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True Love: Tasting Mexico's Rivieria Maya

By Candace Dempsey, author of Murder in Italy, the true story of Amanda Knox

Ever since I read the best-selling novel,  Like Water For Chocolate, I've known that Mexican cuisine, real Mexican cuisine, isn't overly spicy, fattening, or unhealthy. Relying on fresh vegetables instead of meat, it's a luscious blend of local ingredients cooked in ways that are both simple and complex. Chilies and homemade corn tortillas star in this show, not to mention superb chocolate, avocado and lime. The dishes reflect many influences: Mayan culture, Italian immigrants, Spanish conquerers and the ingenuity of the Mexican people themselves, turning what's readily available into a feast.

I've dreamed of tasting authentic Mexico cuisine for years--at its source. So I couldn't wait to fly to the Yucatan Peninsula for the deluxe Cancun-Rivieria Maya Food & Wine Festival. We sampled delicacies for four days, catching many of the 30 culinary events, from wine and mescal  tastings to beach parties, cooking demonstrations and talks by famous chefs. We even saw a cook-off featuring Aaron Sanchez from the Food Network's "Chopped" vs. the celebrated chef Mexican Josefina Santacruz who owns restaurants in Mexico City, Acapulco, Washington D.C. (Sorry, Aaron, but her succulent, chia-infused seafood soup edged out your delicious risotto.).

White sands, blue water: Maroma Resort on Riviera Maya, Yucatan Peninsula. 
"This is the food of the streets, of your mother's kitchen, of the best restaurants," said Chef Juan Pablo Loza at Orient Express's elegant Maroma Resort & Spa, where we dined under the stars one night, enjoying a six-course meal of Mayan dishes cooked over a fire, with Mayan dancers all around us. Tom Cruise and Michelle Williams had been previous guests, drawn to the private spas and secluded beach. Riviera Maya has many other luxury, all-inclusive resorts and is a popular choice for destination weddings. Not far from the airport in Cancun, it offers great food, Mayan ruins and the whitest, most powdery beaches this side of Waikiki.

At the Maroma resort, I  enjoyed my first authentic Tamal (what we call a tamale--essentially a corn wrapper--in this case stuffed with earthy wild mushrooms, with a poblano chili sauce at the bottom of the dish) . I never tired of the blue surf on the white sand beach--not to mention the "arrival drink"--a soothing, pick-me-up made with XtabentĂșn (Mayan anise liqueur), rum, honey and lime, served in a glass with a salted rim.

Billed as "the only authentic culinary tour in the Riviera Maya," this big-time festival counts American Express among its sponsors and attracts foodies from all over the Americas. Local chefs swarmed around Mexican superstar chef Enrique Olvera, known as "world's most influential Mexican chef." The creator of Mexico City's Restaurante Pujol, he's opening a new restaurant soon on Playa's La Quinta Maya shopping strip, known to English speakers as "Fifth Avenue." Rumor says he's also eyeing New York. 

An even bigger draw was Italy's Massimo Bottura (seen above with fans). You don't want to know how hard it is to get a reservation at his world-famous Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, Italy. Yet he was charming, friendly and down to earth, eager to share cooking secrets, pointing out how important it is for chefs to meet and influence each other by tasting, tasting, tasting.

 "I don't like to travel," he insisted at a press conference, gesturing like a windmill. "I don't need to leave Italy, no. So I get this call. They ask me to come to Mexico, I say no. But they tell me, they love you in Mexico and then I say, okay, I come."

Many events kicked off at all-inclusive resort El Dorado Royale, where we had spacious rooms just steps from the ocean. It has its own gourmet restaurants, caters many destination weddings and is within an easy drive of Mayan attractions and shopping in Playa del Carmen, the main town.

Over the four days, I tasted everything from hot-off-the-press tortillas to enchiladas stuffed with potatoes and leeks, served in a yellow mole sauce. Gnocchi made with a Mexican pesto, with ground chia leaves instead of basil. Authentic chili rellenos (stuffed roasted poblano peppers, light and juicy, unlike the U.S. version), steamed shellfish, clams, shredded deer meat and even crunchy deep-fried grasshoppers and salted ants (the better to enjoy shots of mescal). In Mexico, wine is paired with the spices, not with the protein, we learned. So it's perfectly okay to drink red with fish and white with meat. We had fun, breaking all the U.S. rules.

One night, to introduce us to the wonders of Mexican beer, the super-luxe Fairmont Hotel treated us to a six-course tasting menu. Who knew beer can be paired with food, just like wine, and is just as complex and adaptable?

Hard to say which bite was the best, but I still dream of this succulent little turkey number from Oaxaca (in bowl at right). Doesn't it look like a bird's nest? I found it at the Oaxaca table at the very first event, deep within the nature reserve Xcaret. In a big room open to the sky, with gardens all around, every region had its own tempting table. This beautiful dish is made with turkey, simmered in a dark chile sauce that turns the meat almost purple. The cook shreds the turkey and spreads it over a just-made tortilla with a quail egg on top and a squeeze of lime.

Isn't that a dainty dish to set before a king?

Photos by Candace Dempsey. Beach photo courtesy of Maroma Resort.  
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