Casa Jacaranda is a culinary experience led by the duo Beto Estua and Jorge Fitz. Not to be missed, it allows visitors and locals alike to experience the beauty of Mexican cooking. From shopping for local produce, to making delicious, traditional Mexican dishes in their beautiful home, cooks at every experience level can enjoy a wonderful afternoon with these two, whose genuine interest is to have others learn, as well as fall in love with, Mexican cuisine. The day ends with a meal on their rooftop garden, with the other foodie enthusiasts that you have met, eating the meal that you’ve all made together and bonded over. If there is one experience that I would recommend when visiting Mexico City, this is it!
“At Casa Jacaranda, amazing things happen,” one guest prophetically proclaimed, raising a glass of the best Paloma I have ever tasted, and I thought to myself, “Isn’t that the truth!” When Mike and I were invited to join a group for a culinary experience, I was not expecting to be completely blown away by the love for food and culture that Beto and Jorge openly exhibit. It makes one fall in love, too.
Part 1: The Market
To begin, we were to meet up with the rest of the group at 10 AM in the morning on the corner of Campecho and Medellin, where the Medellin market now stands. This mercado has been in existence for one hundred and thirty years. Located in Roma Sur, it has historically been known as the market that houses produce from all over Mexico, including items that were not as welcome in the markets in the city center, where Roma Norte now resides. Mexican cuisine is varied and wide-spread, and typically, mercados only wanted to house ingredients specific to that region. The Medellin market has always been of a different variety, welcoming foreign items so that immigrants from other parts of Mexico have a place to grab the things that remind them most of home. Its diversity makes this a great place to start learning about what Mexico has to offer.
Beto and Jorge arrived with a small cart in tow, all smiles. After friendly hellos, hugs, besos, and a few introductions, we went right to it. Everyone in the group was kindly asked if there are any allergies or foods that must be avoided for health reasons. Considering any accommodations that must be made, Beto and Jorge then think of what dishes we are going to cook using the produce that are currently in season. They considered an appetizer, starter, main course, and dessert for our particular group, although they do change it up frequently, so don’t be surprised if your particular meal is differently structured. The sorpresa is part of what makes it so fun. Once the group agreed upon the meal, off we went into the market. Beto took charge of picking up the ingredients we needed, while Jorge gave the group of eager students a tour.
I couldn’t help but feel completely jealous at the availability of the Medellin market to local cuidadanos. The ability to cook with the freshest of the season’s offerings, using ingredients that will never know packaging, is one of the biggest draws of this place for me. Living in a city where I struggle on the daily to avoid plastic packaging when shopping for groceries, this was absolutely an anti-plastic, fresh-loving, local-sourcing cook’s heaven. I could tell straight-away that the feeling was mutual for our two guides. Jorge nimbly maneuvered his way through the narrow aisles, saying hi to his favorite butcher and fishmonger, noting which stalls had his favorite produce, and which did not. With him leading the way, I knew we could not go wrong.
Right when you walk in, the colors of the market reflect what you would see brightly painted on the buildings that make up this beautiful city. Vibrant fruits, vegetables and flowers. Dried peppers overflowing from the baskets, with skins as soft and supple as a beautiful leather, and quite unlike the dried up versions that take days (months?) to be exported to Californian markets. Containers stuffed to the brim with hibiscus flowers, otherwise known as flor de jamaica, from Mexico and Africa. The difference between the two being that the Mexican variety results in less color, but more flavor. We tasted different moles from a family that has been making mole and selling it at that particular market for years. Imagine a sauce so complex, yet you can single out a hint of almond. Or one that seeps of cacao and sesame seed flavor, nutty and bold.
We visited a merchant that has been selling his Yucatan family’s hot sauces since 1968, and tasted his amazing hot sauce poured over salt flakes. I gobbled up my cracker as Jorge joked about the American way of pronouncing ha-ba-ne-ro as “ha-ban-nie-row”. The hot sauce was deliciously sour and spicy all at once, and left a biting sting at the tip of my tongue. We brought home two bottles, and I have been diligently dousing avocado toasts ever since!
We were introduced to a friendly man who makes the best ice cream. Story has it that at some point, 80% of the market’s Yelp reviews were solely about the ice cream stand! Jorge had to take it upon himself to start this man his own Yelp business account. The ice cream was homemade, and there were a variety of seasonal flavors that one could try. We also stopped at a coffee shop and grabbed a shot of coffee, as well as Colombian bombolinos.
But the absolute best stop of all, hands down, was a butcher shop that serves tacos only on Saturdays, and lo and behold, I happened to pick the experience on a Saturday! Fresh carnitas being cut up in front of you using the butcher’s meats, topped with acidic sauces and pickled red onions. That will forever stand in my memory as one of those WOW moments, and if I ever return, I will make sure to come back on a Saturday and to free up my entire afternoon because that is where you will find me. As we exited the market, I felt a piece of my heart being left at that carnita stand.
Part 2: Becoming a Chef
After the market tour, it was a short walk from Roma Sur to Roma Norte, where Casa Jacaranda stands on a wide street, behind a (you guessed it!) jacaranda tree, in full bloom. The purple flowers swayed in the wind, inviting us into their beautiful home, whose walls exhibited multiple art pieces, and which housed a large professional kitchen that makes the perfect setting for a cooking class. Beto had gone ahead of the group after purchasing the ingredients from the market, so that by the time we arrived, all the ingredients have been washed and laid out in perfect proportions for our class.
