Overland miles: 2837 Tacocount: 48 Days without Tea: 0
Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wahaka’) about 288 miles and 6 hours south of Mexico City, capital of Oaxaca State, is widely renowned as the birthplace of the Mexican gastronomic revolution of the last few years (and no doubt its denizens would claim that their city has always produced world class food). It’s known for its varied speciality produce including D.O.C cheese, chocolate, chillies and – most excitingly – chaupilnes (grasshoppers – fried and often eaten as barsnacks). It’s also home to some of the best new-Mexican restaurants, where top chefs like Pilar Cabrera, Alejandro Ruiz and Oscar Carrizosa ply their fascinating and endlessly inventive trade. It’s where some of the best street food in the world – period – is constantly bubbling and smoking in and around the many food markets of this handsome town, nestled between three mountains. It was marked on our route from day one as a must-visit destination, in order to have nothing short of a foodie epiphany, and bring you lucky things every mouth-watering morsel.
But life does not often work out the way you plan it, and as I briefed you in my last post, after a run-in with some evil tacos EVERYTHING WENT HORRIBLY WRONG. Despite feeling as if we were on the mend by the time we arrived in Oaxaca, whatever bug was in our system decided it wasn’t going to be beaten and we were confined once more to our hostel room. As a result, I cannot describe the Ruiz-tweaked flavours of a traditional Oaxacan platter (possibly complete with those tasty grasshoppers) served at Casa Oaxaca, nor can I explain how I shopped for ingredients at the local markets to cook and eat a 15 course Oaxacan meal at Cabera’s Casa de los Sabores cooking school, nor the unique taste of a Caldo Piedra (hot stone soup) where the broth is cooked in front of you by throwing smoking hot stones from a fire into soup bowls filled with seafood. I cannot inform you about the tropical cuisine from Mexico’s Isthmus region at restaurants like Zandunga – cooking so good that a fellow hosteller said it brought her to tears (I don’t cry when I eat great food, I just eat faster). And I cannot tell you how much we enjoyed our seven course tasting menu at Carrizosa’s much vaunted Casa Crespo (also a cooking school), because we had to cancel our reservation there as well.
But I can at least tell you about Oaxacan moles, which are definitely at the top of any foodie’s list when they get here. Luckily, the day after we arrived our intestines allowed us a slight reprieve, enough to allow us to go out to dinner with Nacho, best man to our Mexican friend German, who was travelling round the world on his bike and – as luck would have it – in Oaxaca for that night only. I’d been waiting eagerly to try Oaxacan mole since my friend Oliver had let me sample his versions of the sauces inspired by this region that his company, Casita Oaxaca, makes. So when Nacho said “Let’s go out for mole. I’ve been itching to try a decent mole since I got to Mexico”, we didn’t need any more encouragement than that.
We decided to eat at Amarantos on the Zócalo, the city’s main square, where families were strolling around the beautifully manicured gardens as the sun fell gently behind brightly decorated colonial facades, and an endless stream of vendors -many just children – tried to sell us their wares. (This is a perfectly normal dining experience anywhere in Mexico, but is amplified to a teeth-grinding level in restaurants on the main plaza.) The service was attentive, the lighting romantically minimal, the menu barely readable. But we could pick out a couple of types of mole to road-test.
Oaxaca lays claim to an incredible seven different types of mole, all of which involve a head-spinning list of chillies, herbs and spices in their recipes most of which are defined by the colour of the final sauce. So a mole negro is jet-black and fairly hot, a mole colorado uses different combination of chillies to give it its distinctive red hue, and there’s amarillo (yellow, hot and fruity) and verde (green, milder and herby) types as well. Clare and I went for the negro style, which like the famous poblano sauce which is said to hail from German’s home town of Puebla, and uses chocolate to compliment the various spices. Nacho said he would wait til he got to Puebla to try the real thing, and plumped instead for the spicier colorado.
Traditionally served over turkey, our moles came – as most do these days – on a fairly succulent chicken leg, but which will always play an unsung supporting role in this dish. Your entire focus is rightly given to the heroic sauce, with only a small amount of carby distraction in the form of rice (you can mop up with endless plain tortillas, but it’s a pretty joyless method of clearing your plate). As this was only my second experience of mole, I couldn’t say that I knew it was a great one, although it was definitely the best yet. But, oh my, sauces don’t really come more delicately complex and decadently full-throttled all at once.
It’s not the best shot in the world (I think I mentioned the muy romantico low lighting) but immediately you get a sense of how very dark and rich this sauce was. It was chocolatey – naturally – but its sweetness never submerged the spicier elements. And it was definitely spicy, but not by any means all-out mouth warfare. The way the flavours of the various chillies melded perfectly on our tongues indicated a devilishly clever kind of spice-blending that indicated years of training to balance the flavours: the Mexicano equivalent of learning to create great sushi. I tried Nacho’s and that really was a flame-thrower of a sauce; on balance I think I preferred the black version. That may be a novice’s opinion, but given the delicate state of my innards at the time, it was probably the wise choice. And I guess as my palette becomes more discerning, the best moles are yet to come.