We were picked up outside our hotel early in the morning for an all-day adventure called Traditions Cuisine. Antonio and Ana were our hosts for the day, shortly to become friends and fellow-adventurers. First stop was Teotitlan del Valle, about 45 minutes from downtown Oaxaca. And first stop in the village was the village market, held once a week and a center for all things food, crafts and household goods. Among the produce, we found the makings of Caldo Xóchitl con Flor de Calabaza or Squash Blossom Soup, which uses the blossoms, stems, leaves and squash of the plant, with a few chiles to spice things up.
While in the village of Teotitlan, we paid a quick visit to the village church. What stood out was the incorporation of an old section of a Zapotec building or wall into the wall of the church. The Spanish were resourceful — or terribly destructive — when it came to reusing materials from pre-Spanish buildings and walls to build their churches and administrative buildings.
We were invited into a private home to see–and participate in–how chocolate is made, starting with roasting the cacao beans on a traditional wood stove, although stove is something of a misnomer. It is an open wood fire in a brick enclosure with a wide terracotta plate on which the beans are stirred until they darken and crack. Once “shelled,” the cacao beans, with added cinnamon, are crushed on a metate until the resulting paste is graced with a couple handfuls of raw sugar. Fresh chocolate is mixed with hot water for a sweet drink; the rest is dried into small blocks. At home now, I’m shaving my chocolate blocks onto my morning oatmeal!
Hot chocolate was just an appetizer for mole and lunch. Dahlia has built an outdoor kitchen where she cooks for her extended family and for those of us she hosts for mole negro demonstration and mole-covered chicken lunch. Mole much anticipated since I have been making my own version of mole for awhile. Oy, did I have a lot to learn about making traditional mole.
First, I’ll need to build myself one of those open fire stoves and obtain a large terracotta cooking tray. Next, a metate and mano. While many of my ingredients showed up in Dahlia’s mole, my results come nowhere close using an electric stove, oven broiler and immersion blender. At least I brought home the requisite Mexican chocolate, which proved to be a more minor player in Dahlia’s mole negro than in my own.
I think what surprised me more than anything during Traditions Cuisine was learning that these women, and women like them throughout Oaxaca, cook on these open fires, using metates and manos on an everyday basis. Most do not have or do not often use , indoor kitchens with stoves of either gas or electric, both being quite expensive.
The day ended with parts a and b for mezcal.
I had not tasted mezcal prior landing in Oaxaca, the drink not being a bar familiar on the East coast, nor a dinner companion for any of my friends in New Mexico. At a Oaxaca restaurant earlier in the week, I “kissed” a shot as instructed; one doesn’t throw back a shot of mezcal. Part a was a stop at a distiller of mezcal. We saw each step, from the pit where the agave hearts are roasted, to the grinding pit where a big stone is hauled around by one-horse power to crush the roasted piñas, to the fermentation barrel to the still. Not sure that the Mexicans call it a still, but if you’re from the South, it’s a still! The longer the resulting mezcal is aged, the smoother it is; and of course the type of agave used to distill into mezcal makes a difference as well.
Part b was a tour of a family-owned agave farm and nursery. This farm is pretty young and since agave plants don’t mature for seven or more years, this farmer has a few years of patience and loving attention ahead of him. But he has been harvesting agave on another family farm in the hills, and a relative doing the distilling, so we were treated to another tasting. After some debate on how to get an unmarked bottle of clear liquid through TSA at aiport security points, I bought a bottle to bring home.
We balanced our day of living Mexican culture and cuisine with a trip to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit the archaeological site of Mitla ( Lyobaa to the Zapotec people), which was the main religious center for the Zapotec, pre-Spanish. Many of the walls and buildings stand on ancient platforms, all constructed with rock that fit together so perfectly, no cementing was needed. The Spanish, who arrived in the 1520s, deconstructed many of the walls and repurposed the stone into their chapels and church buildings. Under the overhangs that protected the original Zapotec walls from rain, the cochineal-based painting is still visible, outlining the stonework symbols and including faces and fantastic figures.
The rest of our week was spent in Oaxaca city, eating, people-watching and enjoying the daily entertainment on the Zocalo.