There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 24 November 2017

Oaxaca (2), Cooking a Mole: Part 6 of South East from Mexico City

Having acquired a reputation in some quarters as someone who will eat anything, I should make it clear that the ‘mole’ in question is a Mexican sauce, not a burrowing, velvet-furred member of the talpidae.

After a leisurely breakfast we were picked up by a cheerful young man called Oscar who, unlike yesterday’s pick up, knew who we were and what we were doing. He had more difficulty with his second pick up, but eventually located an elderly American lady with a small back-pack, waiting on a street corner.

We were astounded to discover the small back-pack contained an even smaller dog. Being allergic to dogs, I was not delighted with it even being in the car, but that aside who would think it a good idea to bring a dog to a cookery class*? Oscar apparently liked dogs, cooing over the small beast and asking its breed. Teacup schnauzer, for such it was, is not one of the three schnauzer breeds recognised by the British or American Kennel Clubs whose attitudes can be summed up by a contributor to ‘There is no such thing as a teacup schnauzer, that is just a way of marketing particularly small dogs in order to line unethical breeders pockets.’ That tells us something, and not just about the dog.

Mercado La Merced (Merced Market), Oaxaca

Oscar drove us to Merced Market, located Chef Gerardo and made the introductions. Gerardo already had an American family in tow - parents and two teenage daughters from San Diego - and he led the seven of us to a mole grindery (to invent a name).

Mole grinders shop, Oaxaca
Moles are complicated sauces and many people lack the time or equipment to grind up the ingredients, so they bring them here. The contents of plastic buckets (I am sure it was all good food, but Lynne and I were reminded of the pigswill buckets that used to accommodate the leftovers from school dinners) were poured into the top, the grinder was switched on and the liquidised version flowed or oozed, depending on content, into the bucket below. We were not overly impressed with the hygiene, buckets and machines being perfunctorily hosed down between batches, but I suppose they would swiftly go out of business if they regularly poisoned their customers.

Grinding up tomatoes, Oaxaca (and I seem to have caught that wretched dog in the mirror)
Walking back to the market we picked up three more would-be cooks, a Chinese girl (mid-twenties), and a slightly older Canadian/American couple who made their living crewing yachts down the eastern seaboard, round the Caribbean and beyond.

Originally associated with a monastery the Mercado la Merced is not Oaxaca’s biggest, but it is clean, well-organised and big enough for me. We have enjoyed cookery classes before, in Laos and Ho Chi Minh City, and both started with a visit to the market ‘to buy the ingredients’ although in reality it was just a tour, little or nothing was actually purchased. Chef Gerardo however had his wallet out at the very first stall where an elderly lady was surrounded by huge piles of corn dough, both blue and white.

Piles of corn dough (though there's none of the blue in the picture) Merced Market, Oaxaca
Gerardo ordered some of each and her swift and sure stroke cut off the right amount – to the gram – with hardly a glance. I think she must have done it before.

We moved on to buy fruit and veg…

Chef Gerardo and some fruit and veg, Merced Market, Oaxaca
…and then to the grasshoppermonger and prickly-pearist who was pealing the cactus’ fleshy lobes with appropriate care.

Grasshoppers and prickly pears, Merced Market, Oaxaca
We passed through the cheerful café..

Café, Merced Market, Oaxaca
…and the meat section without further purchases but halted again at the cheese. Oaxacans are proud of their cheese, described by Wikipedia as ‘similar to unaged Monterey jack, but with a mozzarella-like string cheese texture.’ Oh dear! It is many years since I last encountered Monterey jack, but I well recall its plastic texture and minimal flavour, and while real (i.e. Italian) mozzarella is a subtle delight, mozzarella-style cheeses made elsewhere are universally inferior, often being prized for their stretchiness rather than their flavour. Oaxaca cheese is made by the same rolling and stretching pasta filata technique as mozzarella, the finished product a white spheroid with a structure somewhere between a ball of wool and the plasticine ‘telephone lines’ I spent happy hours rolling out in infant school. It is sold under its own name, not as ‘Mexican mozzarella’, and I respect that, but I prefer a cheese that makes a statement while Oaxaca’s flavour is so subtle as to be elusive.

Oaxaca cheese, amid other goodies, Merced Market, Oaxaca
Chillies originated in Mexico and are taken very seriously. Vasco da Gama introduced them to Asia where they were adopted enthusiastically, but in Asian markets there are usually only one or  two varieties and their purpose is only to generate heat. In Mexico many varieties are appreciated for more than just their pungency; the larger dried and/or smoked varieties, to the left of Chef Gerardo below are mild, but distinctively flavoured. Mexicans, though, are not averse to a little heat, but often add it from bottled sauces rather than cooking it into the dish like the Indians or Thais.

