I came to the small mountain town of Tepoztlán, just 70km (42mi) south of Mexico City -- a town that Frommer's Mexico calls "one of the strangest and most beautiful in Mexico" -- to attend a week-long cooking class at Cocinar Mexicano (www.cocinarmexicano.com). Cocinar Mexicano is the brainchild of transplanted New Yorker Magda Bogin, who first visited Tepoztlán when she was a teenager. Like so many people I met during my stay, Magda felt drawn to this place, to the energy she felt here. Perhaps it's a mysticism imbued by the prehispanic Tepozteco pyramid, on a mountaintop overlooking the town. Tepoztlán wears that New Age heart on its sleeve -- homeopathic pharmacies and health-food stores coexist happily alongside internet cafes, tortilla stands, and satellite-dish companies.
The town is famous throughout Mexico as a symbol of fierce civic pride and independence. In 1994, a multi-national firm secretly negotiated a deal to build a Jack Nicklaus golf course and residential development on communally held lands; part of the plan involved construction of a heliport and a funicular to the top of Tepozteco pyramid. When the project came to light, townspeople joined forces, ran the city government out of town (hanging them in effigy), and occupied the Ayuntamiento (town hall), sealing off the city limits and repelling state military forces until the developers backed out of the project. I arrived in town on a bright, warm Saturday afternoon. The weekend mercado (market) was in full swing; vendors selling crafts and jewelry lined both sides of the main drag, Avenida Revolución.
My cab driver slowed as we approached the town cemetery, crowded with brightly painted tombs. A group of horses and ponies had ambled into the street, where they loitered, unfazed, as drivers -- apparently also unfazed -- tooted gently and maneuvered around them.
"Who owns those horses?" I asked, in fractured Spanish.
The driver shrugged. "No one."
"So they're wild?" He nodded. Wild horses hang out in town? "What do they eat?"
Again, he shrugged. "Lo que quieran." Whatever they want. He eased onto the grass and we bumped along until the road was clear again.
Clearly the horses had this "independent spirit" thing down pat.
The group assembled for our first dinner at El Ciruelo (Zaragoza 17; tel. 739/395-1203), the best restaurant in town. The restaurant opened onto a large courtyard filled with lush potted foliage and topped by a soaring bandshell meant to keep patrons dry without obscuring a fantastic view of the Tepotzteco mountains.
Magda ordered a selection of appetizers on our behalf. I devoured a salad layered with nopal (the paddles of a prickly pear cactus), goat cheese, and huitlacoche. Huitlacoche is often translated as "a type of mushroom," to avoid freaking visitors out when they discover what it really is: corn smut. Whatever you want to call it, it's fantastic -- dark, rich, densely flavored.
Someone passed around a plate of coaster-sized tortillas smeared with guacamole and topped with what looked like dark chopped meat -- pulled pork, perhaps.
"Tlayuditas de Chapulines," Magda said. "Tlayuditas are the local form of tostadas."
"And the stuff on top? The chapulines?" I asked.
Magda smiled slyly. "Roasted grasshoppers. An important source of protein in pre-Hispanic times."
Others in the group munched happily. I stared at my plate with concern. Bugs?
Magda must have sensed my nervousness, because as I screwed up my courage I heard her say, with altogether too much good humor, "What would the first night be without a hazing ritual?"
I picked up the tlayudita -- and, it has to be said, scraped 75 percent of the grasshoppers off the top -- and took a bite. Crunchy. Very salty. And . . . grassy tasting.
I finished it. Next stop, Fear Factor.
The next morning we toured Tepoztlán's bustling mercado with Teresa Bello, Magda's second in command. Hundreds of stalls crowded the zócalo (main square), in front of the cathedral. Though arts and crafts are a big draw, food stalls command most of the mercado's real estate. Tables piled high with produce saturated the scene with color -- bright yellow squash blossoms tied in nosegays; figs dewy and purple; papayas carved into flowers for a glimpse of the lush orange fruit within. Several women sat patiently on their tarps, metal scoops in hand, behind small pyramids of beans and field corn. As we wandered, Tere stopped to identify unfamiliar items, and offered a running commentary (in Spanish) about the different types of chiles, both fresh and dried. Spicy dust swirled around the chile stall, giving me an attack of the sneezes.
