Walking into the kitchen at Casa Carmelita, one is instantly drawn to the imposing cursive inscription on the wall: “Acercate al amor y a la cocina con desenfreno imprudente,” which translates to: “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.” While the Dalai Lama should be given credit for the original quotation, it seems Estella and Jon, the proprietors of the Mexican Home Cooking School, have found a way to embody those sentiments at their tranquil Bed and Breakfast in Tlaxcala, a state in Central Mexico.
The entrance to Casa Carmelita
Experienced and knowledgeable teachers
I had the privilege of learning traditional Mexican recipes and cooking techniques from Estela Salas Silva, a gifted and intuitive chef, and her husband Jon Jarvis, also an experienced and knowledgeable cook. Much of Estela’s wisdom has been passed down to her through the generations, and her insight into food preparation is evident of this. Jon brought his years of experience from working in the catering business in San Francisco. These two different approaches combined to form a series of classes that flowed from one station to the next. Prep work and an overview started each session before we would transition to the stove to watch Estela show us the tricks of a seasoned professional, like how to separate a yolk from an egg white without cracking the shell, or that it is okay to toss garlic heads in the blender without removing their skins. The course was instructive yet fun; we did not just follow recipes or watch demonstrations. Overall, it seemed more like a group of friends gathered around a table sharing stories, preparing delectable feasts, and learning the history of Mexico through ingredients in each dish. It was impossible to ignore all of the influences on the cuisine, from the indigenous, to the Spanish — including the flavors of the Middle East due to the Moors — and then the French. Those insights were priceless and never would have been explained to me in a restaurant or at a food stall.
Ingredients in baskets and dishes we made, we learned about Mexican history in each dish
We are but a group of friends loving the cooking and dining, thumbs up!
Each morning after breakfast, we roasted chiles, blended salsas, and “married flavors,” as Estela would say. Many traditional dishes of Puebla – such as the Chile en Nogada, a seasonal and patriotic dish the combines a stuffed chile with ground meat, dried fruit and nuts, and is covered in a creamy walnut sauce topped with pomegranate seeds and parsley – were presented in an accessible manner. Estela demystified the complexities behind rich thirty-ingredient moles, pipian, a sauce made from pumpkin seeds, and making tamales from scratch, a truly time-intensive treat. She and Jon trained us to approach preparations for each course with open minds and patience. Also interwoven within the course was practical information for any eager cook, such as how to prepare some parts of the recipe ahead of time, which sauces can me made in double batches and frozen without adding stock, which meant to substitute for a new flavor, or how to combine the day-old ingredients into another dish for a fresh, yet economical feast.
Estela pouring a lime and sugar sauce over dessert Sighs of the Bride (Sospiros de la Novia)
Learning all about chillis
Memorable holiday in Tlaxcala
While the mornings were spent cooking, the afternoons were free for leisure activities. After our work in the kitchen, we ate our lunch and then were treated to several hours of relaxation. I spent some afternoons in the town of Tlaxcala, which is about a twenty-minute ride away from the school. Other days I explored the scenic countryside, nearby ruins, or gorgeous property of Estela and Jon. The group gathered again each night for dinner, which we had already prepared during the morning lesson. I believe that preparing meals and savoring them should be a pleasant, memorable experience, and both were at Casa Carmelita! This opportunity gave me a glimpse into authentic cuisine and Mexican hospitality, both of which nourished me in different, yet important and memorable, ways.
Visiting the town, here is the town sign Tlaxcala
BookCulinaryVacations.com Q&A with Lynn
- Q: What is your favorite Mexican food there?
- A: It's so difficult to choose just one. If I had to pick a favorite multi-course meal, I would select ensalada de nopalitos (nopal cactus salad), flor de calabacitas soup (squash blossom soup), chile en nogada, and then the helado de chocolate (ice cream with the rich Mexican chocolate).
- Q: What is your favorite cooking lesson?
- A: I thoroughly enjoyed making the chipotle en conserva, which is basically a pepper jelly that can be used to make a number of dishes such as chicken tinga or an appetizer cheese ball with a little kick.
- Q: During your free time, what is your favorite thing to do besides cooking?
- A: In Chicago, I like to explore the cultural events in the city, read, attempt gardening, and take photos. In Mexico, I like to immerse myself in the culture and learn all I can. I loved striking up conversations with people in town to figure out more about what makes the place tick.
- Q: How long did you stay there?
- A: This past trip I was there for two weeks. The summer before I spent five weeks in Mexico.
- Q: Is the market visit part of the cooking class or did you go there on free time?
- A: Yes, we went to the market as a class on the final day to learn more about the ingredients we had been using in class and to stock up on some items to take home.
Chile en nogada, this patriotic dish is one of my favorites
Mounds of chocolates in the market; I loved the chocolate ice cream we made!
In August 2012, Lynn Janik went to Mexico and enjoyed cooking holiday at Mexican Home Cooking School in Tlaxcala. She has written this article and shared pictures personally for BookCulinaryVacations.com. Did you go and take cooking classes with chef Estela and Jon in Mexico too? Share with us your stories and pictures, we'd love to publish them here. Do send your greetings by adding your comments below.