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Conjugating Verbs and Drinking Mezcal: Studying Español in Oaxaca.

Poco de sal y gusano y limón después de mezcal,” Flor instructs, as we all knock back shots of mezcal at 10:30 am.

We sprinkle an orange-coloured salt onto wedges of lime as we are told, and suck the limey-salty juice, while feeling the burn of the mezcal in our throats. Salud, we say to our fellow class-mates!  Salud!

It’s descanso, otherwise known as recess, at Oaxaca Spanish Magic, our language school http://www.oaxacaspanishmagic.com/ in the historic centre of Oaxaca.  Run by Flor Irene Bautista Carreño, otherwise known as Flor, for the past 17 years, Spanish Magic is one of a number of language schools in Oaxaca, but it didn’t take long for us to see that Spanish Magic was definitely the best school in town.  This day, crowded around the mezcal table was a mix of Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, American, Polish and Canadian students, some hoping to improve their already great Español (Dugla), and others, to at least learn enough to avoid looking really stupid when trying to ask directions to the nearest mercado (me)!

Que es sal de gusano?” I ask.

“Salt with ground worms and chiles,” Flor replies, in a tone that implies “how could you not know that?”

I am a little taken aback, I must say.  Does she think that Canadian chefs use worm salt in their favourite recipes? And, it’s not like I don’t know salt.  I buy it everywhere I go- Maldon Salt, Fleur de Sal, Salar de Uyuni- but salt with ground worms?  That is definitely a new one on me and, a little bit creepy, don’t you think? But, I am trying to keep an open mind here.  After all, we are in Oaxaca and mezcal and the culture surrounding it is the life blood of the Oaxacans, that is, after maize, but I’ll tell you more about that later.  And so with my open mind, I whisper to Doug, “mezcal at this time of day is one thing, but ground worms?”  And not only that, just as I am about to go for another sip, I spy something floating in the bottom of the bottle.  On closer inspection I see an adorable little reddish-brown, larvae-looking creature.  Of course, I knew the story about the worm in the mezcal.  Who hasn’t got a friend who went on a holiday to Mexico and returned with a tale or two about the mezcal worm?  So, what’s the point, I wonder.  A sign of quality mezcal, perhaps?  A strongly-held cultural tradition?  Afterall, Oaxacans are known for their predilection for grasshoppers, so worms in booze isn’t such a stretch.

“Qué es eso?” I ask Flor, at once fascinated and repulsed, never having been one for worms myself- the edible types, that is.

According to Flor, nobody knows how the worm gets into the agave plant, but the “gusano” has all kinds of magical and flavouring-enhancing properties.  “The leetle worm is in there.  How? No sé,” she tells us.

Turns out the worms live in the trunk of the maguey plant from which mezcal is made and it is said they help to give mezcal its distinctive taste. Some mezcal producers always put one of the little darlings in each bottle, but to mezcal purists it’s too gimmicky.  In fact, after a little research, I later learned that the whole worm in the mezcal thing was started by a savvy Mexican entrepreneur named Jacobo Lozano Paez in 1950, and it really serves no purpose at all, other than, according to one writer, “get gringos to drink the stuff.”

Whether gimmick or tradition, I am willing to give it a go.  And so as Flor pours us another round, the wormy salt actually starts to grow on me.  And, I must say, my español has really begun to improve!

“Dugla, me gusta Mezcal.  Y tu?” I say proudly.

“No mucho,” he replies.  “Posiblemente en la noche, pero no me gusta en la mañana en la escuela.”

Cual es tu problemo?” I say, not waiting to hear his response as I turn to join the young Europeans, while Doug goes back to his desk to review.

Dugla, ever the devoted student, with his teacher, Lili!

Dugla, ever the devoted student, with his teacher, Lili!

This pretty much sums up our approach to learning Spanish.  Doug, ever the devoted student, who reviews, reviews, reviews and is now working on the subjunctive verb-tense, and then there is me, more of a social learner, who isn’t convinced that conjugating verbs is all its cracked up to be and prefers to chat about Oaxaca with my excellent instructor, Enmanuel.  In Spanish, of course.  Or, at least, in “Spanglish!”

Enmanuel, Lily and Flor, our fantastic teachers at Oaxaca Spanish Magic.

Enmanuel, Lily and Flor, our fantastic teachers at Oaxaca Spanish Magic.

