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.
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In fact, if there are more than about three students in her class, Soledad moves the lesson to her more spacious outdoor kitchen, which is outfitted with just such tools. In the shade under a metal roof, she works on a wide griddle called a comal and a metate, or grinding stone (hers is a flat rock that her father reputedly fished out of a river and carved for her mother). Flowering vines climb the nearby garden walls, and a breeze drifts through.
"Our ancestors didn't have gas," she says while stirring a giant pot with a hand-carved wooden spoon. "It gives a touch more flavor. All the modern things take away some authenticity."
Soledad is at once disarmingly warm and decisive, cheerful and firm in her opinions. She admonishes you that everything in life must be done "con mucho amor," and she credits God for all good things.
"For me, in every student I have, it is like planting a seed in the Earth," she says. "That seed will grow and give fruit. In 20 years you will still be doing what we're doing, and you're going to teach it to others. For me it's something very big," because as busy, modern people increasingly buy their salsas and mole pastes at the store, "Mexican cuisine is dying."
Speaking Spanish is not necessary for taking Soledad's classes -- she knows all the necessary English words for cooking tools and ingredients -- but if you go with a Spanish speaker who can translate you'll also receive some unsolicited words of wisdom on cooking and life.
"One has to always have very clean hands, because we use them a lot," she says, scraping chili paste from a bucket with her bare fingers. A short while later, she counsels me, a journalist: "You have to have passion for what you do, in journalism or in cooking. If you have passion for cooking, the food comes out tastier. If you cook out of obligation, it doesn't come out the same." Soledad utters these teachings as if they were unassailable truths of nature: Fruit grows on trees, and wooden cooking utensils preserve the food's flavor.
She leads you through the seven-hour process of making mole negro with not a hint of hurry. The dramatic peak -- a flash of extreme cooking in this otherwise tranquil kitchen -- comes when you toast two tablespoons of chili seeds. The seeds house the peppers' heat, like little packets of gunpowder, and toasting them vaporizes all that picante power into the air. Even Soledad, the veteran, runs for the door and doubles over on the patio, coughing.
To schedule a class with Soledad, have a Spanish speaker call her at (+52) 951-512-2162 or email one of her children: Oscar Javier Martinez at email@example.com, or Yolanda Patricia Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soledad charges 500 pesos (about $40) per person, or 400 pesos each in a group of three or more. A student several years ago typed her most popular recipes into a booklet, which Soledad sells for 70 pesos -- surely the best cookbook bargain you can buy.
Once the ingredients are all properly fried or toasted, you blend them together. Soledad once did this by hand, on a metate. Now everything goes in her Osterizer blender, and she admits she has her eye on a fancier one (that particular trapping of modernity, it seems, is OK).
The cooking journey could be its own reward. But happily, at the end, you eat.
A good mole should be a true blend of flavors, Soledad says, with no single ingredient that dominates the others. Each Oaxacan mother and grandmother has her own formulation. Soledad's is not too sweet. She cautions, "If you overdo the flavor, that will be fatal."
Our labors concluded, Soledad pours the thick sauce over pieces of chicken, and she and I sit down together to taste our creation. Far from her early years of slaving away in wealthier people's kitchens, she now claims her deserved seat at the table, too.
We start with a toast of locally-distilled mescal, Oaxaca's fiery cousin to tequila, and then dig in. The smokiness of the chilies and the sweetness of the chocolate blend in intoxicating harmony. The complexity of the flavor commands you to set all distractions aside, to think of nothing else but the kaleidoscope in your mouth. I'm sure the tomatoes, tomatillos, oregano, and almonds are in there, but I can't distinguish them in this delicious mix -- success.
Soledad is satisfied. When she teaches someone to cook, "I'm transmitting to the student a part of what's ours, a little piece of Oaxaca," she says. "I am giving them the best of me."
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