A Travellerspoint blog

Oaxaca, into the Mixe district of the Sierra Norte region

The drive and some highlights

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Ecotourism as we know it in the Ixtlán district of the Sierra Norte, may never reach the Mixe because of its distance from the city of Oaxaca amongst other factors. However the Mixe still has many of the trappings which attract travelers who want to get away from urban life and see different and more natural sights. In terms of material culture, the district may in fact be superior. Certainly the drive, best handled as a two-day excursion, has much to offer beginning just as you start your ascent out of Oaxaca’s central valleys.

What’s in store should you venture off with your own or a rental vehicle for this 280 kilometer trek (round trip), are cave paintings; cascading springs; meals so fresh that the roadside eateries have no need for refrigeration; markets; by-products of the agave plant such pulque and mezcal; pottery in a style and color not often encountered in the state capital; and on a daily basis women wearing unique, regional dress.

The drive itself, without stops or side trips, takes upwards of 3 hours, beginning in Oaxaca and ending at the recommended final destination of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec. But it’s the journey which holds much of the allure.

Driving from Oaxaca to San Lorenzo Albarradas, situated on the cusp of the Mixe, takes about an hour, and is accessible by continuing along Highway 190 beyond Mitla. The first sight of interest is Xaagá, a small village whose main industry is loom-made cotton scarves, shawls and rebosos, as well as shirts and blouses, all wholesaled to middlemen or to merchants with stalls in Mitla, Tlacolula, el Tule or Oaxaca. Xaagá is also known for its 3,000 – 10,000 year old cave paintings. For between 50 and 100 pesos you can hire a local to guide you right up to them. The last several yards of the excursion are a difficult climb, so wear hiking boots or running shoes. Even if you don’t do the final leg, the drawings will be quite close to you and easy to photograph. You can continue up the dirt road from Xaagá to the bubbling springs and “waterfalls” of mineral deposits at Hierve el Agua. Great for swimming, in one of two poolings reaching just over 6’. Unless you start out quite early, it’s recommended that you stop at only one of these two sights, perhaps saving the other for the drive back, depending on time available. If it’s Hierve el Agua, it’s best to take the alternate route by returning to Highway 190, especially during rainy season, and in light of the ongoing dispute (an inconvenience only) between two villages each claiming the right to exact an entrance fee from tourists.

Back on Highway 190, after about 10 minutes you’ll pass San José del Paso on the left, another marginal community whose residents eke out a modest existence producing cotton textiles. A few minutes later you’ll encounter two quaint mezcal “factories,” directly across the highway from one another, much more rustic and traditional than the larger more commercial facilities catering to tourists, which one encounters en route to Mitla. On balance, one of the two small facilities will be in full production, with the ability to witness a couple of the steps in the process, be they the agave baking in an in-ground oven, a mule crushing the cooked by-product, fermentation in pine vats, or the firewood-fueled still with the purest of mezcal dripping into a plastic or copper recipient.

If you miss the process, about 10 minutes further along the highway, just before the San Lorenzo Albarradas cut-off, on the left you’ll come across another fábrica de mezcal, this one with a combined restaurant entitled Comedor El Tigre. No electricity and no refrigeration. Not needed. A very friendly family owns the place. Don’t expect a menu, but rather the mother or her daughter-in-law rhyming off what’s available for breakfast or lunch: memelitas, quesadillas, huevos al comal, huevos con chorizo, chorizo asado, tasajo, cecina, or a daily stew. All safe. Served with beans, and of course salsa made fresh before your eyes and served in its molcajete. Perhaps best of all is being able to pick up a tortilla straight from the comal over open flame.

About a kilometer up the road you´ll find a sign directing you to the right to Hierve el Agua (by the alternate route). The last 15 minutes of travel to Hierve el Agua is on dirt road, but a new paved road is being cut through the mountain range.

Until this point in time in the trip the vegetation, since the approach to Mitla, has been mixed scrub, cactus, and some crops under cultivation, with agave predominating.

Back on the main highway, the next hour is spent gradually climbing to Ayutla, the first town of any significance in the Mixe. Vegetation quickly changes from agave to pine and other conifers, and building construction from brick to wood. Large bags of pine charcoal for sale pepper the roadsides. On the approach to Ayutla, on your left you’ll discover the first of two or three pottery outlets. Stop by, make some purchases, or simply keep a mental note of prices since you’ll stop by another further along and can always return to this one on the return trip.

