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Flavors of Mexico

From mole to masa, the flavors of Mexico are deep, complex and inextricably tied to its people, history and culture. For our premier issue, Centro Y Sur goes south to Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende – two cities mixing the tastes of the past with modern techniques – to see what’s cooking

San Miguel de Allende: Some things never change.

With a mission to master some Mexican cooking techniques, Becca Hensley visits the Sazon cooking school in San Miguel de Allende and is seduced by both the food and the city.

If it weren’t for the fervor created by the rapid movement of Dona Lolita’s dry, brown hands, I might think her a wooden effig, an extant wooden statue survived from another time. Except for those spurts of energy, she sits still and almost expressionless. Hunched over on a stool in the crowded, aromatic fruit and vegetable market, located just steps from the historic main plaza in San Miguel de Allende, she furrows her brow just a bit. Clad in black, she rubs doughy balls between her palms, then sets each perfectly formed piece on a plate before pinching more from a bucket and beginning the process again. Only when each ball is finished does her expression soften, yielding to triumph at a job well-done.

¿Qué hace usted?” I ask, wondering what she makes with such intensity. She grins a toothless smile. “Pipiano,” she says, handing me a spicy-smelling clump of dough. She gestures and shows me how to form the ball. While I attempt to do what she makes look easy, she tells me about the ingredients. “Ground ancho chili and pumpkin seeds. It’s for making mole.” Now that she has my interest, she thrusts other handiworks toward me. “Pruebalo,” she says, passing me campote en dulce (sweet potatos baked in brown sugar) and gorditas de pinole, a delicious concoction of blue corn powder, sugar and anise.

At that moment, my teacher for the day, Chef Paco Cardenàs, appears. It seems I’ve fallen behind the rest of the class, and he’s worked his way back through the market to retrieve me. He lures me with a sack of fresh chickpeas, marinated with lime and chili, possibly the most seductive snack I’ve ever eaten. We’re students today at Sazon, a cooking school owned by the Orient Express’s luxurious Hotel Casa de Sierra Nevada (participants are not required to be hotel guests, though the hotel offers cooking packages). Indulging in the first part of a morning cooking class, we visit the market with Cardenàs, who teaches us how to navigate its stalls and about its exotic offerings. We sniff cilantro and epazote, rub our fingers over dried peppers and taste all sorts of handmade wares. Cardenàs shops for what looks fresh today — it all does to us — and buys sacks of pipiano, nopales, herbs and even chunks of pink pork.

Afterward, we retire to the classroom, a crisp kitchen with a Provence-meets-Old Mexico feel, set in an 18th century hacienda. Copper pots dangle in artistic disarray. Bright Mexican pottery and other antiques adorn shelves. We settle into bistro tables, sip hibiscus tea and watch Cardenàs toil away. The owner of a local French restaurant, Petit 4, Cardenàs teaches from his grandmother’s recipe repertoire. Today, we watch him in various dimensions, thanks to an overhead mirror that reflects all he does. Our students vary: men, women, young, novice, foodie, Texan and those from other American regions. What we have in common is that we are all transfixed. Cardenàs juliennes nopales, then sautés them with Dona Lolita’s pipiano balls and some chicken stock. While he does this, he answers questions, explaining the differences between the myriad peppers we procured today at el mercado. He takes prickly pear, mixes it with smoky mora chilies in a sturdy molcajete and creates salsa. Later, he stuffs some chilies with pork, makes tortillas that he fills with the truffle-like huitlacoche (corn fungus) and passes around a plate for his greedy students to try.

Later that evening, I cross the cobblestone street to visit a friend at her rooftop suite, a part of the Casa de Sierra Nevada. Though we are both staying at the hotel, which consists of five colonial mansions spread throughout the central part of town, we occupy unique, charming rooms in different palacios. Both boast colonial characteristics, such as curved ceilings, stucco walls, polished copper sinks and talavera tile, yet each intimate building offers its own unique personality. Perhaps best of all, the configuration allows for a sense of immersion, as if we have elected to spend our vacation in a private residence that has all the amenities of a fine hotel. Atop her roof, we toast the day with margaritas and watch the sun set over the city center. It falls over La Parroquia, San Miguel’s signature neo-othic church, and casts an eerie golden light over the pumpkin orange, ochre and clay red tones of the city. Like jewels, the cobblestones glisten in one last flash of light, and we sit in stunned silence.

