El Artisano, the experience

published sep 19th, 2015

Health food stores, vegetarian hot spots, carne-wonderlands; a little of each and what you end up with is El Artisano. Nestled in the small town of San Juan del Lago, trekking up the plenty-steep street will help work up an appetite as you pass many small cafés, fabric shops, and dogs.

The walk will be pleasant, with plenty of vibrant colors from the chickens to the buildings. Don’t fret stopping for a small café to keep one’s energy and focus. Taking a break from your journey somewhere is not frowned upon. It’s encouragement to engage with the city. Word to the wise: make sure not to get stuck!

A cheese plate at El Artisano, San Juan del Lago

A cheese plate at El Artisano, San Juan del Lago

If you’re not careful, you could miss the entrance to El Artisano, perhaps thinking it’s the garden of an old Italian widower who walks around in his A-shirt and thong sandals listening to a hand-held radio. The place has a real small-garden feel. Hanging art, meats, and peculiar lights fill the small area. The space is well cultivated, divided creatively to afford some intimacy to various diners.

Being greeted by Juan-Carlos is an experience not many get the opportunity to enjoy. Woe to the ignorant. Juan-Carlos is an up & coming master of the kitchen arts at El Artisano. He engages guests in any of the Romantic languages, as well as English and a local Mayan language. He’ll discuss wine pairings, cheese age, and which sugar he prefers when curing his meat with any guest interested. Juan-Carlos has learned all this without ever living outside the small town of San Juan del Lago.

I decided I had to go for what they’re famous for, their cheese. Honorable mentions go to the meat selection, though. I did a bit of research to see what demographic I could expect when visiting El Artisano. No one mentions the menu. I actually didn’t know there was a menu until I arrived. From what people were making it out to be, I thought it was a small winery of some sort. It was surprising to see the host of dinner plates offered, many reminiscent of a Mediterranean flavor. And then there’s the cheese…

I’m not sure which I know less about: cheese or wine. This seemed as good a place as any I’d find strolling down the Riviera; a discovery of sorts. A step away from Guatemala for a couple of hours to enjoy what feels like authentic European cuisine, a change in atmosphere. Of course all the food on the menu is from right within this country’s borders. Local and artistic. I figured this would be an opportunity worth putting some effort into. All I needed was to memorize one cheese-wine pair; a little etiquette gem to tuck away for the future.

Juan Carlos, the proprietor at El Artisano

Juan Carlos, the proprietor at El Artisano

And then he starts. There is a method to the madness that is on the plate. Some cheese sits next to nuts or dried fruits. Some are to be tried with marmalade and others with honey. Check out the video:

As you can see, he establishes a direction the cheeses are to be tried. Soft cheeses are necessarily placed with the other soft cheeses. There is a taste progression to this meal. All hailing from local farms across the country of Guatemala, the cheeses chosen in this parade complements those around them in some way. Some fruit, nut, or sweet topping will accompany many of the items on your plate. Bread made en casa, makes a really nice palate plate for the cheese and soaks up the olive oil nicely. Some of the more spreadable cheeses are flavored to accentuate the bread of the town and, in some cases, the bread of other local towns.

Getting to San Juan del Lago is easier than leaving. Lanchas traveling between San Pedro and San Marcos are likely to make a stop in San Juan, assuming there are a few passengers hoping for the stop. Make sure and check with your capitán that you are, indeed, making the stop in San Juan del Lago.

As for the El Artisano experience, don’t miss it. The volume of cheese and culinary illumination is a bit overwhelming to a novice. If nothing else, I’ve learned some cheese goes great with Red Pepper Marmalade.

Check out some more things from this author on Drapeto's Wordpress site.

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