Goats' milk candy was once such an important part of the central Mexican city of Celaya that even a landmark turn-of-the-century water tower that hovers over the town's heart was associated with the sweet-making.
"The tradition was that when children here asked what was in the water tower, their parents always told them it was full of 'cajeta,' " says Javier Guzman, a young lawyer and life-long Celayan, using the Mexican name for the distinctive caramel-like candy. "Sadly, so many of the small cajeta-makers have closed that children no longer hear that story," says Mr. Guzman. "We've pretty much lost a tradition and an industry."
Of the dozens of small cajeta makers that once operated out of homes here, selling their product on the town's streets and giving Celaya a name throughout Mexico, only a handful remain. But now a few Celayans, including the mayor of this city of 450,000 people, want to bring traditional candymaking back.
Their dream is that cajeta, which is basically the cooked mixture of goats' milk and refined sugar, can help reinvigorate the city's strapped economy, while at the same time promoting a return to such traditional values as family entrepreneurship and home-oriented production.
It sounds like a tall order for a candy, but it's one a few people here think cajeta can accomplish.
"We have the tradition to build on, even if what was once a very strong association of Celaya with cajeta has been lost," says Leopoldo Almanza Mosqueda, Celaya's mayor.
"If we can bring back cajeta production with new technology, quality, and competitiveness - and I'm convinced we can - then we can bring back a home-based industry that should have never been lost, and a modus vivendi for countless Celayan families," he says.
Cajeta-making was at its height here in the 1950s, when dozens of families mixed goats' milk, sugar, and occasionally a flavoring like vanilla or a spice like cinnamon, in copper pots over wood fires. The gooey mixture was then wrapped in waxed paper or poured into jars and sold on the streets.
The tradition had come from Spain, where a similar sweet, called leche quemada, or burnt milk, is made. The abundance of goats on the extensive farmlands surrounding Celaya made the town the perfect spot to perfect a quintessentially Mexican candy.
But 20 years later the decline was already advanced: Family production was considered passe, inefficient, possibly even unsanitary - and big, industrial candy makers were moving in and displacing the mom-and-pop producers to prove it.
The switch to industrial production proved nearly fatal to Celaya's cajeta-making. Small producers died out, but the big factories produced a lower-quality candy - according to local connoisseurs like Guzmn and poor management also took its toll. Cajeta production gradually shifted to other nearby states including Jalisco and San Luis Potosi.
Now, however, in an age when small businesses and local traditions have been revalued, Celaya appears ready to fight to take back its past - and perhaps its future. This month, July 4 to 10, the city hosted for the first time since the mid-'70s a cajeta fair where local producers are offering their products. The purpose is not only to sell cajeta, but to remind Celayans of what they used to have - and perhaps prompt a few of them to get out the old copper pots and get cooking.
One Celayan who has become a dedicated cajeta-maker is Cuauhtemoc Andres Lopez Gomez, one of the town's few remaining family producers. Mr. Lopez has something even rarer than his copper cajeta pots - a candy store on a busy downtown street from which he sells his own cajeta, under his La Tradicional label. (The label features, among other Celayan landmarks, the old water tower of cajeta legend.)
"We use about 240 liters of goats' milk a day to make 50 to 60 liters of cajeta," says Lpez, standing with a huge wooden spoon over three copper cauldrons of bubbling cajeta. "That's really very little when you figure that Celaya produces 10,000 liters of goats' milk a day."
Lopez came into the cajeta business through marriage. His wife was raised by two cajeta-makers after her mother ran off with a man who suited her fancy. Now the two doyennnes spend the day supervising the cajeta-making from their comfortable straw chairs, while Lopez and two helpers do the heavy work and Mrs. Lopez minds the candy shop.
The family of one of the two older women had been making cajeta in the house since 1913, but by the time Lpez joined the business four years ago, little cajeta was coming out of the kitchen.
Since then the production area has been modernized, gas burners have replaced the old wood stoves, and production has increased more than threefold.
Lopez would like very much to begin making even more cajeta for export, but that prospect presents him with a dilemma: Either he sticks to the traditional recipe of the house of all natural products, which limits his sales possibilities, or he begins using some kind of preservative or stretching the cajeta's life by using corn syrup.
"Right now the cajeta starts crystallizing and turning hard after about 10 days," says Lopez, and that won't do for distant consumers since the jarred product is basically a thick syrup suitable for pouring over ice cream, fruit, cake, or into hot milk.
But Lopez, who is working with a German laboratory to find a means of preserving cajeta without lowering production standards, says he is convinced that once that problem is solved, the cajeta market will boom. And Celaya will be on the way to winning back its title as cajeta capital.
"Mexicans in the United States already know cajeta, and it's just the kind of sweet thing Americans will love," he says. "I have no doubts we can build a market, but it will have to be with quality and Celaya's restored name."