Fresh Fish and Fire Dancers – Four Days on Isla Mujeres
Our journey continues…Day 5-9 of our Culinary Vacation to Mexico
A 5-mile long island paradise, Isla Mujeres is only a 20 minute ferry ride from Cancun, with palm tree-lined beaches, a great local food scene, and very few cars. Not to mention plenty of tourists and American residents. For me, the challenge here was experiencing the local Isleña culture and getting off the beaten tourist path. Then again, soaking in the view from our luxury villa was hard to beat.
But we were here to learn about the local culture and food as well as enjoy the island vibe. Our group managed to take on this difficult task with enthusiasm. Our villa offered us an incredible base; it was straight out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. From the huge kitchen that opened to a grand terrace, we combined the best of both worlds, holding cooking classes and demos on site. We started each day with yoga overlooking the Bahia de Mujeres led by the wonderful Meg DeClerck. Some afternoons, we jumped into our golf cart and explored what the island had to offer – an artists’ fair, beaches, fire dancers, the Carnaval celebration and local eats.
On recommendation from local Chef Lori Dumm (she hails from Wisconsin via Oregon, in fact, and has lived on the island for 10 years, where she currently owns the popular restaurant Lola Valentina), I asked Chef Arturo Lopez Arce to head our first cooking class. He hails from Mexico City and is executive chef at the Mayan Beach Club. His cooking has been heavily influenced by the culinary traditions and cooking techniques of indigenous groups throughout Mexico. His menu seemed simple. And honestly I had no idea what to expect: mushroom soup with guajillo and summer squash, spaghetti squash with tomato sauce, tik n xic (Mayan marinated fish) and rice pudding. (Note: it all seemed tame compared to the scorpion he served me upon meeting him).
Arturo arrived for class laden with what appeared to be a mini produce market: huge sections of squash he had rubbed with butter, star anise, garlic, agave, honey, cinnamon and seasoned salt and baked until soft. Radishes, frisee, peptitas, burnt tortilla chips, garlic, fermented coconut milk with honey comb, bouganvilla flowers, achiote paste, an assortment of peppers, onions, tomatoes and fresh fish filets overflowed on the counter. The class was extravagant and artistic, Arturo running back and forth from the outdoor grill to the stove, in full-on head chef mode. He showed us the beauty in the simplest foods. The mushroom soup featured an assortment of wild mushrooms and vegetables, grilled and layered in a bowl with a delicate broth, a crunch of pepitas toasted in garlic, and a garnish that looked like a garden in bloom. The rice pudding was sublime, his own concoction of tres leches impossible to recreate (starting with the fermented young coconut shoot), but astounding in flavor and presentation, garnishedwith a citrus syrup. The fish was strikingly easy to make. The spaghetti squash, bound by a delicate mix of savory and sweet flavors that worked incredibly together, was presented in its own shell.
Later during the week we enjoyed a mescal tasting with Luis from Tres Mentiras and his mixologist Toto. Encouraged to actually taste the subtleties of the mescal, not just chase the burn away with lime, we experienced the amazing depth and flavor of mescal – from floral to earthy and of course, smoky. In fact, he offered us pieces of orange in between, “to cleanse the palate” rather than to counter the flavor. Big take away – to find out if you have a good/real mescal, drip some on your hand and wipe them together. Let them dry. There should be no sticky residue, and it leaves your hands smelling a bit like a fire pit. Another take away – never shun a mescal made with turkey breast – pechuga as its called. It was the group’s favorite (even for a vegetarian guest)!
Local Chef Lori Dumm catered a few dinners as well, putting her global spin on local dishes in her signature way – guacamole with fresh mango, roasted beet tacos with goat cheese and a tres leches bread pudding with fresh berries. Relaxing while someone cooks your meal is one of the finest pleasures in life.
A food tour with a local guide allowed us to explore a real pirate’s grave, and a handful of locally owned restaurants on Isla Mujeres including the oldest restaurant on the island, Velasquez. I discovered that I like guacamole and huaraches in any form and am not a big fan of micheladas, a Mexican beer-based cocktail made with fruit juice, flavorings and spices.
The beaches on Isla Mujeres are exquisite, and the water an impossible turquoise. And after 4 nights on the island, we took one last listen to the waves, one great breath of sea air and were ready to head home,refreshed, inspired and full. Hasta la proxima!