You’ll also begin to see trout farms, with large man-made tanks fed with a continuous flow of fresh water from the springs higher up. These aren’t for fishing, but rather for buying fresh fish to take home, or eat in an adjoining restaurant. On this trip we spent the night at Hotel Restaurante “Tek,” located on the left, just beyond Restaurante el Epazote. “Tek” served the best trout my wife has ever eaten, baked in a large aromatic leaf and sealed with foil, with a stuffing of melted quesillo, tomato, chile and other spices, and topped with chipotle mayonnaise. The hotel, purportedly the best the town has to offer, was basic to the extreme, with shared bath. Take your own sheets and pillow cases. For 200 pesos a night for a couple, though, it was hard to complain. Dinner for two with a couple of shots of mezcal, a beer and bottled water came in at 126 pesos.

On this particular Saturday, there were bare-back horse races on the outskirts of town, in a valley flecked with pools of fresh water suitable for family swimming. Our hotel hosts were kind enough to take us to the races. Unfortunately, the main sight in town, the cascading springs which are apparently in quite a picturesque setting, were inaccessible as a result of a dispute over water rights between this population and that of the village up the road, Tamazulapan del Espíritu Santo. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Tamazulapan is about a 15 minute drive from Ayutla. On the approach to the village, on the left you’ll see another terra cotta pottery outlet. The owner and her children are very congenial, and in fact offered to take us to a nearby village where the pottery is formed and fired. She also escorted us to the marketplace, showed us around, and asked that we make sure to not miss the pulque festival scheduled for later that Sunday.

Here you’re finally in the heart of Mixe country and will see women dressed in typical garb consisting of a dark reboso over the head, white blouse in one of a variety of styles and embroidered with tell-tale stitching, and either a long dark or white with embroidery skirt with palm leaf wrap-around belt over which a red, colorfully embroidered second belt of cotton is tied.

Until recently there was no market day in Tamazulapan, the townspeople attending Ayutla for its Sunday market. But now, as a result of the dispute, Tamazulapan has its own Sunday market. While traditional blouses can be purchased in the village at a reasonable price if bought from the women’s cooperative, there’s a better selection up the road in Santa María Tlahuitoltepec.

Tlahuitoltepec is about a 35 – 40 minute drive from Tamazulapan, the last 15 or so minutes on a dirt road, winding and dipping into the valley. Its market day is Saturday. The native clothing referenced above is manufactured at ranches fairly close to town. If interested in seeing the production process, ask a resident and you’ll be pointed in the right direction. Here, as in the other market towns, you’ll encounter a fermented sugar cane drink and fresh pulque. Curiously, mezcal is not made nearby, at least not that we could ascertain, yet pulque which comes from a different variety of agave, the pulquero, is a common beverage sold along the street and in marketplaces. The reason is likely that the pulquero tolerates a colder climate than the espadín variety of agave from which most mezcal is produced.

In any of the foregoing three towns and villages you can hike in the countryside, meet the local residents, and be warmly welcomed. They’re not as accustomed to encountering foreigners as are those of the other districts of the Sierra Norte, and many struggle with Spanish. You’ll find that the further you venture into the Mixe, the more soft-spoken the people become, strikingly more so than those encountered in the central valleys of Oaxaca.

The order of sights outlined above is simply a function of starting in Oaxaca and arbitrarily listing stops in the order that each village or town is initially encountered. By all means design your own itinerary, consider market days, when you want to stop at which restaurant and for bedding down, and most importantly based upon your particular interests, be they for craft purchases, hiking, or simply meeting and perhaps photographing the local folk. Without a doubt we’ll be back in the Mixe, stopping in different locales, wandering off the highway to the tiniest of hamlets, and assuredly reaching deeper into the district, ultimately arriving at Santiago Zacatepec.

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. He was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and became residents in 2004. Alvin writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, tours couples and families to the villages, and is an occasional consultant to documentary filmmakers.

Posted by titosarah 13:25 Archived in Mexico Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)


Try it; you'll like it.