The mercado serves as the town's social hub, where locals catch up with friends and share a meal at one of the countless hot-food stalls. Vendors methodically pressed and stacked tortillas; still others grilled quesadillas, steamed tamales or fried fish to order. Most residents do their weekly shopping here, which accounts for the rows of plucked chickens -- head and feet still attached -- and stacks of long, paper-thin sheets of raw, chile-rubbed flank steak called cecina enchilada. I spied a man selling roasted chapulines by the bag-full, with lime wedges and hot sauce as optional condiments. I kept on walking.
That afternoon, we had our first lesson. Magda's home was our classroom; we gathered in her large outdoor kitchen, tiled in blue-and-white Talavera, and sat around a long wood-plank table. An overhead awning shielded us from the sun.
No two Cocinar Mexicano programs are alike. Each group studies recipes typical of the festival that coincides with their visit. Participants in the Day of the Dead workshop, for example, learn to make tamales, the traditional dish that families present as an offering to deceased love ones. The primary focus of our class was to understand mole,a typical fiesta food that's arguably the most complex dish in Mexican cuisine. Mole is a Nahuatl word that describes a sauce made with chiles. And though the most well known variant of mole contains chocolate, every region has its own tradition, and ultimately, there are as many mole recipes as there are cooks who make it.
Our instructor this first day was Rosie, a young woman with a ready smile whose mole is legendary. Each of Tepoztlán's eight barrios (neighborhoods) has its own festival, and for each festival residents of that barrio open their homes for the evening, feeding anyone who comes to call. The story goes that when Rosie's barrio throws its annual bash, she routinely feeds more than one thousand people on festival night. That's gotta be some good mole.
Magda translated for the group. Rosie's great-grandmother was a professional mole cook, and her recipe has been handed down through generations. As Rosie talked, she assembled the more than 20 ingredients that go into her mole -- five kinds of nuts, two kinds of seeds, two kinds of chiles, day-old bread, tortillas, crackers, sweet plantains, garlic, onions, raisins, and countless herbs and spices. Mole seems to be as much about ritual as it is about recipe. Every ingredient must be sautéed separately, and in rigid order. You cook all the "white things" first -- nuts, seeds, bread, tortillas, and crackers -- before moving to the chiles, herbs, and spices.
Does the order really influence the taste?
Rosie laughed. Maybe it doesn't, but we believe it matters, she said.
What kind of crackers do you use -- any kind?
Rosie shook her head. "No. Solo galletas de Ritz." Only Ritz crackers.
Later, we accompanied Rosie to the neighborhood molino (mill), and watched as the ingredients were ground together into a coarse, nasty-looking paste. What followed was the (even more) labor-intensive part -- seasoning the mole. Rosie took the paste back to her house, and, in a large pot over a low flame, stirred it constantly for one to two hours, until the oils released by the mill blended together. At that stage she added bittersweet chocolate and thinned the sauce with chicken stock. Two days before the festival, the mole was near completion.
Techniques & Tips
Clearly, mole from scratch was too nuanced an undertaking to entrust to the first-timers. Subsequent classes were more hands-on. Gisela, a young woman with a quesadilla stall in the market, was our tortilla instructor. With practiced ease she pinched off a wad of masa, rolled it in a ball, slapped it on the tortilla press, and peeled off a perfect circle, every time. My gringo tortillas were hopelessly amoeba-shaped -- that is, when I could scrape them off the tortilla press in the first place. But once grilled, they were still delicious.
Other techniques were easier to master. I roasted chiles on the comal, a pottery stovetop griddle. I ground spices in a molcajete, the age-old mortar and pestle made from rough volcanic rock. And I gained new respect for the blender, which occupies a central place in the Mexican kitchen. Virtually every dish we made that week passed, at some stage, through the blender. Cilantro puréed with almonds, milk, garlic and leeks into a creamy soup. Pumpkin seeds blended with tomatillos, garlic, lettuce leaves and roasted chile poblanos to make a rich, green pipián sauce.
