A few minutes outside the city of Playa del Carmen, in the Caribbean coast on Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, the Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort is a haven for food enthusiasts with an ongoing commitment to showcasing Mexican cuisine, culture and traditions. Their latest offering is a cocktail program based on the Maya Zodiac, a mixology festival featuring ancestral local ingredients and spirits from all corners of Mexico.
Grand Velas Riviera Maya bar manager Cecilia Sierra and her team came up with the playful idea to create delicious, visually appealing cocktails that reflect the Maya cosmogony. “Today’s travelers are seeking out new experiences to immerse themselves in the culture of an environment,” says the talented young mixologist. “They are looking for Instagrammable activities, innovative tastings, learning opportunities and presentation of food and beverages in innovative ways, among other things.”
“Our goal at Grand Velas Riviera Maya has always been to break the mold of expected, traditional food and beverage, continuously going outside of the box to create new, exciting experiences for our well-traveled and culinary-driven guests,” says Sierra. “Wherever possible, these are inspired by Mexican history, culture and traditions, which impart a rich sense of place.”
The Grand Velas Riviera Maya is a AAA Five Diamond all-inclusive, named #12 luxury resort in Mexico in TripAdvisor’s 2020 Travelers’ Choice Awards. It’s centerpiece restaurant Cocina De Autor, a concept from famed chefs Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso, was named one of the “100 Best New Food & Drink Experiences” in the entire world by Food & Wine in 2010, and is the only AAA Five Diamond Restaurant in an all-inclusive resort.
Some of the resort’s unique foodcentric experiences have included a gourmet cenote experience that took guests 60 ft. underground for lunch in one of the destination’s relatively undiscovered cenotes. Pre-pandemic, guests could also tour the kitchens of some of the property’s six restaurants and even take cooking classes with their award-winning chefs, which the team hopes to offer again when it’s safe.
“From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to design a program that both preserved and honored the values and traditions of Mexico’s ancestral spirits and gastronomy, which is why I sourced the ingredients for the cocktails from all over the country,” says Sierra.
Sierra received a Bachelors’ degree in Tourism Business Administration from the Universidad Del Valle de México in Tampico, Tamaulipas in 2016. Upon graduation she traveled to the Riviera Maya, where she began her career at Grand Velas Riviera Maya as hostess. Her curiosity, discipline and perseverance led her to further learning in the food and beverage area for a year and a half, during which she found a passion for creating beverages.
Her efforts paid off recently as she achieved her current position as bars supervisor for the entire resort, encouraging her team to offer new experiences for their guests. In 2019, her team launched an ancestral drink tasting featuring bacanora, sotol, tuxca and pox.
“These are relatively unknown Mexican spirits to many travelers, and [the program] was very well received. Guests learned how these [spirits] came about, how they are being reinvented and reintroduced with cocktail recipes. Now, the Maya cocktails are the next iteration.”
The cocktails are inspired by a modern-day zodiac which is loosely based on the 13-month calendar developed by the ancient Maya. Each month is represented by a regional animal, whose characteristics are meant to reflect the personality of the people born under each sign. Sierra and her team chose ingredients and combinations that also mirror these characteristics.
For example Kutz – meaning turkey in Yucatec Maya and interpreted in the zodiac as a peacock – rules those born from November 15 to December 12. Peacocks “have a compelling need to excel; they are unique and must prove it all the time. They love to be the center of attention and climb to the top.”
The showy cocktail combines pox, rose syrup and agave nectar, presented in a martini glass adorned with colorful tropical fruit. Pox, a ceremonial spirit from the highlands of Chiapas, embodies the essence of corn in multiple colors that come together in a smooth and elegant liquid.
Balam, the jaguar, is a strong and mysterious combination of mezcal, coconut water, mint leaves and citrus, served in a clay cantarito frosted with Tajin and adorned with spicy liquor “caviar.” Ma’ax, the monkey, is a playful and tropical combination of raicilla (an agave spirit from Jalisco), Xtabentún, mango and lychee nectars. Xtabentún is a Maya liqueur made from honey from the native flower of the same name, which is a common element in Maya legends that have been passed down generation after generation.