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

If you’re a Wall Street Wizard it might be an integral part of your weekly routine. For the rest of us who have spent most of our lives in an American or Canadian city, we don’t think much about getting a shoeshine on the street…too expensive, too busy, or just not something that regular people do. And so naturally when I moved to Oaxaca a couple of years ago, along with me came the best Bar Mitzvah gift I’d received some 42 years ago, still ticking, the electric shoeshine machine. But now it gathers the dust of Juarez.

The Ritual
Young boys will approach while you’re sitting at a café on the Zócalo, but they don’t appear to have the experience or range of polish colors and other accessories required to enable you to get the most out of the service. Better to stop by one of the seasoned professionals and relax in a chair, feet raised to the optimum working level, and read a page or two from a local daily you’ll be offered. If you struggle with your Spanish, ask for “Noticias” and look for the selection from The Dallas Morning News. It’s usually part of the Classifieds.

With your pant legs raised and sock guards inserted, before going further your purveyor of polishes may ask you to choose, if he’s not quite certain that the dye he’s selected is right for those dark wine shoes. Then you’ll be ready to sit back under the shade of the enormous trees lining Oaxaca’s central square or elsewhere close to one of the city’s numerous marketplaces, while the balance of the ceremony unfolds.

Dust is briskly brushed off, following which a soapy liquid is applied then dried off with a soft cloth. The shoes are brushed once more, and then dye is applied with at least two different sizes of paint brush…the large for the tops and sides, and then the smaller for the sole edges and creases joining them to the sides. A colored paste is then rubbed on, followed by a clear cream. After a further brushing another layer of transparent cream is applied, and then a good buffing. We’re not finished yet. If there is any doubt about the color of the sole edges being correct, remedial measures are taken, to be sure. Are they to be black, or match the shoe tops? Another brushing ensues, then more of the transparent, still yet another brushing, and finally, the last hearty series of buffs. After sock guards are removed and newspaper has been returned, you’re ready to stand, look at yourself in the mirror at your feet and pay.

The Economics
At 10 pesos a pop there’s no better bargain in town to help you to look and feel better. It’s pretty well impossible to resist providing a tip if the ritual has consisted of anywhere close to the foregoing steps. Regardless of your personality type, budget or any other excuse you may come up with to not indulge, if you didn’t bring at least one pair of leathers with you, you’re missing out, unless you can find at least a couple of strips of cowhide on those runners.

I met my favorite shiner, Pedro (his name has been changed to protect him from la hacienda, the Mexican equivalent to our tax narcs), about a year ago when he was working as an unskilled laborer with aspirations of becoming an apprentice bricklayer. He was earning no more than 150 pesos a day when he could get work. An opportunity arose for him to start a new vocation whereby he could be his own boss and the maker of his financial fate, at least to some extent.

By Oaxacan standards these tradesmen don’t do all that badly in terms of eking out a living, considering that the average annual wage in the state according to the most recent figures is about 56,000 pesos.

Pedro works his designated spot daily from about 9 to 6, on the south side of Independencia across from the Museo de Pintores Oaxaqueños, at the Alameda de León. The location and chair are leased from his patron. He’s responsible for all the tints, polishes, rags and brushes, and for paying the weekly storage fee to have his tools of the trade secure at night, since he lives in a town perhaps a half hour’s bus ride away. Apart from paying for his polishes and related accessories, his costs including stowing at night-time total 675 pesos monthly. This 22 year old entrepreneur grosses on average 150 to 200 pesos per day, working six days, nine hours per, so we can now do the math (gross of 4,546.50, less 675, for a net of 3,871.50 pesos monthly, with a day off, and not working horrific hours). At about 46,500 pesos annually, while below state average, there’s the potential for more if evenings are worked…and he’s his own boss. However, when was the last time you fessed up to how much you actually earn? Furthermore, if a week arises when Pedro has an opportunity to work elsewhere and make more, all he has to do is tell his boss and his spot will be held for him, without penalty. From the perspective of his lessor, if Pedro is reliable on an ongoing basis, it’s better to forego a week’s rental income once in a while than lease to someone else who may prove to be less conscientious about fulfilling his contractual obligations. And of course there’s always the option of he himself working the spot for the week and retaining the gross.

