The accolades tell it all: "I had a terrific and very inspiring time in Oaxaca. Your knowledge of the culture and region introduced us to so many interesting people, all willing to share their passion, whether it was for pottery, wood carving, frothy chocolate, the best moles or natural dyes" [Elizabeth Baird].
Elizabeth Baird, one of the foremost Canadian culinary icons of our time, was a participant in the May, 2010, Oaxaca Culinary Tour. So was prolific cookbook author and columnist Rose Murray, who endorsed a copy of her seminal work, A Taste of Canada, A Culinary Journey, with similar praise: "Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge of Oaxaca with us. We know it through your eyes."
If the foregoing is any indication of the success of this most recent tour, then the thought of what's in store for participants in future, similarly organized Oaxaca culinary events, should titillate anyone interested in Mexican gastronomy - chefs and foodies alike.
While numbers were small (May is when most Americans and Canadians are content to stay close to home, stow their winter attire, and begin gardening), organizers provided the 8 - 10 participants in each of the week's daily activities with all that the tour promised, and more: cooking classes with Pilar Cabrera and Susana Trilling, dining at renowned Oaxacan restaurants Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, La Olla and La Catrina de Alcalá, and what impressed the most, getting out into the villages and learning the secrets of local recipes through hands-on instruction from indigenous natives - in their kitchens and over their open hearths and comals.
Background to the Oaxaca Culinary Tour
Internationally acclaimed native Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo spent the month of September, 2009, working her magic in Toronto, both as guest chef at several restaurants and invited instructor at a prominent cooking school. It had been arranged through the efforts of Toronto food writer and researcher Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, and several others willing to dedicate their time and effort to ensure a successful month-long event.
Once the framework of the tour had been decided, Chef Pilar was invited by the Government of Mexico to represent Oaxacan cuisine at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre Hot & Spicy Food Festival's Iron Chef competition (as it turned out, she also agreed to judge the festival's Emerging Chef event) which took place around the same time as the tour.
In Toronto Chef Pilar met the likes of Elizabeth Baird (who judged the iron chef event and adjudicated alongside Pilar at the emerging chef competition), Chef Vanessa Yeung (who cooked with Pilar at the cooking school and dined with her at one of the private dinner parties), and a host of prominent food writers and critics, as well as chefs (including Chef de Cuisine Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier) - most of whom had no previous exposure to Oaxacan cuisine.
In true Oaxacan fashion Pilar warmly and sincerely invited virtually everyone she met to come visit Oaxaca. But who would have ever thought that tour organizers would immediately begin receiving inquiries from diners at the various venues, chefs, and media personnel, about traveling to Oaxaca to gain more in-depth knowledge about Oaxaca's longstanding reputation for culinary greatness. After all, the tour was intended to merely provide an introduction to Oaxacan cuisine. It succeeded in whetting the appetites of Canadians, for much more.
Those who ultimately participated in the Oaxaca tour included aficionados of Mexican cuisine, food writers, chefs and restauranteurs. Some booked the entire tour well in advance, while others only caught wind of the week's events after they had planned their Oaxacan vacation, and accordingly were permitted to take part in cooking lessons, day tours and evening dining.
Oaxaca Culinary Tour Showcased a Variety of Food Venues and Other Dimensions of Culture
While a theme tour has its raison d'etre, it should not be overly restrictive in its events so as to blind participants to what else a region has to offer - and in this case the impact of other dimensions of culture upon a people's cuisine. In Oaxaca there is certainly a broad enough diversity of restaurants, food markets, cooking styles and levels of sophistication, to keep foodies thoroughly enthralled for weeks. But it's the unique and varied cultures, and the melding of New World and Old World ingredients and cooking methods, to which these tour operators also sought to expose their clients.
For this culinary tour, participants learned as much about availability of and regional variation in meats, cheeses and produce (and their cultural significance), as they did about staples such as moles, tlayudas, chocolate, tamales and mezcal. It was all achieved through imparting an in-depth understanding of traditions, through chatting and learning from people at all stations of life. At one end of the continuum were the most humble of villagers who welcomed the group into their homes, to make chocolate by pureeing roasted cacao beans, cinnamon and almonds using a primitive grinding stone (metate), and to make tamales by folding corn leaves over masa, mole amarillo and chicken. And at the other end were the European-trained chefs who explained each dish upon its arrival table from their modernly equipped kitchens.
