A taste of Mexico

At a cookery school in the hill town of Tepoztlan Beatrice Newbery learns how to mix chillies and chocolate for the perfect Latin sauce
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The Independent Travel

"Look at that Aztec spinach," says Magda Bogin as she guides me around her local market. "You mix it with cheese and eggs and make a sort of patty. And this is Nopal cactus, which you boil with vinegar." We wander between huge piles of fruit, flowers and vegetables, stopping at each stall. "Look! Edible pansies and hibiscus flowers for sweet sauces. And tamarind pods which are sticky inside." The chopped flowers smell delicious but some ingredients look sinister, and I baulk at the prospect of cooking and eating them myself.

"Look at that Aztec spinach," says Magda Bogin as she guides me around her local market. "You mix it with cheese and eggs and make a sort of patty. And this is Nopal cactus, which you boil with vinegar." We wander between huge piles of fruit, flowers and vegetables, stopping at each stall. "Look! Edible pansies and hibiscus flowers for sweet sauces. And tamarind pods which are sticky inside." The chopped flowers smell delicious but some ingredients look sinister, and I baulk at the prospect of cooking and eating them myself.

I've signed up for Cocinar Mexicano, a week-long cookery course in Tepoztlan, a lively cobbled hill town two hours south of Mexico City where cocks crow incessantly and bougainvillea sprawls over every wall. The town sits at the heart of a national park and is surrounded by volcanoes, the largest of which, Tepozteco, is topped by an Aztec ruin. Here, Bogin's students learn how to turn interesting-looking Mexican ingredients into exquisite food. Born in New York, Bogin was smitten by Tepoztlan 20 years ago and has been coming back ever since. "I fell in love with its incredible flowers, its ancient adobe bricks and its people," she says. "Then, two years ago, I decided to live here for a while. Now I can't move back. It's too lovely, and the cookery course is really taking off."

On the first evening, guests are greeted with a lesson in mixing margaritas on the terrace of the Posada del Tepozteco, a colonial hotel with vaulted ceilings, tiled baths and tiered terraces overlooking the town. Attendees of Bogin's course are offered a choice of hotels, but those on a loose budget can rarely resist the Posada, which is renowned for the quality of its cocktails. As the guests get increasingly squiffy, the hotel's owner demonstrates how to whizz the lethal mix in a blender. As he liberally pours another round, he explains the history of tequila.

Of course, nobody can remember the details the next morning but this doesn't detract from the feeling that the sundowners and lively conversation were a good start to the week. The explanations set the tone for the course, which is as much about Mexico's culinary history as how to prepare food. The market tour the next morning is no exception. "As you can see, it is women who run the markets," says Bogin. "This is such a traditional market square that film companies come here in search of men in spurs and cowboy hats." We are accompanied by a local woman, Theresa Bello, who offers an entire lesson in chillies. "Food isn't edible to Mexicans without chillies, and combining them is considered both a science and an art," she says. " Ancho and mulatto are often mixed, though chipotle usually reigns alone. Each chilli has smokiness, freshness, sweetness and acidity."

By mid-morning the square is packed with people - many in cowboy hats - who have come to eat tortilla. They sit under the colourful tarpaulin roof waiting for fresh corn patties to be fried on gas stoves. Bogin raises her voice above the warbling of a busker who sings and strums his guitar to the lunchers. In Mexico, this is the second of four daily meals. "You'll be trying to do this later," she laughs, as we watch a woman roll corn dough into sausages before squashing them in a tortilla press, peeling them off and laying them out perfectly over the gas. "And it's not as easy as it looks."

Some of the tortilla we make that lunchtime are eaten by Bogin's dog, after being dropped on her kitchen floor as they are peeled off the press. Others fold over in an unseemly pile on the gas. Few of us manage to create the smooth oval shape that comprises the perfect vessel for an endless choice of fillings. As we eat our messy blue-corn tortillas in Bogin's garden, the story of Tepoztlan begins to unfold.

"Ten years ago, we saw bulldozers on our communal land just outside the town," says Bello. "We soon discovered that the mayor of Tepoztlan had sold the land to an American golf cartel for virtually nothing. This was land entrusted to us, which cannot be sold because it belongs to future generations. But secretly, a deal had been done with the aim of turning our town into a golf complex, with a heliport and cable car to the Aztec pyramid."

What happened next has made Tepoztecans famous throughout Mexico. The townsfolk rallied and decided to sabotage the golf course. They stormed the local government buildings and drove the mayor, the governor and the local police out of town, burning effigies as they went. Barricades were set up on the roads into town, and for an entire year Tepoztecans manned the posts. When I raise the subject that evening with Marisol Fernandez, the owner of my B&B, her face lights up. "It was wonderful. I have never felt safer than that time," she says. "There was nobody in charge, no police, but when I drove home after work I would be waved through the barricade and I knew I was safe. There was a huge sense of unity."

