For Fearless Drivers: A Journey into the Sierra Juárez mountains

Just north of the city of Oaxaca is the Sierra Juárez mountain range. It is the land of the Sierra Zapotecs, one of the first indigenous peoples of Mexico, whose ancestry stretches back to at least 1000 BC. The mountain range is known for its incredibly rich natural diversity, with over 2000 different plant species, tropical evergreen forests, and a cloud forest that forms a band 1,000 – 2250 meters high. In Zapotec, Schiaa Ruavia means the “hill where the cloud is born”.

We rented a car and asked our friend Lynda Wilde, a fabulous photographer from Kingston, Ontario, if she would drive us into the cloud mountains. Heading out of Oaxaca on a cool morning, she also drove us backwards in time.

Teotitlán, 37 kilometers outside of Oaxaca, is the gateway to the mountain road. The town sits under the shadow of el Picacho, the mountain where, legend has it, the Zapotecs were born.

el Picacho
el Picacho

The town has been Zapotec for 2500 years and Zapotec is still the primary language. Teotitlán is famous for weaving. Rugs and tapestries are made on hand looms, mostly with locally sourced wool and dyed with natural, traditional dyes. Even though tourists flock there for the authentic craft, it is small and retains ancient customs and ways.

Out of Teotitlán, the road begins a serious sequence of switchbacks. Checking directions in a guide book, we notice for the first time the cautionary sentence, “for fearless drivers”.

Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains
Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains

Linda has done this journey before in her four-wheel drive. Our little economy rental seems wildly inappropriate. It would be a suicidal drive in the rainy season.

Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance
Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance

But after travelling through seemingly endless, narrow, remote roads, we arrive at the bustling town of Benito Juárez (population about 1,000), fifty-eight kilometers north of Oaxaca city.

The town, originally called San Pablo Guelatao, was the birthplace of Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president and Mexico’s most beloved native son. We are now 2900 metres (7200 feet) above sea level, sitting amongst the clouds. It’s cold, so we stop for hot chocolate and pan dolce beside the tourist information centre.

Benito Juárez tourist information centre
Benito Juárez tourist information centre

The mountains are home to endangered species of jaguar, ocelot and deer. One of the largest areas for butterflies and birds, there is a strong ecotourism movement to try to conserve the forest and protect it from the stresses of logging, agriculture and potential hydroelectric dams.

the Sierra Juárez cloud forest
the Sierra Juárez cloud forest

Los Pueblos Mancomunados is a group of eight small towns that have developed trails for hiking, mountain biking and camping in the mountains. The town of Benito Juárez is one of the starting points. We meet a Polish couple, who ask if we can tell them where the trail begins. We encourage them to go to the information centre, but they speak no Spanish. Intrepid, they head out into the woods. We hope they have a map.

In the centre of town we come across school children performing what looks exactly like “Speech & Drama”. A small girl declaims in the central square, her voice commanding the space as examiners make notes and parents look on.

Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez
Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez

Beside the square is a recreation of Benito Juárez’s birth home with adobe walls, tile roof and dirt floor.

Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez
Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez

Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao. His parents died when he was 3. He was raised by an uncle and became a shepherd. When he was 12, speaking only Zapotec, he walked to the city of Oaxaca where he was taken in by his sister. Here, his “thirst for learning” was recognized, and he received schooling at the city’s seminary. He became a lawyer, entered politics, and in 1857 became Mexico’s first indigenous president.

The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez
The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez

Throughout the country there are statues and monuments in his honour. March 21st, his birthday, is a national day of celebration. The town of San Pablo Guelatao changed its name in his honour.

Clearly this is a town of impressive orators.

Lynda takes us out of the town on a search for “Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan”, a trout farm in the mountains. A trout farm in the mountains? We weave through the tiny streets of Ixtlan de Juárez, searching for handwritten signs that say “Truchas”. It’s like a scavenger hunt. After many false turns, and several dead ends, we find a dirt path that leads to a small parking lot. We’ve arrived.

We shiver as we settle at outside tables. But we are greeted immediately by Noel, the owner, carrying glasses of mezcal.

Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal
Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal

Noel grew up Zapotec and left to live in Los Angles before returning home to begin a family business. His English is flawless, so we are able to understand the story of the trout farm.

There is a stream running down the mountain, which Noel’s family has tapped into. They have set up a series of holding tanks and, working with water from the stream, have built up their fish nursery. The baby trout are furthest up the mountain. Our lunch trout are in a tank right outside the kitchen door.

Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Noel brings us cups of sweet Mexican coffee to augment our mezcal, and hot toastados to nibble on while he cooks our fish. My filet arrives sealed in aluminum foil. It’s been steamed over the wood stove. I open the foil and the warm smells of tomato, garlic, lime, epizote, onion, chili verde and quesillo (a thin cheese sauce) waft out.

The drive may be for the fearless, but it is certainly one well worth conquering your fears.

The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Cooking and Eating in Oaxaca

Nora Andrea Valencia learned the techniques of traditional Oaxacan cooking from her late grandmother, Ofelia. Together they earned a reputation for the delicous breakfasts they prepared every morning at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos, the family’s B &B. My mother stayed at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos for a number of years, and has become a friend of the family.

