When I stumbled across the Mexican Culinary Magic package on luxurylink.com, I got excited. Six nights in a colonial city in Mexico's heartland? A hotel in a historic 18th-century building, decorated with antiques? Fifteen hours of cooking classes? All meals included? A city tour and museum entries? What wasn't to like, especially when the package was at auction for less than half its retail cost?
I enlisted an interested friend to come with me, and we placed our bid for the package and won it at the reserve price -- $1005 for both of us, land only. It wasn't much work to score cheap airfare to Mexico City, and within a week of placing our bid, we had made all of the initial arrangements for our trip to Puebla, at a cost of about $870 per person.
On arriving in Mexico City, we headed for the airport's bus station (follow the green bus signs upstairs to the bus depot), where we bought bus tickets to Puebla on the Estrella Roja line. The cost was 260 pesos per person, round-trip (about US$23) for a first-class bus.
The bus was REALLY nice, with movies, a radio, a bathroom, and a bus stewardess who passed out snacks and drinks. We arrived at Puebla's 4 Poniente bus station and took a taxi (about 20 min and 40 pesos) to the Mesones Sacristia de la Compania. The hotel was lovely -- situated on a quaint street in the historic district, it had lovely, airy rooms decorated with antiques and a great courtyard restaurant (more about that in other entries).
The highlight of the stay, however, were the cooking classes, held at the sister hotel, Mesones Sacristia de los Capuchinas. Each morning after breakfast in Sacristia's courtyard, we walked the few blocks to Capuchinas to begin our lessons. The cooking lessons were nearly private -- there is a maximum of six people in each class (our class had four people in it). They run each morning from 10am to 1pm, and you then have a full, sit-down lunch of the dishes you've prepared. Everybody gets an apron to wear during class (you can keep it when you're done), and each group gets a binder containing the recipes you'll make during the course of the week. For English speakers like myself, the classes are translated by one of the hotel's staff, usually Audrey or Mariana.
One of the best parts of the class is the trip to the local market. Here, you can pick up some of the things that you've been using in class--griddles called comals that are used for roasting vegetables, as well as dried chiles, spices, and chocolate.
The chef/instructor, Alonzo, is AMAZING. The food that he teaches you to cook is nothing like the Tex-Mex that you get here in the US. It is largely Pueblan cuisine, which is subtle and sophisticated in its use of herbs and spices and not unlike Indian food in its use of layers of flavors.
Most dishes are light –- roasted, rather than fried in lots of oil -- and full of the bright taste of fresh herbs and the smoky richness of grilled vegetables and chilis.
Among the dishes that we learned how to make were salsa rojo and verde (which are to Mexican cuisine what the mother sauces are to French cooking), Pipian, an amazing sauce of herbs and chicken broth, thickened with toasted pumpkin seeds, Coconut Flan, and the famous Mole Poblano. Each day, we made three courses -- appetizer, entree, and dessert, plus a beverage.
By the end of the week, we all had a grounding in some of the basic dishes of Pueblan cuisine -- and a burning desire to return to Puebla for Mesones Sacristia's proposed advanced cooking course.