Plans for the golf course were eventually dropped, by which time the stand-off had been dubbed the Golf War in the Mexican press and Tepoztecans were lauded for their stubbornness and fervour. As Albino Cortes Gomez, the custodian of Tepoztlan's museum, explains in his proud museum tour: "We have a very strong history here. In fact, Tepoztecans were scribes who documented local life before the Spanish came. They wrote things down on amate, or tree bark. Some people here still speak Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and we have 153 fiestas every year. This place has a strong sense of tradition and community and we didn't want this threatened."

Thanks to damaging government propaganda, it was five years before tourists started to return. Today it's heart-warming to visit Tepoztlan knowing this story; to see the busy restaurants and watch Tepoztecans reaping the benefits of tourism on their own terms. The hard-won visitors of today come because they cherish the town as a cultural hotspot, an authentic place. Weekenders from Mexico City swarm here to sample the fresh tortilla. Spanish schools are proliferating, and now Bogin is running not only cookery courses but seminars on creative writing, too.

An increasing number of artists, architects, photographers and composers (most Mexican, but some Argentinian, Spanish and Italian) now claim Tepoztlan as a rural retreat, and own vast houses with luscious walled gardens on its outskirts. As Bogin points out: "This has always been a haven for writers and artists. Malcolm Lowry wrote Under the Volcano here."

While those who sign up for Cocinar Mexicano usually have a keen interest in learning how to thicken sauces, Bogin knows that the place itself is a huge part of the attraction and makes sure there is time to explore. One afternoon, after cooking and eating cilantro soup, squash and chicken roulade and guava mousse, I work off lunch with a walk to the Aztec pyramid. It doesn't take long to get sucked into the creative heart of the town - I enjoy two concerts, including a choral performance in the old monastery. Its acoustics are exquisite, although they seem designed to highlight the few moments when the choir is out of tune. Short breaks between classes are filled dropping into cool, candle-lit churches, museums and craft markets. And, since even the briefest visit to Tepoztlan is likely to be crowned by a fiesta, I await the barrage of firecrackers that will signal the start of some new celebration. Once the fiesta of the Church of Ixcatepec kicks off at the bottom of the hill, I feel only a gastronomic extravaganza of epic proportions can tear me away. The small church has been decorated like a cake with tinsel and ribbons. Three brass bands compete to serenade people as they walk up the path to pay their respects and return carrying gladioli, some wearing a bendy crown of thorns. Outside the churchyard, stalls, games and funfair rides line the cobbled street, and behind garden walls families host an endless round of visitors and ladle out mole, a thick brown sauce that is an ancient part of the Mexican diet. In the afternoon, I stumble on a small farmyard rodeo show where men are thrown from one bull after another, the audience whistling from the surrounding rooftops. Young boys in cowboy hats try to lasso each other in the ring between bouts, and as a brass band enters the farmyard, couples start to dance in the rain.

That evening, I can barely eat the dinner at the Posada as I have been fed so much at the fiesta. During the meal Bogin explains the huge variety of ways to make mole using ingredients from chilli to chocolate, and how it is the pride of every Mexican housewife. "It is sometimes made with as many as 26 ingredients, but each woman has her own method, which she pretends is her own special secret," she says. As the lengthy cooking process is revealed, it becomes clear why mole is not on the cookery course. Bogin promises to teach us next time. She may be joking, but I know that I will return to Tepoztlan one day and hold her to her word.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Mexico City. United (0845 8444 777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) flies from Heathrow and Manchester, via Chicago or Washington. KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com) flies from regional airports via Amsterdam. Delta (0800 414767; www.delta.com) flies from Gatwick and Manchester via Atlanta. Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com) flies from Gatwick, Edinburgh, Glasgow Manchester and Birmingham via Newark. American Airlines (08457 789789; www.americanairlines.co.uk) flies from Gatwick via Dallas and Heathrow via Chicago. Expect to pay from £470 return.

STAYING THERE

Posada Del Tepozteco (00 52 739 395 0010; www.posadadeltepozteco.com) has double rooms from 1,110 Pesos (£54), with breakfast included at weekends.

Las Golondrinas (00 52 739 395 0649) has double rooms from 1,275 Pesos (£62) with breakfast.

Cocinar Mexicano (00 52 739 395 1021; www.cocinarmexicano.com) offers a week-long cookery course from £952. The confirmed course dates for 2005 are 15-22 January and 12-19 March. The cost includes transfers between Mexico City airport and Tepoztlan, all lunches, five dinners, evening activities, excursions and medical insurance for the trip.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Mexico Tourism Board (020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com)

Mexico City Tourism (00 52 55 5518 1869; www.mexicocity.gob.mx)

Jonathan Howie

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