San Miguel de Allende — a city so significant architecturally, so relished by sophisticated travelers, so much a mecca for expat artists and so deeply entrenched in Mexican history — joined the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list in 2008, a classification long overdue. As I return to this ancient colonial city, where I spent many days of my childhood, I worry the city has changed dramatically since my last visit, lost its luster or become homogenously Americanized. Happily, the first sight I see mollifies my fears. It’s a funeral procession led by several ceremonially dressed men on grand horses. Behind them slowly rolls a black car. And behind it, walking at a snail’s pace, is a black-clad crowd of mourners, some riding burros, some clutching flowers, all singing, crying and moving forward like a living, human prayer.

During my three days, as I cook at the Sazon cooking school, wander through galleries and take long walks in the park, I do see some changes. But I also see vestiges from the past and an adherence to tradition that warms my heart: women gathering to wash clothes in the spring-fed lavages near the park, firewood delivered by burros, lush gardens of jacaranda and bougainvillea, a preponderance of Spanish being spoken and a daily siesta that won’t disappear.

Oaxacan Delight

Oaxaca City, in the southern portion of Mexico, is a stunning Spanish colonial city tucked into the valley of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Along with the quaint cobblestone streets, striking cathedrals and grand plazas, there are ancient ruins, majestic landscapes and a culinary scene that will keep you coming back for more. The days are warm and sunny, the evenings cool and romantic, filled with sounds and smells to whet your appetite from the moment you arrive in the city. Oaxaca has been nicknamed “Land of the Seven Moles” and for good reason. Mole, which gets its name from the Nahuatl word “molli,” meaning mixture, is a rich sauce that contains more than 32 ingredients, including spices, chilies and even chocolate. Corn is also a staple in Oaxacan food, used to create tamales, tortillas, empanadas and quesadillas.

A City of Culinary Surprises

Known for its cuisine and considered the culinary capital of Mexico, Oaxaca is home to numerous markets filled with local food stands offering just about any type of Mexican ingredient or dish your heart could desire. From mole to cheese to chocolate, you should begin the food frenzy with a visit to the “20 de Noviembre” market, indulging in all the local specialties. Tacos, tamales and even chapulines (seasoned and fried grasshoppers) are just the beginning of the love affair you’ll have with this cuisine. The Oaxacan chocolate, combined with cinnamon and almonds, is made fresh in local shops, and the Oaxacan cheese has a taste and texture unlike any other. The most popular food sauce from this region is most certainly the mole. The spices and subsequent sauces used here are distinctive to the region. With so many varieties of mole, you’ll want to try them all: negro, amarillo, verde and coloradito, to name just a few. By savoring the distinct flavors and subtle nuances of the varying sauces, you’ll see each is more delicious than the next.
Looking beyond the local street food (and there’s plenty of it), the city’s sophisticated restaurants and classically trained chefs add a new dimension to Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine. One of these skilled chefs, Chef Jose Manuel Baños, can offer travelers a fun and educational day of shopping and cooking. Accompanying him to Central de Abastos Market, you’ll begin by purchasing fresh produce, cheeses and meats to later create a fabulous meal. Upon returning to his restaurant, Pitiona, one of the most elegant restaurants in Oaxaca and recently named to Conde Nast’s 2011 Hot Table List, Chef Manuel has infused a unique style into his cooking, using only local products and transforming them into a culinary work of art. Professionally trained in Mexico with a stint at the famed El Bulli in Spain, which is clearly evident by his liquid cheese and white bean foam, the chef will guide you through his kitchen, roasting peppers, chopping garlic and sautéing grasshoppers while imbibing on his signature cocktail, the Pitiona Martini. The restaurant itself pays homage to all things Oaxacan. The name Pitiona comes from a local herb used by his grandmother; the lampshades are tortilla-inspired. Beyond the Mexican-only wine list, there are 36 different varieties of mezcals — a potent potable (think tequila but more smoky) derived from the agave plant and distilled primarily in Oaxaca. For a more traditional meal but just as delicious, head over to Los Pacos, where you’ll find some of the best moles in town. This family-run restaurant serves up hearty helpings of tacos and rellenos and of course, all things mole.
Be sure to keep an open mind while sampling the food in Oaxaca. You may be a bit skeptical about trying the chapulines, but within a few days you’ll find yourself snacking on these tasty critters … just like a local.

Photos by Holly Wilmeth and Lisa Loverro