Last night I arrived at the end of a posada at one of the local Spanish schools, just in time to have a cup of hot Ponche Navideño (pon-chay). I could smell the ponche from the gate as I entered; a wonderful sweet and spicy stewed fruit smell. I have finally started to acclimatize here. It was about 22C (I know, winter in Mexico is sooo tough) and I was getting chilly so I looked forward to trying a cup to warm myself up.
Ponche Navideño is a fragrant hot drink, served at Christmas time in Mexico. It is a hot fruit punch – and from what I understand (always subject to how good my Spanish is at the time), it can be made with any fruit. The one I tried last night was made using pineapple, and was really delicious. You need to serve ponche with a spoon as well, so after people have drunk the liquid, they can eat the pieces of fruit, lying sweet and full of flavour in the bottom of the cup.
Ponche can be made with or without alcohol – if you add the alcohol (brandy, rum or tequila) to the cup instead of the pot, it means everyone can be included. Obviously because I am in Mexico and it is winter here, some of the normally used ingredients will be hard for people living in the southern hemisphere to find – such as tejocotes (fruit of the hawthorn tree) – you could use cumquats instead. But, it seems to be a flexible recipe, so I guess you could just substitute with what is in season near you. The original recipe apparently arrived in Mexico with the Spaniards. But every Mexican family is reported to have their own variation on the recipe, handed down across the generations with particular fruit and spice combinations.
The base of Mexican ponche consists of cinnamon sticks, and piloncillo, a dark-brown unrefined sugar (possibly substitute palm sugar) added to litres of water. Use as much water as necessary, depending on how thick you want the final drink to be. Then you can add pretty much any mix of chopped fruit you want: apples, oranges, pineapple, tamarind, guavas, tejocotes, mangoes or even dried fruits like prunes or raisins. Everything is simmered on the stove until all the tastes are combined. Don’t boil as you don’t want all the fruit turning to pulp. Part of the experience of ponche is using a spoon to eat the surviving fruit at the end of the drink.
Ponche is sweet, but more so a complex mixture of tastes, especially with the inclusion of different spices and tamarind. It is definitely a popular drink in Oaxaca, families and businesses making big batches to share alongside pieces of pan de nuez (nut bread).
At the moment in the lead up to Christmas, you can also buy cups of ponche from street vendors to sip whilst wandering the pop-up artisan markets and around the zocalo. So different from Christmas in Australia and New Zealand! (although I have had some pangs of homesickness thinking of the crowded Queen Vic market at this time of the year and the annual crayfish and prawn grab).