Oaxaca Culinary Tour Success Suggests More Gastronomic
Opportunities for Visitors to Southern Mexico
shrimp at Los Danzantes
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, 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 whats 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 weeks 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
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 Festivals Iron Chef competition (as it turned out,
she also agreed to judge the festivals 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 Oaxacas 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
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 weeks 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 detre, 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 peoples
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 its 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
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 ones
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 pigs 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 Oaxacas 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 chauffeur
her to one of Oaxacas 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
Most participants had arrived by Wednesday, late afternoon,
in time for Pilar Cabreras walking tour of downtown
sights. This enabled group members to gain some perspective
on the magic of Oaxaca and to begin planning to how they might
want to spend the leisure hours built into the tour.
Dinner was at Oaxacan institution La Olla, Pilars own
restaurant. The large candlelit table on the roof of the restaurant
provided a special view of Oaxaca at night.
[For analysis and critique of the food served at these more
upscale establishments, Ill leave it to the food writers
and critics on the tour who are better note-takers and possess
greater objectivity and a much more refined palate than this
The morning began with a visit to Tlapanochestli, the research
station, museum and teaching facility devoted to understanding
cochineal (cochinilla), the tiny insect which has played an
integral part in the history of Oaxaca because of its unique
quality; when dried and crushed it yields a strong red dye,
which with the addition of lime juice and or baking soda changes
to tones of orange, pink and purple. Of particular interest
for tour participants was its application as a natural colorant
for restaurant foods. While sampling a refreshing gelatin
/ water / sugar based dessert colored with cochineal, our
foodies had an opportunity to see familiar grocery store products
dyed with the insect (Campari, Danone Yoghurt, Campbell and
Knorr soups, make-up and lipstick) and briefly discussed the
sensitive issue of adequacy of ingredient labeling.
Then off to San Bartolo Coyotepec in the comfy 18-seater van
equipped with bucket seats and A/C. Don Valente Nieto, son
of the famed ceramicist Doña Rosa, provided an upbeat,
informative and entertaining demonstration of the methods
used by his parents and his family members today, in fashioning
the well-known folk art form known as barro negro (black pottery).
Tour members can now rightly claim that they saw the same
demo that Don Valente provided to Jimmy Carter and Nelson
Rockefeller, whos photos alongside Doña Rosa
and Don Valente grace the showroom walls.
The humble abode and workshop of Armando Lozano, sculptor
and master jeweler of hand-made bronze necklaces, earrings
and bracelets, provided the first opportunity for the group
to see how most Oaxacans live, and eke out a modest existence.
The contrast between the quality workmanship of the family,
and its lifestyle, was remarkable, overshadowed only by the
welcoming nature of the Maestros daughter-in-law who
offered the jewelry for sale.
The final two touring stops of the day were directly devoted
to food and drink. Lunch was at the unique roadside eatery,
Caldo de Piedra, where chef César prepared a tomato
and herb based broth which he then poured into a large half
gourd for each diner. To each he then added ones choice
of either fresh red snapper, a healthy compliment of jumbo
shrimp, or a combination of the two. Red hot rocks from an
open flame were then placed in each gourd, and individual
meals were thusly cooked, the rocks causing the broth to boil
and fish to poach. Only large, hand-made tortillas
from the comal and quesadillas amply filled
with mushrooms and squash blossoms were needed to compliment
the meal, of course along with large pitchers of freshly squeezed
orange juice spiked with soda water (naranjadas).
Oaxaca is known for its mezcal (mescal), so what better
way to have an introduction to the spirit than to head to
Matatlán, World Capital of Mezcal, and learn
from a producer with from a five generation pedigree of
palenqueros (mezcal producers). Enrique Jiménez
welcomed the tour into his parents traditional family
compound where all witnessed the quaint and primitive production
methods, and then imbibed several varieties of mezcal
with chasers of lime and orange wedges, and sal de gusano
(the salt, chile and ground up gusano worm mixture),
together with quesillo and ricotta-like queso.
Then to the familys brand new state-of-the-art facility
where Enrique explained his new method of mezcal production.
