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Mike RobinsonMy friend Scott loves to organize vacation activities that go on beyond the call of normal vacation duty.

This now entails full-time planning for three couples who gather once per year, sometime between the Dia de Meurtos (Nov. 2) and the end of February in the old colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato. It’s about 350 kilometres north and slightly west of Mexico City.

Each year, Scott cases the rental market, books a magnificent casa to house us all, and then starts the day-by-day planning. Typically, the routine is heavily focused on walking to places of history and local Los Indios Mexica culture, coupled with opportunities for learning by doing. These opportunities have previously included Spanish classes, attending the Plaza de Toros (not to fight the bulls, but to participate in the machismo spirit), and for the past two years, cooking with Paco.

Paco Cardenas is a 40-something San Miguel restaurateur who owns and operates the successful El Petit Four Mexican Restaurant. In his spare time, he teaches cooking classes from his home.

These classes easily consume four hours of afternoon time, and may start with a visit to the San Miguel whole foods mercado, to discuss vegetables, fruits and meat cuts with stall owners and suppliers. Suitably weighed down with bags of ingredients, we make our way to his magnificent outdoor kitchen in a nearby neighbourhood, and get to work.

When I say outdoor, I am trying to convey the ambience of an indoor kitchen space missing its exterior wall, opening freely onto a walled-and-gravelled garden patio. It has an expansive glass dining table, and also contains a marble counter for food preparation that accommodates six students on stools, and, opposite them, standing and moving throughout, Paco.

In teaching mode, Paco is highly energetic, effortlessly bilingual, animated, funny, definitive, consummately organized, and aided by three women who do the preparation.

His team dresses in chef’s whites, with black slacks and shoes, and all are constantly “in the cooking zona.” This year’s class featured the ideal Mexican comida (mid-day meal), with Sopa de Cilantro, Empanadas de Camaron (shrimp), Filetes de Huachinango (Red Snapper) a la Veracruzana, and Suave Pastel de Chocolate Mexicano y Frambuesas (Soft Mexican Chocolate and Raspberries Cake).

We started with the cake preparation. In flying form, Paco described a “cake dense like a brownie, combining 70 percent Mexican bittersweet chocolate, unsalted butter, magnificent almond flour, eggs added one at a time, and six ounces of fresh raspberries.”

After 30 minutes of baking, it is cooled on a rack, and chilled “in the refrigerator for two hours to make it easy to unmold.”

The baking, chilling and unmolding process takes time, and that is why it is prepared first, even though it will be eaten last.

Suave Pastel complete, Paco charged on with the Sopa, Empanades, and Filetes. The soup is the most intuitive component of the meal, and relies on a healthy mound of cauliflower.

The shrimp recipe is drawn from Diana Kennedy’s cookbook My Mexico, and is highly participatory as it involves making tortillas in the wooden tortilla press. As always, Paco leads the way with an artful demonstration, and then invites followers.

Scott is ready for the challenge and effortlessly follows the master. Some of the rest of us still struggle with the many steps, and especially the (non) mastery of dropping the filled and folded tortilla in the hot oil.

The fillets are carefully rubbed with a mixture of olive oil, lime juice and sea salt, prior to frying for just a few minutes (“without browning”). Baking follows, “for about 12 minutes or just until the fish is opaque.”

As the preparation draws to a close, the garden table beckons. Three wines (rose, white and red) are described and poured, the trainee chefs pull up their chairs, and the Sopa de Cilantro is served by the wait staff. We are now engaged in rounds of humorous conversation, surrounded by a magnificent comida, and best of all – Paco dines with us. He digs in with enjoyment.

I ask him how he stays so fit, given his daily temptations? He answers simply: “I eat no fast or processed food. Every meal is fresh. I am constantly walking to the mercado, and I think about what I eat.”

That is the best lesson of the day.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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