Oaxaca Culinary Tour Daily Events
One chef arrived in Oaxaca a day early, enabling her to meet with organizers in an informal setting, learning about and indulging at a Oaxaca culinary institution, Tlayudas on Libres, where locals gather between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. for their favorite snacks grilled directly on and over charcoal: a folded, oversized tortilla stuffed with melted Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), bean purée, lettuce, tomato, depending on one's sensibilities a thin layer of asiento (pork fat); and choice of chorizo (sausage), tasajo (beef) or cecina (pork). For ardent foodies, a tiny sample of marinated pig's feet is required. And for the rest, a hot, corn-based drink of atole or champurrado is non-negotiable, especially during the wee hours of the morning.
An American doing his Masters in Nutrition arrived two days earlier, using the time to explore Oaxaca's centro histórico (downtown historic center) including its quaint colonial buildings and food and craft markets.
Another participant stayed on a day later, after the rest has departed. A local organizer graciously offered to chauffer her to one of Oaxaca's richest sights known as the San Agustín Center for The Arts, to see a modern ceramics exhibit housed in a spectacular lush mountain setting. And then for last minute gift purchases he drove her to Atzompa, a village specializing in traditional Oaxacan green glazed pottery.
Most participants had arrived by Wednesday, late afternoon, in time for Pilar Cabrera's walking tour of downtown sights. This enabled group members to gain some perspective on the magic of Oaxaca and to begin planning to how they might want to spend the leisure hours built into the tour.
Dinner was at Oaxacan institution La Olla, Pilar's own restaurant. The large candlelit table on the roof of the restaurant provided a special view of Oaxaca at night.
[For analysis and critique of the food served at these more upscale establishments, I'll leave it to the food writers and critics on the tour who are better note-takers and possess greater objectivity and a much more refined palate than this writer.]
The morning began with a visit to Tlapanochestli, the research station, museum and teaching facility devoted to understanding cochineal (cochinilla), the tiny insect which has played an integral part in the history of Oaxaca because of its unique quality; when dried and crushed it yields a strong red dye, which with the addition of lime juice and or baking soda changes to tones of orange, pink and purple. Of particular interest for tour participants was its application as a natural colorant for restaurant foods. While sampling a refreshing gelatin / water / sugar based dessert colored with cochineal, our foodies had an opportunity to see familiar grocery store products dyed with the insect (Campari, Danone Yoghurt, Campbell and Knorr soups, make-up and lipstick) and briefly discussed the sensitive issue of adequacy of ingredient labeling.
Then off to San Bartolo Coyotepec in the comfy 18-seater van equipped with bucket seats and A/C. Don Valente Nieto, son of the famed ceramicist Doña Rosa, provided an upbeat, informative and entertaining demonstration of the methods used by his parents and his family members today, in fashioning the well-known folk art form known as barro negro (black pottery). Tour members can now rightly claim that they saw the same demo that Don Valente provided to Jimmy Carter and Nelson Rockefeller, who's photos alongside Doña Rosa and Don Valente grace the showroom walls.
The humble abode and workshop of Armando Lozano, sculptor and master jeweler of hand-made bronze necklaces, earrings and bracelets, provided the first opportunity for the group to see how most Oaxacans live, and eke out a modest existence. The contrast between the quality workmanship of the family, and its lifestyle, was remarkable, overshadowed only by the welcoming nature of the Maestro's daughter-in-law who offered the jewelry for sale.
The final two touring stops of the day were directly devoted to food and drink. Lunch was at the unique roadside eatery, Caldo de Piedra, where chef César prepared a tomato and herb based broth which he then poured into a large half gourd for each diner. To each he then added one's choice of either fresh red snapper, a healthy compliment of jumbo shrimp, or a combination of the two. Red hot rocks from an open flame were then placed in each gourd, and individual meals were thusly cooked, the rocks causing the broth to boil and fish to poach. Only large, hand-made tortillas from the comal and quesadillas amply filled with mushrooms and squash blossoms were needed to compliment the meal, of course along with large pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice spiked with soda water (naranjadas).