When in Oaxaca there’s always more to do than even the most enlightening of tourist guidebooks can detail.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology from York University in Toronto in 1978, taught for a few years, and subsequently attended Osgoode Hall Law School. From 1986 to 2004 he was the litigation partner at Banks & Starkman, specializing in family law. Although a frequent traveler to Oaxaca since 1991, it was not until he ceased practicing law that he took up permanent residence in the state capital in 2004. In his spare time Mr. Starkman takes couple, families and small groups touring the craft villages, towns on their market days, ruins and other attractions including more off-the-beaten-track sights; writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca; translates from Spanish to English for a Oaxaca-based website; writes a legal column for a Canadian national antiques newspaper; is occasional consultant to documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca; and together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.

Posted by titosarah 13:22 Archived in Mexico Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

¡Hey Compadre!

One day they may be calling you, so be ready and learn what it means

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Whether you live in Oaxaca or vacation here on a regular basis, if you’ve begun to integrate into the community, eventually you’ll be asked to be a padrino or madrina (godparent) to an ahijado or ahijada (godchild), so you’d better familiarize yourself with “compadrazgo”, or co-godparenthood. In a nutshell, it’s a web of mutual rights and obligations of monumental importance throughout Mexico and elsewhere, both in urban centers and rural communities, cutting across and permeating virtually all socio-economic strata. One chooses who will be his or her lifetime compadres, the cornerstone of compadrazgo.

If someone is asked to be a padrino of a child upon baptism, it creates a new bond between two families, solidified by the creation of compadres. The parents and grandparents of the child become compadres to the padrinos (at times extending to their children…i.e. compadritos.) While family members are frequently asked to be padrinos, often friends, neighbors and business acquaintances are selected, as a means of strengthening ties which already exist. Academic writings, confirmed by my personal experience, suggest that while as a godparent you have lifelong obligations to your godchild which may or may not ever be called upon, it’s the ties between compadres which on a regular basis can come into play.

Let’s examine other occasions when you might find yourself asked to be a godparent, obligations which may fall upon you at the time, and finally how your new status as a compadre manifests, and keeps on ticking. Why you and not someone else? To understand we must look at the pool of prospective choices from which you may be selected. My perspective may appear cynical, but is fact based and proven, using a functionalism model.

Godparents are selected for both religious and secular rites of passage, for godchildren ranging from infant to adult. In Oaxaca the most common events where custom dictates godparents be chosen are marriages, school graduations, girls’ 15th birthday celebrations (quince años), confirmations, first communions and baptisms. Sometimes but not always, there may be a financial commitment involved, where for example as padrinos of a wedding or quince años a couple may be asked or simply volunteer to contribute to the cost of the affair. But don’t worry, financial obligations may be shared amongst several godparents. A case in point involved my wife and me. When asked to be godparents at the wedding of the son of then merely acquaintances, our mouths dropped, whereupon after a pregnant pause the request was concluded with “…of the rings.” This meant that we were responsible for buying the wedding bands, while another couple was being honored with being the primary padrinos of the newlyweds. In fact you can be asked to be godparents of (for purchasing) the cake, liquor, flowers, and the list goes on, depending often upon the financial ability of the people throwing the function, and in the case of individuals with resources, whether or not they want to bestow a special honor at that particular point in time of the already-existing relationship. You may be asked to make a speech, give a blessing, dance with the bride/groom or quince añera, almost always being an active participant depending on circumstances. If you’re not Catholic, don’t take communion or kneel, let your soon-to-be compadres know, even if it appears there won’t be a religious component to the proceedings. There will likely be a padre involved. For example, on occasion one finds padrinos chosen within the context of the opening of a new business. As part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the padre may be in attendance to give and direct blessings. Personally, this Jew doesn’t object to having a little holy water splashed on him by the padre...as long as it’s as a result of inadvertence.

Padrinos are almost always selected from people of the same or a higher socio-economic class. For example, a factory worker may select the supervisor of her department to be her daughter’s padrino at a baptism, but the corollary would rarely occur. A maker of alebrijes in Arrazola may ask a wealthy patron / shop-owner from Mexico City to be godmother to her daughter and future son-in-law at their wedding, but the opposite would be out of the question. And you may be similarly asked, by a Oaxacan friend / neighbor, a perhaps perceived equal, but for different reasons. Functions regarding the foregoing three examples? Bonds of friendship are acknowledged and strengthened for future utility; a patron-customer relationship is affirmed with comfort in now knowing that it will continue ad infinitum; and there will be the perception that a boss won’t fire a compadre.

