At the end of October, Mexico is filled with the smell of “cempazúchitl” flowers and “pan de muerto.” Markets are teeming with music and laughter as people buy colorful sugar skulls and candles to decorate graves or make altars at home for their loved ones who have passed away.
“Día de los Muertos” – The Day of the Dead – is a very special celebration, where we believe that those who have passed to the “next world” can come back to visit their friends and families to once again enjoy the pleasures of life.
This festival not only celebrates our deceased loved ones, but it also helps us celebrate life in a different way. It can be a reminder that life is short, that we should not fear the death, and that we are free to enjoy and appreciate every moment while we’re still on earth.
This Mexican holiday is actually observed on two separate days. The 1st of November is called “Día de los Inocentes,” for children who have passed away, while the 2nd of November is “Día de los Muertos,” for the adult souls.
This tradition originated centuries ago in Mexico as a fusion between the Aztecs’ rituals and belief that death is just one part of a cycle of existence and the Spanish Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Some people celebrate by visiting and decorating the graves of their families, while others build altars at home in memory of all the good times shared with their loved ones. Food plays a huge role in the festivities – it is thought that the dead will be hungry after their long journey to earth, so all of their favorite food and drinks are set out to welcome them home.
For me, the best part of this celebration is that it brings families together to share everything that their deceased loved ones enjoyed in life.
I remember my grandparents used to celebrate every 2nd of November in their house, and the whole family would get together and eat “mole,” which was my great-grandmother’s favorite dish. My grandfather would drink a few tequilas or mezcales in a toast to his loved ones and we would enjoy a nice day together as a family, sharing stories of those who had passed.
Years went by and then the unexpected happened. My father passed away at 54 years old.
My dad and I were very close and we had a lot of things in common – we both loved to travel, to cook, and to eat in good restaurants. We would email recipes to each other when I was living in Australia and I would Skype him so that we could “cook” side by side. God, I miss that!
After my dad passed away, my Día de los Muertos traditions changed. Now, my husband and I go for dinner and enjoy a pleasant evening with a nice red wine, just as my dad would have liked. It is not the typical Mexican tradition, but I know that he would be more than happy to see us remembering him while enjoying life and food – and who know, maybe his soul even joins us for dinner.
Although I don’t celebrate Día de los Muertos like I used to, I’ve been finding myself thinking back to early Novembers in Mexico, especially the sweet scent of “pan de muerto” lingering in the air of bakeries and marketplaces. I just couldn’t resist trying out the recipe while I’m here in Austria.
“Pan de muerto” is an ancient culinary tradition that serves as a symbol for this holiday, but nowadays we find very different and modern versions of this popular bread around the world. The traditional “pan de muerto” is a round loaf with rolled strips of dough layered on top to resemble the bones of the dead. A glaze of melted butter and orange zest is brushed on top, followed by a generous amount of sugar.
To be honest, I’m not the best baker – I’ve always preferred cooking, with its less exact measurements and shorter waiting time. So I enlisted the help of my sister-in-law, Doris, who’s the best baker I know.
It’s not the most difficult recipe, but it does take some time. Altogether, it took around 4 or 5 hours, including preparation and resting time, but it was all well worth it.
The whole time the bread was in the oven, that warm, delicious smell lingering in the kitchen kept bringing me home to Mexico. We decided to make it the traditional way and serve it with apricot marmalade and Nutella on the side. It was the perfect addition to the cold autumn weather in Austria, and the perfect reminder of the spirit of the season.
I hope you will consider trying pan de muerto – and if you do, take a moment to reflect not just on the beauty of life, but also the joy that can be found in remembering and celebrating those who have passed.