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Culinary theme vacations in Mexico: The intrepid cocinero

Daniel C. Schechter

The Intrepid Cocinero
These culinary theme vacations are based on the adage:
the way to a Mexican’s heart is through his stomach.

 

By Daniel C. Schechter

 

This article originally appeared in Business Mexico magazine.
For subscription information,
visit their website at http://www.amcham.com.mx/publica/busmex.html
or e-mail danielschechter@hotmail.com

A vacation in the kitchen? For aficionados of Mexican cuisine, learning to prepare a salsa guajillo is an exciting prospect, as much of an adventure as scaling the Popocatépetl volcano would be for a climber.

Theme-based vacations are proliferating, and adventurous travelers can now live on a houseboat in British Columbia, study Spanish in Quito, engage in close encounters with dolphins in the Bahamas, or celebrate the dawn of the new millenium on the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. Rather than just soaking up the sun or shopping for knickknacks, vacationers participating in such journeys can dig a little deeper and perhaps find a more memorable experience. Since food is very much at the core of Mexican culture, cooking offers a direct connection to the spirit of the place.

There are currently a number of options throughout Mexico for discovering Mexican cuisine, a rich blend of indigenous and old world traditions and ingredients. These packages vary in scale, cost and emphasis, but all promise a rich, out-of-the-ordinary Mexican experience.

Set on the banks of Lake Chapala, 30 miles south of Guadalajara, Jalisco’s Culinary Arts (U.S. tel.: (1-888) 712-7894, fax: (540) 951-8079, e-mail: jca@fspronet.com, Web site: http://www.fspronet.com/jca) is a sophisticated program co-founded by Joanne Goldwater, daughter of late Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and creator of a popular line of salsas.

The five-day itinerary combines demonstrations of cooking techniques with a cultural/historical component for an unforgettable vacation. Teams of American food-service professionals and local Mexican chefs share methods for preparing salsas, soups, salads and entrees, with a special emphasis on Jalisco cuisine. To gather the ingredients for these sessions, participants visit a nearby tortilla factory and the Mercado de Abastos, Jalisco’s largest wholesale food market. Adding another perspective to the program, history scholar Andrew Bosworth leads discussions of Mexico’s cultural and artistic antecedents in a series of coffee and dessert get-togethers at local restaurants.

"Any country you want to get into the heart of, you really have to do it through the food," says Lula Bertrán, who’s been running cooking seminars in Mexico City for a decade. The Mexican representative for the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Bertrán hosts a comprehensive tour of the world of Mexican food in one action-packed day. The Be My Guest for One Day program (Mexico tel.: (5) 202-7251, fax.: (5) 540-3633, e-mail: lbertran@hotmail.com) begins with "plenty of touching, smelling and tasting" at the Medellín market in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma, where butchers explain the mysteries of chicharrón and juice vendors demonstrate the concoction of their tropical cocktails.

Afterwards, Bertrán takes her guests to what she considers one of the finer exponents of classic Mexican cuisine in the capital, such as La Taberna del León or La Gran Casona, for her personal selection of traditional favorites. Later, participants join Bertrán at her atelier for a cooking class, in which she demonstrates the basics of preparing tamales, sauces and many other dishes, followed by a light dinner featuring the final results of the class. Bertrán also offers three and five-day programs for more serious eaters.

Culinary Adventures in Mexico (Tel.: (415) 25807, fax: (4117) 8228, e-mail: culadv@unisono.net.mx) combines hands-on cooking classes with the best of San Miguel de Allende, a colonial gem which Conde Nast Traveler lists as one of the top 20 worldwide travel desinations. In fact, organizer Kristen Rudolph, who owns two restaurants in San Miguel and taught cooking at the University of Massachusetts, says the classes are only one component of a truly varied one-week package that includes visits to local artisans’ workshops, shopping sprees, private jewelry showings, spa treatments, trips to Guanajuato and the abandoned mining town of Pozos, and "even a chance to check out local real estate opportunities."

Rudolph sets up her groups of six to 10 students in one of San Miguel’s restored colonial mansions--staffed with maid, gardener and cook--so "we have the kitchen and the whole house to ourselves," she says. Within this luxurious setting, guest chefs guide participants in the preparation of moles, pipians and other classic dishes; one class helps budding cocineros sort out the amazing variety of Mexican chiles.

Near Tlaxcala, Mexican Home Cooking (Tel./fax: (246) 80978, e-mail: jon_jarvis@dns.servired.com.mx) is comparatively low-key, but the experience it provides guests is quintessentially Mexican. Set in a hacienda-style home at the foot of magnificent Malinche, the recently established program is the brainchild of American Jon Jarvis and his wife Estela Salas Silva. Estela spent many hours of her formative years alongside her grandmother, Doña Eulogia Silva Castillo, in their Puebla kitchen. Thus, preparing salsas and using chiles became as natural to her as breathing, and running the kitchen of the San Francisco restaurant El Rebozo was a natural career move. On returning to Mexico, she and Jarvis initiated Mexican Home Cooking, and it’s been a hit with Bay-area vacationers, who appreciate the homey experience.

"We offer a little tranquility here and complement it with the flavor of Mexican food," says Estela’s brother Rogelio, who assists Estela in the spacious tiled kitchen of their home, located near the tiny village of Santiago Tlacochcalco, a few miles from colonial Tlaxcala. Students in the program spend two to 2½ hours each morning observing techniques, learning about ingredients such as nopal cactus and chiles mecos, and participating in the preparation of regional favorites like mole poblano and chiles en nogada. In one session, Estela may show how to make a squash-blossom mushroom soup, an adobo sauce for pork, and a salsa verde for chicken, including a demonstration of a metate--"the pre-Hispanic blender"--which has been used by successive generations of Estela’s family for nearly a century. And though her grandmother was accustomed to lengthy sessions in the kitchen, Estela acknowledges that busy city-dwellers can’t spare three or four hours to prepare dinner, and endeavors to include shortcuts in her demonstrations.

Afternoons, participants are free to roam the abundant attractions of the area--including the painted frescoes at nearby Cacaxtla--visit a local pulquería or just relax in the peaceful surroundings.

"What we try to do is begin with the basic elements--chilies, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs like cilantro and epazote--so later (students) can play with the flavors," says Rogelio. Indeed, one of the chief attractions of a cooking vacation is that you can take a part of Mexico back home with you and share it with your friends. Says Rogelio, "Our ancestors lived with such gusto, they savored life so much, and what they ate reflected that. We want to rescue this lust for life, trying to show people at least a little bit when they come to learn cooking how great it is to be alive."

Published or Updated on: November 1, 1998 by Daniel C. Schechter © 1998
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