We've just finished breakfast, and it's time to eat again - these are my favorite trips. Our little group is walking through the vibrant colonial streets of Oaxaca towards El Mercado de la Merced. Today is the day a famous local chef will teach us the mysterious magic of Oaxacan cooking; tomorrow, we will venture to the fields to learn the craft of mezcal production.
But first, the market. This one, a manageably sized place on the eastern side of town, is where we will buy the ingredients for our lunch. Inside, stalls are separated by big baskets of dried chilies, stacks of dark chocolate and boxes of chayote and lumpy heirloom tomatoes. We purchase, among other things, a mound of white corn masa, a perky yellow bouquet of squash blossoms, and cuitlacoche-a blue fungus from corn that we will sauté for our quesadillas.
In the chef's sunny kitchen, our ingredients splayed on the tables look like a still life ready for painting. The art of cooking them is a complex work and we set to it immediately: carving out the spicy seeds from the peppers, crushing the maguey (agave) worm with a stone mortar and pestle, dissecting the delicate vanilla pod for its tiny, flavourful seeds. An hour later, appetites whetted, we sit down to one of the most beautifully balanced meals of my life - sweet corn soup is paired with salty, fresh string cheese; a hearty quesadilla compliments the complex spices of yellow mole sauce. We finish the meal with the perfect portion of a delicate rice pudding served in a hollowed-out guava.
The next day, we hop aboard a van and head out of the city to the surrounding agave-dotted countryside for an immersive mezcal experience. Our guide, a mezcal guru with a nerdy and infectious enthusiasm for the smoky spirit, has arranged for us to experience every aspect of its production-from harvesting the spiny agave plant to drinking the final product. On the drive through the hills, we sip different mezcals from a little gourd bowl and try to identify their nuanced flavours.
In light of our recent cooking glass, it's hard not to think of mezcal production as a different kind of cooking. Instead of a trip to the market for our ingredients, we go out into a dusty field and uproot an old agave plant with the assistance of a couple of bemused farmers. The pulpy root of the agave, the piña, is then split, roasted in an earthen oven and crushed by an archaic, horse-pulled grinding stone. Thus broken down, the mixture is shovelled into vats where wild yeasts feed on it for a while. Fire is added, the brew is twice distilled and finally, the booze is ready for human consumption. All these steps take place in the open air; a distillery in the US can feel like a chemistry lab, but this is more like a farm field trip. Friendly locals guide us through the whole process, instruct us on what to do and, once it's done, chat with us over a little cup of the spirit.
On the rough route home, our alcohol-addled minds absorb the landscape. Oaxaca sits in the belly of the sierras, isolated by steep mountains and narrow, sinuous valleys. Limited to strictly local ingredients, the native food and drink traditions display an improvising and earthy creativity - and relative isolation from outside influences ensures that Oaxaca's delicious improvisations live on. The sun is setting and the agave plants are silhouetted by a gray sky. Our van is silent, full of my dozing companions, until the city lights come into view. Suddenly, I feel a renewed energy. It is time for dinner.
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