Amidst the fresh squeezed orange juice and high altitude sunshine at the rooftop bistro there was a buzz of excitement - and whispers of "save room for later" - as 100 chefs, journalists, researchers and foodies took their first bites of a 10-day "Aromas and Flavors" gastronomical tour of Mexico, part of the government's latest effort to attract tourists interested in something other than beaches and pyramids.
"We're excited to help Mexico improve its image, sharing all the richness, variety, flavors and abundance of dishes that are Mexican cuisine," said Mexico City's Tourism Director Alejandro Rojas D az Dur n.
A typical Mexican culinary tour day starts with fresh mango and papaya, hand beaten hot chocolate, sweet rolls in fresh double-clotted cream, and eggs poached in a spicy turkey stew. As the hours pass, there are pork loin tacos, then small fried battered fish, fresh tortillas, toasted grasshoppers sprinkled with salt and lime, roasted corn on the cob dipped in chili powder, slow cooked cow head, chicken vegetable soup and the omnipresent rice, beans, avocado and salsa.
"We're going to eat and drink and eat and drink and eat and drink!" laughed food writer Betty Fussell, who flew in from New York, leafing through an itinerary that will take busloads of adventurous eaters through five states.
At the helm of this barely containable passel of wandering, sampling, questioning foodies is the ever-serene chef and restaurateur Patricia Quintana, Mexico's official Cuisine Ambassadress, who herds her minions from restaurant to market to museum without raising her voice or dropping her serene smile.
For Quintana, whose work is subsidized by the Mexican government, bringing gastronomical tourism to her country is a labor of love. "Mexico offers innumerable riches for tourism, but beyond the beaches, the archeological sites and the ecotourism, there's the cuisine, which should be known throughout the world, providing magnificent opportunities for visitors," she said.
Quintana's tour is one of many now available to would-be tourists in Mexico. Dozens of culinary guides offer tours that can be as short as an afternoon to several weeks. Prices vary, but are typically around $350 per day including hotel rooms and lots of food. Many tours include cooking lessons, as well. The burgeoning industry was launched last year when Mexico's government began investing in culinary tourism as swine flu and drug cartel violence put a dent in the country's second most lucrative industry.
In addition to subsidizing some culinary tour guides, the government has also launched a series of "culinary routes" in the country. The Thousand Flavors of the Mole route, for example, features Tlaxcala, Puebla and Oaxaca, all cities known for their history, culture and the cooking of the complex Mexican culinary specialty, mole. The routes are mapped out, with key stops identified on the way, along with hotel and restaurant recommendations.
"We know that today, more than ever, to attract tourists and enhance their stays and spending in our country, it is necessary to provide products and services with greater added value and that are differentiated according to the tastes, time and resources of each traveler," said Mexico's tourism director Gloria Guevara.
Promoters hope they get another boost this month when the United Nations is expected to decide on the country's petition to add Mexican's cuisine to UNESCO's list of protected cultural heritage.
And culinary tours incorporate the history, visiting Diego Rivera's murals depicting cocoa bean growers in the National Palace and dining in former home-turned museum of famed composer Jose Alfredo Jimenez, whose dishes were flavored from orange and lemons grown on trees in the garden.
But the focus is on eating. And eating. Days begin as early as 6:30 a.m. (eggs with cactus, sweet rolls with locally grown cinnamon) and can end as late as 1 a.m. (tequila and salty nuts, fresh cheese platters, tropical fruit sorbets) with visits to chili roasters and tequila distilleries, along with convents, museums and castles.
They have private seatings in Mexico's finest restaurants and gather in homes of traditional Mexican women cooking the same dishes their Aztec ancestors prepared.
"To see the foods is wonderful, but to taste so much in just 10 days, it's stupendous," said Jose Luis Curiel, a chemical engineer who teaches cooking in Mexico City.
Food, in Mexico, takes a prominent place in society.
Restaurants are the second largest private employers in the country, with 4.8 million involved in the business.
And life revolves around food here. Mexicans typically eat four meals a day, coffee and a roll at sun up, eggs and meat a few hours later, a heavy afternoon meal that can take a few hours and several courses, and a warm drink with bread or tortillas before bed. And of course there are snacks.
"In Mexico, cooking is like alchemy, like magic, when you see how they combine ancient ingredients to make a mole or a salsa. The more I see, the more I realize I have to learn about our cuisine," said tour-goer Pedro Sanudo.
On day three of the tour, at an exotic food market in Mexico City, food writer Herdis Luke of Hamburg, Germany, snapped photos of rare fruits stacked neatly by the hundreds - spiky tropical rambutans with creamy, honey flesh; lumpy nonis coveted for their nutritious juice; tangy-sweet orange-pulped mameys; blood red pitayas grown on cactus.
"I don't know of any other country with so many tastes," Luke sighed.
If you have a free morning and want an amazing culinary experience of Mexico, or if you’re looking for a weeklong, hands-on lesson in Mexican gastronomy, chef and culinary expert Ruth Alegria offers custom designed tours. These include the Market to Kitchen tour, shopping for ingredients at a local market and then preparing the menu under the guidance of a professional chef who will highlight the cultural origins of the ingredients. She also arranges themed tours — coffee or vanilla, for example — and festival-themed tours including this September’s Enchilada Fair.
Price: Varies depending on tour
Information: www.mexicosoulandessence.com SAN MIGUEL ALLENDE
The weeklong tours are based out of a private villa, with day trips, cooking classes, demonstrations and artisan tours. It offers a tour to meet ceramic and silver artists, and a tour to learn how to make chilies rellenos by preparing traditional cheese-stuffed Poblano peppers, as well as chilies en nogada and ancho chilies stuffed with refried beans.
Next tour: October 30-November 6, 2010
Price: $1,950 per person, based on double occupancy
“We’ll taste everything,” says Nancy Zaslavsky, who leads weeklong tours to different regions of Mexico. This fall she’ll take 10 people to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead Festivities, where visitors will taste Oaxaca’s famous moles, Mexican hot chocolate, delectable and unusual tamales, tortillas, along with what she says is “the most comprehensive selection of chilies in the world.”
Next tour: Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, 2010
Price: $2,200 per person, based on double occupancy
Betsy McNair thinks her “Monarchs and La Maestra” tour in March just might be the perfect tour. “I enjoy the heck out of every tour I do to Mexico, but this one may be my all-time favorite because it includes time with two of the most impressive forces of nature I know: Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy and the yearly migration of thousands of monarch butterflies. The state of Michoacán provides a verdant backdrop to our trek from the elegant city of Morelia to the pine forested home of the monarchs to the small folk art villages near Lake Patzcuaro. We experience the culinary wonders of central Mexico all along the way, but I have to say, the high point is our time spent with the one and only (Diana Kennedy), shopping, cooking and enjoying meals in her home.”
Next tour: March 4 to 13, 2011
Price: $2,500 per person, double occupancy