Pan de Muerto and marigolds for beloved souls

Colourful perforated paper, incense, candles and photos of deceased loved ones are central elements in altars to commemorate the Day of the Dead, but there is no Mexican altar without bright orange marigold flowers to attract the souls of the deads and Pan de Muerto -or dead bread- to honour them.

The marigold flowers – or cempoalxochitl -, whose English name comes from the Virgin Mary and their magnificient golden colour -Mary’s Gold-, are known as the flower of the dead.

They are the dominant flower used during the holiday celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November and are believed to guide the spirits to these alters by following the flowers scent and vibrant colours, helping ancestors to cross over into the land of the living. 

If you haven’t seen it yet, please take a few minutes to watch this nice sneak peek of Coco movie about the Marigold bridge on visit day. 

They were revered by the Aztecs in Mexico in religious ceremonies and as a medicinal plant. Said to relieve hiccups and cure those who were struck by lightning, the plants were considered magical.

The flowers bloom just in time for the celebration and are used not only to decorate altars but also graves. Some family members even build elaborate tapestries using marigolds.  

Besides, the same way we honour our visits when coming home with some special récipe, Mexican people honour their beloved deceased ones with traditional dishes, placing in altars what that person enjoyed when they were alive.

And few Mexican breads are as closely linked to tradition as the famous Pan de Muerto. 

This ceremonial bread is a key element in the dead altar, at least one loaf left for the enjoyment of visiting souls.

This sweet bread is round and has a ball and four to eight sticks made of dough on the top. It is made using flour, salt, sugar, yeast, wáter, butter, eggs, orange zest and aniseed , flavoured with orange blossom water and covered with sugar or sesame seeds.

As for the shape, there are countless differing stories and explanations, but most convey that the pieces are meant to symbolize the bones of the dead. On top of the bun is a small ball or nub, which some say is a teardrop, representing the tears shed for the dead. Others say it represents a skull, while still others say it represents the heart

Many varieties of Pan de Muerto exist, with their shape, texture, and flavour particular to one or more geographical and cultural regions in Mexico. 

In Oaxaca, common sweet bread is decorated with little marzipan’s heads simulating a human body,  and in Puebla, the regular bread is covered with red sugar for the grownups altars and white sugar for the children offerings.

Filled with clotted cream, whipped cream or even chocolate are different ways of enjoying bread of the dead. Mexicans love to have it with a side of steaming hot chocolate or coffee. 

In any case, they must wait for a whole year to enjoy it, for it is only available during October and November.

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