I attended the class in May 2015, yet another mezcal event in my adopted hometown, the city of Oaxaca, located in south-central Mexico. Others have included cocktail and mixology sessions; evenings of combining the iconic Mexican agave-based spirit with chocolate and with craft beer; mezcal tastings menus de restaurants of umpteen brands of both the intoxicant as certified for export, and produced for local consumption (often referred to on drink menus as “agave distillate”); federal government-sponsored education programs; formal lectures and informational meetings regarding the status of the industry; and of course cooking classes. In my line of work, I have to keep abreast. But more importantly, I enjoy learning, despite having been around mezcal for a quarter century. The industry is changing rapidly these days.
One of the more recent phenomena, at least in Oaxaca, has been teaching to cook with mezcal. And so it was natural for Chef Pilar to put cooking with mezcal in her six-week class rotation. She’d been using the spirit in recipes for years; in her classes, at her restaurant, and when demonstrating and promoting Oaxacan cookery outside of Mexico at American and Canadian cooking schools and restaurants.
But ask Chef Pilar if traditional Oaxacan cooks use mezcal as an ingredient in their dishes, and the answer is a resounding NO. But she’s not a traditional cook by any means, notwithstanding that she learned her trade from her maternal grandmother. Chef Pilar comes to the industry through her university degree program in food sciences and nutrition. Since she keeps up with modern trends in gastronomy, her mezcal is an ingredient just as other spirits are for the great chefs of the western world.
This particular class began as Chef Pilar invariably does, with a brief summary of what will be prepared in class and the ingredients to be purchased at a local marketplace. Where perhaps others are not prepared to adlib, Chef Pilar notes that there could be an extra recipe and dish thrown into the mix, depending on the availability of seasonal produce. “Rainy season is just beginning, so we might find some fresh wild mushrooms brought down from the sierra early this morning, and I can then decide what to do with them,” she advises. She then asks if there are any vegetarians in the group and if anyone has a food allergy.
The market visit also proceeded as predicted, with Chef Pilar buying ingredients while pointing out and explaining about particular chiles, some tropical fruits, gusanos and chapulines, tejate, masa, and more. On this day we also attended a fresh fish market for shrimp and red snapper, the latter being a key ingredient for ceviche al mezcal, a last-minute addition to the class menu.
Good chefs are always ready to adapt and learn. Pilar is no exception, and where she stands out from some others who instruct, is by not hiding from her students the fact that she’s always anxious to learn and doesn’t know it all. Case in point, our special guest attendee was a traditional cook from the Mixteca Alta district of Oaxaca. She had brought down from her region some unique ingredients for teaching how to make a particular salsa, a second supplement to the fixed five-course menu. Chef Pilar asked questions with a view to learning about the chiles and nuts being used and how to incorporate them into the salsa recipe – just as the rest of us did.