And so the days fell into a familiar, relaxed pattern. We arrived at Magda's by 10am, greeted by the roosters who crowed energetically from their coop next door. Magda, Tere, and their assistants, Melba and Teresa, set out rustic, earthenware bowls (called cazuelas) with the day's raw ingredients. The program is as hands-on as you want to make it -- jump in or hang back and take notes. We'd finish cooking by 2pm, and sit down to enjoy the meal we prepared. Dishes ranged from the traditional to the improvisational. For one meal we stuffed dried ancho chiles with Oaxacan string cheese; for another our chile poblanos were stuffed with salmon and requesón (a kind of Mexican ricotta).
Cocinar Mexicano's top cooking tips
- After handling chiles, rinse your hands in lemon juice or white vinegar to neutralize the spice.
- To prevent guacamole from turning brown, leave the avocado pits in the dip bowl until you're ready to serve.
- If you inadvertently overdose on chile, a pinch of salt in your mouth will cut the heat. (Drinking water will not cut the heat.)
A stop at Tepoztlán's local ice cream shop, Tepoznieves (av. 5 de Mayo 21; tel. 739/395-3813; www.grupotepoznieves.com.mx) became my daily ritual. The store's slogan, Nieve de Dioses (Ice Cream of the Gods), doesn't exaggerate. More than 120 types of ice cream and sorbet, made only with natural ingredients, come in flavors familiar (vanilla, bubble gum), exotic (tamarind, mango studded with chile piquin), and off the wall (beet? lettuce? corn?). As someone who approaches ice cream with a seriousness most people reserve for wine, I couldn't choose a favorite -- every flavor I tasted was pitch-perfect. But I had great fun translating the fanciful names of house specialties like Beso de Angel (Angel's Kiss, a peach/strawberry/nut combo).
I woke early one morning and made a halfhearted attempt to reach Tepozteco pyramid. I got two-thirds of the way up the steep, boulder-strewn mountain trail when, breathless from the altitude and already late for class, I turned around and headed back down into town. In truth, I might have been discouraged by the indignity of getting lapped not once but twice by huarache-wearing grandmas clambering up the mountain like it was a Sunday stroll.
One night, we convened at the Posada del Tepozteco (see Where to Stay, below), on a terrace overlooking the town, for a "margarita master class" with the hotel's gregarious owner, Alejandro. Each of us took a turn at the blender, experimenting with Alejandro's "foolproof" recipe (one shot each of tequila, triple sec, cane syrup and fresh lime juice, blended with ice). We sampled each other's handiwork; it was, after all, the polite thing to do. The evening unfolded in freewheeling fashion, and lucky for us, it was a short stumble back to our rooms.
We used free afternoons to explore the area. One day trip took us Tlayacapan, where they make and sell the handsome cazuelas we had longingly admired in Magda's kitchen. We spent another long afternoon in nearby Cuernavaca, once a bucolic escape from Mexico City, now a teeming metropolis with its own Costco. Two exceptional museums stand out. The Casa Museo Robert Brady (Calle Netzahualcoyotl 4; tel. 777/318-8554; www.geocities.com/bradymuseum/brady.html), houses an eclectic collection of religious, folk and ethnic art; the brightly decorated house (tiled with handpainted Talavera throughout) is a work of art in its own right. The Palacio Cortez, once home to Mexico's most famous conquistador, is now the Museo de Cuauhnahuac (Leyva 100; tel. 777/312-8171; www.morelostravel.com/cultura/museo7.html), devoted to the history of Morelos state. It's also home to a stunning Diego Rivera mural The History of Cuernavaca & Morelos,an unflinching illustrated history of the brutality and treachery of the Spanish Conquest. In one panel, a Spanish soldier holds a hot poker, poised to brand an Aztec prisoner on the neck; behind him, men in armor pour gold pieces into a large trunk while a priest blesses the transaction. True to Rivera's communist faith in the power of the Mexican people, the largest images in the gallery are full-length portraits of Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary who fought for agrarian reform with the cry, "Tierra y Liberdad" (Land and Freedom), and Father Jose Maria Morelos, a hero of the War of Independence.
