Kids smashing eggs filled with confetti and silver and gold powder in San Miguel de Allende’s Jardin yesterday afternoon.
My mom and I checked out the Hotel Matilda Spa this week. The Matilda, which opened a year ago, is located in the charming neighborhood near Parque Juárez on the site of the former Hotel Villa Jacaranda.
The property has been completely transformed from its Colonial roots. It’s now sleek and modern, decorated in a subtle palette designed to showcase the hotel owners’ serious collection of contemporary Latin American art, along with San Miguel’s brilliant blue sky.
The intimate spa has a Zen-Mex-Moroccan vibe to it. We were treated to side-by-side pedicures in a private room that looked out on a rock garden planted with cacti, wild grasses, and bamboo. While our feet soaked in hot water, therapists Alma and Esther rubbed camellia-scented avocado oil into our hair and massaged our scalps. The spa offers many scrubs and wraps that utilize indigenous ingredients, such as nopal, coffee, and coconut.
After the pampering, we enjoyed lunch on the terrace. The restaurant has a new chef, Jorge Boneta, whose upscale menu riffs on Mexican street food. It’s a winning concept that feels just right for the Matilda, which is about world-class, yet unpretentious hospitality that’s steeped in the flavors of 21st century Mexico, as opposed to generic fancy “continental” cuisine and style.
We shared four appetizers: Yucatecan suckling pig tacos cooked in banana leaves, spicy sea bass ceviche topped with a tangle of cucumber ribbons, Zihuatanejo shrimp cocktail, and chopped salmon served in lettuce cups with garlic sauce and crispy fried leeks.
My mom and I agreed that it was the freshest seafood we’d ever tasted in San Miguel. The shrimp cocktail, in particular, was transcendent. The succulent shrimp were served in a dark beer-hot pepper sauce on a bed of citrus with whisper-thin slices of radish. My mom said, “This shrimp cocktail is so good, it makes me forget every shrimp cocktail that came before it.”
Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s new Sensory Collection gets my vote for being the most seductive luxury gift item of the year. I met Katrina Markoff, the company’s mad scientist chocolatier, at a Kripalu Yoga and Chocolate Retreat last February.
This chocolate tasting and smelling game involves uncapping 42 vials filled with essences such as dried banana, cocoa butter, tobacco, earth, cocoa powder, leather, charcoal, orange blossom, jasmine, asparagus, and burnt sugar and nibbling chocolates from Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad, Java, Ghana, Madagascar, Venezuela, Grenada, Bolivia, Tanzania, Peru, Costa Rica, and Santo Domingo.
There’s a little guidebook that chronicles the history of chocolate, the making of chocolate from bean to bar, the science of taste, and recipes. Also included are a color and flavor wheel to help you describe each chocolate, a notebook for your thoughts and inspirations, and a blindfold “for party fun.”
This chocolate parlor game reminds me of the Japanese-inspired incense games that I learned about while researching my book, Incense.
In Japan, the highly ritualized Kodo incense appreciation ceremony is designed to cultivate aesthetic refinement while deepening spiritual awareness. In this context, incense is the muse of both enlightenment and artistic expression. The art of Kodo is the practice of “listening to incense” – smelling with one’s entire being.
As with the formal Japanese tea ceremony, it takes years to master the complexities of the “Way of Incense.” There are specific rules regarding the subtleties of preparing the censer cup, pressing artistic designs into the white rice ash to correspond to the season and occasion, regulating the temperature of charcoal, blending the incense, and so on. An incense master must also draw upon a rich knowledge of poetry, classical literature, history, and natural science in order to fully comprehend and share the mysteries of incense. Gold-lacquered incense boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, exquisite Kodo burners, trays, and other ceremonial utensils can cost thousands of dollars.
The term Kumiko refers to the literary memory games of Kodo in which players must distinguish and identify different incenses by their perfume alone. David Oller, editor of Incense Journal, describes these games as being “aromatic journeys” shared with a group of friends.” He continues: “The true source of competition is to see which one among you is able to enjoy and cause the other participants to enjoy the journey most.”
There are hundreds of different Kumiko games that use various incenses and poetic procedures. These games are usually played with loose incense, such as aloeswood and sandalwood chips, using a Kodo-style censer cup filled with rice ash, charcoal, and a postage-stamp-sized mica plate to heat the slivers of precious incense. The following beginner-level games were suggested by Mark Ambrose of Scents of Earth.
The master of ceremonies prepares the incense censer and places three or four varieties of aloeswood in individual origami envelopes.
Guests sit in a circle and pass each smoldering wood around for every person to experience. On the first pass, the host names each wood, giving it an evocative title like “Hidden Forrest,” “Autumn Wind,” or “Snow on a Lonely Peak,” and then guests try to associate the name with the scent. A designated record keeper writes down the name given to each wood on the inside of the origami envelopes in the order in which the varietis are passed.
After reach wood has been named and passed, the envelope are then shuffled, and each wood is passed again, this time without a name. The guests then try to recall the name associated with the aroma and record it on their own beautiful slips of paper.
At the end of the game, the host opens each envelope and reads the names in the order in which they woods were initially passed Each guest then discovers how well they associated the names with the fragrances.
GAME OF THREE
The master of ceremonies prepares the censer.
One at the time, three smoldering woods are passed around the circle.
The guests try to determine whether all three are different or two or more are the same.
POEM IN FOUR SCENTS
The master of ceremonies prepares the censer.
One at a time, four smoldering woods are passed around the circle.
When the first incense has been passed, the first guest writes a line of poetry inspired by the experience of “listening” to the fragrance. The next guest adds another line, the next guest adds a third, and so on, until all of the woods have been passed and a single poem has been created. Alternately, participants can individually compose their won poems by writing down a line inspired by each incense, and then reading their four-line poems to one another.
For more information and photos of the Kodo cermony, see ‘Listen’ to Your Nose: Sniff Out a Calming Custom by Tomoko Otake of Japan Times.