Your status as a compadre begins immediately, and you may never again be referred to by your name, but rather “compadre.” You’ll experience the metamorphosis of your status, and will be treated differently. As an otherwise extranjero, you may feel as though you’ve come of age in Oaxaca. Compadres give and receive more invitations. Favors may be asked of you more readily and of a different type, with an expectation of compliance, if not the most careful consideration…and just as importantly, you will come to feel more comfortable making requests of your compadres…borrowing a truck, helping out with an arduous household chore, lending money, housing a relative temporarily, providing counsel in trying times, receiving preferential treatment in business or politics. By the end of our first year of permanent residency in Oaxaca, of the foregoing we lacked personal experience in only the matter of politics.

In terms of the broader societal importance of compadrazgo, the number of kinship ties you have is relatively finite, and usually beyond your control. However, for as many life stages and changes as may arise, one’s immediate family has the opportunity to extend non-relative or “fictive” kinship ties through deliberate selection. One is able to build and nurture through mutual requests and compliance innumerable economic and social alliances.

Here in Mexico no one ever utters “you can pick your friends but not your family.” The strategies and decision-making processes involved in determining who would make appropriate compadres for a family, and why, are absolutely fascinating. I’ve touched upon only some of the dynamics. The internet and traditional anthropological literature are exhaustive and should be consulted by those interested or thrust into the system.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology from York University in Toronto in 1978, taught for a few years, and subsequently attended Osgoode Hall Law School. From 1986 to 2004 he was the litigation partner at Banks & Starkman, specializing in family law. Although a frequent traveler to Oaxaca since 1991, it was not until he ceased practicing law that he took up permanent residence in the state capital in 2004. In his spare time Mr. Starkman takes couple, families and small groups touring the craft villages, towns on their market days, ruins and other attractions including more off-the-beaten-track sights; writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca; translates from Spanish to English for a Oaxaca-based website; writes a legal column for a Canadian national antiques newspaper; is occasional consultant to documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca; and together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.

Posted by titosarah 12:54 Archived in Mexico Tagged educational Comments (0)

Cooking lessons with Nora Valencia in Oaxaca

Cocina con Nora

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

If you absorb only a minute fraction of what Nora’s grandmother taught her about Oaxacan cookery over the course of about four decades, you’ll leave with not only a fount of knowledge about ingredients and techniques, but also a profound understanding of the history and geographical variation of all that’s Oaxacan cuisine today … and of course completely satiated by the end of your gourmet meal.

Oaxacan Nora Valencia enraptures her students with informative stories and humorous anecdotes peppered throughout her class about her abuelita’s insights into food preparation and ingredient combinations. But she also confesses, while walking from the market, that hers was a long journey in arriving at a “classroom” environment upwards of ten years ago: “What my grandmother and mother taught me wasn’t nearly enough. My coming of age as an instructor required a lot of research and travel, in the nature of sociological and anthropological investigation, some chemistry and physics, and even botany. And I always tried to get my hands on as many old books as possible about Latin American foodstuffs, and wherever possible concerning Mexican and Oaxacan plants and herbs and pre-Hispanic recipes. There’s one book in particular I still need, called ‘Conquista y Comida’ … maybe you’ll come across it at a local book fare and let me know.”

The lesson day begins at 9:30, with students meeting and chatting briefly with one another and Nora, in a relaxed informal setting at her B & B, La Casa de Mis Recuerdos. At about 10, taxis arrive to take all to Mercado de La Merced, one of, if not the most popular of the daily markets in downtown Oaxaca … for Oaxacans. About an hour is spent in the market, walking from stall to stall, where you learn, variously, about indigenous origins and history, and current uses, of dried and fresh chiles, nuts, tomatoes, cheeses, breads, an abundance of herbs, and much more. You come away with an appreciation of how Oaxacan cuisine has arrived in the 21st century, as a result of a melding of the use of pre-Hispanic produce and meats, with imports first brought over from Spain during the conquest period.

Nora imparts an understanding of the difference between produce found in the permanent market stalls (most often purchased by the vendors from growers or wholesalers with large operations), and that sold by mainly women sitting on the ground who have grown the fruits, vegetables and herbs in their own towns and villages: “We now use the term organic, for what we have traditionally referred to as criollo, which is what these ladies sell. But some of the large stalls also have criollo produce, so watch for it.”

