Outside of Oaxaca de Juárez we drove about an hour up in to the mountains to a town called Capulalpam de Mendez where we met with Tecla, Nahaum, and Pedro, a family growing a lot of their own food to prepare many traditional farm-to-table dishes. Once we arrived in Mexico, we quickly realized that the staple of the diet was corn. Every meal revolves around it. So much so, it is common to cook corn each night to take to the molinero in the morning to make the masa that will be consumed throughout the day. It is used for fresh tortillas, tomales, memelitas, tlayudas, and added to sopas and moles. Their farm was quite unique since they live in a mircro-climate suitable for both corn and tropical fruit. We were excited to learn how organic and small-scale farms operated in Mexico and to get a feel for how the fresh ingredients would impact a classic Mole Verde.
The moment we arrived, we were asked to make our selection of gallinas. This was the hardest part of the day for me. To see these chickens running free on the farm and then to have their heads snapped to be put into to boiling water and de-feathered all for us to eat. Thankfully our chef, Tecla, was a down-to-business mama and with her husband Nahaum they made a friendly competition to see who could clean their chicken the quickest. Tecla won of course, and she got right in there and broke down the birds, keeping almost everything except the toe-nails, beak, butt-hole, and throat for the caldo de pollo. She tied off the head with corn husk to seal in the blood, allowing it to congeal and not leak into the stock. This is apparently a treasured part! The cat lingered at her feet the whole time and eventually, she tossed it the throat and lower intestines.
While the calbo de pollo was on the stovetop, we went into the field to gather the herbs and vegetables. Walking through overgrown and lush bushes, we spotted and picked parsley, oregano, cilantro, epazote, leaves of hierba santa, and pulled chayote hanging off the tree. They had already sent the cooked corn from their farm to the molinero that morning to prepare their masa for the tortillas. From neighboring farms, they had gathered rice, English peas, onion, garlic, tomatillo, and Canario chiles of various colors. Tecla went about preparing the vegetables by picking the herbs off their stems, peeling and chopping the chayote and onions, shedding the husk and chopping the tomatillo and garlic, and then taking the seeds and veins out of the chiles.
The tomatillo, garlic, onion, and chiles were then put into a standard blender for the mole base, which was then started in a separate clay pot. The chayote was put into a third pot to boil, followed by the peas, which needed much less time to cook in water. Next, she toasted the rice in oil until it had crisped and had a slightly golden brown color. This was to prepare the rice to be boiled on the stove.
We were surprised at how much the blender was used throughout this process. She added the onion with some water to blend, which along with some chicken stock was used to cook the rice in a saucepan. Chicken stock was also put into the mole in the clay pot. The herbs were chopped and also placed in the blender with some water before being added to the mole pot. From the mound of masa, Tecla created fist-sized balls for the tortillas on a stone slab by the comal. 4 of these were put into the blender with water to then be added to the mole. This was a trick we learned was commonly used to thicken soups in Mexico. It wasn't until this moment that we realized it was no wonder the sopas we had been eating were more filling than we thought. They are full of masa!
During this time, Nahaum placed wooden logs into the brick fireplace underneath the flat clay traditional comal. Pedro had gone to pick some fruit from the farm including passionfruit and taranja or grapefruit to prepare us some snacks and aqua frescas. He served us the pith of the grapefruit, which was the first time I had ever known that to be a thing. The part between the peel and the juicy part of the fruit is a perfect snack with the common spice mix, Tajín.
Tecla then went about pressing the balls of masa in the tortilla press before placing the flattened bit on the comal. As the masa cooked, she'd wait for bubbles to form before flipping over. It was a bit of a timed affair, the mole was simmering, the tortillas were being made, and Nahaum was busy preparing the table. We waited with childlike excitement as with all this time, love, and process, we had grown quite hungry.
Since corn has become such a staple part of Mexican cuisine and diet, it isn't so surprising that the rise of monocropping and GMO corn is becoming more and more prevalent and that the palettes and priorities have changed. People prefer the sweeter generic corns and eat plenty of modified corn starch and high-fructose corn syrup. For a small-scale farmer such as Nahaum, keeping the seeds and reusing them in the field each year is a source of pride and a way to make sure their source of maize doesn't become contaminated by neighboring farms. To be able to grow their own corn and food to prepare a meal like this is becoming less and less common as well. That is why I am so passionate about promoting the importance of keeping with these traditions and being able to eat food fresh from the farm not only because it is full of life-force and is a more sustainable and healthy way to live, but also because keeping biodiversity is a key component of the future of food and global warming.
Pedro's agua frescas delighted us. He opened the granadilla or passionfruit and placed the entire pulp or seeds along with some water and cane sugar and blended. He ran the mix through a fine-mesh sieve to separate out any last black seeds. He kept the shell/skin of the passionfruit and created cups for us to serve their local mezcal in. The other agua fresca was made with lemon from their tree. He used the peel and blended it with water and sugar as well.
It was time to eat. We gathered around the table while I frantically took photos of the food in all its glory. It was tough to get the group to hold back so I only managed to capture moments as we were mid-meal. The energy was family style, passing the basket of fresh tortillas, the rice, and the mezcal around. The mole was served with the cooked chicken even though as the non-meat eater in the group, I had mine without. The flavors were rich and pronounced with well-rounded levels of spice. Any heat from the mole could easily be suppressed with a sip of agua fresca or a bite of rice. The corn husk was presented on the table with the chicken head and even the brains were eaten. It was the first time for me to witness that and the family was amused at my squeamishness.
1.In our time in Oaxaca, we explored the food and the various kinds of mezcal, which is a favorite of mine. The one thing that stood out that I was amazed I hadn't seen more of in the plant-based restaurant scene, is corn smut or the corn fungus, huitlacoche. Sold in the markets, this seasonal ingredient is best used fresh for tacos and memelitas. We were delightfully surprised by this mushroom that grows on the most common crop. What an amazing by-product! I now seek it, hope for it in my local Mexican markets, so I can sautée it in all kinds of other plant-based dishes not commonly thought of.
I think that is the best part of exploring a country. When you have to make your way home, you can remember the stories in the ingredients you've learned about and then get creative and find ways to mix ideas. I am forever with wanderlust and it is important too to know how to eat properly and healthfully while on the road. For me, its a lot about finding fresh farm-to-table style places - or places that just don't use processed ingredients. I am always curious and I learn the most about a place through its land, food, and the people who look after it.
We adored the city of Oaxaca but it was the excursions we made out that really stood out in our minds due to these kinds of people we met. Before our day in the kitchen, we explored life in Teotitlan del Valle, which is a Zapotec town known for its hand-operated looms and local sheep wool textiles made with natural dyes. As an "artist's" town in the foothills of the mountains and near many mezcal distilleries and a local farmer's market, we couldn't resist. Our hosts, Sam and his mother Leonor made us comfortable in their home. We even offered one morning to help on their farm property to gather up lingering squash and blossoms and to tie up dried corn stalks to take back for animal feed. Spending sunrise amidst agave fields and getting our hands dirty was enjoyable. We learned about the effort, time, and cost of running a farm and raising cattle in Mexico and how families go about acquiring their land. In just a short week, we really felt immersed in Oaxaca. What isn't photographed here was our time in the never-ending mezcal tasting where we had to beg to stop and the temezcal sweat lodge where we got naked and ceremonious hit with branches. Lots to discover, much to tell. Enjoy your time there!
All images © 2016 by Anna Bek