Dishing Up Puebla

Cooking is just one way to experience this charming Mexican region

By: Patricia Alisau

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Chef Alonso with the meal we
prepared in the cooking class.
A chef I am not. Nor do I hope to be. However, the culinary reputations of places like Puebla have always intrigued me. Its mole alone has become a national symbol for celebrated Mexican cuisine. Passionate about and proud of their food, Poblanos, as the natives are called, produce some of the most savory dishes in the country.

So when I received an invitation to take my first cooking class, I jumped at the chance to learn more about dishes that had always piqued my curiosity. For example, I had heard that to create the mole it took three days with a bevy of women working long hours in a kitchen. The flyer for the class said I would make a three-course meal in three short hours, a definite boon to my packed agenda, I thought. It was offered by the Meson Sacristia de la Compania, where I stayed, in one- or three-day installments.

Chef Alonso Hernandez greeted me as I prepared to dig in. The kitchen of Sacristia’s sister hotel, Meson Sacristia de Capuchinas, served as the classroom. We began with an introduction to knife skills for deftly slicing and dicing onions, followed by a trip to the stove to roast whole tomatillos, garlic, chile peppers and onions on a flat, round metal plate called a comal. We worked side by side preparing fresh red and green salsas to spread over the appetizers. The main dish, pipian verde, sometimes called green mole and a personal favorite, came to life after frying, grinding and cooking pumpkin seeds, then embedding them in a chile-herb mix. The creamy, smoky, nutty sauce reaches its maximum goodness over chicken or goat cheese, Hernandez explained.

When I asked him about three-day mole, he chuckled and pointed to the electric blender, a handy replacement for Mexico’s stone grinding bowls, which came into use around 2,000 years ago. The cloistered nuns of Puebla, who invented moles in the colonial era, doubtless had more time on their hands than today’s cooks.

Following the pipian, we put the rice to boil for the rice pudding dessert, and then whipped up chalupa appetizers small fried corn tortillas topped with shredded beef and onions and slathered with salsa. Tangy jamaica (hibiscus flower water) added a refreshing, cold beverage to the menu. Afterward, I lunched on what we cooked on the small, sunny patio of the hotel, thankful that the chef graciously overlooked salsa spills and other misdemeanors I had committed in the kitchen. Had I taken more classes, I would have added dark, chocolate-based mole, chiles enogados and margaritas to my repertoire. Convinced as I now was of the simplicity of preparing these dishes, with my recipe booklet tucked under my arm, I headed for the nearest market to buy a comal.

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Courtyard restaurant with
guestrooms at the Meson Sacristia
de la Compania .
Around Town

I was in the Old Town of Puebla, surrounded by colonial Spanish and French architecture made even more vivid by swaths of talavera tiles lining buildings. The early 16th-century Spanish settlers found clay beds filled with just the minerals they needed to turn out the colorful hand-painted ceramics, and the wealthy soon commissioned their art for mansions, convents and universities.

Veering over to Plaza de los Sapos (Frogs’ Plaza), I discovered that the antique market the plaza was famous for had gone indoors. The antiques had been moved into shops and the plaza has, instead, acquired charming new coffee shops, sidewalk cafes and bars.

A half-block away, my 18th-century hotel brings the antiques experience to its guests. Not only is each of the eight rustic suites of the former antiques store decorated with period pieces but all are for sale. I spotted a French Renaissance mirror, hand-carved Mexican bureaus, a glossy Spanish wooden desk, a brass, four-poster bed and old talavera urns in my room with price tags attached.

Venturing out by foot everyday from my hotel, I discovered several hundred of the 2,000 historic monuments the city has recently catalogued and spruced up along narrow streets opening onto wide plazas reminiscent of Toledo, Spain. I visited universities, museums and churches along the way. The main square is where most of the tiled buildings are found and where the Cathedral looms over shady gardens. Trekking east of the square will land you at the city’s famous market, El Parian, where talavera of all shapes and sizes, Puebla’s signature yam candies, plus all other local handicrafts are under one roof. This is where I shopped for small gifts on the last day.

By the time I left the city, I was still not a chef but I had been inspired to try my hand at Puebla cuisine at home.


Meson Sacristia de la Compania

Hits: Located in the Historic District. A member of Mexican Boutique Hotels, it features Chef Alonso preparing fine traditional Puebla dishes for the restaurant. Complimentary a la carte breakfast.

Misses: Don’t expect “celestial mattresses.” After all, these are antique beds.

Be Aware: Some street noise enters balcony rooms at night. Choose a patio room instead.

Plugging In: Wireless access available

Rates: Suites run $160-$200. Cooking class starts at $65 per day, per person, or $110 per couple. Make your own talavera crockery with another package.

Commission: 10 percent