These exotic cocktails are available to all guests at the Sky Bar overlooking the ocean, and will be prominently featured at Chaká, the resort’s Maya cuisine restaurant which is set to reopen soon. In the meantime, here is one you can make at home while you book your flights.
Ma’ax – Monkey
Playful and tropical like it’s namesake, this cocktail will transport you to the Caribbean shores.
1 oz. Xtabentún
1 oz. Raicilla
2 oz. mango nectar
2 oz. lychee nectar
Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Serve in a glass with ice.
Decorate with a skewer of fresh mango, lychee and mint leaves.
“In fact, if you really want to take a deep dive, tequila was birthed out of colonialism because the Spanish-Mexicans owned the land they grew agave on,” Quiñonez explained further. “While mezcal is truly ancestral, because it’s made by the indigenous communities of Mexico, who own their own land and the agaves they cultivate in it.”
It was heady stuff to digest for sure. But it’s no secret that Quiñonez certainly knows much more than the usual spirits professional. And I’m glad she brought up all this historical information, while many others often hesitate to go that far back and shy away from inconvenient facts. In that sense, she’s fearless—talking about heritage, culture, and people without any of the usual marketing jargon. Instead, she used her 20-year career working in the spirits industry—15 of which was spent as a global brand ambassador for Diageo—shedding light and dispensing valuable intel that go way past what’s trending at any given time.
“My romance with agave and Aztec culture began as a teenager in the ’90s while growing up in Eastside San Jose, California—where I enrolled in Mexican and Aztec studies at local colleges to understand the history, language, and mythology,” Quiñonez says. “I’m a first-generation Nicaragüense and I was raised in a diverse and culturally rich community dominated by hard working Mexicanos from Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacán. My first experiences with tequila were mainly during celebratory and joyful occasions: family gatherings, weddings, and holidays. And the brands that resonated with my early years were Chinaco, Siete Leguas, and Tres Magueyes, because they had always represented quality and tradition.”
Today, Quiñones is still in the spirits industry, but she’s made the leap to become her own boss: She’s now the CEO and founder of her own boutique consulting firm, which specializes in global route-to-market strategies—focusing on agave-based beverages, cannabis, and the multi-cultural luxury world at large, where she works only on projects and clients she truly believes in.
“I can proudly say that I’ve had a unique front row seat into the world of tequila, not only within my own career and extensive travels throughout Mexico but through my mother’s as well,” Quiñonez says. “She ignited a new and early passion for the industry—as she was an amazing bartender and cocktail waitress for 25 years. I was learning about tequila, rum, Cognac, and fine Scotches from the age of 14, so my early love for history, culture, and hospitality created the perfect foundation to an illustrious path into the world of fine spirits.”
Here, Quiñonez listed some of her favorite tequilas and mezcals—many of which are not part of the “Big Boys” club she had previously worked with: Beyond that she’s also worked with the the “Big Boys” of tequila—Don Julio, Jose Cuervo, Herradura, Cazadores, and DeLeon. Instead, she wanted to highlight more offbeat distilleries than aren’t going to be in every single big box store or retailer. These picks are more artisanal in nature, and in its own way, truer to the way locals—not Americans—drink.
“The curated list is a tribute to the legacy, art, and craft of the unsung heroes in the industry: the agaveros, los jimadores, tequileros, and mezcaleros. For centuries they have honored a past that connects tradition, the magic of the land, and its people,” Quiñonez emphasizes. “The tequilas and mezcales that I selected are the finest representation of Mexican heritage, in my opinion…not only for their exceptional taste but in the manner with which they’re produced. All use mindful and sustainable cultivations practices. Several continue to use pre-Hispanic milling methods such as the tahona—an art and rarity in the 21st century. There’s the fractional aging of reposado and añejo tequilas; techniques seen in aging fine Sherry wines; and the hand selecting of the most mature agaves to deliver the most remarkable profiles, styles, and flavor combinations. And although Cinco de Mayo is not traditionally celebrated in Mexico, it does represent the most important holiday for tequila and mezcal sales in the United States. I only hope that whatever agave-based spirit that you choose to celebrate with, you appreciate not only its great taste but its unique origins.”
