Friday, May 14, 2010
There’s an unimposing door on Calle Reforma in downtown Oaxaca that announces I’ve reached “Casa de Los Sabores” (or House of Flavours). Passing through the metal door, I enter a world where culinary history, tradition and Oaxacan staples meld under the canopied courtyard of Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo’s much-lauded cooking school. Bougainvillea flowers shower the white cotton bands hanging over the brightly laid out dining room table as we gather around the spacious island to hear about what we’ll be making today. But first thing is first- it’s time to shop for our ingredients.
I’ve always said Mexican food is the original slow food. You can’t rush a good mole sauce any more than you can a braised roast. Chef Pili (as she’s often called by friends) walks our group to the neighbourhood market called La Merced where ingredients are explained and examined. Chickens the colour of sunflowers? That’s because they eat Marigolds as part of their diet. Every kind of chile- dried and fresh, herbs like the eponymous epazote which flavours sauces and soups (and is known to fight any parasite that might be lurking in your system- hey, this a multi-purpose herb!) are purchased and then, it’s back to the kitchen.
Our group starts by plucking organic rose petals from thorny stems for Pilar’s spectacular Rose Petal Sorbet. Delicately pink, flavoured with fresh and dry rose petals, a hint of rosewater and almonds, it’s refreshing and elegant at the same time. Then it’s on to searing and peeling peppers for the soup while the sorbet sets, making a fresh salsa with avocado and peppers, and the filling for the stuffed peppers. Everyone is put to work while a happy hum of activity surrounds us all.
The group’s efforts yield richly delicious rewards- a lunch fit for a Rey with the gurgling courtyard water fountain serenading us while Catrina papier machier dolls (symbolic of Day of the Dead celebrations near our Hallowe’en) watch on with toothy grins. A shot of mezcal (Oaxaca’s answer to tequila) starts us off and we enjoy an al fresco lunch in the cradle of Mexican culinary creativity. The Australians, Dutch, Canadians and Americans in our group all agree, this is one of the most memorable meals we’ve ever had.