There are 8 maestras cocineras (master cooks) in Michoacán, a title and honor given to traditional female cooks who are preserving and promoting the state’s ancestral cuisine. Victoria Gonzalez Chavez is one of them, and her restaurant in Patzcuaro specializes in dishes from the Tierra Caliente of Michoacán. When we arrived to the restaurant— a late 1700s building with tall white walls and uneven dark wood floors— Victoria was in all white with a necklace made of purple corn. As if demonstrating her mastery, she emerged from the kitchen after cooking our whole meal without getting a single splotch of salsa on her.
“I started cooking when I was five. When planting corn my uncles would give us each a plot of land. We would watch the plants grow, every eight days going to check on our corn. The squah and the beans, the watermelon and the melon were all there too. When the corn was finally ready our moms would prepare it to make uchepos and corundas. Most of the corn leaves aren’t good for corundas, only one or two from each corn are usable. This is how they taught us about all the work that goes into having food. They would make corundas while we would watch, and that’s how my mom showed me how to put love into food.”
At the restaurant there’s an open kitchen where women in embroidered orange and pink blouses make the tortillas. The masa is made there, an increasingly rare in thing in Mexico, but as I learned eating my way through the area for ten days, apparently not for Michoacán.
We asked Victoria to bring us dishes most typical from her hometown, Apatzingán. Bring us the dishes you would make for your friends, we said. “Even better, I’ll bring dishes that I would make for myself!” She said jokingly.
While many of the staple foods around Lake Patzcuaro reflect local fishing traditions, Apatzingán is hunting country: badger, deer, wild pig and iguana are some of the more commonly used meats.
Maestras cocineras, according to Victoria, are responsible for educating people about Michoacán’s gastronomy. “It’s a commitment to introduce our dishes to the world and rescue ancestral recipes,” she said. Two of her four daughters are also cooking and her husband is wealth of knowledge as well and was always nearby our table narrating the history of a dish or ingredient as it was presented.
“My mom used to tell me that the day when it seems all doors have closed on you, with just a comal you can survive,” she said. “And when that did happen, I followed her instructions and started selling pollo barbacoa on the street. It sold a bunch and that was the start of my career.”
Our meal began with three types of mezcal from Michoacán, cupreata from Uasisi our favorite. Here they serve it with oranges covered in chamoy and salt. The agua of the day was a combination of papaya, watermelon and mango.
Caldo Muchachero: A tomato broth soup with vegetables, shrimp, crawfish and iguana. The bones and heads poked out of the bowl, and Victoria lightly shamed me for not cleaning all the meat off my iguana. “We would sit around for parties and each one of us eat up to seven iguanas, they have so little meat!”
Morisqueta: White rice typically served with a salsa of crema, queso, and rajas. We had it with small pinto beans and beef stewed in adobo. It’s homey, wet like risotto, with a rich broth. Morisqueta’s origins are thanks in part to an Italian who in the 1840s came to the area and started a rice field, and for a meal workers were fed a risotto-like plate of rice and indigenous salsas.
Frito de Puerco: tender pork in deep red salsa, typically made with a wild boar (called jabali). The salsa was mild, perfect with a pop of the table mango salsa. Many of Michoacan’s more tropical agricultural crops, like mango and limes, come from the Tierra Caliente.
Enchiladas: Tortillas cradling sweet, caramelized onions in a sugary tomato sauce and a generous portion of cecina on the side.
Dishes here are heavy, so you probably don’t need as many as we had.
Before you leave, ask Victoria or her husband to show you the “Apatzingán room” a dining room up front that has photos, artesanía, and traditional clothing (including an epic leather trench coat) hanging on the wall
Arciga 18, near the Basilica