Food / Mexico / Travel

There’s Nun Better in Puebla: Talavera and Mole in the Convent Kitchen

When city-building Spaniards came to the New World, they required skilled craftsmen willing to make a drastic life change and relocate to the other side of the globe. Ceramic tile was a popular staple for builders in Spain, so talented artisans who took the risk were ceramics workers from the internationally renowned city of Talavera de la Reina.

In modern Puebla, colonial buildings with ornate tile facades and inviting courtyards line the streets, and colorful ceramic accents abound. But one of the best places to see exceptional Talavera Poblano tile work is the beautifully preserved kitchen of the former Convent of Santa Rosa.

This marvelous 18th century concina is a tourist twofer: one of Puebla’s finest examples of Talavera tile as well as the legendary home of mole, Mexico’s signature sauce.

In 1740 even local Talavera tile wasn’t cheap, and covering the walls and vaulted ceilings in a humble convent seems quite an extravagance, but a couple of bishops and a few church officials donated the 400 pesos to complete the construction.

Today, the sparsely-furnished kitchen is part of a quiet, off-the-beaten-path ceramics museum, but in its heyday it would have been bustling with activity and delicious smells. In addition to two ovens and a kneading space for bread, it had a chocolatero. Ahh, to go back to the good ol’ days when every kitchen had a dedicated space for making chocolate.

Which brings us to the mole part of the story. According to legend, the convent received word of a surprise visit from the Bishop, and the resourceful nuns cobbled together a sauce from an odd assortment of on-hand ingredients: chili peppers, nuts, sesame seeds, cilantro, garlic, cinnamon, and chocolate. And voila!, they served mole sauce with the unfortunate turkey they were able chase down.

Like most people, our kitchen is the heart of our home. And whether taking a Christmas home tour, or visiting a historical property or museum, we’re always fascinated to get a look at other peoples’ kitchens. And this kitchen was perfect because the nuns weren’t home, so we could poke around all we wanted.

A visit to the Santa Rosa Convent kitchen is a good idea for a couple of reasons: first, you’ll see an outstanding example of Talavera tile work, and second, it just might inspire you to go in search of a delightful mole dinner. ¡Buen provecho!

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. The entrance to the kitchen is a little tricky to find. When you’re at the front entrance to the church, look down the side and you’ll see this elegant doorway. That’s where you need to go.

45 thoughts on “There’s Nun Better in Puebla: Talavera and Mole in the Convent Kitchen

  1. That is a stunning kitchen and it makes me miss Mexican food. The ingredients of mole – chili peppers, nuts, sesame seeds, cilantro, garlic, cinnamon, and chocolate – are such a strange combination and yet it is delicious.

    • Jeff, the combination of ingredients in mole sound unusual together for sure, but when I look at the list I think: What’s not to like? It’s also a multi-purpose sauce that can be used on fancy chicken or cheap enchiladas. No wonder it’s so popular. ~James

  2. I love the name mole sauce for something concocted from the depth of your kitchen. It is difficult to imagine the taste from the list of ingredients. I also love the tiles. So much work.

    • Anne, you have a good eye for complex sauces because mole is a true labor of love. In fact, in many towns in central Mexico, the cooks in the family pull together all the ingredients for their favorite verion of mole and take it to the “molería” for grinding and mixing. ~James

  3. I also love having a nose around other people’s kitchen. The bright tiles are gorgeous, would have been a pleasure to cook in this kitchen. Mole sauce sounds delicious, can’t go wrong with Mexican food 🙂

    • Gilda, if you haven’t had mole you really should search it out. It will be hard to find in your neck of the woods, but on your next trip to Mexico definitely give it a try. It’s addictive I promise. ~James

    • Tracey, Europeans are credited for modern chocolate, but it was the indigenous peoples of Central and South America that discovered and shared it with the world. Just ask the Nuns. 🙂 ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Emily and for dropping by the blog. This kitchen twofer, Talavera and mole, appealed to me on many levels. I dabbled in ceramics years ago, so I can appreciate all the work that went into the tiles, and after a dear friend introduced me to mole in Dallas years ago, I was smitten with this rich, flavorful sauce. The Bishop probably thought he’d died and gone to heaven. 🙂 ~James

    • If your friend specialized in tile, I’m sure he’s heard all about Talavera, but he probably hasn’t seen such a great example of old work. Some of the craftsmanship in the kitchen was crude by modern standards, but for me, that was part of its appeal. ~James

  4. An amazing kitchen. I’d never get any cooking done surrounded by all those beautiful tiles. It would be interesting to figure out a comparable monetary amount for 400 pesos in today’s world.