Every morning we study Spanish for three hours, and, I’ll tell you, after our little morning mezcal party, I really started to look forward to descanso every dayBut, it wasn’t all mezcal and sal de gusano at Oaxaca Spanish Magic. Maestra Flor runs a tight ship and by the end of our first week, I feel as if my brains might begin to pour out my ears.  But, after 12 hours with the patient Enmanuel, I was very clear on the difference between cabeza (head) and calabaza (pumpkin), a useful tip that will come in handy on my next trip to the Mercado, I am sure!

Flor and her parrot. Even los papgayos" drink mezcal in Oaxaca!

Flor and her parrot, Chucho. Even los papgayos drink mezcal in Oaxaca!

All trabajo and no jugar at Spanish Magic really would have been a bit much and so, thankfully, we did drink a little more mezcal, just not at descanso.  Each week, Flor organized outings for her students to local restaurants, art galleries, museums, theatres and cultural events.  In our first week, she put together a little mezcal happy hour at the school, followed by a trip to the San Pablo Cultural Centre and dinner at a traditional Oaxaqueña eatery on the outskirts of town.  Two taxis and a torrential downpour later and there we were, a gaggle of gringos and other extranjeros in a little family-run taqueria eating tlayudas, tacos and taquitos, prepared on the street and washed down with some ice-cold cervezas. Tlayudas are the crispy, frisbee-sized, tortillas served everywhere in Oaxaca.  They are usually spread with a black bean paste and topped with quesillo, the stringy, Oaxacan cheese that is similar to mozzarella, and loads of cilantro.  That night we had our first introduction to the most popular fillings for tacos and taquitos – tinga (chicken prepared with chiles, onions and tomatoes) cecina (marintaed spicy pork) and tasajo (marinated, razor-thin, grilled beef).  Surrounded by boisterous Oaxacan families, a table full of soccer players and one of the cooks, who was glued to a “novella” blaring from the TV in the corner, we had our first truly Oaxacan dining experience and loved every minute of it.

Crispy tortillas ready for making tlayudas.

Crispy tortillas ready for making tlayudas.

Grilling the cecina and simmering the frijoles and tinga.

Grilling the cecina and simmering the frijoles and tinga.

Grilling the tortillas for taquitos.

Grilling the tortillas for taquitos.

Taquitos de tinga y tasajo.

Taquitos de tinga y tasajo.

 

 

Blue Corn Tacos

Blue Corn Tacos

And so went our first week of learning Spanish in Oaxaca. To Flor and her team, we say gracias!   After four short days, I can confidently ask, “Donde está el mercado, por favor?”  Hopefully, week two will bring me the knowledge to comprehend the reply!

 

Dugla Tours- the Mexican Edition: Part One

After we returned from South America at the beginning of February, it didn’t take us long before we were frantically searching for somewhere to go to get us out of the hellish cold.  As much as I like the nice volunteer greeters at Calgary International Airport, it was all I could do not to lash out when the adorable little old lady in her red vest and white cowboy hat announced, “Welcome to Calgary, Canada, it’s -33 C.  Have a great day.”  “Minus thirty- freaking- three” we say, looking at each other in horror.  “What were we thinking?”

It seemed like a good idea going home at the beginning of February- do a little skiing and enjoy some winter.  “Seemed” being the operative word here!  Shaking our heads, we drag our suitcases out into the giant walk-in freezer that was Calgary, maybe even all of Canada that day, and head for home.

About five minutes after walking in the door I say, “Why don’t we go somewhere to study Spanish for a month? A place that’s not too far and maybe we can get a ticket on points?”   24 hours of -30 C later, and we had booked a trip to Oaxaca, the Southern Mexican colonial city nestled against the Sierra Norte mountains, and which has a great reputation for language schools, arts, music and culture, traditional weaving and crafts, and a well-developed gastronomic identity, meaning lots and lots of incredible food.  Bingo!

The plan was to study Spanish and do some volunteering.  So after a search through numerous language schools offering everything from Spanish to cooking classes and  salsa lessons, we liked the looks of the Oaxaca Spanish School.  We booked private classes Monday to Thursday 9 -12. Next, find a place to volunteer.

Emanuel, Lily and Flor, our great teachers at Oaxaca Spanish Magic.

Emanuel, Lili and Flor, our great teachers at Oaxaca Spanish Magic.

Doug scouted out an organization called Fundacion En Via, a small NGO that provides interest-free micro-loans to women in the villages surrounding Oaxaca and offers English classes in two of the villages.  And so after a Skype interview with Kate, En Via’s bilingual, 24 year old English Coordinator from the US, we were booked to teach English in the pueblo of Tlacochahuaya, about 40 minutes by local bus from Oaxaca.  With slight apprehensions about teaching English two afternoons a week (Dugla) and learning Spanish one on one for 12 hours a week (me), we escaped the cold and were off on another Dugla ToursMexican-style.

The Teaching Staff in Tlacochahuaya: Kate, Stephanie, Timmy and us.

The Teaching Staff in Tlacochahuaya: Kate, Stephanie, Timmy and us.

Some of our students.

Some of our students.

Aleeson teaching "Days of the Week."

Aleeson teaching “Days of the Week.” “Thursday” isn’t so sure if he is in the right place?

Maestro Dugla teaching "Professions."

Maestro Dugla teaching “Professions.”

Being one of Mexico’s major tourist centres, drawing people from around the world, and a haven for gringos and other expats trying to avoid winter, there are loads of hotels, bed and breakfasts and apartments for rent in Oaxaca.  A little digging in the accommodation department led us to a great apartment at the Oaxaca Learning Centre.  In the centro historico, a short walk to one of the many food and artisan markets, twenty seconds to – get this – a wood-fired oven pizzeria, that just happens to be one of the top restaurants in Oaxaca, and around the corner from the cutest little Lavanderia, the location was perfect.  Plus, it was somewhere that we could put our money to good.

Just two of the hundreds of students and tutors at The Oaxacan Learning Centre.

Just two of the hundreds of students and tutors at The Oaxacan Learning Centre.

With Chef Andres in the courtyard of the Oaxacan Learning Centre.

With Chef Andres in the courtyard of the Oaxacan Learning Centre.

We read about the Oaxacan Learning Centre a couple of years ago, thought it was a cool program, and were excited to see that they also had a Bed and Breakfast and a little flat with a lovely terraza.  The OLC is a non-profit that offers tutoring and mentorship to students from surrounding villages, who are in need of support- educational and financial- and the guidance to help them be successful in their studies.  All money earned from the rental accommodation is put straight back into supporting programs at the centre.  Lucky for us, when we contacted Gary Titus, the centre’s founder, and we would come to learn, an incredibly kind and generous man, the apartment was available. For the next four weeks, we would live above the centre and get to know many of its students, its staff and Gary, who has made it his life’s work to provide opportunity to young people.  As he said to us one day over a breakfast of fruit salad, homemade yogurt and homemade granola, made by the centre’s chef and cooking teacher, Andres, “All people need is to be given an opportunity and the support to get ahead.  Really, it’s what we all need in life.”

Mercado La Merced

Mercado La Merced

Verduras y Frutas

Verduras y Frutas

Chiles, chiles, chiles

Chiles, chiles, chiles

 

 

Queso Fresco

The Zocalo

The Zocalo

Adelaide in her rug-weaving shop. She is one of the women helped by En Via's micro-finance program.

Adelaide in her rug-weaving shop. She is one of the women helped by En Via’s micro-finance program.

Being served Mezcal at a wedding that we accidentally became a part of!

Being served Mezcal at a wedding that we accidentally became a part of!

El gato, our neighbour!

El gato, our neighbour!

 

Dancing in the streets with the bride and groom!

Dancing in the streets with the bride and groom!

Shopping for aprons worn by the Zapotec women.  Who could resist buying an apron from this beautiful woman?

Shopping for aprons worn by the Zapotec women. Who could resist buying an apron from this beautiful woman?

 

A parade almost every day.

A parade almost every day.

My Beautiful Lavanderia

My Beautiful Lavanderia

Me gustan los colores…

 

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There were beetles, everywhere. Or, I should say “vochitos!”

 

Gustu: Part One

When Doug and I decided that La Paz – the capital city of Bolivia that sits at the dizzying elevation of about 3500m – was going to be where we would start our South American tour, I immediately got to work on finding out about the food scene.  I can’t quite remember exactly what terms I put into the “Googler” as the father of a friend of mine calls it, but one of the first things to pop up was a Guardian article entitled, “Gustu, Bolivia: the surprise restaurant venture by Noma’s Claus Meyer.”

Claus Meyer has a restaurant in La Paz?

Claus Meyer, the chef and co-founder of noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that took top place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list three years in a row and the co-founder of the New Nordic Cuisine Movement?

The same Claus Meyer who gave one of the best TED Talks I have ever seen?

Wow, what do I do?  Just send him an email?

