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Archive for November, 2013

For me, as for many travellers, food is the fastest way to learn about a new country:   culture, language,  history, geography and even economics are all expressed through the kitchen and then on the plate. So when landing somewhere new, I try to book a cooking class early on, preferably one that includes a market or shopping tour. In my first month in San Miguel as a visitor, I tore through most of the local Mexican cooking schools, and so have a decent mastery of market Spanish and several versions of salsa roja and verde.

But when we moved here for part of the year (that would be the cold part back in Canada) I began to crave a different experience. Mexican cooking is very regional, so once you have been exposed to the local specialities,  you are pretty much done. Most of the Mexican classes are  filled with tourists, so I was unlikely to extend my network of “like minded” residents in my new home.(Definition of “like minded”:  folks who get nervous if their meals are not planned four to six sittings ahead)  For six months of the year, I also craved the flavours of my favourite ethnic foods:   Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Sichuan.  There are not many good ethnic restaurants here, I thought I might put those Far East cooking classes to work.  But where to get the ingredients?

The heart of the kitchen

The heart of the kitchen

So I was delighted to discover  Michael and Valarie Coon’s global cooking school, Insideroute. Set in the fabulously equipped kitchen of their San Antonio home,(I have a serious case of range and fridge envy),  their specialty classes focus on cuisines from all over the world, with the exception of Mexico (The couple do lead very popular culinary tours to other parts of Mexico, and you can email them here to get on the list for classes and for tours:  insideroute@aol.com

I have taken quite a few classes from them, (Thai, Vietnamese,Korean , Low Country and more)  and they are great fun and very social events. With Michael as chef/teacher and Valarie as charming and welcoming hostess,  he manages to impart culinary knowledge while ensuring that we are all engaged and participating at whatever level we feel most comfortable. For some, that’s just sipping an agua fresca but if you want to,  don an apron and grab a ladle.

One of the ancillary benefits of attendance is that Michael (and his assistant, former caterer and long time resident Holly

Holly plating the Polenta

Holly plating the Polenta

Sims) know where to get everything to do with food.  From the best sources for free range chicken to what specific aisle and shelf the kosher salt is on at the local superstore, to what Asian ingredients are available where and which have to be ordered through Amazon, they are an encyclopedic culinary resource. ( Next month, expect my post on local sourcing of ingredients) Michael is also an obsessive collector of cookbooks:  I think that the living room ceiling threatens to collapse under the weight of his collection above. Here is one of my favourite moments:    he was giving us a tour of the rooftop garden, and walking by a container, casually pulled out a stalk for each of us and said “here’s some lemon grass, take it home, put it in a bucket, water well, and it will grow like a weed”. Like all true cooks, he loves to share his passion.

I will definitely be writing  more about Michael and Valarie’s entertaining classes,  but this post is about a very special evening:  a tribute from Michael to the recently deceased and immensely mourned Italian cookbook author and teacher, Marcella Hazan.  When Michael was at the Culinary Institute of America or CIA in California, he arranged a book signing and presentation for her.  She was to take questions, but I guess her reputation for being a culinary curmudgeon silenced the room. Michael decided to break the ice, asking her “Do you always cook  with extra virgin olive oil?”.  In front of several hundred people,  she flatly replied :  “That’s a stupid question.”

I expect some nervous laughter ensued, but perhaps that opening led to their ongoing relationship.  Here is a sample from their FB chats, offering encouraging words to Michael when they moved to Mexico and started a cooking school:

Ciao Michael. Thirty-four years ago I decided to open a cooking school in Bologna. I had no examples to follow, but it all turned out pretty well and if I hadn’t become too old to continue I’d probably still have students there. It takes optimism and a thick head to undertake something like that and I know what you are facing and I admire you for doing it in Mexico. If travel hadn’t become nearly forbidding for me I’d come down to see you. I wish you well. Victor, who is always grateful to you for putting him onto Global (knives), also sends his best. Marcella

And yes, she always cooked with extra virgin olive oil!

