First, find a Spanish translator and have them call up Soledad Ramirez Heras, a 71-year-old grandmother of eight, who gives day-long classes out of her home in Oaxaca, Mexico.
You won't find Soledad Ramírez Heras in any travel guidebook. She doesn't have a website, a business name, or even an email address. And the fact that this gem of Oaxacan gastronomy is a semi-secret only makes her private cooking classes more appealing.
Señora Soledad can make any of the dishes that give this southern Mexican state a place among the world's great cuisines -- tamales, pozole, chiles rellenos, estofado, and the chili-rich sauces that have earned Oaxaca the name "Land of the Seven Moles." But her specialty is the granddaddy of them all, a smoky-sweet chili-chocolate sauce the color of compost on a redwood forest floor: mole negro.
Amidst stacks of dishes and the dozens of ingredients that make up the russet-red dish, Soledad bustles around her blue-tiled kitchen with the certainty of a master carpenter finishing a cabinet. She is 71, a grandmother of eight, and only as tall as my shoulder. I found her by chance and Google, on the One Fork, One Spoon blog. I had to email blogger Grace Meng for her phone number.
Soledad represents the true lineage of Oaxacan cuisine, the way it existed for centuries before there were Spanish conquistadors or celebrity chefs or Fodor's-rated restaurants in the tourist zone.
Soledad started cooking at age nine in Ejutla de Crespo, her remote hometown in the mountains south of Oaxaca city, as a job to help her widowed mother support the family. As an adult she managed to run her own small restaurant for several years in the city center, which she loved, until her husband insisted she stay home with the children.
Through twists of fate she later spent two decades teaching her craft to foreign travelers and chefs at the language school Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. Now retired, at her family's insistence, she offers private lessons in her home -- perched on a steep hillside overlooking the capital city -- to those travelers who can find her.
To reach Soledad's house, you call her to set a date and time (no later than 9 a.m. if you're making mole negro, an all-day affair), and she meets you on the steps of the cathedral in the zócalo, Oaxaca city's main square. You ride a rattling bus with her to the western outskirts of town and steeply up; Soledad and her husband, daughter, and granddaughter live on the slopes below Monte Albán, the hilltop ruins where the ancient Zapotecs worshipped their gods and sacrificed their enemies more than 1,000 years ago.
The lesson begins with perhaps the most perfect cup of hot chocolate ever brewed, dark and nutty and not too sweet. Every Oaxacan homemaker worth her salt has her own recipe, a precise combination of roasted cacao beans, sugar, almonds, and cinnamon. Soledad will tell you hers.
She spreads the mole negro ingredients out on the glass table: four kinds of dried chilies, raisins, almonds, onion, ginger, garlic, tomatillo, tomato, plantains, marjoram, thyme, oregano, chocolate, and more. Her recipe includes elements so precise that they can't even be measured in teaspoons: seven whole peppercorns, two hierbasanta leaves, and six cloves. "I am a traditional cook who learned, not in a school, but in the school of life, with very good cooks as teachers," she says.
Oaxacans traditionally serve this centuries-old dish on special occasions, especially Día de los Muertos, the November day when tradition holds that the spirits of dead loved ones return to visit the living. Soledad herself made mole negro for 80 guests at her own wedding celebration.
The preparation starts with boiling chicken for broth. You sauté the vegetables and toast the herbs. You fry bread and plantains to give the sauce substance.
The treatment of the chilies is key. Chilies are mole's identity, and what makes the dish essentially Oaxacan. The land here produces the peppers in copious quantities, and the mountainous, coastal state has so many microclimates that certain species grow only in a single town. Mole negro gets its smoky flavor from the squat, brown chilhuacle.
As a child, Soledad learned to make a simpler mole, without pricey chilhuacles, which her family couldn't afford. The humbler version was tasty, she says, but the special chilies make it "more complex."
To prepare the chilies, you must vein, seed, and toast them to an absolute crisp, without burning. Soledad does most of the work, but she finds ways to make her students feel involved -- chopping tomatoes, seeding chilies, counting almonds. "¡Muévelo!" she'll call out, as she momentarily leaves the stove to rustle up another ingredient. "Stir it!"
Soledad represents the true lineage of Oaxacan cuisine, the way it existed for centuries before there were Spanish conquistadors or celebrity chefs or Fodor's-rated restaurants in the tourist zone. The dishes were traditions passed down from woman to girl, generation to generation, in country kitchens equipped with grinding stones and wood fires.