And, so I did.  Well, sort of.  I actually, messaged him on Facebook, which, I know, sounds quite ridiculous, but he is one of my “friends” ever since I watched his Ted Talk and signed on to his Facebook page.  I received an immediate response from “Josefine Carstad on behalf of Claus Meyer,”  thanking me for my enquiry and asking me to contact Kamilla Seidler, Head Chef at Gustu.

But, before I go any further, I should tell you little about Gustu and how it got its start.

Entrance to Gustu

Entrance to Gustu

Gustu isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a ground-breaking, game-changing culinary non-profit with a plan to revolutionize the face of Bolivian cuisine. Under the umbrella of Meyer’s Melting Pot Foundation, Gustu has a mission“to inspire a whole new generation of cooks” and “to become an engine for socio-economic progress, as well as a source of unity, equality and pride.”  Not only this, its “main objective is to revalue and harness the wealth and potential of the Bolivian culinary culture and position Bolivia as a leading tourist gastronomic destination.”

Interior of Gustu

Interior of Gustu

Interior of Gustu

Interior of Gustu

Lofty goals, I thought, but after also reading through the Fundación Melting Pot Bolivia web site, it became very clear that Gustu was an amazing project and from what I had come to learn about Claus Meyer, he was definitely the guy who could make the vision a reality!  In a nutshell, Meyer wanted to do for another area of the world what he has done in Scandinavia in establishing the New Nordic Cuisine Movement and Manifesto; that is, to relocalize the food system, revive culinary traditions, and revisit indigenous foods that had fallen out of fashion.  Oh, and he has been quoted saying that he would like to combat poverty with deliciousness.”

In partnership with the Danish NGO, Ibis, Meyer spent two years searching for a country that had, among other things, struggles with poverty, low crime, a richness of biodiversity, an untapped gold-mine of indigenous ingredients and an under-developed gastronomic culture. Once Bolivia was identified and La Paz was chosen as the ideal location, preparations began for the establishment of a restaurant and a culinary training facility. A new generation of young cooks who were gleaned from the poorest neighbourhoods in La Paz will one day, it is hoped, shape the future of food in Bolivia. With all the pieces put in place, Gustu opened its doors in April 2013 with 25 eager young cooks embarking on a training program most cooks could only dream of.  Lucky for them, lucky for Bolivia- lucky for me!

And so a few emails and a few weeks later, I arrived at 300 10th St. in Calacoto, a tony neighbourhood in southern La Paz, for my first meeting with Gustu’s Danish chef Kamilla Seidler.

Kamilla, who is taking the South American cooking scene by storm and who was about to wow an audience of highly-esteemed chefs and food academics the following week at the Culinary Institute of America, welcomed us warmly.  At Kamilla’s side was Bolivian-born chef and Gustu’s education coordinator, Coral Ayoroa, who is also making her mark in South America.  What followed was a bilingual crash course in all things Gustu.  Oh, and did I mention the rich coffee and sweet scones?  How on earth do they get them so light and perfectly risen at this elevation?  I make a mental note to ask for the recipe.

Once it had been decided how best I could help out in the coming weeks by giving workshops on food safety and nutrition, we were taken on a tour of what might just be one of the coolest kitchens I have seen.  Let me tell you, this definitely isn’t your typical restaurant kitchen that can be cramped, dark, dingy and, quite frankly, depressing.   It was spacious, bright, absolutely spotless and outfitted with some very snazzy equipment.  Side by side, each student was beaming with pride while busy dicing, whisking, sautéing, and packaging ingredients for sous-vide preparations.

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Out back, space is being made ready to house a small garden area for growing herbs and micro-greens.  And, how many restaurants have a food research lab?  Next to the prep kitchen sits the Laboratorio de Alimentos Bolivianos, Gustu’s Bolivian food documentation and research facility.  While we were there, the LAB was in the early stages of creating an infusion made with coffee husks and powdered orange peels.  And then there’s the fair trade coffee project that’s in the works. Oh yes, and the bakery and artisan food shop!  It seemed as if the possibilities for innovation in the place were unending.

Artisanal foods and baked goods.

Artisanal foods and baked goods.

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As you can imagine, I could hardly contain myself at the thought of being even just a tiny part of this amazing project and so off I went into the Bolivian dusk, my head swimming with anticipation and Doug holding my arm to keep me from walking, completely obliviously, into  the cars whizzing by.  In the taxi back to Jupapina, our home about fifteen minutes south of La Paz, I suddenly had a stark realization.

How on earth was I going to teach a workshop on food safety to a group of professional cooking students in SPANISH?

In one week?

I don’t speak Spanish?

Did I forget to tell them?    

Stay tuned for Gustu: Part Two!