Back around Haloween, a friend and I went on a week's cooking school vacation to Puebla, Mexico--aka the Mexican Culinary Magic package. It was absolutely wonderful--so here are the details for anybody else who thinks such a thing would be interesting.
Puebla is located about 2 hours' drive from Mexico city, in a high valley (7000 ft) surrounded by volcanoes. It's supposedly the cradle of traditional Mexican cuisine, and the birthplace of Mole Poblano and Chiles en Nogada. In addition to great food, Puebla also has a stunning colonal city center that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our vacation package included 6 nights hotel at the Mesones Sacristia de la Compania, a hotel in the city's historic center. The hotel is in an 18th Century convent, and is full of lovely and colorful detail, with each hotel room decorated with antiques. It also included 15 hours of cooking instruction from the hotel's chef, all meals, a walking tour of the city, entry to two museums, a welcome drink, a Talavera plate with local sweets, and round-trip transfers from the Mexico City airport by first class bus.
The normal cost for this is $1200 per person (and a great value at that price, IMO), but we won our trip at auction on a site called LuxuryLink. With auction fees included, the total cost was $1005 for both of us. We then hunted for cheap flights to Mexico City and soon found a round trip for $375 per person, taxes and fees included, bringing the grand total up to $1755, or $877 per person.
We arrived in Mexico City and made our way to the bus depot,located in the airport's International Terminal. Happily, I remembered enough Spanish to get our bus tickets (buy one-way tickets to Puebla, and the hotel reimburses you and buys your return ticket when you leave). The trip was uneventful, on a nice, air-conditioned bus with a stewardess who brought us drinks and snacks. The ride took about 2 hours and cost about $12 each way.
We arrived at Puebla's 4 Poniente bus station and took a taxi (about 20 min and 40 pesos) to the Mesones Sacristia de la Compania. The hotel was situated on a quaint street, four blocks from the cathedral and town square.
The highlight of the stay, of course, was the cooking course, held at the sister hotel, Mesones Sacristia de los Capuchinas. Each morning after breakfast in Sacristia's courtyard restaurant, we walked the few blocks to Capuchinas to begin our lessons. The cooking lessons were nearly private -- there is a maximum of six people in each class (our class had four people in it). They run each morning from 10am to 1pm, and you then have a full, sit-down lunch of the dishes you've prepared. Everybody gets an apron to wear during class (you can keep it when you're done), and each group gets a binder containing the recipes you'll make during the course of the week. For English speakers like myself, the classes are translated by one of the hotel's staff, usually Audrey or Mariana.
One of the best parts of the class is the trip to the local market. Here, you can pick up some of the things that you've been using in class--griddles called comals that are used for roasting vegetables, as well as dried chiles, spices, and chocolate.
The chef/instructor, Alonzo, is AMAZING. The food that he teaches you to cook is nothing like the Tex-Mex that you get here in the US. It is largely Pueblan cuisine, which is subtle and sophisticated in its use of herbs and spices and not unlike Indian food in its use of layers of flavors.
Most dishes are light - roasted, rather than fried in lots of oil -- and full of the bright taste of fresh herbs and the smoky richness of grilled vegetables and chilis.
Among the dishes that we learned how to make were salsa rojo and verde, Pipian, an amazing sauce of herbs and chicken broth, thickened with toasted pumpkin seeds, Coconut Flan, and the famous Mole Poblano. Each day, we made three courses -- appetizer, entree, and dessert, plus a beverage.
The food included in the package was stunning--lunch was what we'd made in class that day, but breakfast was choice-of-menu in either Capuchinas' courtyard restaurant (I still miss the basket of Pan Dulce that appeared every morning, and the chilaquiles rojos) or in Capuchinas' private restaurant.
We had four dinner vouchers for the restaurants in Sacristia and Capuchinas, one dinner at Las Bodegas Del Molino (an impressive hacienda on the edge of town, with sadly mediocre food) and one dinner at La Quinta Luna, a small hotel with a continental/modern Mexican menu in the nearby town of Cholula.
Though La Quinta Luna was good (my dish of pasta in a chile cream sauce turned out to be a welcome change from traditional Mexican), both my friend and I thought the restaurants at the Mesones Sarcistia were uniformly great. Standouts included Mole Sacristia, a simple Mole made with roasted tomatillos, Carne Franciscana--grilled skirt steak, garnished with guacamole and roasted Poblano chiles, served with chalupas on the side, and an appetizer of fried parsley served with chipoltle cream cheese and garnished with tiny shrimp.
We also took an optional trip with a great guide, Carlos, to a rural village, Huacachoula, which is famous for its Day of the Dead celebration. After seeing the elaborate altars erected to the recently departed and buying sesame seed brittle from the vendors at the carnival that was set up in the town center, we were invited in for Mole at one family's house. It was a memorable meal--pork ribs cooked in mole, served with tortillas as utensils. The non-Mexicans in the group made a horrible mess of ourselves, but it was a unique experience, and we were all impressed with the warmth and hospitality of the people.
By the end of the week, we had ganed a few pounds,had a grounding in some of the basic dishes of Pueblan cuisine -- and a burning desire to return to Puebla for Mesones Sacristia's proposed advanced cooking course.