|15 miles||archaeological sites|
|20 miles||city of Puebla|
|75 miles||Mexico City|
Flying to Mexico for a cooking class in the middle of a Minnesota winter seemed a perfect way to restore the circulation in our frostbitten fingers and toes.
As the van that picked us up from the airport rounded a final bend in the road and the generous gardens and patio of Jon and Estella’s bougainvillea laced hacienda came into view on the hill, it appeared that we were off to a fine start. Indeed, we were.
Our 5 days and nights at the school far surpassed even the best of our fanciful expectations.
Our accommodations were beautiful and serene, filled with light and classical Mexican architectural detail and design. The corner fireplace was a delight as we sat up in our enormous bed, watching the flames, sipping our morning coffee.
After a leisurely breakfast, served on the patio by Maria, our housekeeper – assistant cook – and excellent maker of margaritas, our classes began at 10:00.
The intimate size of the classes (6 maximum; there were 5 in our party) insures that everyone has ample time to make fools of themselves, and to celebrate as a particular technique is mastered, all in the good humored and comfortable atmosphere of the big, cheerful kitchen.
Jon is the Sous Chef, quietly instructing us in the hands-on capture and dissection of the many varieties of chili peppers, and the shaving of cactus leaves, the preparation of herbs and spices, and in the art of mixing the masa and stuffing the tamales.
He is also an occasional interpreter for his wife, Estella. Her English is limited, though she possesses an articulate array of dramatic gestures and facial expressions, leaving no one in doubt of the meaning of what she is saying, even if her verbs are occasionally askew, or a noun here and there startlingly redefined.
There are techniques and tricks for cooking certain of the recipe’s ingredients that are critical to the success of the dish, and we are each given a turn at the stove to practice them. This would be difficult to learn from a book, But Estella’s watchful eye and friendly hand guides us through the steps.
We watch, we do, we laugh, we learn.
Estella is the reincarnation of a long line of Pueblan grandmothers, at whose knee she learned her art and craft. She has made it her mission to keep alive the knowledge and techniques that she fears may someday be lost.
At the end of each days’ class, we will have made 6 or 7 dishes: appetizers, soup, salad, side dishes, entrees, and dessert, which Estella and Maria set out on the dining room table, beautifully plated and garnished, looking like the shiny cover of everyone’s favorite cooking magazine.
It is irresistible; everyone takes out their camera. Some of these dishes will be served at lunch; others are for our evening meal. A proud day’s work.
After lunch, we are free to nap, play Scrabble or Bananagram, read, wander the local village, or socialize. (We met a delightful and interesting couple who’d signed up for the week’s classes, as we had, making us a party of 5 apprentices of varying experiences.) There is no t.v. at the school, thank goodness, though there is internet access.
Several afternoons, we took the easy, reliable taxi service to some of the neighboring towns and archeological sites. One day, we spent the entire afternoon in the city of Tlaxcala, mingling with the local people, crowded in the sidewalk cafes awaiting the Mardi Gras Carnival parade. There were troupes of dancers and musicians, many in costumes and masks, and clowns on stilts, children and adults, dogs, donkeys; all making their way to the town square for the crowning of the King and Queen.
It was a wonderful crowd, invariably polite, as we were among the few Norte Americanos, and it was especially fun watching the little children around us, excited, trying to catch the candy and treats tossed out from the passing floats, while the waiters threaded their way through the crowd bringing us the good Mexican beer.
Given the news that we often hear, I have to say that for our entire stay at the school and the several visits to towns large and small, there was not a moment when any of us experienced even a hint of uneasiness or danger. We felt entirely safe the whole time.
On the morning of our departure from the Mexican Home Cooking School, each of us received a diploma, and a notebook with freshly bound copies of the recipes we used through the week. It felt to us that we were leaving people who were not only our teachers, but who had become our friends. Hugs were exchanged all around. We’d love to return for a second course!
Christian and Sarah
we just returned from a fabulous week with Estella and John ( and MARIA ) at their home cooking school in Tlaxcala. The hacienda is gorgeous and very well designed for guests to feel comfortable. Each guest suite is beautifully decorated and very clean. The firewood is stocked daily so we enjoyed a morning and evening fire to deal with the very mild chill.. Days were sunny and warm and perfectly paced. We had lively cooking sessions in the mornings and the afternoons were free to pursue any adventures we wanted. Estella is delightful and the master of her craft. John has mastered the art of being friendly,helpful and informative when needed, then disappears to give his guests privacy. We laughed a lot during our lessons - John&Estella kept us amused as they showed us their love of each other and the food they were teaching us to make.
We learned very valuable cooking techniques- not just recipes - that allowed us to return home and use what we had learned. Every detail has been worked out to guarantee a great time. ( they even have a fleet of drivers who insured our safe transport to any destination we chose.)
Maria, their helper, is a sweet delight - she seems to appear out of nowhere at just the right moment to provide a delicious Margarita or fresh orange juice.
We ate like kings, felt like royalty but also part of the family.
I highly recommend this adventure.
Our week at Casa Carmelita was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable vacations that we’ve had. My wife is an accomplished cook, and interested in learning more about traditional Mexican cooking. I’m a novice cook, and interested in pre- and post-Columbian Mexican history and culture.
The cooking lessons at Casa Carmelita were fantastic. We both found them fun and engaging (notwithstanding the disparity in our cooking experience). Estela and Jon shared numerous tips with each recipe that we used. The lunches and dinners that Estela and Maria cooked from the food that we prepared during the lessons were fabulous. If forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be the tamales. They were so delightfully better than any that we have previously had.
Each day between lunch and dinner, we ventured to various historical and archeological sites, museums and cathedrals in and around Tlaxcala. The waiters, museum staff and others that we met were friendly and tolerant of my rudimentary Spanish. We heard “bienvenidos” many times.
While there are currently many areas in Mexico that are not safe, we never felt apprehensive during any part of our trip. Tlaxcala and Puebla are tourist areas that have not suffered the extreme drug related violence that plagues many parts of northern Mexico. With respect to getting from the airport to Casa Carmelita and traveling from Casa Carmelita to the central district of Tlaxcala, Puebla and the archeological sites that we visited, Jon has done an excellent job in lining up dependable drivers (and he keeps tabs on them).
In short, we learned and had fun. In addition to Estela’s classes, I enjoyed the numerous discussions that Jon and I had about Mexican history, culture and “modismos mexicanos.” Estele, Jon and Maria were attentive hosts. The food was delicious, the weather fabulous and the area interesting. What’s not to like? We plan to return.