During my first trip to Mexico, as I was interested in both sampling a variety of cuisines and glutting myself on history and culture, I traveled around a fair bit, from Mexico City to Oaxaca and then across the Yucatan, ending my wanderings in Mérida. Great fun.
While I was in Oaxaca, as I browsed through markets (I have a real fondness for great markets, and Oaxaca has some amazing ones), whenever I encountered a vendor who spoke English, he or she asked me if I was there for the cooking school. I wasn’t, but I made a point of finding out more.
The cooking school of which these folks were speaking is called Seasons of My Heart. The name is taken from the PBS series and companion cookbook created by Susana Trilling, the chef who runs the school. Before I left Oaxaca, I had already begun planning my return trip.
The cooking school has its home at Susana’s Rancho Aurora, which is about half an hour out of the city of Oaxaca. There is a wonderful kitchen, fabulously well equipped with both traditional and modern equipment, but the hilltop rancho also offers splendid views of the surrounding valley, farms, and nearby mountains. It was a great place to learn about Oaxacan cooking.
We made gorgeous recipes—complex moles, lush soups, vibrant cocktails, and vastly more—mostly out of Susana’s book (which, of course, I bought, even though Susana had supplied copies of everything we actually made). But we didn’t just cook. One day, Susana arranged for us to have a scholar at the Ethno-Botanic Garden take us on a tour of the plants in this small but fascinating collection.
I learned, among many other things, that maize was probably first bred from a wild grain (teosinte) in the state of Oaxaca, and Oaxaca still grows more native corn than anywhere else in Mexico; that the state of Oaxaca actually has greater botanical diversity than Costa Rica; that the earliest domestication of food in the New World appears to have occurred here, in around 8000 BC; that chilies, while they had come from farther south, were probably first bred for variety here, and even today, Oaxaca grows and consumes a greater variety of chilies than anywhere else in the world; of the many varieties of agave, which are all indigenous to the New World, more grow in Mexico than anywhere else in the New World, and more grow in Oaxaca than anywhere else in Mexico; and that the name Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl word for mimosa, which grows abundantly here. (I took 14 pages of notes, so it was a very interesting tour/lecture. I highly recommend a visit to the garden, if you get to Oaxaca.)We also spent a few mornings visiting fabulous markets, where fruits, vegetables, breads, cones of sugar, combs of honey, cooking utensils, chocolate, spices, herbs, and barrels upon barrels of chilies dazzled and enticed us. The markets were just amazing. Of course, at some of the larger markets, one could also find everything from shoes to piñatas to automotive equipment, but even at these markets, food was still the main focus. We also visited cheese makers, chocolate grinders, and bakers.
Another adventure was spending a day in the surrounding hills, visiting a Zapotec village, where four beautiful Indian women taught us how to make pre-Hispanic dishes. We had the opportunity to grind everything from chocolate to herbs on metates and cook tortillas on comals, the curving, wood-fired clay stoves used throughout this region. We moved from room to room of the small, twig-walled Indian dwelling, helping where we could, stirring black beans in a large clay pot, called an olla, which sat on another wood-burning clay stove, helping make tortillas and corn dumplings by hand. We gathered in the open-air kitchen to watch the creation of an ancient ceremonial beverage called tejate, which combines cacao with seeds, flowers, and ground maize to create a refreshing and delicious drink that is traditionally judged primarily by the amount of foam the preparer is able to generate. Then we got to sit down and enjoy all the lovely pre-Hispanic dishes created by our hostesses. What fun! And the tastes were all interesting and, on the whole, wonderful. I particularly liked the soup made of squash fruit, vines, and leaves.
It was a splendid adventure. If you have any interest in Oaxacan cuisine (said by many to be the best in Mexico), I definitely recommend Susana’s school. You can learn more at the school’s website: http://www.seasonsofmyheart.com/