In a long, flowy dress, barefoot in the sand and beach fire-pit flames reflecting off her blonde hair, Ana Gloria Benziger Davis tells her version of the history of the almejas tatemadas, or charred chocolate clams, cooking beneath the fire.
The dish, a specialty of her Baja California town, Loreto, and particularly her hotel, the Oasis, involves burying the specific, large local clams in sand. Smoky and spicy, with the hint of seawater sweetness, the prepared clams taste not unlike a taking a deep breath of saltwater air on the beach near the bonfire that cooked the clams. And it’s a flavor locals have likely been enjoying for thousands of years.
“Who knows?” says the third-generation proprietor of Loreto’s Hotel Oasis, of whether the local Pericú tribe’s middens (shell stacks) really show that they cooked the clams the same way she does now. It’s a dish many visitors to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula seek out, a famous culinary emblem of the region, and she is the guardian of the tradition, the keeper of the flame, so to speak. “Why not be romantic, though?” she asks, justifying her poetic license as she paints a picture of what a local museum director her told her about the possible long ago origins of the dish.
The exact recipe that Benziger is cooking now, though, is one that goes back to at least her great-grandparents, who opened the Hotel Oasis in 1962. Families of Loreto would go to the beach and collect the clams as they played. Then they would bury them in the sand, mouth-side down, very close to each other, and top them with dried romerillo, which they lit on fire. “Any dry bush will cook them,” Benziger adds, but this one, which grows in the river nearby, also imparts flavor.
When the fire dies down, the clams are ready, and the picnicking families could drop the clams on hard rocks, causing them to fall open and letting people retrieve the meat from inside. As they didn’t necessarily have paper plates sitting around, they would eat them off flour tortillas, topped with mustard sauce. “The mustard sauce is what women from Loreto use to catch their husbands,” Benziger explains, particularly proud of her own, comprised of mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeño juice, salt, and pepper.
Tonight, the clams are buried in gravel on a large metal table, covered in romerillo, and set alight. The cooking takes about 40 minutes, so as the flames shoot scarily skyward, she indulges in a few raw clams. Chocolate clams, named for the shade of their shells and not any strange seafood flavors, are big, about the size of a baseball, but opened up and released from the shell, they are just about perfectly bite sized. A squeeze of lime, a little hot sauce, a dash of Maggi sauce, and a splash of beer, and the sweet seafood brininess shines through.
Still, it’s just a preview of the main event.
Almejas tatemadas are special to Loreto, approximately a six-hour drive north from the tourist hotspot of Los Cabos. There was even an attempt to create a designation of protected origin for the clams, similar to what Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Champagne enjoy. Benziger tells of how the dish is a special event meal in Loreto, they make them for birthday parties and big events, and that they’ve even cooked them for presidents.
But today, Benziger is on the beach as the clams cook in front of the Solaz Resort in Los Cabos as part of their program bringing in local culinary experts from around the region.
When the flames die down, the clams come off the table, where the chefs throw them down onto the cutting board, just like the families on the beach once did onto rocks. After each of the clams break open, the chef tops them with the creamy mustard sauce and hands them out by the plateful. Slurped from the shell, toes in the sand, under a starlit sky, it’s the kind of quintessential seafood experience that connects the eater straight to the place they’re in.
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