OAXACA CULINARY TOUR
Success Suggests More Gastronomic Opportunities for Visitors to Southern Mexico
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
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.
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