Part of the magnetism of San Miguel de Allende is that it harkens back to a slower, simpler time—one rooted in tradition. It was only fitting, then, that sunny day two in the city offered me the opportunity to harvest crops and cook with Executive Chef Carlos Hannon of luxury hotel Rosewood San Miguel de Allende. Together, we embarked on a journey to Rancho La Trinidad, an organic farm. I was inspired to learn that Rosewood has its own plot at La Trinidad and that the staff harvests their own organic vegetables for all of the hotel dining experiences.
So, in my highly-inappropriate-for-farming yellow dress and crimson lip, (I wanted to match the city, you see), we set out on our journey. The first stop was for me to meet Carl Jankay, the owner of the farm. Carl is an American who used to work for a famous-brand soup company, helping with their vegetable production. But he, like so many, decided to give up his corporate gig in search of a less complicated life. He crossed the border to become a farmer. He sought to live more slowly, and while he perhaps ended up doing harder work, the moral of the story here is that he is without a doubt happier. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
As chef Carlos and I walked through the rows and rows of fresh produce, we crafted our menu. Leading the charge was whatever was ripe and ready to be plucked from the earth. So, dress and all, I went to work yanking out gargantuan beets and gently snipping pea flowers for our salad. We fetched corn, clipped cherry tomatoes on the vine to be used in a confit for our fish, and helped ourselves to Technicolor rainbow chard. I should add, we weren’t alone in the fields while gathering ingredients. We were accompanied by the cutest mule. Sadly, I didn’t catch his name, but he was so steadfast, plowing the soil with a heavy block of wood chained to his back. No heavy machinery is used on this farmland, just age-old farming techniques. Carl joked that he had a two-horsepower tractor…a horse and a mule!
Once chef Carlos and I had our ingredients, onward we went. We made our way back to the hotel, to the outdoor restaurant Los Pirules Artisan Kitchen and Garden Bar, an absolutely breathtaking location. Tucked away at the back of the property, it was surrounded by lavender fields and an abundant herb garden. The traditional open-air kitchen was adorned with all the classic Mexican trappings: exposed stone, a wood-burning oven, a flat for cooking tortillas, and hand-glazed tiles.
What I did not realize until we began cooking was that this authentic Mexican kitchen, located right on the hotel property, was exclusively used as a cooking school. Any guest, in a group of up to 12 people, has the opportunity to create traditional dishes like guacamole, salsa molcajete (a classic roasted tomato sauce), ensalada de nopales (grilled cactus salad), pescado a la talla (a wood mesquite oven-roasted fish), and tortilla a mano, handmade tortillas here. The experience learning in this kitchen just might have been the highlight of my entire trip. Chef Carlos was warm and gentle in his teaching methods. We laughed, we tasted, we salted and limed, and we tasted some more. We had a few mescals, and I learned a little Spanish to boot. After we farmed, cooked, and cocktailed, we made our way to a long communal table to feast on the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor. From my introduction to the fields to seeing where the ingredients were grown to the food and laughter, it was an exceptional afternoon. Sometimes old ways really are the best ways.
What We Cooked
Here is a guided list of the dishes I created with chef Carlos at Los Pirules Artisan Kitchen and Garden Bar.
Salsa Molcajete. Basically, we roasted the tomatoes, garlic, white onion, and serrano chili pepper. Then we mashed the garlic, then the onion, then the serrano chili pepper, and the tomato on the lava volcanic stone (the big bowl, in Spanish means Molcajete). Next, we added chopped cilantro and seasoned it with salt and black pepper.
Ensalada de Nopales (cactus salad). We mixed grilled cactus, julienned plum tomato, sliced red onion, and chopped cilantro together along with queso fresco (Mexican fresh cheese). Finally, we seasoned with lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and black pepper.
Guacamole. Here’s the simple ingredients: avocados, plum tomato, white onion, cilantro, lime juice, serrano chili pepper (optional), lemon juice, salt, and black pepper.
Tortilla a Mano. Handmade tortillas, which, by the way, are amazing!
Acelgas Salteadas. We chopped the colorful Swiss chard. Then in a pan, we heated the olive oil and added chopped red onion and garlic, followed by the Swiss chard along with the oyster mushrooms. Next, we added white wine and sautéed until the Swiss chard was cooked. Finally, we seasoned it with salt and black pepper.
Ensalada de Betabel Organico (organic baby beet salad). We roasted baby organic beets with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Next, we added organic lettuce and the roasted beets and tossed with lavender balsmic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Finally, we placed in a salad bowl and topped with organic pea flowers.
Pescado a la Talla. We marinated fresh sea bass loin in mayonnaise, guajillo chili adobo, white wine, salt, and black pepper and cooked it in the wood mesquite oven. —Athena Calderone