Merrill isn’t surprised by the steady stream of Mexican Americans who visit her cooking program. “There are always tejanos and other Latinos participating, folks who naturally want to learn more about their roots and traditions firsthand,” says the 55-year-old, who is herself Mexican American. To round out her guests’ experiences, she also offers lectures on the history of Mexican food and how to use traditional cooking tools such as a molcajete, a stone version of the mortar and pestle, to make salsa or grind spices.
Passion and Culture
About an hour south of Mexico City, you’ll find the colonial village of Tepoztlán, home to La Villa Bonita Culinary Vacation, a cooking and travel program situated on a private estate. Husband-and-wife team Ana García and Robb Anderson established La Villa Bonita in 2000, when they translated García’s passion for cooking and the skills passed through generations into a business combining cultural immersion with crash courses in Mexican cuisine.
A typical day in the cooking program involves guests creating meals using squash blossoms, the tropical mamey (Guatemalan magnolia) fruit, and epazote, an aromatic spice. All kinds of people enroll in the courses, from military officers and Wall Street types to Southern belles, says García, a public relations exec turned chef.
Heading to Tepoztlán’s open-air market with García to select the day’s vegetables, fruits, spices, and meats was a highlight for Mary Carlon, who with her husband stayed at La Villa Bonita last August. “Ana offers these wonderful details about all the food on display,” says the 55-year-old retired teacher’s aide, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. Being Mexican American and discovering more about her culinary roots was another thrill. “I’d only been to Tijuana before this trip,” she says, referring to the Mexican border town.
Back in La Villa’s kitchen, students keep busy practicing tortilla techniques, smoking chiles, and using a molcajete crafted from volcanic rock. “We hustled!” Carlon says. That is, she adds, until after the big meals when she and others in the group succumbed to post-lunch fatigue and took a siesta. “It was just the right mix of activity and relaxation,” she recalls fondly.
More Than a Cathedral
When García and Anderson created their culinary vacation package, it was considered a novelty. “Now, it’s become more mainstream,” Anderson says. More than half of their guests are between the ages of 45 and 65, he adds, with about one-quarter of them Hispanics living in the United States.
Maryles Casto, CEO of San Jose, California-based Casto Travel, says that cooking programs like these three are tapping travelers’ desires to do “more than just tour a cathedral.”
Pick and Plan
When planning a culinary vacation, Casto advises:
- Choose a part of the world that appeals to both your culinary and cultural tastes. Ask yourself, “What else will I get out of this besides cooking? If not for the food, why else would I go to this place?”
- See if your hosts have authored any books. Do you like their cooking? Their concepts?
- Study the proposed itinerary. Are there places that pique your interest?
- Determine how much attention you want. “In many cases, your hosts will guide you from pick-up to departure,” says Casto.