Culinary Tour in Oaxaca: Sunday and Monday
Final two days and future culinary tours in Oaxaca
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
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.
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About the author
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.