Chocolate, Mole and Mezcal, Oh my!

 

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.

juxtaposition of centuriesWhile 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.

Mole - Roasting chiles and tomatoes for mole negro

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.

Tasting mescal at an agave farm

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.

Scamps with Tails

I kneeled (knelt?) down to get a better camera angle on the little guy scooting up the bamboo post.  Next thing I heard was a lot of giggling from behind me and, glancing over my shoulder, saw the attendant grabbing a long prehensile tail and pulling.   Some little scamp had jumped up on my fanny pack and was unzipping one of the pockets!  If he’d been successful, he would surely have enjoyed my emergency-snack LaraBar!  There’s no doubt that those little fingers would have had the snack wrapper torn open in no time.

The Guadalajara Zoo is on par with the zoo I grew up visiting: Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC.  It is a smaller version of the San Diego Zoo, with trains to zip you from one end of the zoo to the other and an overhead SkyZoo, a cable ride with gondolas.  A highlight for me was the walk-through enclosure that housed a dozen nimble-fingered monkeys, neighbored by another walk-through enclosure that was home to an extended family of lemurs.  The day we visited was unusually warm so many of the animals were lulled by the heat to somnolence.  But not these little monkeys.

Guadalajara, like most of catholic Latin America, has a number of interesting and stunning cathedrals or temples as they are sometimes called.  A second highlight for us was the Expiatory Temple or Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, listed on TripAdvisor as the #1 must-visit.  Truly an amazing and breath-taking architectural achievement.

The Guadalajara Cathedral is on the main square in Guadalajara Centro; it also houses, in what may have been the monastery, a museum of sacred art.  Up a final set of stairs and opening from a small gallery dedicated to primitive art of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a door leads to the roof of the cathedral overlooking Centro from the pigeons’ viewpoint as well as a perspective from the foot of the smaller dome and steeple.

I stopped at a busy fruit and vegetable market to buy local fruit. Mangoes were fat as cantaloupes, the berries were picked not 1/2 hour away, and pineapples were fragrantly beckoning, and all at amazingly low prices compared to what we pay here for raspberries, blueberries and, lord knows, for fresh pineapple.  I couldn’t figure out the system, couldn’t read the signs and couldn’t ask for help.  All was in Spanish, of course.  I tentatively stepped up, caught the eye of one of the vendors, and pointed at what I wanted.  I can at least say uno and dos.  The vendor bagged my choices but instead of handing the bags to me to go pay, she gave me instead a little slip of paper with a stamped number.  I stepped to a window on the side of the market; or I should say I stepped into the crowd at the window on the side.  There seemed to be two lines and everyone but me knew which line to be in.  One and then another and then two more people noted my stamped number and tried to point me in the right direction — all in Spanish, of course.  Somehow just by the energy of their helpfulness, I ended up in the right line, got to the window and handed over my number.  That cashier retrieved my bag and told me what I owed; need I say…in Spanish, of course.  Previous experience led me to proffer a large bill and gratefully receive my change with my purchases.

Mangoes

I’m not complaining that many on the street and in the markets did not speak English, or very little.  I’ve traveled enough to know that English is not a forgone assumption and Americans shouldn’t expect that everyone should speak as we do, even though many American tourists do expect just that.  I was reminded that, before heading south of the border, I didn’t spend enough time  brushing up on my elementary Spanish from years-gone-by Adult Ed classes. And people everywhere — on the street, in the stores, at the markets — are willing to help and forgive if we at least have a set of basic phrases, mostly “Please” and “Thank You.” Plus, I know the Point and Pray method of cross cultural communication! Mi Español no es mui bien; lo siento, solo Englais.

Colorado Chelsea

Hikes and Travels in Colorado and Beyond

Mark All My Words

True Stories of Nature, Culture, and Everything in Between

Adventures Of A New Floridian

Join me on my adventures through life!

Orion Bright Star

Transformational Wisdom

%d bloggers like this: