A gust of warm air sweeps into the kitchen, ruffling the coat of the sleeping dog and scattering brilliant purple bougainvillea across the floor. The breeze carries a humid, earthy scent that promises a welcome bit of rain. Susana Trilling plunges an oversize wooden ladle into a heavy ceramic pot to taste the pungent chili, nut, and chocolate sauce bubbling within. "It's almost there," she says. "Black mole must be dark, dark, dark."
Life in Oaxaca revolves around food. It's known as the Land of the Seven Moles, and the fiery sauce comes in a variety of colors--black, red, yellow, and green. "Mole" simply means mixture in Nahuatl, one of the Indian languages spoken in this part of southeastern Mexico. But, oh, what a heavenly mixture. So valued is a good mole that one of the greatest compliments a man can pay a woman is to tell her: "You are the sesame seed in my mole."
Recently, I fled polluted, chaotic Mexico City in search of peace, calm, and the perfect mole. And I found it--in tiny San Lorenzo de Cacaotepec (population: 1,000), just nine miles outside Oaxaca. There, in Susana's airy kitchen, I spent three days learning the legends and secrets surrounding what many consider the most interesting cuisine in Mexico. The teacher is a former Manhattan caterer and restaurateur who ditched the fast track in search of her Mexican grandmother's roots. For six years, she has lived on a 195-acre farm with her Dutch husband, Eric Ulrich, and their children. He grows tomatoes; she cooks them. Susana has mastered Oaxaca's native mole recipes by spending days in the kitchens of the region's best cooks.
LATEST RAGE. Her cooking school, Seasons of My Heart, has been a well-kept secret, but not for long: The popular Mexican book and film, Like Water for Chocolate, the story of a lovelorn woman whose cooking contains as many emotions as ingredients, has piqued the interest of many Americans about real Mexican cuisine. And Oaxacan cuisine, with its intense sauces and exotic ingredients, is one of the latest rages. Private cooking classes are $65 a day per person, staying at the farm's guest cottage, which sleeps two ($35 per person) or in a Oaxaca hotel. Make reservations through her U.S. agent (718 965-0214) or in care of Casa Colonial hotel in Oaxaca at 011-52-951-65280.
My day at the farm began at 6 a.m., when I was awakened by birds chirping and the first rays of sun peeking over the mountains. From my window, I could see the pyramids of Monte Alb n, one of Mexico's most important archaeological sites. After coffee, we head to the market in the nearby town of Etla. We buy chilis, vegetables, and meat, and then stop at Do a Conchita's food stand for a cup of steaming hot chapurada--a tasty drink of cornmeal gruel mixed with chocolate.
Back at the farm, we put on ranchero music and set about the complicated task of making a huge meal of black mole, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, garlic soup with squash flowers, and coconut-almond flan. Susana shows us how to rehydrate dried chilis and roast them on a griddle until black but not burned. We roast the almonds, the sesame seeds--even the cinnamon and allspice. A gust of wind tosses the powder of freshly crushed chilis in our faces, setting off a wave of sneezing.
After polishing off this meal, there's a knock on the door. It is Paula, a neighbor, who has come to teach us how to make corn tortillas--from scratch. We pluck kernels from a dozen ears of dried corn and remove the skins. Later, after running the corn through Do a Margarita's mill, we cook the tortillas over a wood-burning fire in Paula's cooking hut--with bamboo walls and a dirt floor.
Paula skillfully flips dozens of tortillas, unmindful of the flames licking over the pottery griddle. My first tortilla is so deformed she shows it to her husband, Chico, who guffaws in appreciation. The tortilla-making takes almost half a day--these women do it every day.
Life in parts of Oaxaca is still much as it was a century ago. But even as they cherish their traditions, rural Mexicans are demanding a better standard of living. For those who can afford them, gas stoves will improve women's health, as they spend less time in smoke-filled kitchens. Some progress is harder to swallow: As we drive to the airport, we note with dismay the Golden Arches. For those who want to see, smell, and taste Mexican traditions at their best, Susana's kitchen provides a wonderful setting.