Tag Archives: Travel and Tourism

Oaxaca Shopping Mania: Take Advantage of My Weakness

Gold + Silver Leaf Mirror by Talleres Zegache, $125 + shipping

I’ve just published a number of new items for sale on the Gallery–Shop Here page of this web site (see home page, click on button under banner).  I don’t usually shop for and buy Oaxaca art and craft because I need it.  I do it to support the artists and artisans.  The creativity that is expressed through these art forms is extraordinary and often I find myself digging into my pocket or going to the ATM in order to sustain the art, their creators and their families.  You might say, ‘Norma, this is just an excuse.’  Nevertheless, here I confess my weakness.  However, in order to curtail the acquisition in-flow, I am offering a few wonderful pieces for sale that I found during my recent Oaxaca comings and goings.

The piece above is just one fine example.  It is from Santa Ana Zegache, the small Ocotlan area village where famed Oaxaca artist Rudolfo Morales restored and painted an extraordinary church and supported artistic expression through the foundation he established before he died.  Talleres Zegache is a workshop of village craftspeople who restore and reproduce colonial mirrors.  Click on the photo where  I have provided a more complete description.  This particular mirror (above) uses gold and silver leaf, and cochineal red paint.  It is extraordinary!

If you are visiting Oaxaca, please stop by Talleres Zegache.  They are well hidden, not easy to find, tucked way in the back (I suspect because the rent is cheaper), at Plaza Lucero, 5 de Mayo #412. I don’t know much much longer they will be there because business hasn’t been brisk (tourism is down all over Oaxaca because of the drug war scares).  A pity, since the area is safe, family-friendly and gorgeous.

North Carolina Welcomes Oaxaca Jewelry Designer Brigitte Huet in April 2011

Brigitte Huet is coming to the U.S. and North Carolina at the end of April 2011 to exhibit and sell her extraordinary work.  We will offer two showings, one on the evening of April 28, in Chapel Hill, NC and the other on the evening of April 29 in Pittsboro, NC.  This is a great opportunity if you live within driving distance to come and see some of the most creative jewelry designs coming out of Mexico today.  They are substantial yet comfortable to wear and definitely make an eye-catching fashion statement.  You won’t find anything like this unless you travel to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Women Speak About Safety Traveling to and in Oaxaca

Eleven women gathered together in early March 2011 to participate in our first Oaxaca Women’s Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice.  All were from the United States except for two, an Australian transplant living in Mexico City and a local Zapotec woman from the village of Teotitlan del Valle.  Nine of us traveled to Oaxaca by air, some making connections through Mexico City, all negotiating the distance in time and space independently, solo, alone. Our ages ranged from 28 to 60-something.  Several had never been to Mexico before.

During our week together we talked about what it was like for a woman to travel to Mexico on her own, and I included the following question on the program evaluation form.  I want to share participant responses with you.

What would you say to people who are concerned about safety and hesitant to travel to Oaxaca?

I would say you are often as safe as you think you are and that bad media, amongst other things are only trying to feed your fears. That safety is not a concern in Oaxaca, just to be wise, as you would anywhere and trust your gut, come well-informed and open your arms and heart to the beauty of the incredible place.

Not a problem. We felt perfectly safe in Teotitlan del Valle.

There are some simple precautions to take regarding food, but I have always felt safe here and that the people are very helpful.

I would say – “you are missing an awesome (in the real, not slang sense of the word) experience.”

It’s a wonderful place. I did not feel threatened in any way.

It was safe and people were kind, patient, friendly.

I felt more safe here than in many U.S. cities. I saw/heard no violence, no drunkenness, no homelessness.

Touring the Mercado de la Merced with Pilar Cabrera Arroyo

My first day in Oaxaca was thrilling and something I was looking forward to for quite some time! I walked from Las Bugambilias B&B to Pilar’s cooking class at Casa de los Milagros, operated by Pilar’s brother Rene. (Three beautiful rooms each with private bath @ $120USD each.)  Our group of seven included a couple from Guadalajara celebrating their anniversary, two couples from Washington state who come to Oaxaca frequently, and me.

I was as enthralled by the kitchen arranged around a U-shaped maize-colored concrete counter with commercial cooktop and sink strategically positioned, as I was about the Amarillo menu: quesadillas with mushrooms and Oaxaca quesillo (string) cheese, sopa de flor de calabaza (squash blossom soup — my absolute favorite), mole Amarillo de pollo (yellow mole with chicken), and for dessert — arroz con leche.  For the salsa, Pilar chose Salsa de chile pasilla oaxaqueno.

Squash blossoms ready for stuffing with quesillo, perhaps?

Today, no one is vegetarian, so we go with the menu as presented, pick up our colorful shopping bags and climb into Pilar’s CRV and a taxi to travel to the Mercado de la Merced, eight blocks from the casa, at the corner of Calle Republica and Murguia.  Pilar grew up in Barrio de la Merced.  She personally knows each vendor and going through it is an expedition in determining and selecting the very best, freshest, most fragrant ingredients.  She knows that what she buys is organic , grown by small farmers from the local countryside. Our shopping list includes fresh masa for making homemade tortillas, quesillo for the quesadillas, rice, fresh whole milk (not pasteurized and likely coming from a contented cow early that same morning), mushrooms (and we also find corn smut — huitlacoche, considered a delicacy that we will add to the quesadillas). We also buy epazote, a leafy herb for the quesadillas, and cream for the soup.