    • Laura, I don’t know what this number would be, but you can be sure that in Colonial Mexico almost three centuries ago it was a tidy sum. Also, these were the days of having the ability to buy favors with the church. I wonder what these two generous donors had going on? ~ James

      • I agree it had to have been a fortune at the time. I read an interesting article about Colonial Williamsburg and how they try to answer the question of the value of monetary amounts back then compared to today. Almost impossible.

    • Darlene, Puebla is a relatively low-key place and the feel of this convent kitchen fits right in. As for mole, after our first visit to Mexico, we were devoted fans. BTW, the Spaniards brought many New World discoveries back, but I don’t remember seeing mole sauce in Spain. Have you seen it there? ~James

    • Juliann, wouldn’t this setting make a delightful cafe? Alas, I’m sure the expense would be miles above the budget of this modest museum. I can just see someone in SoCal making a fortune if they had this space. ~James

  5. Lovely ceramics, they remind me of the extensive use of ceramics in ancient Carthage. The residue can be seen in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.
    Leslie

    • Leslie, we’ve been to Tunis, but I don’t remember this museum. Not sure how I missed it, but it looks like a great one. I love these Roman mosaics, and this is a fabulous collection. Thanks for this music video link. ~James

      • The Bardo was museum in Tunis where the they had the terrorist attack March 2015.
        Glad you liked it James. It was really something to see.
        Leslie

  6. Thank you for taking us down memory lane. We were in Puebla many years ago for a bamboo conference and we fell in love with it. The tiles are just gorgeous and I do love the idea of a space dedicated to chocolate making in the kitchen. Now we talking!!!

    There is an incredible dish in Puebla that we loved, not sure if you discovered it, called Chile en Nogada. Something sublime.

    Gorgeous photos!!

    Peta

    • Peta, I had to look up Chiles en Nogada, and we did have them while we were there. I didn’t know them by that name, but Mexican stuffed peppers have always been a favorite for me – assuming the peppers aren’t mucho caliente. It’s also fun to try lots of mole dishes because every sauce is slightly different. The vendors in the market in Oaxaca have raised mole to an art form … yummy.

    • This tiny, off-the-path museum is exactly our kind of place. When we visited we had the place to ourselves. The helpful docent gave us lots of details, unfortunately, he thought that I spoke more Spanish than I actually do. Good stuff though. ~James

  7. Love tile work, and we often take pictures of beautiful floors, walls, etc. that are good examples of superior work. However, this may be the first kitchen I’ve really looked at closely. Just lovely. Functional, too.

    • Rusha, I don’t think that this delightful kitchen qualifies as meticulous craftsmanship, but for me that’s one of its appealing qualities. With all the bright colors, shapes, and sometimes random tile placement, it has a folk art qualtity that’s eye-catching and very attractive. And the fact all this exuberance takes place in a convent makes it even better. Wonderful! ~James

  8. Hi James, Thanks for filling some gaps in my knowledge of the Santa Rosa Convent. Last April, I made a pilgrimage there to see the birthplace of mole poblano. That beautifully tiled kitchen is a fitting place of origin for such a valuable and tasty sauce.

    • Thanks Joe. This convent kitchen is just the type of attraction that appeals to us as travelers. It’s off-the-beaten path, fun, interesting, and provides a glimpse into the culture’s history that we might not otherwise see. It’s also precisely the type of thing we like to blog about for exactly the same reasons. Thanks for dropping by.
      ~James

    • Marilyn, you’ll definetly enjoy this kitchen museum. As these Mexican attractions can be, it’s very low key and virtually deserted. Which means you’ll probably have the place to yourself and can wander at will. We thought it was wonderful, and true or not, I loved the mole story. ~James

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