The Best Tequilas and the Best Mezcals for Cinco de Mayo—and Beyond
“El Tequileño Reposado Gran Reserva isa favorite among tequila drinkers, judges, and connoisseurs. El Tequileño, located in the heart of el Valle de Tequila with its 60-year-old tradition and legacy, has created one of the best-tasting reposado tequilas in the market,” Quiñonez says. “This blend of eight-month-old reposados and reserve 18-month añejos create absolute perfection from start to finish. Bold notes of vanilla, nuts, dried fruit and spice. I really enjoy sipping on this with a large cube of ice and great company.”
“This expression comes from an incredible distillery with heritage, using tradition and artisanal methods with five generations of production and history,” Quiñonez says. “‘SS’ is a very special sipping-style blanco at 46% ABV. A must have for any tequila lover, it boasts of beautiful earthy notes combined with bright fruit and cooked ripe agave. I like to sip SS on the rocks or with tonic and a lemon peel.”
“Terroir plays a vital role in tequila production, as it does in most fine spirits and winemaking—and the single estate grown agaves yield some of the sweetest piñas from the highland region,” says Quiñonez. “A wonderful bouquet of herbal, citrus, and floral aromas deliver balance and elegance with every sip. I really enjoy drinking this plata style on the rocks. You’ve got crisp notes of green apple, fresh herbs like basil, and yerba buena and sweet tropical fruit.”
“Cascahuin Tahona Blanco is a true display of harmony, ancestry, and balance,” Quiñonez says. “There are powerful notes of cooked agave, herbal, sweet fruit, and mineral essence. It’s my favorite tequila among the ‘tahona-style’ tequilas for its purity and elegance.”
“I highly recommend that you record the day and time you taste this,” Quiñonez insists. “This is yet another masterpiece from destilería La Tequileña, where only the finest most mature agaves are able to make the cut. Their use of fractional aging, combined with the different styles of barrels used for maturation, such as French Limousin oak, American white oak, and wine casks deliver an exceptional liquid with an even more exceptional finish. Notes of cooked agave, dried fruit, spice and caramel offer a sensational añejo style for any agave connoisseur.”
“This expression, from destilería La Tequileña in the heart of el Valle de Tequila, only utilizes hand-selected estate-grown Highland agaves to produce Don Fulano Blanco, which provides exquisite beauty and elegance. Blanco tequilas—to be properly classified—are typically unaged. So to sample a six-month-aged tequila reinforces the bounty of the land and the maguey. The aging creates more delicate fruit, herb, and spice notes to deliver one of the best tasting blanco tequilas in the market.”
“Fortaleza Blanco is another beauty from NOM 1493. You can pour Fortaleza Blanco in a mixed drink, neat, or on the rocks—and it will not disappoint,” Quiñonez says. “It’s all sophisticated and refined sweet notes—with hints of citrus, butter, and white pepper. Copper pot distilled, alongside the use of the traditional tahona milling method, adds mineral notes—making it a standout tequila for me.”
“This is a true beauty,” Quiñonez says. “This reposado is aged for six to eight months and it’s everything that you would want in a classic ‘valley-style’ reposado. Notes of cooked agave, honey, and vanilla produce depth and body with a silky rich finish. I prefer to sip on this reposado with orange wedges to enhance the spice and honey notes.”
“El Tequileño Reposado Rare is absolutely unique, not only for its aging method—as they blend añejo tequilas that have been aged for over six years in a ‘pipon,’ which is a wooden oak tank that’s able to hold more than 23,000 liters of tequila—but for its depth of flavor and deep finish,” Quiñonez says. “With its elegant notes of dried fruit, ripe pineapple, honey and cooked agave, I recommend using a tequila glass or a champagne flute to truly take in the expression’s bold flavors and luxurious taste.”