Oaxaca is known for its mezcal (mescal), so what better way to have an introduction to the spirit than to head to Matatlán, World Capital of Mezcal, and learn from a producer with from a five generation pedigree of palenqueros (mezcal producers). Enrique Jiménez welcomed the tour into his parents' traditional family compound where all witnessed the quaint and primitive production methods, and then imbibed several varieties of mezcal with chasers of lime and orange wedges, and sal de gusano (the salt, chile and ground up gusano worm mixture), together with quesillo and ricotta-like queso. Then to the family's brand new state-of-the-art facility where Enrique explained his new method of mezcal production. The process dramatically improves quality control while retaining the richest qualities of mezcal produced the traditional way - only smoother.
Dinner at La Catrina de Alcalá provided a nice contrast to earlier events and tastings in the day, with classy Chef Juan Carlos on hand to introduce each dish. Tour participants were so taken with the selection that towards the end of the evening when asked if they wanted to move on to dessert, or perhaps try a venison dish, almost in unison each opted for the latter.
Cooking classes by Pilar Cabrera are always highly enjoyable and educational, beginning with a visit to Mercado de La Merced for buying fresh produce, through the cooking phase, and finally indulging in the fruits of one's labor. The entirely of the class has been described elsewhere by me, so no more will be noted.
Each tour participant thereafter had a free afternoon to explore more of downtown, rest, and then dine at a recommended restaurant.
After a relatively relaxing Friday it was back on the road for another day of touring. At the handmade knife and cutlery workshop of Apolinar Aguilar, the group watched the master work his wonders, heating recycled metals with the aid of a primitive yet effective stone and clay oven, then forging with only a mallet striking the red-hot metal over an anvil, and finally the all-so-critical tempering stage.
Knife blades are polished to a brilliant shine without lacquer or nickel. Purchasers on this day had an opportunity to have inscriptions engraved on the blades of knives they purchased. In anticipation of the culinary tour, Apolinar had prepared a selection of paring knives, a turkey carving set, a cake cutting ensemble, and bread knives. In addition to the more traditional Bowie hunting knives, swords and machetes, he also had on hand more unusual collector pieces such as knives with deer antler handles and letter openers with blade undulations of the Indonesian genre.
In the tiny village of San Antonino participants were provided with an opportunity to select from the finest imaginable hand-embroidered blouses and dresses - cotton, silk, and blends.
Lunch was in the rustic homestead of the Navarro family, the sisters and mother known for their fine work on the back strap loom, and brother Gerardo for his watercolors. But the main reason for stopping in Santo Tomás Jalieza was to dine with the family in their Eden-like surroundings, and witness their preparation of tasajo on a small hibachi-style grill, and all the steps required to make sopa de guias, a broth made of all the parts of the zucchini plant, and a small piece of corn for added starch. The welcoming nature and all-round hospitality of the family was as impressive as their simple yet immaculately kept rural home and grounds.
The tour day concluded with a visit to the workshop of Jacobo Angeles, master carver and painter of alebrijes, for a demonstration (the particulars and details of which are once again available online as part of a lengthy dissertation about woodcarving in Oaxaca). However what tourists to the region never get to experience, and what Jacobo had arranged for the group, was a lesson in making aguas frescas of limón and jamaica (hibiscus flower), and the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, known as the "drink-of-the-gods."
After a late afternoon rest back at Las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast, the group welcomed the leisurely evening walk to Casa Oaxaca, purportedly the best high end restaurant in Oaxaca. Unfortunately on this night chef / owner Alejandro Ruíz was somewhat preoccupied entertaining a group of visiting chefs from diverse Latin American cities, so in this writer's opinion the experience was somewhat disappointing. Word has it that for the next culinary tour the organizers might pass on Casa Oaxaca unless an acknowledgement of the shortcomings and an assurance of better next time are both forthcoming. Each and every participant in a culinary tour of Oaxaca should expect and receive nothing but the best, of course subject to unforeseen circumstances.
The penultimate day of the Oaxaca Culinary Tour provided the broadest diversity of experiences imaginable. The group began at the rug making village of Teotitlán del Valle, but not merely for a weaving and dying demonstration. Rocio Mendoza, one of the daughters-in-law of Casa Santiago owners Don Porfirio and Doña Gloria, with her unwavering warmth and comforting smile welcomed the tour group into the extended family household for a lesson in the traditional methods of making both hot chocolate and tamales de amarillo, the ritual dish served at certain town fiestas.