With interest in Oaxacan cooking at an all time high, Nora has become internationally recognized for her knowledge of Oaxacan cuisine. She conducts cooking classes from her home, ( and we joined up with a small group for a day of cooking and eating.

The history of Mexico can be learned through food. Nora comes from a Zapotec tradition and many of the cooking methods that she has learned are based on knowledge stretching back for thousands of years. But since the Spanish invasion, Mexico has been a blend of cultures. The Spanish brought African slaves with them, and the mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African was perhaps the world’s first true fusion cooking.

Our first stop is the Merced Market to buy the ingredients for our comida.

Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad
Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad

There are many markets in Oaxaca, and this one is in Nora’s home barrio. Before we enter the market proper we meet some of the women sitting outside. Their hands are busy cleaning nopales (cactus pads) of various sizes.

Cleaning the spikes from the cactus (nopales) pads
A woman cleaning the spikes from young nopales. Hierba santa is on the ground beside her.

Nopales are very good for cholesterol levels, and the Mexicans put them in many different dishes. Nora picks a few choice pads and a big bunch of hierba santa, or sacred leaf. This green is used extensively in southern Mexican cooking. It has a unique lemony, licorice taste and it’s believed to cure just about everything including rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, digestive disorders and skin conditions. Of course, it is impossible to grow or find in Canada. Nora recommends fennel as a flavor substitute, but there is nothing that can substitute its health benefits.

We proceed into the market where Nora explains properties of different chilies, dried and fresh.

So many chilies
So many chilies

So many chilies, so many flavours. The capsaicin in chilies is a stimulant and analgesic. It awakens endorphins, which means that “eating chilies gives your body pleasure. It also means you can get addicted to them.” But even Nora admits you can never really know how hot a pepper is. “It’s like a lottery,” she says cheerfully. You just have to keep tasting as you go. If it gets too hot, she tells us to add a bit of something acid, like cider vinegar or tomato, to bring down the spice. She introduces us to the pastillo oaxacaño, a special pepper grown only in the high Mixtec region and smoked in adobe ovens. A ready-made paste from this smokey pepper is a kitchen staple – she keeps it by the stove to add a little zing when necessary.

From the chili stand we move to the squashes. Every part of the squash plant is used, and Nora shows us how to pull the fibres from the stems so that they will be softer when added to a soup.

Nora peels the squash stems
Nora peels the squash stems

Bags of ingredients are sold cut and ready to cook a perfect Zapotec soup – squash stems, squash blossoms, pieces of squash, pieces of corn. Nora selects some perfect blossoms for our soup. “We only use the male blossoms. They are very showy, but not good for anything else,” she laughs.

At the tortilla stand, Nora shows us the soft masa dough that makes Oaxaca’s unique tortillas. Northern Mexico uses wheat for tortillas. In the south, they are corn based. Preparing the dough is an incredibly labour intensive process, involving lime and soaking and grinding corn. The result is a velvety soft corn dough that makes light tortillas totally unlike the hard corn tortillas I buy at home.

Next, Nora takes us to the cheese stand. I am addicted to Oaxacan cheese. There are two kinds – soft and stringy. The soft cheese is sold in wooden boxes to keep it moist. Like a cross between a ricotta and feta, it is crumbled over salads, enchiladas, and most dishes that have sauce on them. The harder cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, is boiled, kneaded and stretched into strands. It is melted in quesadillas, separated into strings for raw eating, wound into tight small balls to include in soup. It is salty and chewy and tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had.

The cheese stall
The cheese stall

Our final stop is to look over the mangos and avocados. She rails against people squeezing avocados in the store. “You can tell if they are ripe by looking at the stem. If there is a little dent, it is ripe. If it isn’t ripe put it in a paper bag and leave it in the trunk of your car. It will ripen!”

Nora and the mangos
Nora and the mangos

Mangos come in different sizes, colours and varieties. The small ones are super sweet and perfect for just eating a bit of fresh mango. The larger ones are better for adding to other ingredients – they absorb other flavours well.

We head to Nora’s home to turn these fresh ingredients into our comida.

Nora's courtyard
Nora’s courtyard

Mole. Originally from a Zapotec word, mole (pronounced Moh-LAY) reflects a whole concept in cooking – blending ingredients together to make a paste for a cooking sauce. Guide books talk about the 7 moles of Oaxaca. “But it’s impossible to have just seven,” laughs Nora. Mole is a concept, more than a specific thing. It is ubiquitous. “Aguaca” is Zapotec for avocado. Thus we get guaca-mole or guacamole – ground up avocado.

Nora gets us chopping and peeling. Our Comida today consists of “Consome de Hierba Santa”, a light chicken soup with tons of garlic and hierba santa, served over squash blossoms and balls of Oaxacan cheese; “Ceviche de Mango”, a marinated red snapper salad served on tostados; “Pipian de Camarones”, a pumpkin seed mole with shrimp and nopales; “Salsa Borracha”, literally drunken salsa – a hot sauce made from our dried peppers; and “Gelatina de Kahlua”, a light dessert jelly of coffee and chocolate.