“This is the perfect daytime drinking style reposado of the bunch! This reposado is rested for a little over eight weeks in ex-bourbon barrels. It’s got a rich fruit-forward nose with notes of honey cooked agave, tropical fruit, mango, and apricot—the perfect reposado to have neat or in my favorite cocktail, the Paloma.”
“La Gritona reposado is such a special tequila from Distillery NOM 1533, not only for its great taste but for their standout master distiller, Melly Barajas,” Quiñonez says. “Only a small number of female master distillers produce tequila—and an even smaller number have an entirely female production team! La Gritona utilizes nine- to ten-year-old mature agave from the highlands region of Jalisco—so these agaves yield more sugar and tend to be sweeter and more aromatic. This reposado is incredible: so many exploding flavors such as cooked tropical fruit, honey, spice, hints of clove, and aniseed deliver a wonderful reposado style tequila from start to finish.”
“Master distiller Felipe Camarena has created such a refined, elegantly crafted, rich sipping style añejo,” says Quiñonez. “It’s incredibly expressive on the nose with hints of cooked pear, apple, vanilla, cinnamon, and clove spice. It’s a stunning representation of flavor, complexity, and harmony—with elegant hints of oak, honey cooked fruit, and spice on the palate. Certainly one of my favorite añejos on the market.”
“This is the perfect dessert-style reposado, to sip neat or with a large cube of ice,” says Quiñonez. “It has a velvety feel with notes of chocolate vanilla, cinnamon, and butterscotch with complex spices such as chile de arbol and clove. Expressive from nose to finish. The pretty bottles make for interesting conversation as well.”
“I absolutely enjoy the bold earthy, smoky, and herbal notes that this reposado delivers. The honey and white pepper notes carry forward along with hints of fresh cut herb, wood, and citrus peel—creating a rich long dry finish,” says Quiñonez. “I recommend pairing this with oysters or ceviche, on the rocks or in a long drink.”
“Such a great classic añejo style from the incredible state of Guanajuato. This añejo is aged for 12 months in oak barrels, is bottled at 38% ABV, and delivers bold flavors of charred wood, herbs, nuts, and sweet piloncillo. Such rustic classic flavors from beginning to end.”
“Founded in 1873, the Santa Rita factory has been producing tequila for 15 generations,” says Quiñonez. “This jewel of a blanco offers complexity, harmony, and depth. It delivers a range of rich flavors—from wild honey, cooked agave, fresh cut grass, tropical fruit, citrus, and smoke. As a higher-proof blanco at 45% ABV, it creates a long rich finish, one of the best tasting blanco tequilas on the market!”
“I absolutely love this añejo: so expressive on the nose with notes of bourbon, butterscotch, dried fruit, figs, and raisins,” says Quiñonez. “Beautifully rich on the palate with a silky finish. I recommend enjoying this añejo with a dessert or cigar pairing.”
“This expression is the perfect link to bridge the old world to the new. This joven mezcal delivers a well-rounded body and a sophisticated finish,” Quiñonez says. “The floral hints of cooked fruit, smoke, and spice create the ideal introduction to a traditional-style mezcal made in the fashion of tequila. Produced in the small village of Huitzila, Zacatecas, near the Valley of Tequila, master distiller Jaime Bañuelos continues the tradition of pre-hispanic artisanal production methods, while maintaining complexity and balance with every sip.”
“What an incredible treat to have gotten my hands on this beauty,” says Quiñonez. “San Bartolo is produced in the gorgeous village of Yautepec by award-winning mezcalero Valentín Martínez López, who was recently recognized by the CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal) for his historic 50-year contribution to the production of mezcal! So much harmony and balance: a fine blend of floral, citrus, and tropical fruit notes such as pineapple and mango—with light pepper and smoke flavors that deliver a refined and elevated liquid. This made me smile from ear to ear. A wonderfully refined representation of the category.”
