Seasons of My Heart Oaxaca Cooking School

Susana, hands on with the youthful as well

Susana Trilling and her staff offer a marathon culinary experience, with location of instruction shared between the Wednesday Etla marketplace, and Susana’s traditionally styled, large kitchen complex near San Lorenzo Cacaotepec, a village located between Oaxaca city and the town of Etla.

At 9 am sharp a van pulls up to a downtown Oaxaca hotel, the pre-arranged meeting place, and picks us up, an assorted group of 12 ranging in age from 9 to 60ish. All I knew was that we were off to a local market for some tasting, a light meal and purchasing ingredients for the cooking lesson, followed by the comida we were to prepare.

We arrived at the bustling and colorful Etla marketplace after about 40 minutes, and were greeted by Yolanda, a member of Susana’s staff. It quickly became apparent that Susana would not be with us in the market. Someone asked if Susana would be giving the class, and Yolanda’s response was somewhat affirmative: “Yes, I think we’ll all be there for the class.”

Yolanda’s English was excellent, but just as important, her knowledge was extensive. She took us for an extensive, magical market tour, explaining about the town and surrounding villages, who comes from where to attend the market, and what the region is best known for. She stopped at several outdoor stalls to provide explanations of what we were seeing, ranging from produce to cooking utensils. Tidbits of information seeming to supplement a fixed format easily rolled off her tongue, both in response to questions asked, and of her own accord: “Do you want to know where your chewing gum comes from, well here’s the fruit, the chico zapote. Everybody taste it. What do you think?”

Chico zapote was the first of twenty or more samplings in the market, each providing a burst of a uniquely different flavor, and accompanied by an explanation as to differences between seemingly like foodstuffs, and when and how they are customarily eaten: a half dozen different tamales from a local vendor who attends the market with steaming offerings; distinctly different breads and rolls for dipping chocolate, making sandwiches and other traditional usages; the three varieties of Oaxacan cheeses most commonly encountered; ice creams known as nieves, flavored with pecan, another with lime zest, with a third being an egg yolk - cinnamon concoction known as sorbete.

“Remember I explained to you about the different types of molcajetes or hand grinders for milling all kinds of things, well here’s one of the uses, to produce the zest use to make this wonderful lime ice. Taste the freshness, and distinct difference between what you’re probably used to having made with lemon or lime juice, and what these small key limes can produce?
“And here’s a little tip for you, if you want your hot chocolate to be frothy, don’t boil your water and chocolate at the same time, otherwise you’ll never get that foam on top.”

Yolanda spends extra time identifying chiles and explaining their uses, not at all unexpected given the importance of chiles in Oaxacan cookery. She explains the uses of the nopal cactus, and then when we walk by some fava beans she comes back to how nopal and fava can be used together. She once again refers back to the nopal when we see mounds of prickly pear, or tuna as they’re locally knows. She stresses which are used for eating, and which for making a fresh sweet juice or a sherbet, and from what type of cactus each is derived.

Our medical lesson begins with a stop by the lady with bundled fresh herbs on the ground, and continues at the booth of the vendor selling dried and boxed local remedies. One in the group simply can’t resist the opportunity to buy a local product for whatever was ailing him. I didn’t ask. Another picks up a 15 peso amulet from Chiapas known as ojo de venado (literally deer’s eye), to give to a friend back home with a different infirmity.

“Now before we sit down for a light lunch over here, let’s sample what these women over there are pouring.” Of course it’s tejate and chilacayota, the two most popular drinks traditionally prepared in local markets, which to the untrained tourist would normally be a no-no. “Don’t worry, everything you eat here in this market with me is safe.”

We sit down alongside some locals, at a long white ceramic tile lunch counter with women at the grill behind. Our choices are enchiladas, entomatadas and enfrijolandas, each drenched with a different salsa or mole over softened tortilla, garnished with cheese and sliced white onion. I request an extra small serving (“only one enchilada please”) but a full meal, albeit one item . . . oversized, arrives. I eat it all anyway.

“Now why don’t you all wander around on your own for a half hour, perhaps buy some things that caught your eye earlier, and we’ll meet back at the van where we started out, let’s say at 12:30.”

It’s now after 1 pm. We traverse the countryside over dirt roads en route to the Trilling kitchen, with a strong feeling of anticipation.

Clad in white blouse and skirt, an angelic looking Susana warmly greets each of us individually, and welcomes us into a most impressive and spacious dome-topped kitchen and dining area with adjoining gift shop. “Please, make yourself at home, we have two washrooms, there are a couple of types of fresh fruit juice, and coffee. Pick up your recipe outines. We’ll be starting shortly.”