Comida menu
Comida menu

We are assigned tasks. We do a lot of dry toasting on a comal, a flat dry pan traditionally made of pottery. We dry toast chili de arbol, chili de onza, and chili mora for our salsa borracha. We dry toast and boil huajillo chilies for our mole. We dry toast and grind pumpkin seeds, the thickening agent for the mole. We peel our fresh shrimp and make a shrimp stock with the shells. We cut and cook nopales; chop onions, mangos, cilantro and avocado for the ceviche. We lightly cook chunks of red snapper.

Nora shows us how to toast the chillies
Nora shows us how to toast chillies on the comal

Everything in Nora’s kitchen happens at a measured and even pace as she laughs her infectious laugh and sprinkles our cooking with historic and gastronomic information.

Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls
Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls

William comes in with glasses of mezcal, slices of orange and little piles of dried chilies. “Mezcal is a digestive. We have it before a meal. We have it during a meal. We have it at the end of a meal.”

We sip, dip orange slices in the chilies, taste and sip again. We are ready to eat our comida. It is as wonderful as you can imagine.

Our class is over, comida is finished. A good day with Nora Valencia
Our class is over, comida is finished. We’ve had a good day with Nora Valencia!

The Restorative Powers of Mezcal

Oaxaca is known for its cuisine. Apparently there was an article in the New Yorker recently that raved about a particular Oaxacan restaurant. For those gringos/gringas who have been coming to Oaxaca for many years, the article presented a terrible conflict. It is wonderful for the world to know about the wonders of Oaxaca, but for those who love it, Oaxaca is treated as a well-guarded secret, a secret that could be jeopardized by more tourists.

I struggle with the word “tourists”. The Canadians and Americans that I’ve met come here for 2 – 3 months every year. They study Spanish, they take cooking classes, they contribute respectfully to the life of the city. I am only here for two weeks, and my Spanish is abysmal, but I have been welcomed into the homes of the ex-pates and, through my mother, have been given the chance to see a bit deeper into the life of the city.

Last night I was initiated into the smoky world of Oaxaca’s best-known specialty – Mezcal. Mezcal is Oaxaca’s equivalent of Scotch, and serious mezcal drinkers treat it with reverence. Many come to Oaxaca just to tour the distilleries, of which there are 570 in Oaxaca state. It’s produced using the same methods that have been used for over 200 years. As with Scotch, the best distilleries are prized, and differences are compared, savoured and discussed.

Mezcal is made from the piña or heart of the maguey plant (a kind of agave). Oaxaca state has the perfect climate for growing maguey plants, and they are cultivated throughout the region. The plants are harvested when they are between 7 – 15 years old and weigh about 40 kilos. The central hearts are chopped out, roasted in a pit, mashed to a pulp and distilled in casks made from either barro (baked red clay), copper or aluminum.

Traditional mezcal has chicken or turkey breast put into the fermentation, but contemporary mezcal sometimes adds fruit or chocolate. In a rush to attract foreign consumers, mezcal producers are adding caramel syrup and a variety of sweet flavourings. For serious mezcal drinkers, true mezcal may be an acquired taste, but it is one worth acquiring without the trappings of commercialism.

mezcal tasting
the tools for mezcal tasting

Mezcal bottles will often include the larva from a moth that lives on the agave plant (“mezcal con gusano”), and there are many arguments about the correct way to imbibe the worm. The worm is said to add flavour. It definitely adds mystique and price to the marketing.

My mother’s friend Virginia is a lawyer from Kingston who lives in Mexico for four months of the year. She has a wonderful and spacious apartment that allows her to escape the Canadian winter, a climate that plagues her lungs. She loves traditional mezcal, and invited us over to a tasting to compare three types.

At Virginia’s I met Dwayne, Canadian from Vancouver who lives in Oaxaca for 5 months of the year. Virginia and Dwayne met many years ago in a Spanish class. The formal Spanish class has long since evaporated but they have continued to meet, swap Oaxacan confidences, and argue over mezcal.

Our tasting begins with Albarradas, the “house brand” of a local restaurant. Virginia pours the clear liquid into tiny red clay cups.

“You have to take the first sip into your mouth and hold it there as long as you can. You let it burn until you think ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then you swallow.” This, Virginia explains, will open up our taste buds.

I taste salt on my lips before I am aware of the smokey essence that fills my cranium. I hold and swish until it begins to hit my tear ducts, at which point I swallow. I make the mistake of breathing in through my mouth, and am enveloped in a haze of alcoholic fumes. Mezcal is between 45 – 55% proof. But I like the smoke. The mezcale stays in my mouth, on the tongue, for a short time. It is clean and a bit citrusy.

Our second mezcal is Virginia’s personal favourite, from Chichicapa. She confides that she took some in an empty Coke bottle to a “Live from the Met” broadcast recently. “How else could I get through 5 hours of Wagner?” She and a friend sipped surreptitiously out of the little clay cups at each intermission. It was only after the film, when they sat in the empty movie house having a final round, that they were discovered and told “no se permite.”

“But it sure  helped me to enjoy the Wagner,” she said.

