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BLENDING CULTURES - A GOURMET INCLUSIVE EXPERIENCE IN MEXICO
 
(2014 - Spring Issue)

Writer: GERRY SHIKATANI



It’s my third morning here on the Riviera Maya, just south of Cancun.

My spirit’s humming along to the background music. “Juan Gabriel,” answers my waiter Hugo when I ask the singer’s name. He sets down my huevos montuleños—a typical Yucatan breakfast. “He has a casita around here,” he reveals about Gabriel, a legend of Mexican pop.

Glass walls on three sides look out on palms, cacti and scarlet blooms, sunlight filtering through, while a fountain brightly splashes in the centre of Rincon Mexicano restaurant. My fried eggs cradle diced ham and peppers, plaintain and fresh cheese on a chewy fried corn tortilla. Refried beans, raw tomato and midget new potatoes on orange-hued tomato purée add vibrant style, fabulous flavours.

But Mexico’s cuisine is not really the food that’s brought me to El Dorado Casitas Royale spa resort. I’ve come for the inaugural week of the Canadian Beef Culinary Series, offered in the Gourmet Inclusive Experienceat El Dorado and sister property Generation Resorts. Organized by Canada Beef with co-sponsor Air Canada, it will pair Canadian beef with wines from Jackson Family Wines during 2014. The second week of each month brings a celebrated chef selected from across Canada to headline a week of beef events. This week it’s Chef Louis Charest of Rideau Hall and co-owner of two Ottawa restaurants setting the direction with Dana Aguero, international marketing manager of Jackson Family. Paul Rogalsky (Calgary) and Mark Filatow (Kelowna) are other chefs scheduled.

A Stunning Retreat

El Dorado is just one of the premier all-inclusive spa resorts and hotels, both family and adults-only, operated by Karisma Hotels and Resorts in a breathtaking coastal region rich in Mayan history. Built on an expanse of tropical jungle along a lengthy stretch of unspoiled white sand beach, it’s all lush green and turquoise sea. More than two thousand cenotes(deep limestone pools) are found only here in the world and Tulum, an hour’s drive away, is themonumental Mayan site on Mexico’s coast.

Each morning I’ve woken beneath the high ceiling and palm-thatchedpalaparoof of my casita to luxuriate in my Aguas del Amorroofless outdoor shower. My room comes with aromatherapy, an ocean-view Jacuzzi and personal concierge service from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Right outside the suite is a four-foot-deep stream pool that winds throughout El Dorado, passing by several swimming pools—many with swim-up bars.

A short walk nearby, the beautiful Nâay Spa has treatments that include indigenous Mexican ingredients and a hydrotherapy water journey to soothe and relax. But my Canadian winter stress dissolved promptly at check-in, a smiling face welcoming me. The mainly local staff (many are Maya), from drivers of the carts that shuttle guests across the resort, to the food and beverage staff, are fast and utterly professional, with “hola” and a gentle smile at every turn.

A Culinary Showcase

Karisma initiated its focus on gastronomy in 2004 and set it apart in the all-inclusive spa holiday. Managing chefs, experienced in international Michelin-starred restaurants of culinary superstars such as Ferran Adrià and Paul Bocuse, oversee a highly-trained almost entirely Mexicanand localstaff producing live cooking performances, tastings, classes, and wine-focused fine dining with sommeliers and wine stewards.

All-inclusive doesn’t mean buffetat El Dorado. There is full á la carte dining at nine restaurants—Caribbean, Pacific Rim, Mediterranean, sophisticated contemporary Italian—and the first-rate food ofRincon Mexicano with its Yucatan leanings.

“A modern take on Mexican cuisine,” says Eric Peters, El Dorado Royale’s Executive Chef, elaborating on how international guest chefs invited to Fuentes Culinary Theatre bring “a great opportunity to showcase not only classics but modern cuisine and creative new ideas.”

That’s exemplified by Karisma’s progressive green and sustainable culinary philosophy. As well, guests with special diet requests are tracked by name and room number by all chefs and service staff throughout their stay. A fantastic 9,000-square-metre greenhouse at El Dorado supplies just-picked fresh herbs and produce daily. It’s been clear wherever I’ve eaten here.

Last year, the monthly Jackson Family Wines Culinary Seriesdebuted and this year the Canadian Beef Culinary Serieshas added another feature to the winery’s partnership at El Dorado. Every evening during the week there are events pairing the beef with specially selected wines.

“I was looking at what Canada and Mexico offer, and the culture of Mexican cuisine—a much richer culture than Canada. . .and put together a menu,” says Chef Charest whose ingredient-driven global approach guests can apply back home.

His creations, elegantly uncluttered, belie complex flavour marriages. The extra challenge to showcase a portfolio with superb reds andwhites through an all-beef menu is impeccably met by Dana Aguero: carpaccio with aioli with Arrowood Sonoma Valley Chardonnay (vanilla, mineral, acidity), and top sirloin with Mexican achiote spice on vibrant orange-red sauce derived from his sofrito(cooked down vegetables and spices) that brings a pour of 2009 Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir’s red berry, pomegranate and damp forest.

Unusual Pairings

The five-course Gala Dinner on our last evening is fabulous high drama. Under the vaulted ceiling of Fuentes Culinary Theatre enormous flat screens catch live images of Chef Charest working an open kitchen, commentating with Ms. Aguero.

Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc ideally marries to jicama and mango salad siding tartar, dusted with lemon-lime powder; so does the Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon’s cassis, pepper and graphite touch to high Cajun spicing of skirt steak.

A rich earthy Tenuta di Arceno Classico Riserva from their Chianti property is a natural with Charest’s original fourth course. Osso bucco truly salutes Mexico with roasted tomatillo and chocolate seasoning and a tamal that puts Chef Charest in step with the world’s famed vanguard chefs: he integrates huitlacoche (corn fungus). I recently discovered this traditional ingredient of indigenous Mexican cultures at the fabled Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain.

But the second course presents the stiffest challenge: tender, unctuous short ribs on a dark barbecue sauce of peach, honey and complex creole spice. It looks much like an intense red wine sauce—which it isn’t—for what normally would be a hefty main course to be paired with a full-bodied red. My server sets down Ms. Aguero’s unconventional twist, a glass of white—the legendary Freemark Abbey Chardonnay: lively acidity, freshness, just enough oaky vanilla and milky caramel to give a needed but not heavy texture for the dairy-free sauce.

“It’s more of a Burgundian-style Chardonnay,” says Aguero. “We don’t do a secondary malolactic fermentation (common in California). It brings in a lot of those bright fruit flavours.”

It’s an arresting choice.

As the evening winds down, I spot Jason Friesen from Regina. We’d shared a shuttle cart ride two days ago. I wonder. What memories would he take back to Regina?

“The pride of being a Canadian here, enjoying a meal made with Canadian beef but with vegetables grown right here on the resort. How well these chefs bond together, bringing their ideas of what good food is.”

“Karisma. . . it’s very special. . . the extra touches make it special. You’re thinking about your next visit.”

Travel Planner

For more information, visit:

Air Canada Vacations: aircanadavacations.com

Canadian Beef Culinary Series and Karisma’s Gourmet Inclusive Experience: karismahotels.com/gourmetinclusive/culinaryseries

Riviera Maya: rivieramaya.com

 
 
 
 
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