Chocolate was oozing from the molino (“mill”) at el Mercado de Abastos, the central market in the city of Oaxaca—thick rivers of deep brown chocolate. I was there with Susana Trilling, who owns the local cooking school and bed-and-breakfast Seasons of My Heart, and a fellow student from the school. Before the chocolatemaker ground the toasted cacao beans with cinnamon, we had pinched them out of their shells on a flat surface, and he had blown lightly on them to clear away the shells; the beans were bitter, with a lingering aftertaste. The speed of the mill’s turning stones had then transformed them into a thick goo about the consistency of peanut butter. Next the miller mixed in sugar by hand and ran the whole concoction through a second mill, from which it emerged as a more uniform, pasty chocolate. We took a big lump of the finished product back to Seasons of My Heart, in the Etla Valley outside the city, where we shaped it into bars that could be used in numerous ways, from hot chocolate drinks to some of the complex sauces called moles.
And in Oaxaca moles rule, according to the 47-year-old Trilling, who is widely considered a leading authority on the cuisine of that southern Mexican state. She is also a popular cooking instructor who gives classes all over the world, including Texas; from April 1 through 6 she’ll be teaching at the Central Markets in Houston, Plano, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin.
Though she was born and raised in Philadelphia, her maternal grandparents—who hailed from Tampico and Durango, Mexico—lived in San Antonio. (She still has relatives to visit there when she comes through Texas to teach cooking classes.) I met Trilling in the mid-seventies, when she was cheffing first at Austin’s Sweetish Hill bakery and then at Fonda San Miguel, a restaurant specializing in the cuisines of the Mexican interior.
After leaving Austin in 1978, Trilling ran restaurants and a catering company in New York City. She first visited Oaxaca (Wah- hah-kah) in 1983, when she joined friends for a three-week “vacation” doing volunteer work at a coastal orphanage for disabled children. She left New York in 1986 to take a break from the restaurant business and travel the world, spending much of her time in Australia and Thailand. In 1988 she returned to Oaxaca to volunteer for another six months at the orphanage. Then she moved in with Eric Ulrich, a Dutch farmer, at Rancho Aurora, where he grows tomatoes, corn, and beans. They have four sons, two of them adopted from the orphanage.
Though she was already cooking her own Thai-Mex fusion dishes, she began learning about the distinctly local cuisine from neighbors as she picked up the language. Soon she was holding afternoon baking classes to teach Oaxacan women how to make everything from pizza to brownies; those classes evolved into international ones that touched on a different cuisine each week. When guests staying at the ranch’s bed-and-breakfast started asking for Mexican cooking lessons, Trilling instituted weekend classes taught in English. In 1999 she published a cookbook and hosted a PBS series—both called Seasons of My Heart: A Culinary Journey Through Oaxaca, Mexico. (She will be signing her cookbook at the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival—at the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood, near Austin—on April 7.) Since then, her classes have grown so quickly that in October 2000 she moved them from the kitchen in her home to a new, domed school on the ranch. She now teaches classes that run from a day to a week and offers a ten-day culinary tour of Oaxaca. Like the cookbook and television series, the classes focus on traditional Oaxacan cuisine and methods while including modern variations on them. For instance, Trilling uses traditional utensils like the comal(a flat, round griddle of unglazed clay that is placed over an open fire) but shows how to get a similar effect with a griddle or cast-iron skillet.
The cooking of Oaxaca is rapidly becoming the Mexican cuisine of choice among foodies who have made the leap from distinguishing between Tex-Mex and interior Mexican dishes to recognizing the culinary differences of the country’s various regions. This is a diverse, labor-intensive cuisine of fresh fruits and vegetables and complicated sauces. Rooted more in ancient tradition than most Mexican cuisines, it is considered special even within Mexico. “Because this is an agricultural area, the produce is picked ripe and has much more flavor,” Trilling says. “Tradition dictates the toasting, roasting, and frying of ingredients to bring out their flavors even more.”
Trilling divides Oaxacan cuisine into seven regions, from the diverse foods of the mountains-and-coast microclimates of the northwest Mixteca to the fresh, smoked, salted, and dried seafood and game of the southeast Isthmus of Tehuantepec, with all of them melding together in the city of Oaxaca. The three foods that all seven regions share are black beans, corn, and squash; the traditional ceremonial dish Ma’ach, eaten by law every August 1 in the village of Tamazulapan Mixe to ward off hunger in the last month before the harvest, is one of the few that includes all three.
Moles, which often contain more than 25 ingredients and can take two days to make from scratch, combine Mexico’s old (dried chiles, tomatoes, and seeds) and new (European spices) gastronomic worlds. In nearby Zaachila, mole pastes are made by frying all but three ingredients until they are dry; when ready for use, the paste is reconstituted by adding the remaining trio of ingredients—tomatoes, tomatillos, and broth—which cuts the cooking time down to as little as an hour and a half. Though Trilling believes that moles probably originated around the same time in several regions of Mexico, they are most closely associated with the state of Puebla. Seven types are found in Oaxaca, each with as many variations as there are families. They range from the mild verde (“green”) to the sweet, fruity manchamanteles (“tablecloth stainer”) to