Nora reveals both here and several times later on in the kitchen setting, what ingredients, more easily accessed back home, can be substituted for what she buys in the market such as local varieties of green and red tomatoes, specific herbs, chiles, and even masa: “If you can only buy packaged Maseca brand corn flour in Oregon, and you’re making tamales, then add a bit of cornmeal to give it the proper texture. Feel the difference between the two types of masa we find here in the market, one for tortillas and the other for tamales. And you may already know, we use a lot a hoja santa in our recipes, and it’s only available in some states, such as Florida, so if you can’t find it, try using … .”

Rather than purchase everything at this market visit, Nora has already purchased most the day before, and what she does buy during this brief tour she leaves at each stall and picks up when we’re ready to depart. “Now I’m going back to some of the puestos to pick up what we bought, so let’s meet out front in 10 – 15 minutes. Meanwhile you can go and buy some of those rarer dried chiles to take home, that spicy paste that I told you I like to keep in my purse when visiting the U.S., and maybe even some gusano worms that we’ll be using to make a salsa later on. You can buy a string of 100 and wear it as a necklace for customs.” Nora passes on invaluable advice about which ingredients you should be able to take over the border, and what freezes well (i.e. quesillo and chapulines --- Oaxacan string cheese and grasshoppers).

We walk to her nearby home on a quaint cobblestone road, where the balance of the class will unfold. We’ll spend the rest of the morning and afternoon in her traditional, painted-tile (talavera) kitchen with center island, and her dining and sitting rooms opening onto a courtyard lushly landscaped with trees, vines and flowering shrubs. A feeling of comfort envelopes, like you’re at home, because in a sense you are, made to feel as welcomed as possible. With only one assistant, Minerva, I marvel at the intense work that has gone into the pre-preparation of some dishes, and more importantly how Nora must be “on” 100% of the time, and attentive to each of the ten apprentices, ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties, for upwards of six hours.

It’s effectively all Nora, teaching, directing, reassuring, reminding, and correcting. With mainly novices in this class this day, making dessert tamales, one of the two most complex recipes of the day, isn’t as easy as simply mixing up some dough with pineapple chunks and wrapping it in corn husk. Three mixtures are prepared, placed into the husks, and then folded in a most gingerly fashion: “Sorry, but this will have to be another patchwork, so we’ll combine two into one, or better yet, how about just using an extra husk to hold it all together.” There’s the masa mixture, the coconut / milk concoction, pineapple / sugar / cinnamon fusion, plus raisins to boot. “Now see that I’m not spilling out the water from boiling the pineapple, because I can use it another time instead of just water, to make a fresh fruit juice (agua fresca). It’s already sweet and flavorful.”

Where a component has been prepared prior to our arrival, Nora instructs how it’s been made, such as with the chicken and beef stocks. When there are optional ingredients, Nora not only tells us what we can substitute based on personal preferences, but also explains regional variations. And while we’re preparing mole amarillo, she educates a propos the fallacy of there being seven moles: “Some think of siete moles because we at times refer to seven regions in the state. But if you stop and consider, in Puerto Escondido for example, where shrimp are often used to create stock and as the protein in amarillo, shouldn’t we consider this mole a class or variety onto itself?”

As we’re preparing our mole amarillo, we’re tasting as the flavor subtly changes, adding hoja santa, the spice mixture, the masa which, it’s explained, absorbs and reduces some of the heat. A fiery salsa is almost magically converted into a complex mole, a creation one is hard-pressed to encounter when commercially prepared. “How spicy does everyone like to eat? You know I don’t promise anything because peppers are like lottery tickets: you never know. I used to say to my grandmother, let me measure, but she would say no, use your eyes, your nose, and your mouth to measure.” Nora continues that the same ingredient is often different in intensity, flavor, and how it absorbs, as for example with chicken … it’s not always the same.

While she emphasizes historical and regional contextualization in the use of ingredients, and the resultant variation in recipes, Nora also ensures that technique is appropriately stressed in class. She draws participants into hands-on learning, encouraging each to contribute to the creation of every plate.

Printed recipe sheets are distributed, but not until the meal has been served. Nora opines that it’s better for students to first watch, listen, participate, and ask questions, rather than read and make notes. As the meal concludes, she then reviews the recipes and fields questions regarding any doubts.