The Chichicapa is much smokier, deeper, earthier than the Albarradas. There is less salt, little citrus. Complex and satisfying, it lingers longer on the tongue. Dwayne says that is due to the “pechuga de pollo,” the chicken breast. Virginia, a vegetarian, disagrees but acknowledges that it tastes too good to care one way or another.

We finish our tasting with a tobalá mezcal from the Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca. (Tobalá is a smaller maguey plant. A palenquero is a mezcal maker.) It is as different from the Chichicapa as an 18-year single malt is to a blend. Adequate, with just a hint of sweetness, more complex than the Albarradas, it served mostly to show the brilliance of the Chichicapa.

Two million litres of mezcal are produced annually in Mexico. It’s believed to cure hypertension and diabetes, and that it is an aphrodisiac. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” – for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well.

I am happy to believe in its medicinal and restorative properties. I certainly feel on the road to being healed…

Oaxacan Diary 2: Travels with my mother at the top of the world

The main plaza at Monte Albán
The main plaza at Monte Albán

For more than a millennium, successive generations of Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples ruled the life of the Oaxacan valley from the city state of Monte Albán. Carved into a mountaintop 6400 feet above sea level, vast areas  were levelled in 300 BC for terraces and plazas. Temples and residences that allowed for seismic movement were built using layers of quarried stone and adobe. By 800 AD, 50,000 people lived in the city of Monte Albán. It was so large that suburban satellite neighbourhoods were built on surrounding mountaintops.

Monte Albán was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.

When you are in Monte Albán, you feel as though you at the top of the world. There is nothing between you and the sky. The scale of the city is overwhelming. The central plaza is exactly oriented on the cardinal points (I checked with a compass), and so large that it dwarfs people as they cross. Stone staircases seem built for giants. It was built to impress.

Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán
Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán

My mother and I have been to Monte Albán before, and wanted to go again, but we wanted to start with a visit to Atzompa, one of Monte Albán’s satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond
Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond

The Atzompa archeological site has only been open to the public since the fall of 2012, and there is little information about visiting. New roads are being built to access it, but as yet there are few who travel there and it remains undiscovered by most tourists. So we hired a car and driver to take us to the top of the world.

We left early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Our driver Vincent took us out of Oaxaca, edging upwards through villages with dusty, winding streets. The “modern” village of Atzompa is known for its distinctive green pottery. About 90% of the villagers are involved in making pottery. It’s a traditional village and there is terrible poverty, but people are scraping by somehow.

The contemporary village of Atzompa
The contemporary village of Atzompa

There’s a small artisan’s market for intrepid tourists, but we passed by, and headed up the mountain. We passed a man with a burro, laden with something that looked like coal or maybe just rocks. We passed workers building the new road. Up and up Vincent drove, weaving past barriers, until he could drive no further. Mom and I set out on a newly created gravel stairs, leaving Vincent to wait in a newly built but vacant parking lot.

There is an entrance to the Atzompa archeological site, where we signed in. From the sheet I could see that there were 4 visitors yesterday, 18 the day before. Today, we have the place to ourselves.

The name Atzompa is Nahuatl meaning “at the headwaters”. It was built by Zapotecs from Monte Albán about 1200 years ago. After about 600 years of Zapotecs, it was inhabited by Mixtecs for over 600 years. The pottery making inhabitants of the contemporary village of Atzompa are descended from those Mixtecs.

Atzompa was built in a similar style to Monte Albán, although scaled down. There are small plazas, a temple, a tomb with funerary chambers, an artisan’s area, a stone quarry, and a large ball court.

From “Plaza C” you can see across to the city of Monte Albán, as well as to other, as yet uncovered, satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán
Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán

The plaza makes us understand the level of wealth and privilege in Atzompa. Residents looked down on the peasants, workers and farmers in the valley. They looked across to the seat of power, both political and religious. But it was also practical. Looking down, they could easily see movement or threats from other people travelling in and out of the valley. These were wealthy and powerful people, who lived in luxury.

Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below
Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below

The main square is 50 x 50 metres, bordered by a temple, with a central burial mound.

Main square and temple, Atzompa
Main square and temple, Atzompa

One of the two residences, the House of Altars, has a sunken patio surrounded by a sidewalk, and 18 rooms accessed by four different staircases. Servant’s quarters were attached by walkways. A desirable house, in prime location.

House of Altars, Atzompa
House of Altars, Atzompa

The ball court, one of the largest in Meso America, is 5 x 22 metres in an “I” shape, with a north/south orientation and long benches for spectators on either side. Ball games had both religious and political ramifications, and were “practiced to influence the movement of the stars in the sky, the continuation of the existence of the cosmos, and thereby, the continuation of life” (so the signage at Atzompa tells us). It is easy to imagine, as we stand so close to the sky, the power and influence of the games.

Ball court, Atzompa
Ball court, Atzompa

There’s a kiln and ceramic studio here. The original building hasn’t been excavated, as it sits 2.5 metres under the surface, but a re-creation gives weight to the importance of the studio, which specialized in large cooking pots. As today, each artisanal home is responsible for one type of pottery whether it be pitchers, griddles, casseroles or toys. I think back to the potters we passed on our way here. Tradition goes a long way back in this part of the world.