“Tosba mezcal from the remote village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in Oaxaca embodies passion, heritage, and an outstanding commitment to community and the land,” Quiñonez says. “Bold and expressive, its earthy, herbal, vegetal, and smoky notes deliver an outstanding full body and perfectly balanced espadín mezcal. I recommend sampling this neat in a Champagne flute to truly appreciate its rich complexity and elegance.”
“This expression is made with wild agave that naturally grows in the high plateau of San Luis Potosí. From the village of Charcas, the mezcal cultivated in the desert delivers a more sweet, floral, and herbaceous mezcal—unlike in any other place in Mexico,” Quiñonez says. “Maestro mezcalero Manuel Perez showcases the expression’s beauty, balance, and intensity by foraging for dry salmiana leaves and quiotes to use as fuel during the cooking process.”
Like so many people, Paris is my favorite city to visit. When I was in college, I studied for a year in Paris and some of my favorite things to do are things you do when you live someplace—including taking classes. I’ve taken classes on perfume making and open-air painting and cooking classes, of course.
My favorite place to take cooking classes is La Cuisine Paris. La Cuisine Paris is located on Quai de L’Hotel de Ville nestled between the popular and chic Marais neighborhood and charming Ile St. Louis. It overlooks the Seine and you couldn’t ask for a more picturesque location. It is a unique culinary school in that all the classes are taught by classically French-trained chefs but the classes are taught in English. This attracts an international clientele looking for a unique experience while they are in Paris. And now, you can have that experience as an armchair traveler.
Jane Bertch is an American living in Paris, and created La Cuisine Paris with her Parisian-born business partner in 2009. They created the school as a way to share culture through food and wanted to share the experience with visitors to Paris.
“I always wanted to create online classes for people who had been here before, or for people who had always wanted to come and take a class at La Cuisine Paris. The pandemic forced me to create them and now we can bring the experience of being at our school in Paris to anyone in their own home,” explained Jane, founder of La Cuisine Paris.
“I picked foods that people wanted to make at home and made sure that the ingredients were easy to find. Croissants is the most popular class—hands down. I think that is what resonates with people when they are missing Paris,” said Jane. “Macarons is the second most popular class. They have become a classic. Now, that people have the time to bake at home, it’s a fun activity for them. It’s really quite simple, but it takes time.”
I took the macaron class in Paris a few years ago, and I took the class again online. And, as much fun as the in-person class was, you can’t beat the virtual instruction that you can keep and refer to anytime that you want to make macarons at home. The class is organized in vignettes so that you can stop and start or review the previous steps as many time as you like. I love how the class starts with making the Classic Chocolate Ganache so that it is chilled and set by the time the macarons are ready to be filled.
When I took the class in person, we were taught the same recipes but because the recipes and the class are divided by teams, you don’t make every component—you share the macaron batter and fillings with your classmates. I wasn’t on the team that made the ganache filling and because of that, I either didn’t remember or didn’t know about the addition of butter. The ganache that I traditionally make is made of a base of heavy cream and dark chocolate. And, I am not alone. If you search your favorite American cook, chances are this is the way they make ganache as well.
I never add butter unless I am making an icing for a cake—but now, I will never make a ganache filling any other way. This French ganache is so much creamier than what I am used to making, and I am glad that I took the course online or I would have missed it again!
This class and any of the other five classes would make a great weekend experience while we are all still sticking close to home. It would also make a great birthday gift for your favorite home cook or baker, and a unique Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift that the whole family can enjoy.
The classes are 30 euros each and you can choose from Croissants & Breakfast Pastry Fundamentals, French Macarons—Two Classic Methods, Choux Pastry Fundamentals, Mastering French Souffles, French Bread Basics, and Classic French Sauces. Gift Certificates are also available so the recipient can chose the class themselves.
In the meantime, here is the La Cuisine Paris recipe for French Ganache.
La Cuisine Paris French Ganache
adapted from the La Cuisine Paris French Macarons Class.