The Fiesta de San Sebastian
Our last night in Tepoztlán was the night of the Fiesta de San Sebastian. We gathered at Magda's for mole and, later, fireworks. We arrived to see Tere and Rosie's mom put the finishing touches on the meal (Rosie herself was called away unexpectedly). Boneless chicken breasts, pounded, seasoned, and rolled into spirals, were browned in a skillet, then sliced into pinwheels and added to the sauce, now a thick, dark-chocolate brown. Mole is served simply, with rice and tortillas, to better appreciate the painstaking complexity of the sauce. The finished product tasted of all the ingredients and yet of something new and transformative. Not as spicy as I expected, given the number of chiles I saw go into the mill. I wish Rosie had been there to share it with us.
After dinner we walked to San Sebastian church, where the festival was in full swing. The deafening boom of fireworks was near painful, and we steered clear of falling ash. The street in front of the church was thick with kiosks selling churros (fried dough), candied fruit, and cheap jewelry; children swarmed into the church courtyard for the small-scale rides and carnival games. A brass band periodically erupted in song, drowning out the insistent bass thumping coming from a nearby bootleg CD table. It was, in other words, a typical small-town fair -- the Mexican equivalent of fried cheese curds and Whack-a-Mole.
A Mexico City Coda
We spent our final day in Mexico City, where smog blurred the air and turned everything into an out-of-focus photograph. Our assignment: to explore the city's culinary frontiers. Our destination for lunch was Bistro MP (Andres Bello 10, Polanco; tel. 55/5280-2506), where celebrity chef Mónica Patiño has created a Mexican/Asian fusion menu of remarkable creativity. The clean lines and dark woods of the bistro's décor reflect an Asian aesthetic. Patiño, 50, hosts a popular TV cooking show called El Rincón de los Sabores (roughly translated as "The Kitchen Corner"). She greeted us with enthusiasm, a willowy, striking woman dressed like a college kid in jeans and a T shirt, her long brown hair wrapped in a haphazard bun. As we snaked our way to the table, she promised Magda she'd make "something special" for us.
The meal unfolded like some sort of taste-bud fever dream, each dish more delicious and unreal than the next. Oysters braised in a smoky chipotle-bernaise sauce. Tostadas piled high with blue crab. Tacos made with crispy roast duck and served with salsa verde. Maybe it was the passionfruit margarita talking, but suddenly, the similarities between Mexican and South Asian cuisines -- the presence of chiles for heat and depth; the cool comfort of tropical-fruit salsas and purées -- were so obvious, it was amazing to me that "Mex-As" restaurants haven't sprung up on every corner.
Incredibly, Magda had planned a dinner outing as well -- inconceivable after such a sublime three-hour lunch. We wandered the affluent neighborhood of Polanco, as Magda pointed out streets named for famous authors and philosophers -- Julio (Jules) Verne, Voltaire, Aristotle. "A Mexican friend once asked me, 'Why are all the streets in America named Oak, Maple, Main?'" she said with a laugh. "Here in Mexico, the love of art is everywhere in daily life."
Dinner became drinks-only at another hot restaurant, Aguila y Sol (Moliere 42, Polanco; tel. 55/5281-8354), owned by chef and culinary historian Martha Ortiz. The chef was not there during our visit, so we nursed our drinks -- one final (mango) margarita for me -- and perused the menu with detached curiosity. Suddenly servers surrounded the table bearing trays of architectural desserts, "a gift from the house." Coconut flan with pineapple sauce, crème brÂ¿lée of mamey (a sweet, yam-like tropical fruit) with carnation-petal jelly . . . We stared at each other in disbelief. No way. No way. OK . . . maybe a taste.
Later, in the throes of a happy food coma, I reflected on the arc of this trip. The week began with an immersion in Mexico's culinary tradition, guided by the women who live that tradition, every day. By week's end, I had watched that tradition evolve into something fresh and exciting. I'm home now, with a binder full of recipes and a head full of ideas. My blender occupies a spot of honor on the kitchen counter. And a pint of Rosie's mole paste sits in my freezer, ready to be seasoned.
Where to Stay
Accommodations in town range from bare-bones posadas to full-service luxury properties. While in Tepoztlán I stayed at three different places, each with its own appeal.