Kiln, Atzompa
Kiln, Atzompa

A burial chamber was unearthed in July, 2012. Not open to the public, it’s been dated to be 1100 years old, apparently in amazing condition, and unique in its design of three layers of tombs above ground and brightly painted murals on the walls. A wooden structure sits incongruously on the top, replacing the original stucco temple. The restoration is clearly still in progress, but the only work we see being done today is by men slowly raking stones on the plaza.

Funerary Chamber, Atzompa
Funerary Chamber, Atzompa

The mid morning sun is beginning to bake us. We gingerly make our way down the gravel paths, to find Vincent waiting patiently. We reluctantly leave the peace of Atzompa. Monte Albán, filled with tourists and school groups, beckons to us across the valley. Aztompa has become our shared secret, our own private discovery. Monte Albán is, as it should be, filled with the trappings of civilization.  We head there for desayuno (breakfast) in a lovely outdoor café …

Desayuno at Monte Albán
Desayuno at Monte Albán

Running away from winter: Oaxacan Diary part 1

My grandmother started going to Mexico in 1970. She continued to journey south every winter until she was 89, when it became too hard to travel. In 2003, my mother and I scattered her ashes in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico.

My mother has been travelling to Mexico since 1975. Like my grandmother, she loves the land and the people and, of course, the fact that there is no snow or ice. In 2001, Oaxaca became her winter home.

Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca
Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca

Now, I’ve come to visit and escape the deadening greyness of winter in Eastern Ontario. I’ve left Tim at home, writing, and for a few precious weeks I’ll immerse myself in colour, feel warmth on my skin, shed layers of clothes.

Oaxaca City is in the capital of the state of Oaxaca, a central area of Mexico. The word Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word Huaxyácal meaning the “summit of the acacias”  and the city sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. The colonial city centre was declared part of the Cultural History for Mankind by UNESCO in 1987.

This isn’t the place to go into colonial history, but the confluence of cultures forms the city. Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs lived in the Oaxaca Valley for at least a 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived. With the conquest, the Spanish built on top of the original Aztec fortress. They designed the city around a central square, the Zócolo, and oriented it to the cardinal points. The cathedral, built over the Aztec spiritual centre, is along one side of the square and facing it on the other side they built the municipal buildings. Thus the square was designed to radiate a balance of civic and spiritual power throughout the city.

The cathedral on the Zocolo
The cathedral on the Zocolo

Today, Oaxaca is a busy and friendly city of 250,000 that does, in fact, seem very balanced between both worlds. On one side of the Zócolo is a permanent tent city of protesters. On the other, there are constant processions in and out of the cathedral.

The weather in Oaxaca is blissfully temperate. Mornings are cool, and I must wrap up in a shawl as I sit on the patio for morning coffee. My first morning in Las Mariposas, the family run hotel where we are staying, I am treated to fresh tortillas stuffed with black bean sauce, salsa, zucchini blossoms and cheese, cooked on an open grill on the patio.

My kind of breakfast.

My mother and I spend the morning walking the city streets, looking in shops, smiling at people. There is, everywhere, a mixture of wealth and extreme poverty. My mother carries coins to distribute as we walk, making a special effort to give money to musicians and elderly women. Yet even with the poverty, there is a feeling of ease on the street, an assurance of safety.

My mother constantly reminds me to slow down. Not because I am walking too fast for her, but because I am walking too fast for life.

We sit in the Zocolo listening to speeches about workers rights and watching the women and children make their rounds selling shawls, beaded jewelry, gum, wooden toys and bookmarks. Young children are employed in the family business of selling on the streets. Why aren’t they in school, I ask. “School costs money. Uniforms cost money,” explains my mother. “Many children cannot go. And many of those that do, only go half days.” I know this should depress me, but all around me are smiling, encouraging faces.

Food, and food preparation, is everywhere. Comida is the main meal of the day, served from about 2:00 – 4:00.  There’s a small restaurant beside our hotel where the owner serves a simple comida, with daily specials.

Comeda down the street
Comida down the street

Today’s menu includes Chayote soup, a kind of Mexican squash. When we ask, the owner/cook brings one from the kitchen to show us. It is light green and shaped like a fat pear. The soup is soft, light and topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Second course is a “dry soup”, a rice pilaf accompanied by hot salsa and a kind of guacamole sauce. We pause as we sip our pineapple water. Lighter than juice, it is a way of getting all of your electrolytes and hydration at one go.

Chillis Rellanos are stuffed poblano chillis that are battered and fried. Today, ours are stuffed with ground meat, carrots, potatoes – almost like a dry stew in a fat pepper. The pepper sits on a bed of mole, with some fresh salsa and salad on the side.

A flan, decorated with swirls of chocolate and caramel completes our comeda.

Comida costs us each 4.50 pesos – less than $4.00 Canadian. There are up-scale restaurants in Oaxaca and we could have gone somewhere fancy and paid twice as much, but this suited us perfectly.