By about 2 p.m. we’re ready to sample some mezcal, and then sit down and indulge in our creations:

1) An appetizer of fresh squash blossoms stuffed with a mixture of requesón cheese,
ham, onion and nuts;
2) Consumé of hoja santa, with squash blossom, quesillo, garlic, etc.;
3) Rice á la mint;
4) Mole amarillo with chicken and steamed vegetables;
5) A garnish of sliced onion in a lime juice vinaigrette;
6) Salsa of green tomato with gusanos de maguey;
7) Fresh fruit juice of orange, lime and cucumber;
8) Dessert tamales with pineapple, coconut and raisin.

Even Nora’s grandmother would be hard-pressed to produce such a diverse, delectable and complete comida.

Cocina con Nora is located at Aldama 205, Barrio de Jalatlaco, in downtown Oaxaca. Maximum class size is 10. You can register for Nora’s classes by calling (951) 515-5645 or e-mailing her at: misrecue@hotmail.com.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sites, is a consultant to film production companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) .

Posted by titosarah 12:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged educational Comments (0)

BB Sabores Cooking School in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxacan cooking lessons at their best

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

If visitors to Oaxacan cooking school La Casa de los Sabores came away with nothing more than great recipes and a gastronomic meal rich in unique herb- and spice-accented flavor combinations that are the hallmark of Oaxacan cuisine, they would leave fully satisfied. But a visit with owner and chef extraordinaire Pilar Cabrera also inspires and sates travelers with a sensual day-long immersion into sights, sounds, smells and, yes, tastes and time-tested recipes of southern Mexico.

As always, a recent culinary odyssey with Pili, as she is known, began at La Casa de los Sabores first thing in the morning – at 9:30 a.m. Over the next few hours, she introduced me and the others in the class to the wisdom and experience of her great matriarchal culinary tradition. Pili learned the basics and the subtleties, including the mysteries of the famed seven moles, from her grandmother, who learned from her grandmother before her. She is a Oaxaca-born master of southern Mexico cookery as well as international epicurean trends, capable of sharing the secrets of preparing the most multifarious meal with novice and expert alike – in English and in Spanish.

Our day began with Pili's informal talk about the menu and the foods she was going to introduce us to in one of Oaxaca’s colorful markets. The extra attention to the key ingredients of Oaxacan cuisine kept us spellbound. “What we will achieve today with the chilis," she told us, "is hot and tropical … with the Chile de agua, you will see we use it not only for flavor but color as well, and I will teach you how we keep this beautiful, brilliant green.”

Once prepared with this knowledge, we all embarked on a shopping trip to the well-known marketplace, Mercado de La Merced, armed with multihued bolsas – market bags – to carry the compras – purchases. Pili had readied a partial shopping list, but, she advised us, she always adds "surprises," such as fresh foodstuffs which peasant women from the mountains sometimes bring down.

“When you have a chance to find something real special or unusual, you buy and incorporate into the comida," she explained. "Today, for instance, we look for mushrooms, because they grow so beautifully in the rainy season. Also, we will see what kind of fresh fruit we can use for the dessert.”

Her insights into the unique stores and small factories enriched the short walk to the market. A rich bouquet drew us into a mill that was making chocolate from scratch. As Pilar told us about the ingredients – cacao, cinnamon, almonds and sugar – the owner welcomed us with, “do you want to taste?”

The lesson began in earnest when Pilar began methodically searching through the indoor and outdoor portions of the marketplace and exchanging pesos for its plethora of fresh produce.

“Look at that lady sitting there, what she has in those bowls," she said. "She just brought those raspberries and blackberries from the Sierra Juarez. We can use them for the dessert. Notice how fresh and beautiful. The mushrooms beside them, see the size, how big and the bright orange color … this is the time of year, but not for our recipe today … Over here, we don’t buy the big green tomatillos. I prefer the little ones grown locally because they are not acidy like the others, and they have much more flavor, perfect for the salsa we are preparing today.”

She encouraged us to smell the herbs as she explained their use in particular Oaxacan dishes. “Today we use this hierba santa for the mole,” she said as she was examining samples of the fragrant leaf until she'd found the best and freshest for storage in one of our bolsas. “But we also use it to wrap fish and make tamales."

Lynet who had been in Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast for six months, expressed the wish of many as she lamented, “I wish I’d been in this class at the beginning of our trip.”