Pilar describes huitlacoche

Someone asks and Pilar advises that it is fine to take photos of the food and to ask people if they would agree to have their photos taken.  She never pays anyone for taking a photo, although people ask for 10 pesos (about a dollar). Sunday is the best day to go to this market, when vendors come with folk art and crafts.  She points out the comedor “La Guierta” frequented by Rick Bayless.

La Guerita, a Rick Bayless favorite

We pass by ancient women vending calla lilies (alcatraz), roses from Ocotlan (Pilar says she loves rose petal sorbet), piles of chiles, handcrafted cheeses, and arrays of beautiful squash blossoms.  We stop at the family-owned chocolate stand where I buy molded treats to take home for hot chocolate and choco-cafe (100 pesos for one kilo).  We open our bags like little birds opening our beaks as Pilar buys and deposits chile pasilla (smokey and dark red), a plastic bag filled with fresh whole milk, squash blossom, choyote squash, mushrooms, and masa.

A young woman sits on the ground in front of two large baskets of chapulines. Pilar points to them.  These are not fresh, she says. See how dull they are, they must be shiny to be good.  We sample tejate, a pre-Hispanic drink made from ground maize, cacao, and the seed of the mamey fruit.

Sipping tejate

We learn that poblano chiles are from Puebla, and are not popular in Oaxaca.  Chile Oaxaca is small and yellow.  Chile serrano is called jalapeno when it is green and chipotle when it is red.  Black chilehuacle is the principle ingredient for mole negro (the most complex and difficult to prepare).   Never wash dried chiles, says Pilar, it degrades the flavor.  Clean it instead by wiping with a cloth.

Piles of basil, rosemary and other herbs grown for herbal cleansing and aromatics lean against the rough wood walls of the herbalists’ stall.  These are not used for cooking like in North America, Pilar says.  Bright yellow chicken is either painted or dipped in a corn-coloring; these are not organic.  Only white chickens are organic.  Chico zapote is a brown-yellow color but tastes like a sugary pear.  There are many types of mango, and mango pina is sweet and juicy with a green skin.

La Petrita vendadora de chocolate

We meandered, sampled and savored, breathed in the aromas of the small diners assembled around the inner courtyard, soaked in the visual excitement of colors, shapes and people.  After an hour of food shopping, we climbed back into our liveries and returned to the kitchen where we would get down to serious business.

What is Oaxacan Mole (MOH-Lay)? A Cooking Class with Pilar Cabrera Arroyo

Oaxaca is famed for her mole.  That’s pronounced MOH-lay.  Accent on the first syllable.  There are seven moles that make Oaxaca famous.  The most difficult and complex is  the spicy, chocolate-based mole negro.   The others include estofado (olives), amarillo (yellow), verde (green), coloradito (red), mancha mantelos, and chichilo.

Last week, I had both the good fortune and good sense to finally take a cooking class with Pilar Cabrera Arroyo.  Pilar is the stellar chef who owns and operates La Olla Restaurant at Av. Reforma #402 in the Centro Historico.  The cooking class was held at Casa de los Milagros (corner Crespo and Matamoros).  This is a new location. The cooking school onced located at Casa de los Sabores has moved here to the family-owned bed and breakfast. (A spectacular spot!)

Pilar's Cooking Class Kitchen: The Ultimate!

Pilar describes mole as salsa with masa that is added as a thickener.  Thus, she says, any sauce can become a mole!  Yesterday morning we prepared mole amarillo that uses yellow chiles that are indigenous to Oaxaca.

We found them at the Merced Market where we took a shopping field trip before the class began.  Pilar took us around to her favorite stalls, identifying the best places to buy eggs, cheese, fresh cow’s milk (for the arroz con leche), and we even found huitlacoche (corn smut) to use in the quesadilla botanas (appetizers) we would later make.

As we toured around the market, we sampled chocolate atole, a traditional Zapotec beverage made with corn meal (muy fuerte, my local friends say), and I bought an amulet that locals use to keep the spirit world at peace.

Mirrors and seeds are amulets to hang behind the bedroom door

We shopped for perfect yellow chiles Oaxaquenos and chiles guajillos. The chiles are roasted until they are 90% black.  Then you put them in a plastic bag or covered bowl to sweat so they are easier to peel (I had no idea about this until now).  Many of us gringos wore surgical gloves while we seeded and de-veined the chiles so that our skin wouldn’t burn, removing the skin using paper towels.  (Careful not to put your fingers in your eyes, says Pilar.)  Then we cut them into julienne strips.

Chiles roasting on the gas flame

Pilar’s gas  4-burner gas cooktop is commercial grade (brand name is San-Son). She has another range in the kitchen that also has an oven.

Grilling onions, garlic, tomatoes on the comal

A cast iron comal is used to grill the whole garlic cloves, onions and tomatoes that we will use for the mole amarillo. We use a professional blender instead of the traditional stone metate to combine the peppers, tomatoes and spices.

Classes are are on Tuesdays and Thursdays and you must register in advance through her Web site www.casadelossabores.com or you can call her restaurant La Olla to make a reservation and pay when you get there. Cost is $70 USD and well worth it.  We feasted on a five-course meal, including dessert, mescal and beer.