Our simple Comeda restaurant
Our simple Comida restaurant

This is another reason why my mother lives in Mexico. The global financial crisis hit Mexico hard. It is incredibly cheap to live here. With every peso you spend, you feel you are doing a service for the country.

As the heat of the day begins to overwhelm us, we spend the afternoon dozing, reading and recovering from comida. It hasn’t taken long to forget winter.

Ready for a post-Comeda rest at Las Mariposas
Ready for a post-Comida rest at Las Mariposas

A Grand Birthday Tour

I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.

This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.

Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.

I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.

A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.

Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.

Lewis prepping centre stage
Lewis prepping centre stage

The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.


A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.

“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.


Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.

2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears
2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears

Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.


Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.

Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.


Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle

4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese
4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese

There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.


Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.

I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.


Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.

6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto
6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto

It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.


Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.

“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.


Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue

Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.

The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.

Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.

Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones
Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones

The Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre are 5 tiny villages that perch on the edge of the cliffs along the Ligurian coast. The name means five villages, not lands, and stems from medieval times. Cinque Terre comprises the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.

Historically subject to raiding by pirates from North Africa, the peaceful little villages are now protected by the Cinque Terre National Park authority. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997, the villages are not accessible by car, but are linked by train and, in the summer, by regular boat service. There are also extensive hiking trails between the villages and through the surrounding hills.

Trains leave from La Spezia for Riomaggiore every half hour. The train ride itself is only 8 minutes long but the journey takes you from a busy, gritty working city to a magical fishing village of tiny shops and restaurants, carved into the cliffs.


We arrived in Riomaggiore on a gorgeous sunny day a few days after Christmas and set off to walk up the incredibly steep main road, finding churches and piazzas hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny streets. A recording of Placido Domingo was playing on a speaker in the street and we followed it into a tiny room, carved into the rock, filled with a massive nativity scene.

The Nativity Grotto

A whole village was reproduced, with figures fishing, shopping, washing clothes, all powered by water. It was the first of many nativity scenes that we have seen in Italy.

We decided to have lunch in La Grotto, a restaurant built into the cliff, with raw rock forming some of the walls. The village is known for its fish, so some of us decided to see what the local cuisine had to offer from the sea.

The harbour in Riomaggiore. A fish lover's paradise.

My mother Laurie and I ordered a specialty of the region called Ciupin’. “Cuipin’ di pesce fresco del golfo con pomodoro, pepe nero e romarino servitor con frette di pan tostato”. (Fresh fish from the Gulf with fresh tomatoes, pepper, rosemary sauce, served with toasted bread). We thought that it was a fish soup but when it arrived there was no real broth – just a massive amount of fish. Sea bass, sole, mussels, clams, scampi, 3 different parts of squid. All with heads and tails, each tasting unique, in the delicious sauce. It was a bit of work, but with the fabulous breads and local wine it was one of the most delicious meals I have had.

After lunch, we wended our way along the Via dell’Amore toward the next town, Manarola. In reading about the Cinque Terre, the walk is described as a hike, but I think it is better thought of as an exquisite promenade.

Momma Laurie hikes the Via Dell'Amore

It is a paved walkway along the cliff edge, festooned with tiny locks, left by lovers pledging their love together. It really is just about as romantic as you can get.

Lover's locks

We arrived in Manerola as the sun was beginning to set. We walked to the top of the town and stood in the piazza outside the church (built in 1388), watching the sunset.

Sunset in Manarola

Just above the town, in the terraced vineyards above the houses, was a massive nativity scene. Figures of the nativity and of every day working people were lit up as the darkness set in. Apparently these are the work of a local resident, who sets up many different religious scenes as a tribute to his father.

Nativity scene in the terraced vineyards of Manarola

There are over 200 figures illuminated by 12,000 lamps, making it the largest nativity scene in the world. The picture does not do them justice, unfortunately. It was a very memorable sight.

We were a bit too late in the day to go on the vineyard tour, but made up for that by buying several bottles of local wine. There are miles of grape vines on the hills above the towns and the terraced vineyards are one of the reasons for the World Heritage Site status. The sheer number of stone terraces is equivalent to the building of the Great Wall of China. We are happy to take home a sampling.

Two days later, Xan’s partner Meghan arrived from Canada, and we knew that we wanted to go back and visit the third town, Corniglia, with her. The last two towns, Vernzza and Monterosso al Mare are currently closed to tourists. There were deadly mudslides in October that have closed the towns, as well as the path between Corniglia and Manerola. But we were able to take the train to Corniglia and explore.

The main square in Corniglia

It is the tiniest of the villages (population about 240) and sits highest on the hills. It is not as often visited by tourists, because it is a bit more remote. But it was well worth the climb, or the cost of the shuttle that drives up to the hill top.

Corniglia has been famous for producing good wines since Roman days, and in the regular season there are tours and wine tasting bars. It was exquisitely quiet when we arrived, and much of the town was closed. We spent time in the sunshine in the main square, the Largo Taragio, centre of which spouts the old town well that used to bring in water from the hillside to the locals who lived without plumbing.

The Largo Taragio, with a memorial to the dead from WW1, and the old town well

In the Oratory of Santa Caterina on the Largo Taragio the nativity scene included a tiny pizzeria, with a man putting pizza into the oven. From the square we continued to climb higher to a small clearing and the Santa Maria Belvedere, the most stunning look out point to the sea.

