A Visit to Oaxaca, Mexico
I’ve been to Mexico a number of times–testing the azure blue waters at Baja California or enjoying the beautiful beaches of Cancun. The visit to Oaxaca was a very different experience, no longer flocking with other tourists, but guided to see the real people in their everyday lives by someone who has lived among them for many years, Alvin Starkman. In May, my good friend, Elizabeth Baird and I joined a Caliente Cooks’ Tour to Oaxaca organized by a young woman in Toronto, Mary Luz Mejia, a food writer and television producer (www.maryluzmejia.com). In close contact with Alvin and a chef who has visited Toronto, Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, both from Oaxaca City, Mary Luz made the trip a memorable one from start to finish, not only in letting us discover the authentic food of the locals, but their culture as well.
Even in our sumptuous Bed & Breakfast Casa de Las Bugambilias, our taste buds were awakened each morning at their beautifully set breakfast table where we enjoyed fresh local fruit and freshly squeezed juice followed by a home-cooked hot dish usually involving corn tortillas. Other meals found us on the roof tops of upscale restaurants like La Olla and Casa Oaxaca or conversing with the young chef at La Catrina de Alcala who made us very special dishes including venison with epozote and a corn mole with unripened tomatoes, chili and garlic. At the modern Loz Danzantes restaurant with it amazing retractable roof, we spent an evening sampling botanas (Mexico’s answer to tapas). Then there was the contrast of our al fresco lunch experience in which we had the ancient Caldo de Piedra (“stone soup”) and the amazing corn and squash soup cooked up for us by the lovely hospitable rural family who still do cotton weaving on back strap looms or the little roadside restaurant (without any electricity or other modern conveniences) on our way to the Hierve el
Agua (the bubbling mineral springs in the mountains). In terms of food, the markets were worth the trip itself: the huge Sunday market in the town of Tlacolula and the Benito Juarez Market right in Oaxaca City. The two cooking schools we attended, La Casa de los Sabores with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo and Seasons of my Heart with Chef Susana Trilling, were both excellent and gave us a chance to “turn our hand” at making real tortillas, toasting chilis and making authentic moles and salsas.
One interesting excursion found us at the cochineal research farm where the tiny insects feed on the thick leaves of nopal cactus. The female yields a scarlet dye when dried and crushed. Once a very valuable export trading item, cochineal is still used often in colouring food, and we also came across it in the dying of rugs and wood in our visits to craftspeople. Seeing the artisans–world famous woodcarvers, black pottery makers, jewellers, rug weavers, knife maker–all at work in their homes was a delight. It was great fun to learn all about the making of Oaxaca’s smokey answer to tequila, mezcal (and tasting it) as well as two very ancient local drinks. We’ve always known the story of Mexican chocolate, but to see it ground by hand with cinnamon and almonds, then to enjoy the drink itself was memorable.
Our guided visit to the Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban rounded out our week with the realization that this sun-drenched area is not only Mexico’s culinary heartland but one that offers a good look at the culture of its people.
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