Learning to cook local, Puerto Vallarta, and watching the sunset

Yesterday was a wonderful lazy day starting with yoga and then by the pool (except for a work email that needed, yes – needed, to be addressed, but even that was by the pool) and on the beach. I finished Hotel Vendome by Danielle Steel; no judging. She is awesome don’t have to think about it reading with lots of details and lavishness – perfect poolside/beach book. I was going to post this yesterday, but I got distracted when I got home from what will be called the garlic butter coma dinner by refreshing google.ca and Huffington Post every five minutes and watching the Mexican coverage of the US election. Good decision, people!!! If only my own country’s politics got me this excited!

(Side note: I learned the other day that the Mexican leader gets to be in office for a term of six years as opposed to Canada’s or the USA’s four-year term. Assuming you have an elected leader who is making or can make change but needs time for implementation (thats you, Mr. Re-Elected President!) – as opposed to a corrupted or moronic elected official who the people would have to deal with for that long – a six-year term seems like a good idea. Especially if you have to dig a country out of the red… But I digress.)

Monday was an AMAZING day – cooking class day. After some debate, decided not to take the bus but a taxi into Puerto Vallarta for my cooking lesson, because 1) I wanted the extra hour of sleep; and 2) I wanted to be on time. Even with detailed instructions from the front desk, not being familiar with the bus system timing (from what I can tell, it is somewhat sporadic…) didn’t inspire me to take public transport. At the current exchange rate, the taxi was $15 USD, and well worth the hassle it saved me.

My taxi dropped me off at the white and fuschia stucco wall of El Arrayan, named for the arrayan (ah-rye-YAAN) tree growing in the middle of the courtyard. (They make their house margaritas with the fruit that grows from the tree.) It is a beautiful covered, outdoor restaurant guarded by a very solid and beautiful set of wood doors. Patrons walk in to traditional Mexican decor with some modern touches. Bar and kitchen to the left and seating ahead and along the right. It’s very bright, and of course, there is the arrayan tree in middle of it all.

The arrayan tree. they use the fruits that grow off it for their house margaritas. Delicious!
The wonderful Carmen and her partner Claudia own and run the restaurant and they do what I can officially say is a fantastic day of a perhaps not super traditional but very delicious breakfast in this fantastic hole in the wall that makes their own corn tortillas, touring the produce market and best tortilla factories (I say factories but they are shops that mass produce awesome product), and then back to the restaurant to learn and make a late lunch with the chef. All for $95 USD – a really great deal.

I walked in and was greeted by Carmen, and my classmates for the day: Nick and Barbara from Victoria, Mike (Nick’s brother who lives in Vancouver), and Marsha from New York (not the “devastated” part as she put it to me when I said “oh!” to her telling me where she was from). She piled us into the truck with the driver and off we went for breakfast.

We arrived at El Taquito Hidaloguense, a super clean little place, that Barbara rightly pointed out that most tourists would not necessarily stop at because they have no idea of the food. The posted menu is sparse, but Carmen knows the owners and everything that can come out of their kitchen, and so we were served lamb barbacoa (amazing tender lamb meat that had come off the barbecue not too long before) in fresh corn tortillas, chicken and cheese quesadilla, and a flavourful broth (made from the lamb fat and drippings from the barbecue) with potatoes and carrots.

I had a cup of coffee for the first time ever in my life, and I actually enjoyed it. (I had an espresso incident when I was 8 that forever ruined me for the taste of coffee, but I have always liked the smell.) Why? Because it had dark sugar and cinnamon in it. I tell you, that cinnamon s what made that cup of coffee for me. I didn’t finish the entire thing, but I’m so glad that I tried it. I’m told that Mexican coffee, particularly from San Sebastien (just north of where I am) is quite good.

We piled back into the truck for our next destination, the La Gloria Tortierria where we learned how corn tortillas are made. It’s a small yet mighty operation. They are a popular shop and are considered the best, particularly by Carmen. (Who I would trust anything she told me about food. Amongst many things in the hospitality industry that she has experienced, she went to hospitality/hotel school in Switzerland for three years. You can imagine we were all super impressed when she told us after we asked how she ended up owning a restaurant. The woman knows more about food and wine than I think I will ever will. She is dedicated.)

How the corn tortilla starts.

Masa grinding stones
We also visited a wheat tortilleria but they had just shut down the machines. But I bought (what I’m told are really wonderful) tortilla sugar cookies, I don’t know how else to describe them.

Next was the market (a proper market, not a supermarket) and the variety, quality, and colour of the produce was amazing. Colour wise, it was like the Pantone palette had exploded – so bright and beautiful. And the smell, oh my gosh, the wonderful smell of all that fresh produce. I was in heaven. There were a few things that Carmen explained don’t have an English name, but assured us tasted wonderful in cooking.