Maddy & Tim looking out from Santa Maria Belvedere in Corniglia

It is a natural sun trap and a perfect picnic spot.

However, we didn’t bring picnics – we were there to sample local cuisine. We discovered the Enoteca Il Pirun, a wine bar and tiny restaurant that served us an amazing meal of pastas. Tim & I shared a plate of acciughe sotto limone (anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil) that was one of the highlights of our visit. Sweet and lemony – we were eating fish caught directly outside the village with lemons grown on the trees in the village and olive oil made from olives grown on the surrounding terraces. How could it be better? We all shared around our different plates of pastas with mussels, clams, pesto and rolled away from the table late in the afternoon to take the 3-minute train ride to Manerola. From Manerola we walked into the sunset of Via Dell’Amore toward Riomaggiore. A couple of new lovers locks were added to the collection.

Xan & Meghan on the Via Dell'Amore

We’ve only scratched the surface of Cinque Terre. There was so much to take in and we were overwhelmed by the outrageous beauty. We are already making plans to come back to visit the last two towns, to hike the high paths through the vineyards, and to perhaps pick up a few more bottles of local wine.

Sut set on the Via Dell'Amore


Portovenere is on a promontory that juts into the western edge of the Gulf of La Spezia. A 30-minute bus ride from the city of La Spezia, the roads snake along the coast to take you from the work-a-day world of La Spezia to a resort and fishing town of startling beauty.


A piazza runs the length of the town, with restaurants spilling out into the sunshine. Fishing boats bob on the docks and ferry people over to the island of Palmaria, directly across from the town. It is a picture perfect Riviera town.

The Romans built an outpost here as a base en route from Gaul to Spain. The Byzantines, Lombards, the Genovese and Napoleon all passed through, leaving their marks. We walked around the piazza with our jaws dropped. It was our first experience of this kind of Mediterranean beauty.

Tim & Maddy walking by the docks

The path led upwards on cobbled steps to the Chiesa di San Pietro.

Chiesa di San Pietro

Traces of a Roman temple have been found here. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to Venus from which came the name “Portus Veneris” —  Porto Venere. Like most sacred places, successive generations have added and adapted according to needs, and so the Chiesa di San Pietro is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Built of white and black marble in the Gothic-Genoese style, it sits right on the edge of the water. A “back door” leads out to a small stone platform overlooking the bay. A perfect sun trap.

Mother Laurie Lewis behind Chiesa di San Pietro

The church sits on the edge of a large square with access to the Grotta Arpaia. The Grotta Arpaia opens out to the other side of the promontory and has steps walking down to the rocks below.

Grotta Arpaia

The Grotto is dedicated to the poet Byron. Byron and Shelly both spent a lot of time in Portovenere and in Lerici.  Byron made this grotto famous by swimming from here around the promontory and on across the bay to Lerici. Shelly was not so lucky, nor so adept at swimming. He drowned in the bay when his boat capsized, sailing from Lerici.

We explored the winding cobbled streets, with homes, shops and restaurants tucked into narrow alleyways and along steep stairs.

Narrow streets winding up the cliff

A labyrinth of walkways led us to the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, built in 1130. Tim & I were passing by on an upper level right beside the bells as they started to chime. We were almost deafened by the sound. But we were close enough to hear, well, really to feel, the harmonics of the two toned bells. An extraordinary experience.

Chiesa di San Lorenzo,

We walked higher, to the outer ramparts of the Castle, built in 1161. But rather than go in, Tim & I became distracted by a cemetery on the edge of the cliff below the castle. The cemetery has a few mausoleums, but the final resting places are mostly in marble walls facing the ocean. Apparently there is a rotational system – for the first generation after your death you get a fairly prominent position. Gradually, your remains are moved to one of the less accessible places. All in all, we think it is a lovely place to honour the memory of a loved one.

A beautiful final resting place

We ended the day thoughtfully, and happily bundled our family back to the villa for dinner.

Tim on the dock of Portovenere, Lerici in the distance across the bay

A sunny Christmas morning

Before coming to Italy, we warned ourselves that the end of December would be wintery and cold. We were prepared for grey rain, but decided that the weather didn’t really matter. We thought it would be fun just to be together, eating wonderful Italian food and drinking local wines.

What we had not expected were hot sunny days, breakfasts and lunches on the terrace and long walks on the hillsides. Christmas Day broke with a thunderously beautiful sunrise. Unbelievably, it was warm enough for us to have our Prosecco, bread, cheese and smoked salmon sitting out on the terrace overlooking the sea. Church bells chimed as we launched into our Panatone.

Breakfast on Christmas morning
Celebrating with Prosecco

The villa is right beside the AVG, “Antica Via del Golfo”, a centuries old trail that connects surrounding towns and villages. Walking down it, we can get to La Spezia in about 15 minutes. Walking up takes a lot longer, and is brutal on the thigh muscles. It is really steep. But when we are on the path we invariably meet someone much older than us walking comfortably, not breathlessly panting as we are. We’re always greeted by a cheery buon giorno, or buona sera. So walk up we do, as often as possible, if only to save face and justify the huge quantities of food we can not resist eating.

