Exiquio Ruiz, the peasant who sustains a centuries-old gastronomic tradition in Venezuela (and who is at risk this year)

Every year, when June 29 approaches, Exiquio Ruiz, a Venezuelan peasant, carpenter and cabinetmaker, begins to collect the cider fruits to start the elaboration of a particular sweet of centuries-old tradition, exclusive to a region in Venezuela and that is relates to the festivities of the Parranda de San Pedro, a popular and religious celebration declared in 2013 as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

The gastronomic work of Exiquio Ruiz —originally from the town of Guatire—, who has been making cider preserves for decades, is also recognized as part of the Cultural Heritage of the Zamora municipalitya town in the Miranda state that makes up the central region of Venezuela, less than an hour’s drive from Caracas.

But this year, the existence of traditional preserves is at risk. The cider trees, which are scarce in Venezuela and which Exiquio kept under protection in an extensive peasant property together with family and friends for a decade, were razed to the ground when a private textile company carried out an arbitrary eviction from the land, destroying all the sow and left the desert place.

However, in the face of adversity, Exiquio, 76, does not lose hope or his good humor. He says that he still has time to make the preserve so as not to leave the party without the traditional sweet. But this situation It does not depend solely on your will but also from officials who promised to help him obtain the cider fruit in another region of the country.

“Guatire has two things that no other town has: the rich cider preserve and the party of San Pedro. That’s what the popular verse says, but well, the plants that I had here disappeared from me, and we are looking at how to start again , I still have the courage to carry on and I think it does give me a chance to make the little preserve, well, if the officials who came here and offered to help me, they get me the fruit in Mérida, which I think they call lemonsón there,” Ruiz explained in conversation with PBN.

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The story behind the preserve

Exiquio tells that there is a popular story that attributes the name of the preserve to the first woman who cooked it more than 100 years ago, Mrs. “Isidra”.

“It is said in the town that when they asked about who made the candy, the people answered: ‘It is the canned e’ Isidra‘, in reference to the lady”, explains Exiquio, and comments that this story is interesting because the name of the cook has a sound similarity to that of the fruit that identifies the delicacy.

Exiquio remembers that during his youth there were peasants who came down from the mountains with bundles laden with cider “to the house of the Porto family.” “In that place there was a cook named María Jesús Tachón, who especially attended to the former president of Venezuela, Rómulo Betancourt, who regularly traveled from Caracas to Guatire to buy the preserve.”

“There was also Mrs. Agustina Rondón, from the Rondón Foundation, Mr. Braulio Izturíz, the Tovars, all of them made preserves. Once my father, who was also a farmer and a carpenter, sent me to fix it up at the Porto family’s house some little boxes where the cooks put the sweet to settle and that’s how my curiosity about its elaboration began”, says Exiquio.

This man observed that those wooden boxes were full of bees and he was afraid to approach them. However, the cooks told him to keep quiet, so they wouldn’t bite him. “There were four of them, they all dressed in white and worked with a stove. They were stingy with the recipe, but I noticed it and started making it at home.”

How is the preserve made?

“The preserve has work,” says Exiquio. One of the difficulties is obtaining the fruit, which is extremely scarce, since over time it has stopped being planted and even many peasants are unaware of it. “Their crops have been lost in the region. Sometimes it happens to me that when I go to look for trees or fruits, they end up asking me ‘What is that?

In addition, he says, the citron tree takes time to grow and bears its first fruits between three and four years. “Once the cider comes out, a bush can give up to 500 kilos and remove fruits of up to 5 kilos. But it’s a very hard citrus fruit, which has seeds inside and when you squeeze it, acid droplets come out like lemons, but you can’t get the juice out.”

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Already with the citrons in hand, Exiquio explains that the elaboration process can take two days. “When the citrons are ready, they are picked and peeled. Then you have to grate them and wash them at least seven times to decrease the bitterness that they have, because it becomes super bitter when it gets wet. This is how it is tested, until the bitterness is not so strong”.

Then it’s time to cook it, says Exiquio. “The only thing that is placed is sugar and it is put to beat in a cauldron over low heat. After the mixture is achieved, which is like a jelly, it is cooled and spread over a container that is covered with a mesh so that insects do not fall on it, especially so that the bees do not remove the sugar.”

The cooling process of the jelly, explains Ruiz, is essential to turn it into a preserve, since it is the only way to form the crust of the sweet, which when tasted has “a bitter touch.”

“The cider preserve It is the only sweet that after cooking must be eaten after 15 days and it can’t be done any other way. It has to be air-dried because it turns into butter in the oven, so the sun and the breeze have to do one last job,” explains Exiquio, detailing that for each fruit, 50% of its material is used and the rest is discarded. , although there are people who ferment it to produce liqueurs.

The art of “the boxes”

Once the preserves are ready, Isidro sells them in small trunk-shaped boxes that he carves by hand and takes out two products, one 100 grams and the other 200. “It is an exciting job, I am passionate about it and it fills me with pride to be able to do it“.

‘Las cajitas’, as he affectionately calls them, are identified with the name of Exiquio, his contact number and incorporate the phrase: “Guatire has two things that no other town has, the rich cider preserve and the party of San Pedro “.

“Here people bought me up to 10 boxes of preserves, they almost always asked me for them for people from abroad. They have taken them to Spain, Switzerland, Panama, to many countries. Once a Basque came and when he tried it he told me he wanted to do business with me, bought seven boxes from me, then came back and wanted me to fill a container for him. I laughed and told him that this was impossible because to do that he would need a staff of around 200 people and many planted hectares.”

Exiquio says that preserves are a product that does not go bad and does not need artificial preservatives. “I have opened preserves with more than a year and a half of storage in their boxes and they remain intactThey taste the same, with the same texture and even with more aroma”.

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In addition, he points out that sometimes the box becomes “the hook” of purchase for people who do not know the sweet. “They end up trying the preserve because they want to buy the trunk to store details, earrings, bracelets.”

The Parranda of San Pedro

The Parranda de San Pedro is an autochthonous manifestation of Venezuela that dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and is celebrated on June 29 in the towns of Guatire and Guarenas. Their preparations begin months before when the revelers, all men, grouped in troupes, rehearse music, songs and dances, renew their costumes and designate the organizers of the festival.

The celebration starts on the afternoon of June 28when revelers, even without traditional clothing, carry images of Saint Peter to the Churches of Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, in Guatire, and to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Copacabana, in Guarenas, to start a wake until midnight that includes the singing of couplets alluding to the saint.

The next day, already Saint Peter’s Day and after the sung mass in the churches, the revelers —with their faces painted with black shoe polish and dressed in frock coats, red and yellow scarves tied around their necks and top hats—, They ask for permission and the blessing of the priest to take the image of the saint out into the street and celebrate together with the community.

Parties, according to popular history, began in colonial times, after Saint Peter granted a miracle to a slave named María Ignacia, who asked for the healing of her sick daughter.

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