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