My first stop was Las Golondrinas, a B&B so off the beaten track that even cab drivers have trouble finding the place -- on a dead-end dirt road 10 minutes east of the cathedral. It's a minor inconvenience for such an oasis of charm and quiet. Owner Marisol Fernandez designed the house herself; three of the four guest rooms open onto a wraparound terrace that overlooks the garden, a small pool, and the Tepozteco mountains beyond (the fourth room is a tiny studio just off the kitchen). Breakfast -- served on the terrace amid rampant bougainvillea and giant noche buena (poinsettias) -- is a wholesome affair of fresh fruit and juice, whole-grain breads, and, on the weekend I visited, delicious vegetarian tamales. (Callejón de Terminas 4, in the area behind Ixcatepec church; tel. 739/395-0649; http://homepage.mac.com/marisolfernandez/LasGolondrinas. Doubles 1,200 Pesos/US$109, including breakfast. Ask Marisol for a card with the hotel's address and a small map, to show your taxi driver. Cab rides cost 30 pesos/US$2.75 each way.)
From there I moved to Casa Bugambilia, a brand-new property at the outer edge of town. Shortly after owners Pedro López and Ana Piñero moved here from Mexico City, they broke ground on two outbuildings (and a pool) that would turn their private residence into an 11-room hotel. The spacious rooms are elegantly furnished with high-end carved Mexican furniture, and every room has a fireplace. In fact, one of the great joys of staying here was how each night, someone came to light a fire, leaving enough wood to last well into the night. Those tile floors can get cold. The hotel's namesake flower is everywhere you look, and mountain views are fabulous. (Callejón de Tepopula 007, Valle de Atongo; tel. 739/395-0158; www.casabugambilia.com. Doubles US$180-$250. Tell the driver the hotel is located cerca de (near) el Telón,the local dance club, to distinguish from Posada Bugambilia, a smaller, more modest hotel in town. Cab rides cost 30 pesos/US$2.75 each way.)
For my last two nights I joined the rest of the group at Posada del Tepozteco, site of our margarita "master class." It's the nicest hotel in town -- an opinion apparently shared by Angelina Jolie, whose autographed picture hangs behind the reception desk. Up a steep hill just two blocks west of the Cathedral, the rambling 19-room villa spills down towards town in a series of terraced courtyards brimming with flowers. Every room has sweeping mountain, pyramid and town views. This is by far the most convenient place to stay -- you're seconds away from the cathedral and market, and a 10-minute walk to the pyramid trailhead. But staying in town has its price -- namely, the startling boom of midnight fireworks and enthusiastic 7am brass-band practices (this is a town with so many festivals even residents can't keep track of them all). I, for one, relished the chance to eavesdrop on local tradition. But if such festive commotion renders you sleepless and irritable, then I suggest you forgo such convenience for the peace and quiet of one of the other two properties listed. (Calle ParaÂ¿so 3; tel. 739/395-0010; www.posadadeltepozteco.com. Doubles US$145-$218, including breakfast buffet.)
In Mexico City, we stayed at the Hotel Imperial, in the Juarez neighborhood. Reforma is a wide, busy thoroughfare that runs all the way through Mexico City, but the steady traffic didn't permeate the walls of my room. The hotel has an impressive second-floor marble lobby and a central atrium -- a statement of elegance that doesn't quite carry over to the charmingly tatty rooms. However, it's a central location, only 3 blocks from Mercado Insurgentes, a crafts market. (Paseo de la Reforma 64; tel. 55/5705-4911; www.hotelimperial.com.mx; Doubles US$79-$145.)
At press time, the exchange rate was approximately 11 Mexican pesos to the US Dollar. Cocinar Mexicano charges $1,695 for the seven-day program of hands-on workshops in classical and contemporary Mexican cooking. Frommer's readers, however, can take an extra $100 off that price by mentioning this article. The price includes round-trip airport transfers, five days of instruction (including market tour and techniques classes), all scheduled evening activities, at least one meal (the main meal) each day, one meal in Mexico City, and health insurance for the week. Airfare to Mexico City, accommodation in Tepoztlán and Mexico City, gratuities and at least two meals during the week are not included in the price of the program. Upcoming classes are scheduled for March 12-19, 2005, October 28-November 4, 2005, December 21-28, 2005, and January 20-27, 2006. Specialized programs for food writers and professional chefs are available, and Magda offers a discount for culinary-school students. For more information please consult the website (www.cocinarmexicano.com).