Chef Gerardo among the chilies, Merced Market, Oaxaca
Gusano de maguey, the ‘worm’ found in some bottles of tequila or mezcal, is actually a moth larva, and is often eaten as a crunchy snack without first being steeped in alcohol. Here the prized red gusano have been threaded onto strings, a fiddly job I am glad I did not have to do.

Gusano de maguey, the 'worms' found in bottles of Mezcal are sold as crunchy snacks, Merced Market, Oaxaca
Gusano de maguey, Merced Market, Oaxaca
La Cocina Oaxaqueña - Cooking Soup, Tamales and Mole

Gerardo and Oscar, who miraculously reappeared, drove the assembled company the short distance to La Cocina Oaxaqueña, the school set up by Chef Gerardo in 2000 to share his knowledge ‘and educate people from around the world about the exquisite renowned cuisine of Oaxaca.’

Organising ten randomly assembled amateurs to cooperate in producing a three-course meal requires some skill, but Chef Gerardo has been playing this game for years and knows exactly what he is doing.

The next three hours involved a little cooking and a lot of preparation, which is normal for these classes – and the fate of every commis chef in the business. Lynne and I started by cutting banana leaves into rectangles to wrap tamales, stripping off the stalks to use as ties, while others wilted them on a hot plate. There were jobs for everyone, but I have difficulty remembering all that I did, never mind anyone else.

With a larger group we manually aerated the flour for the tamales before adding salt, baking powder, oil and chicken stock and then giving it a knead, using twisting and pinching rather than the folding technique of breadmaking.

We making tamales guided Chef Gerardo Aldeco at La Cocina Oaxaquena, Oaxaca
Kneading by pinching and twisting, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
Gerardo demonstrated the construction of the tamales, smearing out the dough and adding various extras -  black beans, courgette flowers, grasshoppers – then folding and tying the banana leaves.

Chef Gerardo Aldeco takes us through the construction of tamales at La Cocina Oaxaquena, Oaxaca
Chef Gerardo demonstrates how to make tamales, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
The ingredients for the mole were assembled. I had opened the big smoked chilies with scissors and scraped out the seeds while Lynne skinned the almonds.

The mole ingredients with the smoked chilis front right, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
It really is an (unnecessarily?) long list of ingredients - 4 different chillies and the inevitable nub of chocolate, not to mention 10 almonds, 15 raisins and 2 peppercorns between 10 people (should I be able to taste 1½ raisins and 0.2 of a peppercorn amid so many competing flavours?).

The recipe we were working to. The chicken is only an accompaniment to the mole, and was cooked by Gerardo's assistants
For the soup we shredded cheese, stripped corn from the cobs and painstakingly picked out the fine hairs…

Lynne removes all the fine hairs from the corn. La Cocina Oaxaqueña
…and eventually the soup and the mole were on the stove.

The soup and the mole are on the stove, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
At some point the little dog was spotted on a table drinking from our water glasses so he was popped into the backpack and on hung the wall. I did not fancy any water after that, but as Gerardo’s assistants were, by then, handing round cans of beer, it was no great loss.

Lynne pounded up the ingredients for a guacamole…

Pound that guacamole, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
…while Chef Gerardo demonstrated taco making…

Chef Gerardo makes a taco, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
…which is easy, though some of the party showed great imagination creating patterns in blue and white dough. The difficult bit is getting the floppy taco from your fingers onto the hotplate without a crease or, worse, a fold or, even worse, burnt fingers.

Not once did I place a taco flat onto that wretched hotplate
Chef Gerardo and the hot plate - I never managed to place a taco flat.
When all the work was done there was a group photo. Three hours had passed quickly and everybody had worked hard and earned their lunch. I have described what we did, sometimes sharing those tasks with others, but this was a complicated meal so it was impossible for everyone to have a go at everything, though we had learned a lot about the ingredients, some familiar, some entirely new to us.

The cooks, La Cocina Oaxaqueña
I can remember no names, but the boat people (to misuse a phrase) on the right were fun and the family from San Diego were delightful, the teenager daughters willing workers and prepared to try everything (teenagers are not always like that!). The Chinese girl (originally from Guangdong, now based in Hong Kong) had spent the previous year doing a masters at Cambridge and was in Mexico to attend a friend's wedding. Wearing a baseball cap sideways is not usually a sign of high intelligence, but do not be fooled, she was more articulate in her second language than many are in their first.

