Once upon a time in Mex­ico

Whether it’s depth of flavour or light­ness of touch you’re af­ter, the coun­try has a dish for you

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - EAT IN - Cook­ery Book Writer of the Year pho­tog­ra­phy: haar­ala hamil­ton food styling: va­lerie berry

The Aeromex­ico plane is be­ing buf­feted as if it were a toy, the win­dows il­lu­mi­nated ev­ery so of­ten by light­ning. ‘ Padre nue­stro que es­tás en los cie­los,’ the woman be­hind me prays in whis­pers. I feel guilty that my dom­i­nant emo­tion is ex­hil­a­ra­tion. Thirty min­utes later we’re run­ning across the tar­mac as our clothes get drenched by rain. My carry-on lug­gage – a card­board box that houses a gaudy pa­pier-mâché can­de­labrum picked up at the start of the trip (it’s in the shape of a tree, ten­drils of mad flow­ers clutch­ing its trunk) – is so wet that it’s fall­ing apart. At 1am I swing through the doors of my ho­tel in Mérida to find a band play­ing La Bamba and a bar serv­ing an­to­ji­tos (lit­tle snacks) of prawn frit­ters, chilli peanuts and pick­led broad beans. There’s a mescal menu taped to the wall. Mex­ico: it’s a hip-swinging, toe-tap­ping head rush.

That was my first visit to the coun­try, de­fi­antly un­der­taken af­ter be­ing dumped. It’s a good place to mend a bro­ken heart. I knew noth­ing about Mex­i­can cook­ing – though I ex­pected gua­camole – and wasn’t pre­pared for the ex­tremes or the in­tri­ca­cies of the food. Some plates were cit­rus-fresh and sim­ple: there was ce­viche – sliv­ers of pearles­cent fish, their edges opaque from be­ing ‘cooked’ in lime juice, served with raw onion, chilli and av­o­cado. Other dishes were deep and lay­ered: moles, the sauces for which Mex­ico is fa­mous, slow braises, meat cooked in pits. You could see the colours – and the emo­tion – of the coun­try’s most fa­mous painters, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, on your ta­ble.

To me, the great com­plex cuisines had been French and Chi­nese, but now I thought you couldn’t call your­self a cook if you hadn’t mas­tered Mex­i­can sauces, their flavours built bit by bit. Chillies weren’t about heat but tone. The dried ones have a mas­culin­ity – they make you think of wood, tobacco, ripe au­tum­nal fruit, cho­co­late, leather – and pro­vide a vast ar­ray of notes.

I came to crave the sweet vanilla smell of corn, the scent I most as­so­ciate with Mex­ico. For years af­ter this trip, ev­ery time I had a beer I would si­mul­ta­ne­ously smell the blis­tered cobs sold on street carts and the corn boiled with lime and ground to make masa ha­rina (the body and soul of tor­tillas).

Mex­i­cans are mod­est. They’ve never shouted about their food, but high-pro­file Mex­i­can chefs – such as En­rique Olvera – have smashed the idea that theirs is a diet of av­o­ca­dos and tor­tilla chips. It’s also about crim­son hi­bis­cus flow­ers, Mex­i­can oregano, roses, cin­na­mon and all­spice. And the corn and beer, the lime and smoky chipo­tles that patched my heart that sum­mer.


4 chipo­tle chillies

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