Ben’s favourite course of the evening was the “Grilled Portobello Mushrooms & Polenta and Michael kindly supplied his recipe here. (more…)

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So declared my friend, “La Rubia Elegante”,  when she received our invitation to spend a precious day away from work and head to the hills outside San Miguel de Allende.  Our destination was  the tiny village of Santa Rosa, where we were promised an excellent vantage point from which to view  one of the world’s iconic road races:  The Panamericana. Started in 1950, the original  Carrera Panamericana  ran for only 5 years before being suspended for fears of continued causalities.  The border to border race on open roads in Mexico was considered the most dangerous road race in world:  in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, it saw the participation of the best motor racers in the world at the time.  Today’s race was resurrected in 1988, and its current North American Co-ordinator is a resident of San Miguel, Gerie Bledsoe. Here is what he has to say about the event:

 We have few opportunities in our lives to become part of a legend.  But La Carrera Panamericana, the Pan Am, is one of those rare opportunities.  It is the last open, top-speed road race of its kind in the world.  No one can predict how long it will survive in this modern age.

  This October, 100 vintage racecars–each with a driver and co-driver—will line up in southern Mexico for the 26th year to race nearly 2000 miles back to the north.  It’s seven days of racing (time trials) over closed, paved roads, through some of the most beautiful country north of the Equator. Seven days of freedom. It’s a week of feeling very special and a lifetime of memories.

No doubt it was Gerie that arranged to have some of the cars  in the central square of San Miguel ( El Jardin) on a sunny Sunday. Like flies to honey, tourists and residents clustered around these vintage hot rods, getting their photos taken with the cars, or getting to sit in the driver’s seat and dream. To participate in the modern Panamericana, all you need to do is purchase an old car (pre 1965) and fix it up to meet the safety standards. According to Gerie, you can spend about $30,000 or you can drop a “small fortune”.  There are no speed limits.  Updated insurance is advised. No cash prizes for winning this race:  only bragging rights

Santa Rosa Place Setting

Santa Rosa Place Setting

Santa Rosa is also the home of a factory store which produces fine quality majolica using traditional methods and local clay:  decorated by hand, these artisans create wonderful pieces for decoration, display and everyday use.  And the prices are very good as well:   place settings and serving pieces very similar to those used by the fine restaurants and offered by upmarket culinary stores in San Miguel are for sale here for 17 – 31% less than retail. You can custom order by size, pattern and colour too:  we ordered  Chinese red luncheon plates in the Italianate style for less than $12 each, ready in 3 to 4 weeks.  The selection can be a little overwhelming, so go with styles, sizes and colour schemes in mind.

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Pickled Pig’s Feet with Peanuts

Shopping completed and with the race a few hours off,  we needed to find a place for a long leisurely luncheon.   Our best option, since the roads had been closed for the race, was the Restaurant de La Sierra.  A cafeteria that could seat up to 350, it offered  excellent sight lines, but a pretty average  menu.   We decided to stick with the basics and order guacamole and arrachera, that special thin long cut of marinated beef that is  like a skirt steak, but uniquely Mexican in flavour, and frankly,  pretty hard to mess up.  Feeling adventurous, I also ordered the house mescal and the manitas de cerdo, or pickled pigs feet. They were surprisingly tasty (I am a sucker for anything pickled) with a mild flavour and chewy texture. I  learned later that they are a delicacy enjoyed in  the American South, Asia (since the Ming dynasty) and any place that poor, thrifty eastern Europeans had settled.  Like jars of pickled eggs and sausages, pickled trotters have a place on the counters of many Tennessee and South Carolina roadhouses.  I also read that since they are so high in collagen, pig’s feet  are considered a “super-food”  in the quest for younger, more supple skin. Perhaps some rebranding is order however:  “creme de couchon” anyone?

A few hours and a few mescals later,  you could hear the high throaty pitch of the Porsche and the low baritone of a North American V-8  approaching the town.  When they slowed to pass through Santa Rosa, you had a moment to appreciate the timeless design and the power of these vintage race cars before they accelerated up the hill and into the setting sun.  Heading home later, we saw evidence of that power:  a boxy blue European sedan,  possibly a Volvo or Alfa Romeo, had lost control on the curve,  sailed off the road and  smashed head on into a large tree below.  An ambulance was just leaving the scene. I emailed Gerie to get an update but no response as yet.

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