And then we ate. Everybody enjoyed the soup, I liked the tamales, the dough had taken on a pleasing savoury flavour, but Lynne was less keen, though she ate quite a few tacos with guacamole and a chilli dip. All were offered a glass of Agua Fresca de Horchata (Rice Water Drink) made by soaking rice in water and then blending with cinnamon before straining and adding condensed milk, sugar and chopped walnuts. I liked it, but I think I was the only one to finish a whole glass.

Eating the tamales, La Cocina Oaxaqueña (with my glass of rice water)
I was politely taken to task by Lucinda W in a comment on a recent post (Puebla) for my remarks (actually in the Cholula post) about mole. She was right, it was arrogant to dismiss the whole concept after only one experience, so I have tried again. Four days ago I ate mole poblano in a respected Puebla restaurant, today Oaxacan mole negro cooked by amateurs under professional guidance. Oaxaca boast six more indigenous moles, so there is much yet to explore, but sadly my second attempt has not changed my opinion: too many ingredients make a sauce that is fuzzy and confused. It do not dislike it, I just do not find it exciting, but I will try again.

Eating the mole (with chicken provided by Chef Gerardo's assistants) La Cocina Oaxaqueña
More to my taste was the mezcal we (well, some of us) drank with the mole. Once regarded as tequila’s country cousin, Mezcal is now taken seriously, particularly in Oaxaca State where most of it is made. Distilled from the cooked and fermented heart of any one of 30 species of agave (tequila is made only from the blue agave) it is light and clean on the palate, though smokier and stronger flavoured than tequila. Chef Gerardo’s was a colourless mezcal, but sadly the bottle is out of focus in my photograph, though the people across the table are pin-sharp. My apologies for the photographer’s incompetence and here instead is a small bottle we took home.

Despite our mole-y reservations, we thoroughly enjoyed the six hours we spent with Chef Gerardo. His enthusiasm was infectious and he marshalled his willing, if mixed-ability, workforce, with the dexterity of an experienced teacher (and I know no higher praise!)

Oscar delivered us back to our hotel around 3 o’clock and we immediately set off into the city centre to find the post office and dispatch some cards, an old-fashioned concept but enjoyed by some. The cards sped to their destinations, arriving the very next month.

Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Church and Cultural Museum

As planned yesterday, we visited Santo Domingo de Guzmán on the way back.

Founded by the Dominicans, church building started in 1575 and the adjacent monastery opened in 1608. During the revolutionary wars it was handed over for military use and was a barracks from 1866 to 1902. Eventually the buildings were returned to the church, though the monastery became the regional museum, and that was where we started.

The cloister of the former Santo Domingo de Guzmán monastery, Oaxaca
The vast building, constructed on several floors around a cloister with multiple corridors running the length and breadth of each section, houses an important collection of pre-Columbian artefacts, including the complete contents of a major tomb from Monte Alban.

Pre-Columbian figures, Oaxaca Cultural Museum
The captions are in Spanish only, and although we have a little knowledge of the language, it would have taken us weeks to get round the huge collection had we tried to understand them all.

More pre-Columbian artefacts, Oaxaca Cultural Museum
We moved through the art, costumes and assorted paraphernalia of the region and then reached the post-Columbian era. It is a magnificent collection and we would have appreciated some sort of audio-guide to the more important exhibits.

Post-Columbian artefacts, the Oaxaca Cultural Museum
The museum overlooks the former monastery garden, now an ethno-botanical garden, with thousands of local plants and views of the distant hills.

The ethno-botanical garden, Cultural Centre, Oaxaca
In this earthquake zone the church is appropriately sturdy. Santo Domingo  de Guzmán (1172-1221), the founder of the Dominicans appears in the centre of the façade holding a model of the church.

Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Oaxaca
The inside is typically baroque…

Interior, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Oaxaca
…the ceiling being particularly ornate.

Ceiling, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Oaxaca 
Despite our large lunch we ventured out in the evening to share a pizza and a bottle of Spanish red. The restaurant was full so they sent us up to the roof which was not quite fully occupied. It was chilly so we persuaded them to light one of their two space heaters – yes, I know it is environmentally indefensible, but we were shivering. Nobody else seemed concerned and the other space heater remained unlit.

When we returned to the hotel I discovered I no longer had the credit card I had used to pay the bill. After a search of our hotel room I walked back to the restaurant my eyes scanning every inch of the pavement. I spoke to the waiter, who was sympathetic, conducted a search of where we had been sitting and came up with nothing. I repeated my search on the way back, convinced I must have dropped it as no one had come near enough to me to steal it. Back in our room with a sick feeling in my stomach I started looking for the number I had to phone, and then I found the card, in a section of my wallet I do not usually use for cards. It is hardly a large wallet; in vino stupid ass, as the saying doesn’t go.

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