A few years back when I was working at PepsiCo and was a single lady, my mom and I decided to start taking mother/daughter trips over Christmas time when I had a break from work and when our extended family (my brother & sister-in-law) were with her fam. Also helps that my dad was raised Jewish and we aren’t religious so Christmas wasn’t ever our main holiday, Thanksgiving is. So for four years, before I got married, my mom and I traveled to Mexico & Central America on little 4-5 day adventures. One such year we decided to go on a culinary vacation in Mexico. My mom did all the research on La Villa Bonita in Tepoztlan Mexico and alas we booked our stay!
I’ll start with a simple understanding of expectations when traveling internationally that we have come to discover: By the last day, your expectations will be perfectly adjusted and everything will be extremely charming, despite what your first reaction might have been.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon to the airport in Mexico City and were greeted by Chef Ana Garcia and our companions for the next 5 days. Luckily we were the last to arrive so we didn’t have to wait long to get on the road. We piled into Ana’s astro van and off we went.
We got to Tepoztlan, which is about an hour and 30 minutes from Mexico City just before the sun was setting so we got a lovely view of our new home away from home. The cobblestone streets of this winding little hilly town are lined with a smattering of dilapidated buildings covered in graffiti and lovely vine covered estate gates leading to large properties with multiple houses. Ours was more like the latter, with a pool, gardens, a large open air kitchen with a terrace on top, 6 suites and of course Chef Ana’s private home.
We started with chips & guac, margaritas and crispy crickets! Which I tried thankyouverymuch. We spent about an hour getting to know our travel companions who came from Iowa, Indian, and Austin TX. We also got a brief overview from Ana about the next few days. However looking back on it, this could have been enhanced with a little more organization, for example a small map of the town and where we were located, some dining suggesting in town for the nights we were not cooking, suggestions of other excursions she could arrange for days we were not cooking, or even a more defined schedule of what we would be doing. Basically it was pretty hodge podge and off the cuff, which proved to be just fine once our expectations were adjusted, but up front it would have been nice to have more assurance of what was about to happen and where exactly we were.
That night we enjoyed a chef’s dinner which I sadly didn’t snap pics of but can describe in detail as it was extremely dellicious. We started with a spicy peanut soup, which was served with sliced green grapes and a dollop of creamy greek yogurt. That was followed with a hibiscus quesadilla, which actually didn’t have any cheese in it but was crunchy and fluffy and delightfully tangy with the sauteed flower stuffed inside. The main course was a seared yellow fin tuna caught fresh in Sayulita by her previous group of guests who participated in her Coastal Week trip. The tuna was rubbed with ground spices and peppers and chocolate – reminiscent of a dark mole in flavor. It was served along side roasted squash. For dessert we had a fruit type mouse but it was a fruit I have never had before, absolutely black as night and just slightly sweet, with a tangerine cream. The meal was beautiful and scrumptious and we went to bed happy and full, ready to wake for breakfast at 6:30AM before heading to Cuernevaca for a large market trip.
After a couple of hours in Cuernavaca wandering through the crazy maze of vendors selling everything from bags of pre-packed pinata candy to chickens heads to charcoal to Disney character trinkets, we grabbed lunch at a local spot. Everything was delish except for the plate that landed upside down in my mom’s lap – luckily she happens to be worlds most easy going human and laughed it off real quick like. And on went the day. *Side note, Chef Ana graciously had her team of terrific help clean up all of the clothes that happened to be in the path of the flying enchiladas once we got home.
After Cuernavaca we came back to the villa and started our afternoon of making over 200 tamales for the local church. The process was pretty laborious but they truly resulted in the absolute most scrumptious tamales of all time. We made 6 kinds: Chicken in Red Mole, Pork in Green Tomatillo Mole, Ground Beef & Tomato, Zucchini & Corn, Cheese, and Strawberry with Raisins. There is definitely a technique to it and truthfully I don’t think this is the type of thing I would ever do at home, however it was a fun experience and they were really the best tamales I’ve ever had. Thanks mostly in part to the absurdly fresh and made from scratch ingredients.