Our enthusiasm and our appetites grew once we returned to Doña Pili’s well-equipped, spacious kitchen. Its wide counters, food preparation island and eight-burner gas stove opening onto the lush courtyard dining area made this cocina into an ideal classroom.

While we were reviewing printed recipe sheets for the dishes we were about to prepare, she displayed our purchases in baskets filled with the components of each recipe to help us learn why we bought what. Then we spent the next two hours preparing a sumptuous four-course meal.

Mary, her sous-chef, did preparatory work such as halving limes, slicing chilies and preparing chicken stock and poultry for the mole, freeing Pili to teach us the rituals and secrets of Oaxacan culinary seduction. Sparks from Pilar’s hearth of experience ignited even the most learned in the class as she pointed, touched, and passed around each item we purchased, telling us how it would be incorporated into the meal.

Once the actual cooking began, she put her bilingualism to good use, giving instructions and asking questions in one language, then repeating it in the other, as required by some of her visitors. “Necesito otro ayudante para quesillo, I need another helper for the cheese.” Pilar might as well be a Maestra de Español, a Spanish teacher to boot.

Everyone learned each task and participated in the preparation of virtually all menu items. And as the group peeled, diced and sautéd, Pili's gems of information flowed on.

We learned much more than how to achieve flavor. Pilar taught us techniques on how to attain desired tones and textures: “A lot of people ask me about cleaning mushrooms,” she said at one point, demonstrating the correct technique. “Now watch to see how we clean and seed this kind of chili,” she pointed out while preparing chile guajillo for the mole. “Once we start cooking these chile de agua, we need to remember to always check them and turn them constantly.”

“Look for the hot part of the comal … now this is when you know when to turn it over,” she said while demonstrating the art and science of making tortillas.

Every once in a while a new recipe rolled off the tip of her tongue as we worked … other dishes we could prepare with this particular mole; different fillings for the quesadillas such as potato, chorizo or huitlacoche, the exotic corn mold ... the texture we would want for the corn masa if we were making tamales rather than tortillas.

Soon, aprons removed, we were ready to feast. But first – “now before we sit down, remember in the market I told you there were two types of gusano worm? Here they are, so who wants to try?" she asked. “Now know about mezcal. Taste this one Alvin brought, and tell us how it seems to you. Here’s another kind. What do you think is different about this one?”

We sat down at a table exquisitely set with local hand-made linens, dishes and stemware. Bottles of Mexican and Chilean red wine were already breathing. The fine music of Oaxacan songstress Lila Downs serenaded us in the background.

Pilar reminded us that her grandmother and other relatives usually prepare their comidas with meat and all vegetables mixed together in the mole, a plate of rice on the side, and a bowl of broth. But our meal, like all the recipes she prepares with visitors at La Casa de los Sabores, would be her modern take on all the elements and flavor combinations of the best that contemporary Oaxacan cookery has to offer.

It was a celebration of every ingredient. We began with wild mushroom, onion, tomato, chili and cheese stuffing in the quesadillas de champiñones (mushroom quesadillas), complemented perfectly by smoky salsa verde asada (green sauce from the grill) served in its molcajete. Then it was time to calm our palates with bright yellow crema de flor de calabaza (cream of squash blossom soup), garnished with a drizzle of real cream, toasted calabaza seeds and indeed fresh squash blossoms. The main course or plato fuerte was mole amarillo – tender slices of chicken breast atop a sea of aromatic deep saffron-colored mole, accompanied by a medley of crunchy-fresh steamed vegetables. To conclude, arroz con leche (rice pudding), speared with a length of wild vanilla bean and crowned with berries that had been picked only the day before.

I left convinced that the grandest chefs at the most trendy Manhattan beaneries would be hard-pressed to compete with this petite Oaxaqueña's ability to marry the region’s complex cooking with post-modern attention to color, texture and flare. For Pilar Cabrera, it comes naturally. For the rest of us, it comes with a visit to her home.

La Casa de los Sabores Cooking School is located at Libres 205, in downtown Oaxaca. Maximum class size is 8, with private lessons available upon request. You can register for Pilar’s classes by calling (951) 516-5704 or e-mailing her at: bbsabores@prodigy.net.mx. ( Websites: http://www.laolla.com.mx ; http://www.mexonline.com/sabores.htm )

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.

Posted by titosarah 12:46 Archived in Mexico Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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