Hacienda Las Trancas is featured in the 2010 May issue of Spinney’s Food Magazine based in Dubai.
You can read the article below:
It sounds like the ultimate romance – buy a sprawling hacienda, steeped in history, in the heart of one of Mexico’s most traditional states and live out your days painting beneath its dusty archways and tending to its sprawling exotic gardens. And it almost happened to Kelley and Stephen Wilkinson – but then they got involved.
They got involved with the village that surrounds their immense hacienda, with sending children to school, with mending roofs, starting small businesses and even paying for births and funerals. But when they arrived in the sleepy village of San Joaqin de Las Trancas, Kelley and Stephen had no idea of what lay ahead.
“My husband worked in ER – he had been doing it for many years and was starting to get tired – it’s a very high pressure environment,” says Kelley, an artist. “I was looking for a project to keep him interested and give him something to look forward to until we could retire.
Then I remembered that I had traveled to Mexico and had loved it but had never had the chance to return.” On a whim, almost as a joke, Kelley did an internet search for ‘hacienda for sale’ – and what the search returned was a little slice of fate: Hacienda Las Trancas. “I don’t think Stephen even knew what a hacienda was – and if I’m honest I probably didn’t either!” says Kelley. But soon the joke turned into a serious proposition and the US-based couple found themselves flying down to Mexico to see this dusty dream mansion. When they arrived in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, neither they nor their estate agent was able to contact the hacienda’s owner, so the couple resorted to shinning up and over the garden walls. “The first words out of our mouths – at the same time – were ‘Oh my god!’ But on totally different ends of the spectrum,” says Kelley. She saw the glorious past and potential of the building, whereas Stephen saw the reality – an unkempt and crumbling shell. But slowly, the couple fell in love with the hacienda and decided to take the leap and buy it.
The village began as a fort to guard the silver trail in 1567 and officially became a hacienda in 1709, owning almost a million acres of land. The leader of the Mexican Independence movement, Father Miguel Hidalgo, was a regular visitor and the hacienda’s doors were thrown open to Mexican Revolutionary general Pancho Villa. With walls three feet thick and a total of 50 rooms, the vast hacienda holds more secrets, stories and tales of buried treasure than is possible to uncover.
It soon became clear that Kelley and Stephen hadn’t just bought a building – they had bought a community’s history. “We didn’t buy the hacienda with the thought of creating a business – we thought we would be going there to close the doors and be oblivious to the world,” says Kelley. “After we bought it and spent some time there, and after I hired a few people, I was invited into their homes and that’s when it really came to me. I would see their one-room dirt floor houses with a bare light bulb and often not even running water, then look over at my huge place. “I learned a lot more about haciendas and how they were the great castles of Mexico – I felt like at some time in the last century our hacienda had abandoned its people,” says Kelley. “Considering the long history of the hacienda, I felt a responsibility to take care of the people.”
The initial idea of the hacienda becoming a retirement haven soon disintegrated, and it was a chance suggestion from a friend of Kelley and Stephen’s daughter which would put the cogs in motion – it would become a guest house. “We started with five rooms and now we have 11,” says Kelley, “And we started with three staff and now we have 21. Almost every family in Trancas has at least one person working for us.”
Which brings us to the food.
The kitchen at Hacienda Las Trancas produces the most delicious traditional Mexican food, all from fresh, local ingredients and, best of all, made with real love and pride. The menus take guests from dawn to dusk, and eating is a major part of anyone’s stay at the hacienda – so much so that renowned US chefs have been known to visit, along with their entire kitchen staff.
And one woman pulls it all together – Orlanda Montoya Davila, known simply as Yolanda.
“Before we employed her at the hacienda, Yolanda was a street cook – she had an outdoor kitchen, very simple, over a stone comal,” says Kelley. “She is a very good cook of local food. As time went on we kept upping the bar – I bought all the cookbooks I could find and we started looking at recipes and food from all over the country, not just the region we are based in. She caught on very fast – she’s just wonderful. “Rick Bayless is an amazing chef and we used his books. He brings a modern, gourmet flair to traditional Mexican cooking, making it a little more user-friendly. He came to the area and Yolanda and the other ladies from the kitchen got to study with him. Then he brought his whole staff to the hacienda, and it was such a thrill for Yolanda and the cooks – they had studied his books, they had learnt from him, and then he came to them. “Yolanda cried, it was way too much for her! They asked for some of her recipes to use at his restaurant – it was a real honour for us,” says Kelley.
So what is this wonderful cuisine which has top chefs asking for recipes? “We do traditional Mexican cooking in a very authentic style,” says Kelley, simply. “Everybody tries to take Yolanda home with them – she’s such a mother hen and makes the whole experience very warm and wonderful. A big part of the stay at the hacienda is mealtimes – people don’t want to leave because they don’t want to miss a meal!” Soon enough, those outside the sleepy village of Trancas will be able to get a taste of Yolanda’s cooking – a cookbook is in the making, with fingers crossed for completion this year. “They are stellar at their jobs, I’m in awe,” says Kelley. “The flexibility our cooks have is amazing. They take traditional tamales, which are made with lard, and they can substitute it with olive oil. I’ve seen them cook for a crowd of 30 people and cater for six different diets. Coeliac, lactose free, raw – they have done it all.” As a result of the hacienda’s successes, a big difference has been made in the life of Trancas. And Kelley is keeping her promises to her staff. “My employees really got it when, last year, Yolanda’s daughter was promoted from assistant cook to general manager because she was just so amazing,” says Kelley. “We saw how serious she was about her work – she didn’t party or drink, she just wanted to work. Now she’s running the hacienda and doing an amazing job.”
And Hacienda Las Trancas’s charity initiative, Projecto Pueblito, is making leaps and bounds in the community. “We are involved with Fundación Comuntaria del Bajío, a non-profit group run by Adriana Cortez Jimenez working out of Guanajuato state, which has helped us a lot,” says Kelley. “It’s Mexicans helping Mexicans. Through working with them, the villagers have really come to trust us. “We have made some really good friends, my employees are fantastic – I really think the best in the world. They are loyal, hardworking and now even running the business without me there. They are so dedicated. They are also helping the village, educating the children and building houses. The group we work with are bringing in students
from the US to work with families. “We’re even giving micro loans for businesses to start, supporting widows – every little thing I would never have thought of,” says Kelley. “It has been life-changing for us to be involved with this village and call it home.” Sounds like, in an unexpected way, the Mexican romance came true after all.
Written by Rachel Silvestri
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