There is now a staff of five milling about, consisting of Yolanda, Peg who appears to be Susana’s administrative assistant, two kitchen staff, and Jesús, a young helper-for-all Seasons.

It’s now approaching 2 pm. Susana begins her lecture regarding Oaxacan cookery, in detail explaining every recipe which is before us in a series of printed pages. She notes that her book is for sale, about her PBS television series, and regarding the mezcal being offered as a courtesy of the house, also for sale: “The owner of the mezcal factory is a friend of mine.” She continues: “I’d like to introduce you to Don Alejandro Lopez Juarez, a gentleman who lives one village over, and carves and paints wooden figures together with his wife. You know his arthritis is pretty serious now, so there’s not much work he can do.” Don Alejandro gingerly removes from his bag and carefully unwraps about ten simple, rustic carved painted pieces, generic cattle they would appear to be, and places them on the table, for sale.

We’re comfortably seated while Susana lectures for just over an hour, detailing each of the five principal recipes we’ll be creating, peppering her oratory with interesting and informative anecdotes and gems: “No, estofado which we’ll be making today isn’t one of the seven moles, but rather a stew; however just so you’ll know, the moles are….and the difference between them and stews are….”

Susana provides information about substituting one ingredient for another, helpful to both vegetarians and those who live in parts of the US or further abroad where encountering select ingredients can be challenging. She plugs a couple of books which appear to be dear to her heart, In Defense of Food and The Omnivorous Dilemma. She urges us to buy books at our local bookstores rather than via the internet with a view to supporting neighborhood economies. Susana’s motivation appears to be a sincere attempt to foster patronage for worthy causes, local business, and people for whom she cares.

Yolanda hadn’t bought any ingredients for the class during the market tour. All was displayed for us in Susana’s kitchen, for our arrival, the ingredients for each recipe laid out in a wicker basket with instruction sheet atop. As Susana begins to explain each recipe, Jesús brings over the appropriate canasta. She details how we’ll be creating each of the following:

1) A fairly complex appetizer dish from the Yucatan known as Salbutes;
2) Green salad with jícama, guava and pumpkin seeds;
3) Chilled chayote bisque;
4) Spanish chicken stew with capers and olives (Oaxacan, though imported from Spain during colonial times);
5) Layered mango pudding or “charlottle.”

“Now tell me who wants to make which dish, but first let me recap what we’ll be making, because I know it was a lot to take in.

“Let me tell you where the stations are. Here’s the soup station, over there is the pastry department, and just so you know, we’ll be using the outside kitchen for toasting seeds since it can get pretty smoky.

“Please, couples split up. That way you’ll get a more diverse learning experience.”

It’s now 3 pm, and each group of two or three begins to gather at its designated area. Everyone mills about, initially a bit confused, but quickly realizing that the staff, in particular the two women assistants, are there, at our disposal. Yolanda leaves at some point during the afternoon. Susana is present in the kitchen assisting roughly half of the time, more so after about the first hour. Jesús ensures that beer flows freely.

With Susana’s fine orchestration, all miraculously comes together. “Who wants to help set the tables?” The meal is served, Susana joining us and paying tribute to her staff, to our toasting and applause. Presentation is exquisite, with flavor and texture of each dish unparalleled.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, with Susana signing a couple of books, and bidding farewell to each, as we board the van. We arrive at downtown Oaxaca around 7:30 p.m., after a very full day.

Susana appeared to be present with us for about three and a half hours of this all encompassing gastronomic experience. Her staff was knowledgeable and appeared quite helpful.

As an aside, I was subsequently advised by Peg, the administrative assistant, amongst other things, that Yolanda Giron is the main leader of the market tour these days; that Susana is in fact on site from when a class arrives at the school, until it departs; and that at times the group is large, 20 people used as an example. For a smaller group and more intimate cooking school experience, read my reviews of the classes given by Nora Valencia (Cocina con Nora) and Pilar Cabrera (BB Sabores Cooking School).

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) ©

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) is a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association, its members providing an attractive alternative to lodging in a Oaxaca hotel. Our member Oaxaca bed and breakfasts are committed to providing value-added service in a quaint, personal touch environment, a contrast to traditional Oaxaca hotels. Casa Machaya co-owner Alvin, the Oaxaca destinations expert for a major international travel website, provides Oaxaca tours to his house guests as well as those staying in other Oaxaca accommodations.

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