25 OCT 2018: Mexico is one of my favourite destinations for food. Their culinary traditions are deep and varied using multiple techniques and ingredients. Grand Velas Riviera Maya, an ultra-luxury all-inclusive, has latched onto this and made the most of it in their restaurants, bars and even their spa. Their most recent foodie event held in October, The Best of Mexico’s Culinary Traditions featured some of the top chefs from around the country.

The highlight, included for guests staying at the resort, was a ten-course dinner paired with Mexican wines and drinks. Beyond the delicious tastes, each course was also an education and a trip through the country. Our first drink, a mezcal from producer Contraluz, was rimmed with pink salt from Celestún, a fishing village on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and some ground chicatanas, a local flying ant. (Eating bugs is part of Mexican indigenous heritage.) Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage that can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave in nine different areas of Mexico, is gaining ground over tequila, which can only be made from the blue agave (Tequilana) in five places.

In fact Velas Resorts in Mexico has swapped its in-suite tequila for artisan mezcal. Created by a master mezcalero, Olvídame Si Puedes (Forget Me If You Can) is a white crystalline mezcal, made with 100% espadin agave. After maturing for more than six years in the central valleys of Oaxaca, the agave is harvested and distilled twice in a copper alembic still. It’s an unforgettable mezcal that has beguiling earthy, agave aromas and tastes of smoke, herbs and cooked agave. It was so smooth we had nothing left from the complimentary bottle in our room to bring home.

The resort’s Yucatecan chefs Humberto May Tamay and Laura Avalos of its Mayan restaurant, Chaka created the mezcal welcome drink which they paired with appetizers of masa stuffed with pork, white beans and cheese and slathered with mole poblano sauce. (Masa is a dough made from corn, or dried hominy, the building block for many Mexican favourites. Mole poblano, a dark sauce, contains about 20 ingredients, including chili peppers along with chocolate which helps counteract the heat of the chili.)

The second course, scallops in aguachile Sonora style, was made by Chef Joel Ornelas, owner of Tintoque restaurant in Puerto Vallarta and known for his contemporary presentations of traditional dishes. The scallops, marinated ceviche style in lime juice, cucumber, cilantro, wild Mexican chia leaves and chile, had a bit of crunch from tortilla chips, a bit of burn and a bit of sour. Delicious. This dish was paired with Bacanora, a type of mezcal produced from wild agave plants in Sonora, a state in northwest Mexico.

Then Chef Reyna Mendoza, an authority on traditional food from Oaxaca came up to bat with her Oaxacan pasilla chile relleno. Pasilla de Oaxaca is a chile with a deep smoky flavour. She stuffed it with plantain and Oaxaca cheese and served it over black bean sauce. Its sweet, savoury, smoky flavours were divine. Chef Mendoza informed my group she offers weekly hands-on cooking classes, El Sabor Zapoteco, hosted in her private home in Teotitlán del Valle. (The Zapotec village is 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City.) I’ve got to go there.

Her dish was paired with Cava Quintanilla Chardonnay 2015 from San Luis Potosi, in the middle of Mexico. The chardonnay grape was a Burgundian clone, aged 18 months in new oak and impressive in its presence and style.

Dubbed “the anthropologist of Mexican cuisine,” Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, who authored an encyclopaedia on the topic, was up next with a dish of slow cooked grouper in white mole pipian sauce. (Pipian is a mole that emphasizes the nuts or seeds that are blended in, to thicken the sauce. This was made from toasted sunflower seeds.) Chef Muñoz said this was a historical recipe that the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera used to make and eat on weekends. It’s usually on the menu at his Azul restaurants in Mexico City. (The menu at Azul Histórico in the interior patio of the historic Downtown Hotel is for example organized thematically around the cuisine of a specific state or region.)  It was nicely paired with '"KUL" Chardonnay 2016 from Valle de San Vicente in Baja California.

For the next dish Chef David Cetina, renowned for his Yucatecan food, had dug a pit in the kids’ mini-putt golf lawn of the resort, lit a charcoal fire and slow cooked under banana leaves for 24 hours a whole pig marinated first in spices, achiote paste and orange juice. The dish called cochinita pibil was served shredded in a sandwich torte. With this we had Cabàn Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 from Valle de San Vicente, Baja California.

The final main dish was the work of Chef Pablo Salas, whose Amaranta restaurant in Toluca has been named one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America by the famous San Pellegrino list since 2014. Today it ranks at number 15th on the list. His beef tongue taquito (small taco) with peanut sauce was served on a soft corn tortilla. A savoury, succulent dish, it was matched with Lamat 2014, a Cabernet/Tempranillo blend also from Baja California. (If you visit Fort Lauderdale, his Lona Cocina Tequileria there was named Best Restaurant In Fort Lauderdale By Miami New Times, Best Of Miami 2018.)

The final series of desserts and Mexican sweets such as pumpkin ice cream, corn panna cotta with smoked chili peppers and cocoa, all paired with cinnamon dusted Crema de Tequila were the scrumptious work of resort Chefs Tamay and Avalos.

The three day event continued with a BBQ lunch, an artisanal mezcal tasting, dinner at Frida the resort’s Mexican restaurant, a guacamole cooking class with artisanal Mexican beers, and a Bacal Massage that used local honey to exfoliate the skin and steam heated corn cobs to apply a deep massage. After all that food and drink, why not roll in it. FOR MORE INFORMATION:

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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