Sweet bell peppers are apparently not a a local favourite as they don’t have any “kick” – precisely why I LIKE them 🙂

We wandered down to the dry goods store, where there was an amazing array of spices, dried chiles, rice and such. The aroma of spices, chiles, flours, and everything else in between was very pleasant. I bought some of the dark sugar that was in the morning’s coffee, a small jar of mole sauce, a small jug of laundry soap (the one thing my condo was missing when I arrived) and some achiote, which is a spice mixture that we used for the pork we made later in the day that Carmen had told us about.

Dried peppers

Cinnamon sticks
We visited the open air butcher shops and went to this artisan gift shop called Peyote People where they sell beautiful handcrafted, and locally sourced Mexcian arts and crafts. They had (among other lovely things) excellent skeleton people figurines. These are made for the the “Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) which is a national two days of holiday (November 1 & 2) honouring the spirits of loved ones who have passed. The skeletons and holiday apparently represent mocking death for wanting someone’s passing to be a somber occasion. It is meant to be a celebration of their life.

After all of that wonderfulness (i’m initiating this as a word if isn’t already one), we were brought back to El Arrayan and we got down to business with the head chef, Afonso (who I learned to chop onions a new way from – possibly a way that won’t have me crying onion tears ever again), and his sous chef whose name escapes me – I should have written it down!

We were each given our aprons, pens, and recipe booklets, and were encouraged to volunteer to help as we felt comfortable. All the ingredients for their respective meals, were laid out in orderly fashion on a tray per recipe item. It’s a really nice kitchen or cocina. A hot ktichen (obviously), but a nice, open, clean, stainless steel one. It also includes a tortilla making station, called an el comal.

What “we” (but really Afonso and the sous chef) made:

  • Aguachile de Camaron (shrimp and pineapple ceviche)
  • Cochinita Pibil (pork in achiote and banana leaf stew)
  • Xnipec (means runny nose in Mayan – red onion and habanero pepper relish)
  • Frijoles negros refritos (refried black beans)
  • Salsa verde (fresh tomatillo and serrano peppers)
  • Flan de cajeta (essentially goat’s milk and sugar – a kind of flan; the cajeta can also be subbed with chocolate)

We were all a bit intimidated and super fascinated by all the ingredients and how they were being put together. We all diligently took notes and yes, I took a lot of photos. You are going to have to scroll a bit now…

My favourite part was using the giant mortar and pestle (molcajete) to mash the juice out in the salsa verde ingredients. It was hard work but quite satisfying. Even though I was on my very tippy-toes. Dead serious. Nick, Barbara, and Mike are all tall, so they were fine. 😉

You can’t see, but I’m on my tippy-toes. The counter was high…
We also got to try our hand (literally) at making the tortillas. You use this cool press type thing and then it’s quite the skill to perfect to be able to lay the tortilla flat on the grill. They have a lady who does this all evening long – the el comal is her domain, but she had the day off.

And then we got to eat what we made and also tried some of the salsas used for chips and to drizzle on other food. The salsa negra was realy lovely, so I bought a jar to take home. YUM.

It was a wonderful meal and great conversation. As we gathered our stuff, we thanked Carmen profusely. It was a fantastic way to spend the day.

A visit to PV is not complete with a walk on the malecon (the boardwalk). They have redone it a bit since the last time we were here a few years ago. There are beautiful (and some strange) statues all along the way, and I walked partway with my fellow British Columbians so that I could find my favourite statue of this dancing couple.

My favourite malecon statue

My second favourite statue

My new favourite – random avocado eating statue man

I said my goodbyes and nice to meet yous – it really was a pleasure, they were so nice – and headed back down the boardwalk so I could catch a cab back to my cozy condo.

After unpacking my loot and some reading, I grabbed a Corona, my camera, and my book so I could go catch the sunset. Sunset is SO BEAUTIFUL here. I love a good sunset, it gets prettier and prettier right through to the end. Sean proposed to me at sunset on the very beach I will go walk along in a little bit. Made me love sunsets even more than I already did at the time. 🙂

As I was still stuffed to the gills from lunch, dinner was more of a snack: home-made (so proud of myself) guacamole and what was meant to be salsa (but I think I blended it a touch too long), some veggies, and tortilla chips.

Okay, long post. Sorry for the novel and million pictures. Moral of the story? If you’re ever in Puerto Vallarta, walk the malecon and try to be there at the time that El Arrayan is having a cooking class. (They don’t have them every week.) Pool time. Hasta luego!

One Reply to “Learning to cook local, Puerto Vallarta, and watching the sunset”

  1. Perfect day..so happy for you…enjoyed the pics for sure…have a fab meal at Karen’s and say Hi from Stan and I….glad you met Lois…Hi to her as well….is Rick there too?

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