Mole in the Mountains

Mole in the Mountains, A gastronomic adventure in Xalapa, Mexico by Mick Vann

I’m sitting in a restored 18th-century house in a Mexican mountain village, about to have one of the best lunches of my life. I taste my first bite of picaditas, grilled cornmeal tortillas with raised edges that cradle black bean paste topped with pungent Cotija cheese and two salsas. They’re followed by whole black beans in a rich, herbal broth studded with little cornmeal dumplings. Then a mixed grill: moist, thinly sliced beef, cactus and onion, juicy paprika-laden sausage, chile-marinated chicken, and more picaditas topped with mole sauce. There are also two kinds of chiles rellenos, and a juice made from zarzaparrillas, tart, red berries that taste like hibiscus flowers.

You can’t get Mexican food like this in the States. In fact, you can’t get Mexican food like this in most of Mexico.

I’m in the town of Xico, part of the Sierra Madre Oriental range in Veracruz—the name of both a state on Mexico’s east coast and that state’s largest city. Thanks to centuries of trade through the Veracruz port, the area has some of the most original cuisine in the country—a mix of Afro-Cuban, Mediterranean, and indigenous preparations and ingredients. You’ll find dishes that contain saffron, almonds, capers, and olive oil. There are locally made European-style cheeses and air-cured Serrano hams and sausages. Salsas transcend the norm—some containing mayonnaise or nuts, more like a romesco sauce. Coffee, chocolate, and vanilla are all cultivated in the region. And you’ll find as much tropical fruit as you could wish for.

Best of all, this food paradise is largely undiscovered by American tourists.

My home base for exploring the area is the capital city of Xalapa (or Jalapa), a misty mountain town known as the “Athens of Veracruz.” It’s an enclave of writers, artists, college students, and musicians, with Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and cobblestone streets. At night you can hear top-notch live music, by day visit great museums, and eat, eat, eat. Nearby mountains and forests are gorgeous for hiking and picnicking. Remember the Michael Douglas–Kathleen Turner movie Romancing the Stone? It was filmed here.

At press time, Xalapa (pronounced ha-LAP-a) hadn’t been written about extensively by any major American guidebook (not even Lonely Planet)! But using our guide, you’ll discover the best restaurants, bars, and cultural picks. You’ll also find recommendations for lodging in gorgeous old Spanish mansions (reasonably priced), and ideas for side trips and things to try and buy. A beach vacation à la Cancun this is not. But for an adventure both cultural and gastronomic, read on.

Jon M. “Mick” Vann is a retired professional chef who has been specializing in international cuisine for more than 30 years. He has been a food writer for the Austin Chronicle for nine years, and coauthored a cookbook on international appetizers with Art Meyer titled The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites. Vann also owns Atlas Culinary Adventures, a company conducting domestic and foreign culinary tours.