2/3 cup (150g) dark chocolate, at least 64 Cacao
2/3 cup (150g) heavy cream
4 tablespoons (53g) unsalted butter, room temperature
Pinch of fine grain sea salt, optional
Cut or break the chocolate into small pieces and set aside. In a medium pan, bring the whipping cream to a just under a boil. Pour half the heated cream over dark chocolate. Let sit for a few seconds and mix until smooth. Pour the rest of the cream over the chocolate and whisk or mix with a fork until shiny.
Allow to cool for about 5-10 minutes before adding the softened butter. Incorporate the butter until the ganache is smooth and has a Nutella-like texture. Add a pinch of salt if desired.
If using as a filling, put the ganache into the piping bag. It can also be stored in a glass jar. If using immediately, refrigerate for 40 minutes or until cool enough to pipe as a filling.
Ganache can be made up to 5 days in advance and brought to room temperature before using.
Sunday isn’t a typical day for a post in this column, and I don’t typically post about book reviews that are outside the category of wine. But today offers a unique opportunity for weekend reading with the special twist of a chapter about wine in a book about food, restaurants and redemption.
I was drawn to Finding Freedom for the content it promised and the narrative it delivered: French is a cook who overcomes mountainous challenges, from single motherhood to an addiction to prescription drugs to betrayal (financial and otherwise) by her then-husband, all of which necessitated the multiple starting “from scratch” episodes in the book’s title.
Wine’s role in this narrative was supportive at best, relegated largely to the ancillary beverage that washed down French’s pills or helped to wind down the adrenaline after service or, occasionally, to punctuate a celebratory moment with a few popped corks of something sparkling or to underscore vermentino’s particularly appealing pairing with a dish of delicately prepared seafood.
(Warning: spoiler alerts ahead!)
Then came Chapter 31, “The Awakening of a Woman,” which ends up being about French’s mother’s journey rather than her own. Throughout the book, French’s mother is present, involved, loyal and watchful. She also adheres closely to the culturally defined roles of her time and place, that is, marriage, the teaching profession (special education), and young motherhood in rural Maine in the 1970s and 1980s. Which means she is also reserved, deferential and unlikely to offer an opinion that is independent, contrary or unpopular.
Then came Chapter 31. French starts the chapter while in the flow of describing the women (and one man) who staff The Lost Kitchen and make it into the global dining and cultural destination it became. “Among all the women, one came to life more than I could have imagined,” French writes. “I got to watch as she blossomed like a spring flower that had endured a long, cold Maine winter.”
French is speaking of her mother whose name, we eventually and subtly learn, is Deanna. In this chapter, French shifts the author’s gaze and language to the direct details of her mother’s life that had, until now, been mostly suggested and evoked rather than named specifically. That includes her relationship with a controlling husband, French’s father.
Five years after opening The Lost Kitchen, French’s mother finalized the divorce from her husband. They’d been married for more than 35 years. “When she left my father, she emerged from the shell that had kept her subdued for so many years,” French writes. “She was discovering who she was,” simultaneously experiencing a personal transformation alongside and in parallel to her daughter’s.
This is where the wine comes in.
French describes Deanna’s journey to assuming the management of The Lost Kitchen’s wine, beer and spirits inventory, and becoming the restaurant’s in-house sommelier. Like nearly everyone at the beginning of our wine journey, either as a consumer or professional, Deanna was intimidated by the barriers that wine has so expertly constructed around itself for so many generations.
“She didn’t know much about wine except that she liked it,” French writes. “She didn’t know a pinot noir grape from a merlot grape, couldn’t tell you about the appellations or terroir or describe what a tannin was.” Starting to learn about wine was a fearful experience and, doubly unfortunately, also a familiar one that will resonate with many readers.
What will also resonate, however, is French’s assurance that her mother “was more capable than she even realized,” and that “her willingness to learn ran wild in her.” Discovering wine led her to discover her voice, French writes, as well as a wider world. It is the best kind of journey that wine can lead us through.
Deanna taught herself about wine from the ground up, eventually coming into her own though not identifying officially as a sommelier or wine salesperson. “She wasn’t a sommelier,” French writes emphatically, “she was a mom, and she knew how to pick a damn good wine.”