The AVG also gives a unique opportunity to hike up the mountain and explore remote villages with breathtaking views. The path crosses a zig zag road with hairpin turns, clearly beloved of Italian drivers. It is the kind of road that Italian movies make famous. But walking the path gives you time to explore and see the pace of other people’s lives.

A view from the AVG, with a view of the La Spezia Gulf

On Christmas morning we headed up, unsure of where it would take us but mostly just wanting an excuse to walk and talk in the sunshine. We walked higher and higher up the mountain, surrounded by a feeling of celebration and the joy of being alive. We may see each other all together only once a year, but we know how to reconnect quickly, on a mountain top.

Maddy, Xan, Lewis and Amanda. Christmas morning in Italy

A Christmas Eve feast in Italy

Our Christmases have always looked a bit like an archetypal Christmas card. We decorate a tree with ancient ornaments, curl up by a roaring fire, and watch puffy snowflakes weigh down the enormous pine trees outside our windows.

But we knew that this year we would break with tradition. Since we are on the road, we decided that we would all gather as a family in Italy. Through the magic of the internet we found Villa Maggiano, a luxurious villa outside of La Spezia on the Italian Riviera. We headed there from our various parts of the world to rendezvous for Christmas.

La Spezia is a busy little city of 95,600 about an hour’s drive from Genoa, on the Ligurian coast. Tim and I flew from London into Genoa, and rented a car to drive to the villa. It had been 5 months since I had driven a car and the twists, turns and roundabouts were sobering, to say the least. On the edge of the city, we headed up a mountain and, fourteen hair-pin turns later, found ourselves at The Villa Maggiano.

Villa Maggiano

Set in an olive grove, the villa comfortably sleeps 8 and has a large brick terrace that looks out over La Spezia and the Golfo dei Poeti. Naval and container ships crisscross the bay. The Appennino mountain range in the distance changes colour throughout the day as the sun moves across the horizon and reflects off of the snow capped peaks.

Sunrise over the Golfo dei Poeti

Each bedroom of the villa has a view of the sea and the mountains, and every morning the sun shocks us awake by its beauty. Every night, lights twinkle on the hills and the shoreline, and the mountains fade into silhouette. Could we ask for a better place to spend Christmas with the family?

Our host, Sarah Ferrari, had decorated the villa with poinsettias, wreaths and Christmas ornaments. She greeted us with a large  basket of Italian goodies, and wine from the family vineyard, making us feel at home and ready to kick off the festive season.

Tim and I had a couple of days in which to prepare for Christmas Eve, when the family would all be together at last. We headed down to negotiate the vast market in the centre of La Spezia. This is not a tourist area, and few people speak English. Neither of us speak Italian but we figured out how to ask for ingredients, how to ask for more, how to ask for less. As La Spezia is on the coast, there were about a dozen fish stalls filled with mounds of Branzino (like sea bass), Baccalà (dried salt cod), scampi, mussels, squid, cuttlefish, swordfish, tuna and eels, still moving on their icy bed. There were aisles of cheese and meat stalls with fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano (Parma is just down the road), various ages of Pecorino, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto, Carpaccio, and many things we couldn’t identify. There were rows and rows of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, nut vendors and olive merchants.

The sun starts to set as we look out from the terrace

We tried (unsuccessfully) to stop ourselves from buying too much. But Christmas is a time for eating and drinking. And a gathering of the Lewis/Wynne-Jones clan happens only once a year, which justifies all kinds of excess. With an over-full larder, we created our Christmas Eve feast.

Opening the first of a number of bottles of Prosecco (a case of 12 for 15 euros) we began with an antipasto of olives, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers and fabulous focaccia bread. La Spezia is known for its focaccia and it is deliciously oily and salty, with chunks of olives imbedded into the dough. We followed this with a simple Pesto alla Genoese. This is the region that invented pesto and we bought a big tub of it at the market. It was like no pesto I have ever made or tasted before. Unlike other basils, Ligurian basil is grown organically and out of the direct sunlight to keep it fresh and sweet. The result is a smooth and lemony pesto.

Looking through the window at Tim cooking, the sunset reflected above

We followed the pasta course with Tim’s fabulous “Melanzane (eggplant) alla Parmigiano”, which he has perfected over the last month, and slices from a buttery and soft pork roast that we had bought from the neighbourhood Macelleria (butcher), rolled with garlic and rosemary.

A light salad of mixed greens from the market cleansed our pallets. Amongst other greens, I had bought a lettuce head that was yellow, flecked with magenta. I don’t know what it is called, but it was slightly bitter and so beautiful.

Christmas Eve feast at Villa Maggiano

We finished the meal with some fruit, biscotti and dessert wine. Fireworks were exploding over the bay, and the bells chimed from numerous churches. In several of the coast towns below us, they were welcoming the arrival of the baby Jesus from the sea. “La Madonna, San Giuseppe e Gesu Bambino arrivano dal mare”.

Not a snowflake in sight. Our family Christmas spirit burned bright.

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