We all were asked to wash our hands, and then don our aprons. What happened next is a blur of activity. I can’t remember everything that we did, but rather, exactly how it felt. To cut alongside people from other countries who are eager to learn as much as you, to listen to Beto and Jorge’s advice, wisdom, and direction as they share their grandmother’s recipes, to laugh as we joke about technique, or lack thereof, this is what the afternoon was made of. Luckily, Beto and Jorge email the recipes to their guests afterwards, so there is really no pressure to remember much at all, allowing us to sincerely immerse ourselves into the projects at hand. No yoga session has ever had me living in the present moment as thoroughly as this cooking class. It was bliss, enveloped in being attentive, but in a very care-free environment.
Beto and Jorge had us each working on a different task, with watchful eyes and guiding hands, and as a team, we created the dishes that we had decided on. At some point there were three people cutting up tomatoes, and one man on the grill. Two people were responsible of removing chili seeds, and two were responsible for blending the sauces. We had quite the production line with the tortilla making! Two people rolling up balls of dough, three people on tortilla press duty, and one gal at the stove, cooking them as they were being handed down to her. We helped each other prepare ingredients, handed each other things that had to be added to the pot, and taste-tested along the way. We each had a say as to how hot we thought salsas should be, how acidic or spicy or strong. We were creating masterpieces with our own hands, unbeknownst to us at the time. I remember eating the food later in the day and thinking in disbelief, “We made that?!”
Part 3: Sharing a Meal with Friends
As we finished our final additions to the sauces and salsas, Beto started serving us some of the sopes that we had made. Off course, we had the freedom to structure it whatever way we wanted. That left me wanting to pile all the ingredients on one unfortunate sope. I mixed red sauce with green sauce, because who was to say otherwise? It was glorious. I had three sopes (maybe four?) before I told myself to slow down, since this wasn’t even the main event yet!
Luckily, it was then that Jorge brought out a tray of grapefruit Palomas, which I happily allowed to interrupt my ravenous sope-ingesting. As we sipped on grapefruit and tequila laden cups, we laughed and talked about our own stories and lifestyles, about what we like to do, and where we plan to go next. Nothing like a good cocktail to widen the smile and loosen the limbs. We were eagerly refilling our cups for more of that refreshing drink, whose recipe was also shared.
When we’ve all had our fill, we were invited to the rooftop garden, to enjoy our meal in the sun underneath the swaying jacaranda branches. The table was already beautifully set up when we got there.
We were served a bottle of wine to pair with our starter, which was a brightly-colored tortilla soup. I have never had tortilla soup so bold in color, and so rich in flavor. The thick and creamy dish was topped with tortilla chips, chicharrones, cream, fried peppers, avocado, and cheese. If I had a do-over, I would surely double up on the chicharrones!
As we opened another bottle of wine, we were served our adobo meat, served with rice and veggies. In my case, I opted for the pitcher of agua de jamaica instead of the additional glass of wine. I had no reservations about refilling my “water” cup throughout the rest of the meal. Can one substitute eight glasses of water with that lovely floral drink? Please say YES!
I vaguely remember the dried peppers that we seeded so thoroughly to make the adobo sauce. It was absolutely delicious. I shared with the group the fact that we have an adobo in the Philippines too, however the Mexican adobo more closely mirrored what we called Caldereta. We discussed similarities and differences between cultures, and were reminded that we are of one human race, with intertwined and connected histories. Food kind of helps that discovery along.
Lastly, for dessert, I tasted for the very first time a mamey fruit, served with mamey ice cream. I immediately regretted having to return to the States, where I will surely have an incredibly difficult time finding this beautiful fruit. It had the texture of a papaya and was sweet in the subtlest of ways, the way that almonds are sweet, almost fleetingly so. I was one of the two who had unabashedly taken second helpings of the ice cream, seeing as how it will be a while before I may get the chance to eat this again!
And just when I thought I couldn’t do any more, a tray holding two bottles of mezcal and two bottles of tequila were brought up, with the artsiest shot-glasses to hold them in. One of the guests that had joined us from Rothenburg ob der Tauber just recently finished travelling in Columbia. He carried up a chocolate bar made from 100% Cacao from Colombia, to pair with the mezcal. Beto then proceeded to show us a video of him making chocolate by hand from 100% cacao, a process that entails constant grinding of the cacao for seven to eight hours without any breaks! My bread baking obsession looked pretty weak next to that. We also tasted Colombian rum, courtesy of our new friend, with hints of orange and chocolate. We were later joined by Beto’s two dogs, as we basked in the sun during our sobremesa and talked our way into the early hours of the evening.
Unfortunately, good times, too, must come to an end. As the evening drew to a close, I thought to myself that I could not think of a better way to end our Mexico trip than to spend an entire day at Casa Jacaranda. There is no doubt in my mind that we had saved the best for last!
I would highly recommend reserving an entire day for this activity for anyone visiting Mexico City for the first time. Not only will you meet new friends, get a tour of the market, learn to cook, and have an amazing meal, but this is one sure way to take a part of Mexico home with you forever. I know that we will be replicating these recipes for years to come, and will be sharing them with family and friends on our occasional hosted dinners at home. A sincere thanks are in order to Jorge and Beto, for the wonderful experience!
This post is sponsored by Casa Jacaranda. All opinions are my own.