Both the women and men of the household were present to answer questions and help out. Tour group members to a number were made to feel more welcomed than one could think possible. Each had a chance to take over the task of grinding toasted cacao beans into a hot velvety paste. Matriarch Gloria gave a hands-on lesson on all the steps required to prepare her special tamales, assisting each participant in learning how to place and fold ingredients into a corn leaf, and then ever so carefully stack the batch of tamales into a steaming hot clay container (tamalero) heated over firewood. Once all was cooked, and after a traditional "salud" over small glasses of mezcal, each indulged in the fruits of his or her labor with members of the Santiago family: hot chocolate with sweet rolls on the side for dipping, and a plateful of piping hot tangy tamales de amarillo. Goodbyes were particularly difficult after the establishment of relationships based upon a commonality of purpose - the mentoring and learning about culinary traditions in Teotitlán del Valle.
Two hours in the Sunday Tlacolula market is pretty well required when a group of food enthusiasts is involved; especially when organizers have special relationships with vendors so as to enable tourists to ask questions and take photographs at will. What Pilar did not cover in her Oaxaca market tour leading up to her class, the organizers ensured was explained in detail in the course of the visit to Tlacolula. Traditional market drinks of chilacayota and pulque were sampled. Members purchased decorative gourds, wooden spoons, embroidered aprons and colorful table coverings, and of course chiles to take back home. The aroma of chicken grilling on open flames and steaming caldrons of barbequed mutton and goat filled the air. The pageantry of Zapotec women in their native village dress going about their business buying, selling and trading, impressed all. And the ability of group members to have all their questions answered, sample foodstuffs and drinks without trepidation, take their fill of photos, and wander freely while soaking it all up, provided one of many trip highlights.
The quaint open-air eatery known as El Tigre was a stark contrast to the earlier market scene, but just as welcome, in the nature of a well deserved respite. Each member of the group was able to question comedor owner Sara about salsa preparation, the disinfecting of fresh produce, and cooking techniques and challenges where every menu item is prepared fresh, over a flame on the grill or comal. Once again, a review of El Tigre is available online. The eatery was selected so as to advance one of the organizers' goals of ensuring as diverse a culinary experience as possible.
The tour day concluded with a visit to the picturesque mountain setting known as Hierve el Agua. The site consists of mineral deposit "water falls," and bubbling calcium and magnesium-rich springs feeding two pools of water suitable for a safe, refreshing swim. Most took the opportunity to cool off - and perhaps reap the benefit of the legendary curative properties of the water - while others were content to sit in the shade, chat about the day's events, and of course take photos.
After the filling breakfast at Las Bugambilias, then hot chocolate with sweet rolls and tamales at Casa Santiago, followed by drink samplings in Tlacolula, and lunch at El Tigre, botanas (appetizer plates) and drinks were the order of the evening, at Los Danzantes, without any doubt the Oaxaca restaurant with the best ambiance by a long shot.
No visit to Oaxaca, be it for a culinary tour or otherwise, would be complete without a guided tour of the most important and magestic pre-Hispanic ruin in all of the State of Oaxaca, the 2,000-year-old Zapotec site known as Monte Albán. After a brief sit-down and opportunity to quench the thirst, tour participants were shuttled to Susana Trilling's cooking school to make mole chichilo. Once again, Ms. Trilling's class has been noted elsewhere by the writer.
Group members were welcomed to conclude their visit to Oaxaca by gathering at an event hall that evening to view a folkloric celebration of Oaxaca's diversity of dance and music traditions known as the Guelaguetza. But to a number each decided to pass on the idea after such a full itinerary. Instead, they welcomed the chance to finish the tour in a much more casual and relaxed setting, over drinks and conversation at the hillside home of one of the tour organizers, sitting on the open terrace and reliving the week's events with the fond memories.
Future Culinary Tours in Oaxaca
Culinary vacations in Oaxaca have been done before, and will no doubt continue into the distant future. This tour format, however, was unique for its diversity of experiences and the care taken by organizers to ensure that the expectations of all participants - seasoned chefs, media personnel specializing in the culinary arts and gastronomy, and aficionados of Mexican cuisine - were met, or better yet exceeded.
If the current spate of commentaries regarding the success of the tour and level of participant satisfaction is an accurate gauge, then no doubt there will be future tours, perhaps on a bi-annual basis, with each succeeding Oaxaca Culinary Tour improving on the performance of the previous.
Information on future culinary tours in Oaxaca can be obtained by contacting Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, or this writer.
Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, thereafter embarking upon a successful career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides with his wife Arlene in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), providing the comfort and service of lodging in a Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of a small country inn.