Maru Toledo has dedicated many years of her life to the rescue of Jalisco’s gastronomical and oral traditions.
She is an award-winning field researcher, teacher and author of 22 cookbooks, the most recent of which is a collection of 78 salsas titled “Pica y Sabe, Lástima que se Acabe!” – a Mexican proverb that could be translated as, “Tasty and spicy-strong? Grab some now, it won’t last long!”
In 2011 Toledo founded an organization called Mujeres del Maíz, a group of rural cooks who share their knowledge and techniques with culinary researchers from all around the world. Most recently, Toledo and the Mujeres del Maíz have been inviting the public to brunches with menus varying according to the season and the harvest cycle. These meals are held at their facilities in the village of Teuchiteco, located 60 kilometers due west of Guadalajara, not far from Ahualulco.
I first met Toledo many years ago beneath a thatched roof in the woods, near the Guachimontones archaeological site. She had invited Susy and I to a dinner that would be prepared using pre-Hispanic cooking techniques, which she had learned about both from oral tradition and from the findings of archaeologists with whom she has worked for years. It turned out to be the most unusual meal I have ever eaten.
The first dish on the menu was “Stone Soup.” The ingredients were shrimp, both dried and fresh, onions, chiles, epazote (wormseed), cherry tomatoes and jaltomates, western Mexico’s tiny but strongly flavored wild tomato. These ingredients were mixed into cold water inside a bule, a large bowl made from a gourd. Maru’s helper Godofredo then removed a red-hot basalt rock from the fire and dropped it into the bowl. Instantly, the water was steaming and hissing and the soup was cooking.
Mesquite mushrooms were the main dish of our pre-Hispanic meal. The ingredients were few: mushrooms, a small amount of chile cora, a little salt and some mesquite pods. The cooking procedure, however, was most interesting, and again based on the discovery by archaeologists of how ancient peoples in Mexico cooked wild turkeys.
The mushroom mix was placed upon a banana leaf nearly a meter long and wrapped up to form a package about the size of a small loaf of bread, which was then tied up with tough agave fibers. Next came a curious step. Godofredo placed the “package” next to a large blob of nearly black mud. This, he told us, was clay from a nearby town famous for its pottery. Carefully, he coated every side of the green bundle with a layer of clay about three centimeters thick until it looked exactly like a loaf of German black bread. He now rubbed ashes all over the outside of it and then buried it in the campfire, under hot coals.
In about half an hour the baked mushrooms were ready. When Maru cracked open the now hard casing, the most savory aroma imaginable filled the air.
The drink Maru served us was a mixture of aguamiel (sweet juice from the heart of a living maguey root) and pineapple juice. Yes, pineapples, too, originated on this side of the Atlantic and were probably introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus. The meal ended with a sweet, peanut-based dessert called coscoatl.
Since that unforgettable first meal, I have visited Toledo’s “Smoky School of Gastronomy” on numerous occasions and it has always been a delight. Last time we walked into the kitchen to find Maru´s long-time associate Francisca “Pachita” Flores making tacos de sol, or “sunshine tacos.” She was placing extra-large tortillas on a comal over a roaring fire. The masa was brick brown in color and Pachita explained it had been impregnated with a red chile sauce (and then kneaded on a metate). Once a thick tortilla was ready, Pachita would remove it from the comal and immediately scrape off its entire top layer; this she handed to Toledo who then put a large spoonful of picadillo (ground beef and potato plus spices) on top of it, folded it over and hermetically sealed the taco with mere finger pressure. Next, the tacos went out into the hot sun where they “baked” for an hour.
Finally, the sunshine tacos went into our mouths and I tell you these were the tastiest tacos I have ever eaten. The exterior was crispy, but nevertheless melted in my mouth and it was so delicious it would have been a great treat all by itself, but in this case it was stuffed with amazingly flavorful picadillo. At that moment I felt that the humble taco had been transformed into a gourmet delicacy worthy of Le Cordon Bleu.
Toledo and the Mujeres del Maíz are now hosting brunches, open to the public, on certain Sundays of every month. The next of these is scheduled for November 11 and you will be able to find the menu on the Maru Toledo Facebook page (@marutoledovargas). Past menus have included cortadillo (northern Mexico beer-braised beef) with nopales; “Nothing Tacos” (yogurt cheese, jalapeño and adobera cheese); Granma’s Hotcakes (with cream and cinnamon); Minguiche (a cheese, cream and tomatoes dish from Colima); Rafaelita’s Eggs; and of course, Mujeres del Maíz brand coffee, a special blend of beans from Talpa (Jalisco), Veracruz and Chiapas.
The cost per person is 230 pesos, plus 15 percent. Reservations are obligatory and you can make yours either by calling 331-976-8611 or by sending Toledo a message via her Facebook page. Here you will also find past menus, photos, and information on upcoming brunches.
Driving to the Smoky Kitchen in Teuchiteco is easy and the road is now well paved all the way. Just ask Google Maps to take you to “Maru Toledo.” Driving time is roughly an hour from Guadalajara and two hours from Lake Chapala.