The pounding regularity of the Mexican pipeline at Puerto Escondido receded behind us as my Chef buddy Fabio Rafael Bernadini, my husband Murray and I crept over the Sierras towards Oaxaca in our little single prop plane. The landscape below evolved from mountain scrub to verdant fields of agriculture. My sleep addled brain was now buzzing with the gastric potential of our new grazing grounds. Oaxaca is legendary for its food culture, particularly its famous sauce Mole Negro, a complex blend of chocolate, chillies, fruit and spice that is traditionally served over chicken. I’ve tasted some extremely poor representations of this sauce. It was time to explore the fountainhead.
Accommodation located, luggage dumped, we sallied forth and stopped almost immediately at a tamale seller a block from the hotel. Tamales are essentially a cake of moist ground corn, meat and sauce, steamed inside a corn husk for hours. This variety was chicken with salsa verde, a tomatillo based sauce. This lady unwrapped the fragrant, steaming tamale and slipped it into a super fresh white roll from the bakery across the road, which was unusual but very handy for a moving breakfast. My first taste of Oaxaca was memorable and delicious. Appropriately it was also corn.
It’s difficult to convey how central corn is to the Mexican diet until you experience it for yourself. The most common and useful preparation you come across is Masa, the lime slaked and then stone ground paste of large starchy corn kernels. You can make tortillas, tamales, drinks, thicken sauces, the list of its uses is as surprising as it is endless, when you see a local family wolf down 20 tortillas in a 5 minute interval and you get some idea of its ubiquity.
Fabio led us through the more touristic central market past many appealing looking food stalls and into the dodgy part of town. After literally crossing the tracks we were bizarrely escorted by police straight into the heart of Central de Abastos de Oaxaca, one big ass market. We somehow managed to shake the cops without parting with any cash and plunged into the bewildering array of new smells. Mounds of crispy grasshoppers roasted with chillies, stacks of salted prawns, sacks of cocoa flowers and fermented chillies, we snacked and sniffed our way through it all till we hit the hall of Carne Asada. Down a long dark corridor filled with smoke and lined with hanging pig intestines and strings of chorizo we found the Carne Asada ladies. Standing behind angled wooden display boards they slap their stacks of meat sheets. Long strips of beef that have been carefully concertinaed out of large hunks of flank and lightly cured in lime juice and salt to keep the insects away. Pieces of this are thrown on the charcoal grill whilst whole chillies and pretty bunches of baby onions are thrust directly onto the coals beneath. A stack of fresh corn tortillas and an array of salsas round it off. It’s so simple but leaves you with so many combinations. Smoky grilled meat and chorizo funky with offal are complemented beautifully by sweet roasted onions and the fiery acid of roasted chillies and salsas all couched in the gentle aroma of corn.
This sensory onslaught continued after lunch as we sampled our way through piles of wild herbs brought to the market by old Indian women. Pungent camphor and nasturtium flavoured Hoja Santa, the woody distillation of coriander flavour that is criollo and the earthy green flavour of raw guaje pods. Noses and feet exhausted we headed back to the hotel and napped before we hit the Mezcal distillery.
About 50km out of town Fabio’s friend Axel Sanchez owns a Mezcal distillery that produces 12 different brands of Mezcal, a co-op essentially. Mezcal is an ancient Indian drink of fermented roasted agave hearts that is then distilled into a smoky and eviscerating spirit. His distillery sits in the middle of his hilly plantation, the slopes above scattered with agave plants of many sizes and varieties. The plants are harvested with donkey power and then trimmed down to their core which they call pineapples. The pineapples are roasted in a mesquite fired pit for 72 hours, pounded into shreds by a donkey powered mill and then fermented in large wooden vats with water. This is then distilled three times. In a particularly delicious variety we tried called Pechuga, chicken breasts and fruit are added in the second distillation. This is an old Indian tradition and is downright delicious. Some Mezcals burn all the way down and leave you in no doubt as to their potency. Others can be fruity and smooth. They also tend to get you right into party mode. It’s not crying juice.
That night we tried a few more varieties when we went to dinner at Zandunga, one of Oaxaca’s finest restaurants. The waiter’s favourite variety was like petrol blended with ammonia. Acquired tastes are a funny thing, often turning out to be strange journeys to lonely places. The other two were delicious, however and I’ve still got my little embroidered wrist band that proudly states “Yo Tomo Mezcal” I drink mescal!
The food at Zandunga is great. Beef braised with fruit for 48 hours and served almost like rillettes on a plantain crisp, mackerel and egg served like a crumbly pate, pork braised to falling apart tenderness with pineapple and the main reason we came here, Mole Negro. Black as night and smooth as silk it challenges you at first sight. Rich toasty aromas backed by fruit and heat, you get hints of the components to its flavour but it is still very cohesive. Often Moles are perpetual, one batch added to and used continually like a Chinese master stock or bread leaven. How much romance can one sauce possess! The chicken in this dish is the dull spouse, the mole is the real dinner guest you wind up flirting with all night.
So that was one day in Oaxaca. Tomorrow we would head to Tlocalula, home of another famous market. We also thought we’d stop in at San Andres Huaiapan for their annual Tejate festival. A drink that gets its own festival. Nice.