SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — “This is what I’m looking for!” Chef Victor Martinez said, rushing over to a stall at the traditional food market in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “We call it the Mexican truffle.” He reached for one of the ugliest pieces of food we’d ever seen: a wildly deformed cob of corn, with bumpy, irregularly shaped, bulbous growths, tainted a sooty blue-gray.
“Corn smut,” Martinez whispered with reverence. “Huitlacoche.”
That’s the Mexican name for the fungus-infected ear of corn, Martinez explained. In the United States, farmers have been trying to eradicate the disease for years. But here in Mexico, it’s a sought-after culinary delicacy. Martinez selected and paid for three of the uglier clusters of corn smut, along with a handful of sweet, apricot-smelling pink oyster mushrooms.
Martinez is a chef at the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, and teaches the resort’s on-site culinary classes, designed for guests who want to learn the secrets of traditional Mexican cuisine. We’d signed up, and met Martinez at the bustling Saturday market, where we’d pick up the ingredients needed for the morning class.
Weaving through the crowds, we stopped to buy fresh fennel and ruda (an evergreen-y herb); celery root, cilantro, epazote leaves, lemon caviar, peppers, and nopal cactus. We tasted soft skinned avocados, eating them like plums, skin and all, and sampled artisan cheeses. “We have great cheese producers in central Mexico,” Martinez said, handing us a slice of an appenzeller-style cheese that had been cured in oak ashes. He bought it to go with the lavender ice cream we’d be making in class. On our way out, we stopped in front of a bucket of dead, black crickets. “Chapulines!” Martinez said. “I love their crunch.” He snagged a bag of them. On our way back to the Rosewood, we ducked into a tiny shop to pick up some handmade, natural corn dough that we’d use to make tortillas.
The outdoor Los Pirules Artisan Kitchen and Garden Bar at the Rosewood resort, where the cooking class was held, is beautiful, with hand-painted tiles, exposed stone, and a wood-burning oven. Tucked away at the back of the sprawling property, it overlooks sways of flowers, lavender hedges and a lush herb garden, with expansive views of the town of San Miguel de Allende. We oohed and aahed, took pictures, and then got to work. We learned to hand-press tortillas. We made pink oyster mushroom and fennel salad, lightly searing the mushrooms in olive oil, before topping them with ruda, roasting them in the wood oven, and serving them with celery root puree, chopped fennel, and caviar lemon. We lightly sautéed the squash blossoms with onion and garlic and stuffed them in the tortillas, with fresh guacamole, served alongside a crunchy nopal cactus salad. Chapulines were there to add crunch, or to simply snack on, though we’d yet to acquire a taste.
We made lavender ice cream from flowers picked from the garden. In advance, Martinez had prepared a rich, layered broth with the huitlacoche, to go with slow braised short ribs. In the final presentation, the short ribs were placed in the huitlacoche soup and topped with Martinez’s fresh and bright chimichurri.
We sat at the long, live-edge wood dining table to enjoy the meal, and talk about food in San Miguel. “Our local farmers and producers are doing some amazing things,” Martinez said. “And the food scene has exploded.” His advice: For traditional, unfussy local food, go to the street carts and market vendors. “That’s where you’ll find me on my day off.”
San Miguel de Allende, the clamorous colonial town in the Sierra Madre mountains in central Mexico, was recently named “The Best City in the World” by Conde Nast magazine readers, and is fast becoming a world class tourist destination, known for its art, architecture, rich culture, and booming culinary scene. We went for all of that, but mostly for the food. And while you can find a variety of fine ethnic restaurants in town, we weren’t here to eat French food, or Italian, or Argentine. We wanted traditional Mexican dishes and local delicacies.
We took Martinez’s advice and returned to the market and sampled pozole, roasted corn, grilled chicken, and (fried pig skin) from a variety of vendors, elbow to elbow with local families. We drank fresh squeezed juices and smoothies from plastic bags (delicious), snacked on spicy garbanzo beans and jicama pops dusted with chili powder, and ate plates of paella, stuffed peppers, and roasted pork tacos.
Early one morning, we spotted a line snaking out the door of Lavanda Café (Calle Hernandez Macias 87, 52 415 152 1610; www.lavandacafe.com). We’re glad we waited, and returned twice more for the cazuela, a tasty potato, mushroom, and cheese casserole topped with a fried egg and loaded with bacon; molletes with chorizo bacon and house-made, creamy guacamole; and eggs benedictinos with spinach, avocado, and bacon. We also returned a few times to Torta Mundo (Umaran 29, 52 415 121 1287) for piled-high tortas (Mexican sandwiches), topped with fresh vegetables.
Baja Fish Tacos (Mesones 11-B, 52 415 121 0950; www.facebook.com/BajaFishTaquito) was a favorite lunch spot. We grabbed a table on the outdoor deck and enjoyed fresh shrimp tacos, smoked marlin tortillas, octopus cooked in garlicky olive oil, and ceviche, washed down with a local craft beer. And the walk to Muro Cafe, outside of Centro in Barrio del Obraje (Calle San Gabriel 1, 52 415 152 6341; www.cafemuro.com) was worth every uphill step. The contemporary, upscale eatery specializes in regional Mexican cuisine prepared with modern flourish. The Chile Muro was worth the trek alone, a poblano pepper stuffed with zucchini, corn, and panela cheese topped with a sauce of hibiscus flower petals. Ditto for the gorditas, stuffed with beans, nopales, and cheese, and drizzled with a unique pico de gallo mixed with cactus pickle pear.
One of the real joys of dining in San Miguel is snagging a rooftop table. At El Pegaso (Corregidora 6, 52 415 152 1351; www.facebook.com/elpegasosma), we had spectacular views of La Parroquia, while dining on duck tacos and the wildly popular chiles en nogada.
Our last evening, we returned to Rosewood’s Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar, with one of the finest views in the city. The place was buzzing, but we snagged seats at the bar to watch the sunset, and enjoy Chef Martinez’s culinary creations once again: this time, rib eye tacos, red snapper ceviche, and grilled octopus with potatoes bravas. Deliciosa!
Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, Nemesio Diez 11, 52 415 152 9700; www.rosewoodhotels.com. The resort offers a variety of immersive experiences, including cooking classes, vineyard visits and wine tastings, cheese tours and art workshops.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.