned ice-cream done in a stainless-steel cylinder properly known as “garrafas”. It’s rigged with chunks of ice and salt— a rudimentary contraption held together by loose steel rings enabling the wood to expand and contract accordingly to the levels of water absorption.
Nieves are made in an infinity of flavors. Everything from Chongos Zamoranos to Camaron Seco c/Limón (dehydraded shrimp with lime) imagination is the limit. Other innovative iteration include the Gansito or Chocotorro flavored Nieves have become household flavors. Personally, I love to my traditional nieve de limón topped with cajeta but I’m always down to try new flavors.
Neveros employ a large flat wooden spoon called a “pala” to scrape the frozen mixture from the sides as it freezes. A technique that gives Nieves it’s peculiar texture. Spinning and scrapping while adding salt to the ice that molds to the side of the tin, churning until reaching one’s desired consistency. We can expect variances in texture depending on ones own physical strength and churning style.
Considered an ancient ceremonial foodstuff, a treat often consumed by priest, rulers, and royalty of the Aztec empire Nieves pay homage to the god of wind Ehecatl which Aztecs believed “swept the path for the gods of water, bringing forth life and fertility” — a metaphor for the air contained in every ice cream molecule necessary to inflate the liquid mixture. Historical documents reveal how relay runners would carry blocks of ice on their backs down from the Popocatepetl volcano.
Neveros or prehispanic ice cream makers would concoct fruit mixtures to be churned and served to elite clientele costing upward of twenty cocoa seeds for the treat. Modern day Neveros however, don’t condition or add any preservatives to their mixtures; thus, Nieves must be eaten on the spot or it deflates, a truly artisan treat. Unlike, industrial ice cream machines which can infuse up to 80% of air. Anyone remember the ice cream buckets? You guessed it! you’re buying mostly air.
However, for many entrepreneurs, this means large-scale production is impossible without the use of preservatives, not to mention loosing it’s characteristic texture. It is why, Nieve production is considered a fragile cultural food practice in danger of extinction.
From the green hills of Oaxaca to Mexican nuns churning ice cream in convents, homemade Nieves are a great way to experience a true taste of history. When I began this project I had only a small ice cream machine but quickly discovered machines will never substitute what in Japanese culture is known as ‘chi’ — energy transmitted to objects via human activity .
After a visit to La Escuela Gastronomica Mexicana I learned that art of Nieve making is regarded as one of the most respect yet physically intensive, compared only to chocolate making where one burning ones knuckles while grounding cocoa seeds with the metate stone is common even amongst the highest skilled artisans. Ten blisters later and a trip to La Merced (a market-maze adventure just to purchase my travel-size garrafa) and I was well on my way to becoming an artisan ice cream maker.
Flavors such as rose petals with dried fruits to lime with chia seed infused with tequila, there are more than one hundred flavors to choose from. The flavors I want to share have their origin across times and spaces enabling one to travel through Mexico’s culinary history using your palate.
Nieves represents an intangible food culture that serves as vehicle for identity formation transporting ideas, feelings and perception of many worlds into a a delicious frozen treat. Now, is your turn to make your own Nieves at home.
Nieve de Jamaica (Spiced Habiscus Nieve)
1 Cup of Mexican Jamaica
1 Cup of Sugar
2 Cups of Water
1 Cinnamon Stick
- Bring one cup of water to a boil. Once water is boiling add your hibiscus flowers with the rest of the spices. Note* you can omit any of the spices aforementioned if you do not like spice. Let it boil for two to three minutes, then turn of and cover. Let the concoction sit, preferably over night or until is completely cool.
- Simple syrup is basically 1:1 sugar to water ratio. In a small pot add your remaining cup of sugar and your one cup of water over medium heat. Once the sugar has dissolved into the water you can turn stove off. Remember, avoid boiling the simple syrup.
- Carefully remove the clove, pepper and cinnamon from the cooled hibiscus tea then place everything else, including the hibiscus flowers into the blender with your simple syrup.
- Blend, strain and prepare your ice cream maker or garrafa.
- Follow the instructions on your ice cream maker. Enjoy!