The process dramatically improves quality control while retaining
the richest qualities of mezcal produced the traditional
way only smoother.
Dinner at La Catrina de Alcalá provided a nice contrast
to earlier events and tastings in the day, with classy Chef
Juan Carlos on hand to introduce each dish. Tour participants
were so taken with the selection that towards the end of the
evening when asked if they wanted to move on to dessert, or
perhaps try a venison dish, almost in unison each opted for
Cooking classes by Pilar Cabrera are always highly enjoyable
and educational, beginning with a visit to Mercado de La Merced
for buying fresh produce, through the cooking phase, and finally
indulging in the fruits of ones labor. The entirely
of the class has been described elsewhere by me, so no more
will be noted.
Each tour participant thereafter had a free afternoon to explore
more of downtown, rest, and then dine at a recommended restaurant.
After a relatively relaxing Friday it was back on the road
for another day of touring. At the handmade knife and cutlery
workshop of Apolinar Aguilar, the group watched the master
work his wonders, heating recycled metals with the aid of
a primitive yet effective stone and mud oven, then forging
with only a mallet striking the red-hot metal over an anvil,
and finally the all-so-critical tempering stage.
Knife blades are polished to a brilliant shine without lacquer
or nickel. Purchasers on this day had an opportunity to have
inscriptions engraved on the blades of knives they purchased.
In anticipation of the culinary tour, Apolinar had prepared
a selection of paring knives, a turkey carving set, a cake
cutting ensemble, and bread knives. In addition to the more
traditional Bowie hunting knives, swords and machetes, he
also had on hand more unusual collector pieces such as knives
with deer antler handles and letter openers with blade undulations
of the Indonesian genre.
In the tiny village of San Antonino participants were provided
with an opportunity to select from the finest imaginable hand-embroidered
blouses and dresses cotton, silk, and blends.
Lunch was in the rustic homestead of the Navarro family, the
sisters and mother known for their fine work on the back strap
loom, and brother Gerardo for his watercolors. But the main
reason for stopping in Santo Tomás Jalieza was to dine
with the family in their Eden-like surroundings, and witness
their preparation of tasajo on a small hibachi-style
grill, and all the steps required to make sopa de guias,
a broth made of all the parts of the zucchini plant, and a
small piece of corn for added starch. The welcoming nature
and all-round hospitality of the family was as impressive
as their simple yet immaculately kept rural home and grounds.
The tour day concluded with a visit to the workshop of Jacobo
Angeles, master carver and painter of alebrijes, for
a demonstration (the particulars and details of which are
once again available online as part of a lengthy dissertation
about woodcarving in Oaxaca). However what tourists to the
region never get to experience, and what Jacobo had arranged
for the group, was a lesson in making aguas frescas of
limón and jamaica (hibiscus flower),
and the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, known as the drink-of-the-gods.
After a late afternoon rest back at Las Bugambilias Bed &
Breakfast, the group welcomed the leisurely evening walk to
Casa Oaxaca, purportedly the best high end restaurant in Oaxaca.
Unfortunately on this night chef / owner Alejandro Ruíz
was somewhat preoccupied entertaining a group of visiting
chefs from diverse Latin American cities, so in this writers
opinion the experience was somewhat disappointing. Word has
it that for the next culinary tour the organizers might pass
on Casa Oaxaca unless an acknowledgement of the shortcomings
and an assurance of better next time are both forthcoming.
Each and every participant in a culinary tour of Oaxaca should
expect and receive nothing but the best, of course subject
to unforeseen circumstances.
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
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
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 days 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 Trillings
cooking school to make mole chichilo. Once again, Ms.
Trillings 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 Oaxacas 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 weeks 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
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
) combines the best attributes of quality downtown Oaxaca
hotels (comfort and service) with the quaintness and personal
touch of country inn style Oaxaca lodging. Casa Machaya has
the added advantage of Oaxaca tours offered by co-owner Alvin,
the Oaxaca destinations expert for a major international travel
website, and consultant to documentary film production companies
working in Oaxaca and its central valleys. Alvins more
than 160 reviews and articles about life and cultural traditions
in the state attest to his knowledge of and passion for Oaxaca.
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