Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Flavors of Mexico

By Virginia B. Wood

JUNE 1, 1998:  Mexico has long been a popular American tourist destination, offering sunny beaches, fascinating pre-Columbian culture, quaint old cities, lovely folk art, and affordable shopping. In the last 25 years, however, the multifaceted cuisine of Mexico has become a unique tourist attraction, drawing hungry foodies south of the border to experience the native fare. These days, tourists are curious about the fabled seven moles of Oaxaca, they thirst for a visit to the Jalisco birthplace of tequila, and they're eager to alternate days of snorkeling or sunbathing in coastal resorts with cooking classes. The Mexican culinary tourist trend was greatly influenced in the mid-Seventies by the publication of a catalogue of titles on native Mexican cuisine by renowned author Diana Kennedy. The high regard for Kennedy's cookbooks in the United States did not escape the notice of tourism executives in the Mexican government. They soon began to encourage Mexican cooks and authors to publish books aimed at the American public and arranged for experts such as Patricia Quintana and Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal to tour in the U.S., teaching and promoting Mexican cuisine. The result is that cooking vacations are now among the most sought-after Mexican travel packages. Here's the scoop on some Mexican gastronomic getaways with solid reputations.

Culinary Adventures, Inc. Marilyn Tausend, owner


Marilyn Tausend's name may be familiar to locals because she is the co-author (with Miguel Ravago) of the award-winning Cocina de la Familia (Simon & Schuster, $30 hard). Her company offers some of the most serious culinary educational tours of Mexico available. Last year, the guests on one tour spent a week learning about chocolate from the ancient Aztec civilizations, in which cocoa beans were used as currency, to its production today, with a scholar on the subject along as a guide. In the winter of 1999, Tausend has scheduled two tours. From January 23-February 1, she'll lead a group to Oaxaca, where they'll have three days of classes with the esteemed Diana Kennedy herself, as well as classes with local cooks in their homes and trips to markets, molinos, and restaurants. Then, from February 6-15, Tausend will lead a group to Veracruz, to visit the old port city, the capital, and coffee and vanilla plantations. The trip features two days of instruction from Diana Kennedy, with classes with local home cooks as well. Tausend is currently researching a trip to the tequila-producing area of Jalisco for the fall of 1999, but no formal dates are scheduled. Guests on Culinary Adventure tours are provided plenty of information about food and travel safety in Mexico before their visit, and the $2,550 price tag covers lodgings, meals, classes, ground transportation, transfers, tips, and taxes. Only airfare and spending money are separate.

Seasons of My Heart Cooking School, Rancho Aurora, Oaxaca, Mexico Susanna Trilling, owner

Former Austinite Susanna Trilling has lived at Rancho Aurora, a hillside farm overlooking the pueblo of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec, Etla, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, since 1988. There, in her home, she operates a cooking school, teaching visitors the native cuisines of the seven regions of Oaxaca. Guest accommodations in the nearby city of Oaxaca are provided by Casa Colonial or Posada Chencho, both comfortable bed-and-breakfast establishments. Course offerings include one-day classes and market tours ($65) on Wednesdays and Fridays, a long weekend bed-and-breakfast course ($750 per person) and a twice yearly intensive week-long tour and cooking class, Seven Days for Seven Regions ($1,495). Trilling is also taking reservations for a course based on the foods and celebrations of dia de los muertos from October 28-November 2. All of the longer courses include some of the following: market tours with stops at cheese factories and bakeries, visits to molinos where corn or chocolate are ground, a trip to the local mescal distillery or side trip to a coffee finca in nearby Huatulco. Cooking classes in the Rancho Aurora kitchen are hands-on, with Trilling providing much of the instruction. She also features guest cooks from the villages surrounding her home, allowing students the opportunity to learn native cooking techniques. Classes at Rancho Aurora are by reservation only. The cost is all-inclusive except for airfare and spending money.

Susanna Trilling is currently at work on a cookbook that will be the companion volume to a public television program about Oaxaca to be produced by WMHT of Albany, New York for airing in the fall of 1999. Scheduled filming of the series this fall may affect some class offerings, so booking in advance is a good idea.

Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School Victoria Challancin, owner


World traveler and international cook Victoria Challancin has been teaching cooking in the charming colonial city of San Miguel de Allende for the last 10 years. She offers classes through contract arrangements with local bed-and-breakfast villas and hotels. Her intimate knowledge of the local scene makes her a great source for information about the best restaurants, the most interesting art museums and galleries, and regional tile manufacturers and mercados. She is an expert on local foods and has just published a bilingual cookbook titled The Flavors of San Miguel (self-published, $18 paper) full of recipes from San Miguel's best eateries. Challancin's book is available in bookstores and gift shops in San Miguel and by mail order from her Texas address. One of Victoria's most popular classes is "Chiles for Gringos," in which she teaches students to recognize various native chiles, demonstrates cooking techniques, and shares recipes for their use. Classes are by reservation only.

In July, Victoria Challancin will be the cooking instructor for a week-long tour of San Miguel sponsored by a California outfit called Wild Women Adventures. The tour offers a hands-on cooking journey from the mercado (market) to the cocina (kitchen). Guests will stay at a villa called Casa Schuck (double occupancy with private bath), and enjoy daily breakfast, cooking classes, and welcome farewell fiestas. Cost of the tour is $1,410 (airport transfers, lodging, fiestas, classes and supplies, ground transportation, taxes, and trip cancellation insurance), exclusive of airfare and spending money. Contact Wild Women Adventures at 800/992-1322 or http://www.wildwomenadv.com.

Villa de la Roca Cooking Holidays Linda Fox and Cameron Graham, chefs


After dividing her time between Zihuatanejo and the U.S. for nearly 30 years, Texas chef Linda Fox came up with a great idea: lease the luxurious cliffside Villa de la Roca overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay for cooking holidays during the summer. Fox and partner chef Cameron Graham got the culinary venture going, and mentions in the western edition of Bon Appetit magazine and a Canadian food and wine publication Enoteca last year really put it on the map. The 8,000-square-foot villa offers five guest suites with king-size beds, full baths, sitting rooms, and privacy terraces. There are two pools and a bar that never closes, and the La Ropa beach is only 30 yards from the house. The cooking holidays begin on Sunday and end with breakfast the following Saturday. Guests receive five days of hands-on cooking instruction in the villa's gourmet kitchen and enjoy meals in the 20-seat restaurant. A detailed program, a recipe manual, a Zihuatanejo guide book, and complimentary T-shirts are issued to each participant. The two chefs divide the teaching duties, with Fox sharing her extensive knowledge of the lovely fishing resort with guests who want to explore local restaurants or pursue such activities as deep sea fishing, snorkeling, sailing and windsurfing, or golf in the two championship courses at the nearby tony Ixtapa resort.

The cooking holiday includes daily breakfast, 24-hour open bar for national drinks, beer and wine, 15% Mexican taxes, staff gratuity, and all meals served at the villa for a cost of $1,850 single occupancy or $1,500 double occupancy. Airfare, excursions, and meals outside the villa are extra. Summer dates are available by the week during June, July, and August. More dates may be added in September and October if demand warrants. All holidays are by reservation only. Linda Fox has self-published two books, a regional cookbook titled Cook'n Hot'n Zihuat and the definitive reference on the resort area called Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa Guide to the casas, camas, comidas y cosas (accommodations, foods, and things). The guidebook offers insider information that could only be provided by a near-native such as chef Fox. Both books are available at the villa or can be purchased by mail order.

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