Before delivering the tamales to the church party, we tasted all of them ourselves for dinner alongside a lovely salad of cactus and tomato. YUM! The next morning we got together for our daily breakfast of yogurt, homemade granola, coffee and a special main course That day it was fresh tortillas, fried cheese in a tomato broth with zucchini and black beans. UH Maze. Next we walked down to the market in Tepotzlan which was impressive but not quite as massive as the one in Cuernavaca. This one however boasted a lovely “food court” if you will including rows and rows of stands with women making fresh tortillas stuffed, folded and grilled to gooey cheesy perfection. We took note of this particular part of the market to come back in our free time. That day the goal was to collect all of the ingredients we needed to learn how to make proper red and green moles from scratch.
I learned two important things that day: 1) Fry your ingredeints 2) Fry your sauces
As far as mole goes, the process is laborious but proves to be totally worth it. There are roughly 28 million ingredients in mole, and before throwing them in the blender, we were taught to fry/toast/roast/crisp whatever you want to call it, every ingredient. Every chili, every nut, everyTHING. Once you’ve done that and you throw them in the blender and make your lovely mole, then you fry the sauce. You add a large amount of lard to a very hot pot, let it get to its smoking point and then throw in your sauce and let is sizzle and simmer for.. HOURS. This really produces a level of flavor that was worth the time and the frying. Again not something I’m likely to make on my own but interesting techniques to know about. The moles were for our main dinner that night – the red mole was for shredded chicken while the green mole was for braised pork. We also made re-fried black beans and fresh tortillas of course.
The next day was Christmas Eve day and despite the fact that we were in Tepoztlan in the middle of their dry season it was a day full of power outages and torrential downpours. But this didn’t stop us from a wet walk to the market to collect some ingredients for our cooking class which would culminate in Chile Rellenos and Flan – which seem to be the two dishes all of us on the trip were most excited to make, and EAT.
To start, the Poblanos have to be prepped, meaning you have to blister their skins on an open flame, which takes a bit of time, attention, and precision. Once they are properly charred they go in a sealed up plastic bag to sweat. Once they were sufficiently sweaty we removed them from the bag and rubbed the skin right off. At this point we were also instructed to cover our fingers with olive oil so that they didn’t burn and of course touching your eyes is a big no-no. After the skins were off, we cut a slit down one side of the pepper, not going all the way through to the other side but creating a pocket. Once the seeds were all taken out (the HOT stuff) we stuffed the peppers with a few types of mild white cheeses – reminiscent of white cheddar and mozzarella then stitched them up with a toothpick to keep the cheese inside. Next we dredged them in flour and in an egg white & cream of tartar mixture whipped until there were high peaks. After that they were carefully fried one at a time in a couple inches of very hot oil on the stove until golden brown, then set aside as we worked them in batches.
On the side we were simmering a lovely broth of stewed pureed tomatoes and some very light spices – to that we added sliced potatoes, carrots, and zucchini until fork tender. When the poblano peppers were ready for serving they were dipped in the broth and then served in a cream soup bowl with the veggies and a couple ladles full of broth. Served up with warm tortillas and cold beer this was a peak experience. Of course it was finished off with the most perfect caramel flan.
The last two days of the trip included a Christmas celebration with Ana’s family and a day on our own in town which included yummy street quesadillas full of salty cheese and fried squash blossoms.
My lovely traveling companion and I have talked and talked about our overall opinion of this trip and here is what we have concluded. The food was wonderful, the scenic location of Tepotzlan is beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed our quirky group of fellow vacationers. We realized by the end that the town which had been so hyped as the chic, holistic getaway site for the who’s who of Mexico City was more charming on the last day as our expectations were adjusted. We also realized that while Chef Ana is totally adorable and hilarious, we wouldn’t recommend going over Christmas week as things were hectic with her spread pretty thin between family obligations and catering gigs – it would have been a better experience at another time of the year. Overall, I would recommend going to La Villa Bonita for a 2-3 day stay attached to some other Mexico beach trip. It was a fun trip, but I’m not sure we would rush back – but hey we’ve got new places to check off our travel list!