Holbox is a tiny island, off the Northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, but every year, for three days, it stages the Holbox International Gastronomy Festival.
It feels like a very long day’s journey into night. I’d flown from London in the morning, changed planes in Miami, arrived in Cancun and now am driving in the dark, down narrow roads in the middle of nowhere. After a couple of hours we reach the lights of Chiquila and I transfer to a fast motor boat and am whisked across the waves to the island. No cars are allowed here so the transfer to my hotel is in a golf buggy down sandy lanes.
Next morning I wake with the sun and realise that the reason that Holbox is almost completely unspoilt is the extra effort it takes to get here. Of course there are tourists, but all the hotels are small low-rise establishments and plans to build big resorts have so far been seen off by the locals. The island is just 26 miles long and lies at the point where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean. Most of it is belongs to the Yum Balam Nature Reserve and waters around are seething with marine life. No wonder then that the main activity is fishing which makes it the perfect venue for a Gastronomy Festival.
Arriving at a huge tent pitched on the sand close to the beach I see the opening ceremony with the Governor of the state of Quintana Roo leading the speeches. Fortunately they’re all mercifully short and then, to the sound of Mauro Calderon singing selections from the opera, we start the feasting. Around twenty local restaurants have stands here and the idea is that you wander round sampling their wares.
The theme tonight is lobster, since it’s now in season, and most of the dishes are some sort of Mexican fusion. That’s not surprising as a couple of the chefs are from Europe. I enjoy lobster risotto with white wine, parmesan and cherry tomatoes, lobster wrapped in ham and fresh grilled lobster in its shell. Perhaps my favourite, though, is seared foie gras on a tostada with onion jam and habanero jelly spheres from the Du Mexique French restaurant in Cancun.
Each year the festival invites a different Mexican region to showcase its cuisine and the state of Colima is the special guest. Being on the Pacific Ocean they have their own take on Ceviche prepared with the usual ingredients but adding carrots. Other specialities are Tatemado (pork seasoned with guajillo chili peppers, tomatoes, bay leaves, cumin and garlic) and Chilayo (pork in a sauce of green tomatoes and guajillo chili peppers). Wash them down with Tejuino, a fermented corn drink served with salt and lime, or mildly alcoholic Comala punch, made from pomegranate.
Even though I’ve travelled a long way to be here, there seem to be very few tourists. Rather it’s more a festival for the locals and it has the atmosphere of a village fete, albeit a Mexican one. It’s a joy to be among families tucking into their favourite foods and, if my Spanish was better, I’d do more mingling. The opera has given way to a very classy Spanish diva called Noelia Zanon, apparently very popular in these parts, and as the beer and wine flows, the party goes on into the small hours.
Next day I set off on a boat trip to visit the protected Isla Pajaros, a refuge for thousands of marine birds. Thatched towers, containing ladders and walkways, allow you to climb up and get a panoramic view and there are cormorants, pelicans, ducks and even the odd pink flamingo resting on the sand spits. Apparently, from May to October, 40,000 of these birds arrive to feed off little red crabs, which gives them their distinctive colour. Nearby, on another islet is Cenote Yalahao, a small fresh water pool, in the middle of the jungle. It’s only after I’ve been for a swim, on the way back to the boat, that I spot a crocodile half submerged in the swallows.
Tonight’s festival theme is octopus, something else which is also plentiful in the waters. I’ve already seen the fishermen on the beach with their catch so I know it’s completely fresh. The restaurant El Sabor de las Nubes has it marinated in red wine with salt from the salt pans near Holbox, then grilled and served with slices of baked potato on a fan of rocket leaves. I also like the Sicilian octopus salad with diced carrot, celery, tomatoes and olives.
The next boat trip I take goes much further, travelling 45 minutes east along the coast to the point where the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico meet. On the way dolphins trail the boat and I’m astonished by how much of the island is completely wild. When we arrive we set out fishing lines in the hope of catching lunch. Of course only the captain is lucky, pulling out a large grouper, but there’s enough to make a ceviche which will feed us all.
We moor in a shallow patch of water, where catfish nibble my feet, probably aware that I’m dicing their grouper cousin, adding lemon juice, coriander, tomatoes, salt and chilli, then leaving it to marinate. I know I’ve another evening of festival ahead of me, but sitting on the edge of this boat in the Caribbean, tucking into the freshest of Ceviche, I don’t think anything else can top this.
Tell me more about the Holbox International Gastronomy Festival
The next Holbox International Gastronomy Festival will take place in November 2017.
Cancun has direct flights from the UK, or you can go via Miami. You can then take the bus or taxi to Chiquila where there’s a fast ferry.
Visit Mexico has more information about Holbox.