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MAREA is a Paris, Venice and New York-based design and storytelling studio. A collaborative practice operating through digital, physical, and conceptual formats relevant to today’s dynamically shifting media landscape.
MAREA works for a wide range of clients including travel and hospitality entities, food & wine brands, culinary specialists, and editorial publications worldwide.
Darkly aromatic smoke billows from a rack of prized chilhuacle chiles slowly roasting over hot coals, but Jorge “Moles” Léon doesn’t cough; he was practically raised on these pungent fumes. Léon earned the nickname “Moles” when Enrique Olvera (chef and owner of perennial “World’s Top 50” restaurant, Pujol, in Mexico City) decided his cooking needed to return to the roots of Mexican cuisine. Olvera turned to Oaxaca, to the incredibly labor-intensive dish, mole, to thousands of years of culinary knowledge humbly held in the hands of Jorge, master of moles, and our host for a remarkable tour of the Oaxacan region.
Oaxaca, free and sovereign state of seven* moles (*the true number is well into the hundreds), has a cuisine whose backstory could make even Paris or Emilia-Romagna blush. Although lacking in an ur-text with the stature of an Escoffier or Artusi,
there is an incredibly rich oral history of recipes in the Oaxacan region that stretches back millennia, often passed down from mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters.
We spent a few weeks traveling, learning, and eating through this bounteous Mexican state, starting in the capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez and then meandering outwards to less-visited villages nestled away in the rugged hills of the Central Valleys region.
Barn. Blood. Brick. Cinnabar. And—por supuesto—chile. An array of reds shading ominously towards black at their darkest hue; an array of deliriously wrinkled peppers drying on rack after rack under the unerring Oaxacan sun. Chile peppers are practically their own food group throughout the entirety of Mexico, of course, but the chiles of Oaxaca are placed on an even higher pedestal. Pasilla chiles grow throughout the country but the Oaxacan pasilla, the pasilla Mixe, is particularly prized. Six to eight inches in length and difficult to obtain outside of the Central Valleys region,
the pasilla Mixe encompasses a complex, earthy and downright intoxicating range of flavors that can call to mind a good bottle of Left Bank Bordeaux.
The furrows of an old woman’s face and hands, turned nearly to leather by that same sun, creased with years of accumulated wisdom; hands that can turn a shapeless orb of nixtamalized corn into something approaching a religion.
Nixtamalization, an exotic term with more than a whiff of modernity, is actually a method for treating corn that has changed very little from when the Mayans invented it over three thousand years ago. Untreated, corn turns into an unappealing mush when ground and mixed with water but, through an almost magical chemical process, the addition of calcinated limestone or seashells allows corn to be transformed into tortillas, tamales, or empanadas. This is alchemy of the most delicious variety.
In a land shaped by the seemingly conflicting forces of rich biodiversity yet widespread poverty, Oaxacans learned over time to utilize insects, tree bark, and obscure wild greens like chepíl, guias and huauzontles (herbs, vines, and “weeds”) in everyday cooking: all elements that you’d be unlikely to find on the dinner table somewhere richer in capital or poorer in natural reserves. A historical lack of large domesticated livestock in the region gave rise to an understanding of wild turkeys, iguanas, grasshoppers, and—in coastal regions—dried shrimp as key sources of protein.
A people whose remarkable resourcefulness has been enforced by their natural environment; a place that’s home to a surprising spectrum of edible ingredients, none of them overlooked; a history that honors traditions and techniques dating back to the Mayans: this is Oaxaca.
A spiderweb of valleys slicing through three intersecting mountain ranges;
fog-choked villages tucked away in the folds of the hills, hidden from all but the most curious gaze; clouds of steam rising from clay ovens like some shaman’s rite; wood fires tended by women whose wizened membranes could tell a thousand tales.
Over dinner, I ask Jorge about his favorite restaurants and market stands in Oaxaca. He struggles to answer for a moment, then explains:
“For a Oaxacan, his favorite food is his mother’s. It's what you grow up with, what you are used to. Little hot tortillas when you wake up, quesadillas with yellow [mole], her moles.”
Conception by Micah Fredman
Creative Direction by Daniel Lober
Produced by Marea
Shot and Directed by Filipe Zapelini
Video editing by Filipe Zapelini
Photography by Daniel Lober
Words by Alex Masulis and Micah Fredman
Art Direction and Graphic Design by Paul Gacon
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All images (c) MAREA 2021