I was just leaving the doctor's office a couple months ago, when my chef friend Terry Paetzold called me. Turns out her son Dean was about to get married and she offered to take him on a culinary tour in Mexico before the wedding, but he was too busy and would I like to come? The tour, leaving in three weeks, was being led by my former Esprit co-woker, Steve Sando, of Rancho Gordo fame and there were only two spots left. What could I say but yes?
Steve has been busy since we both worked in marketing for Eprit in the 80's. He had quite a lively career as a retro hipster DJ Mr. Lucky, when my husband and I last saw him years ago in San Francisco. Since then he experimented with his own, small, organic farm in Napa and found his love for heritage tomatoes and beans caught the attention of neighbor Thomas Keller. Steve found the demand for his produce surpassed his capacity, and looked south of the border to farm communities in Mexico who were looking for export opportunities to help support their families and community.
So began the Rancho-Gordo Xoxoc Project, (pronounced Sho-shoc, a word derived from the prickly pear cactus called Xoconostle). Xoxoc, headed up by the wonder-couple Yunuen Quiroz and Gabriel Garcia, have made a name for themselves making dried fruit snacks from the abundant prickly pears that grow on the local cactus with very little need for water. Having figured out the logistics for importing to the states, it was fairly straight forward for them to help Steve import native dried beans, as opposed to turning their crops over to genetically-modified farm production. The two companies also started eco-tours, bringing foodies, chefs and tourists interested in learning more about the work they are doing.
For then next seven days I was among the guests at Hacienda San Jose el Marquez, a 300-year-old former monastery near the remote village of Nopala in Hidalgo, learning to make traditional Mexican dishes from our amazing extended host family. The light from the high windows and off the courtyard balcony was so beautiful I could not help taking photos throughout the day. Every morning we were greeted by a table set for 16 with fresh fruit, corn tortillas and coffee. We would then be given a lesson in how to prepare various traditional corn tortilla recipes from scratch. Along with making tortillas, tamales, fresh salsas and beans, we tasted flights of tequila and learned a traditional Mexican dance accompanied by a live mariachi band. Sufice to say, we did no go hungry or thirsty!
With support from family and friends, Yunuen and Gabriel have built their small company from the ground up, using native plants, volcanic ash stone work by local builders and solar power, to create their vibrant business. Their delicious, dried cactus pieces are available in a sweet or chile pepper flavor for snacking, or a salty lime flavor to accompany tequila. The addition of adding heritage beans to their product assortment has been so popular, thanks to great promotion and favorable reviews from fans, that Rancho Gordo has trouble keeping them in stock. They are also working on a delicious vinegar from the cactus plant that local chefs have already pre-purchased, the flavor is so unique.
Yunuen and Gabriel met when they were both attending university in Mexico, and started Xoxoc in response to the need for generating income in their community with limited resources. With hard work over the course of a few years, they were just beginning to see hopes for success when a few local residents, envious of their involvement with American exporters, set fire to their new start-up. In this impromptu video I took, Yuyuen explains what happened.
Fortunately the fire did not kill their spirit, and Yunuen and Gabriel, with the support of family and help from employees and friends, have rebuilt the damaged building and continue production of their cactus candies, heritage beans, flavored salts and oregano. They are also supporting local potters and weavers and introduced us to other merchants in their community who we were happy to support with our purchases.
On our last day we toured ancient pyramids, churches and local villages before heading back to Mexico City and finally home. The hospitality we were shown and the unique contributions of every guest made for a very special week that I could not have planned or imagined. I also realized how committed I was to communicate stories of artisans in need of consumers eager to help, and realized the power video can bring to that message, even though mine is rough and unedited. I left my Mexican family with words of thanks along with a few tears and hoped I would be able to return to the hacienda one day.
Until then I have a lot of work to do to finalize my 12 Small Things retail store display and to figure out a way to add video footage of the artisans creating their products. I can't think of a better way to tell their stories then with their own words and actions. The things we learn when we are not expecting, plus, I now know how to make corn tortillas from scratch.
Thank you Terry, Steve and our generous hosts at Hacienda San Jose el Marquez, viva Mexico!