Thomasina Miers on Diana Kennedy

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast -

I first met Diana Kennedy 14 years ago. She must have been about 80. I took a four-hour bus jour­ney from Mex­ico City to her eco ranch in Mi­choacán on the west coast to in­ter­view her. I ar­rived around 3pm and she met me at the gate with a glass of mez­cal.

She showed me her gar­den: there were chill­ies, corn, tomatil­los and cof­fee beans. Her larder was brim­ming with chut­neys, chilli pastes and vine­gars made with fruits such as pineap­ple and guava.

Mex­i­cans are ob­sessed with vine­gar – you need sharp acidic dress­ings for slaws and sal­sas to off­set all those lovely slow-cooked gelati­nous braises. Diana is a big en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist; she had a com­post­ing loo and a so­lar-pow­ered oven. At around 4.30, she brought out some very fine bone china, a pot of dar­jeel­ing and cake. It was ex­tra­or­di­nary to meet this very Bri­tish woman liv­ing in the mid­dle of the Mex­i­can jun­gle.

Diana was brought up in Es­sex, but has lived in Mex­ico for at least 50 years. She has writ­ten sev­eral very thick tomes on Mex­i­can food. Very early on, she re­alised how re­gional the food in Mex­ico was, which is why her first book, pub­lished in 1972, is called The Essen­tial Cuisines of Mex­ico.

The wealth of in­gre­di­ents is as­ton­ish­ing. Diana would go to a state and dis­cover a new chilli, herb or bean. She trav­elled around the whole coun­try in an old pickup truck. She would ar­rive with a roll­mat on her back and ask to speak to the best cooks in the vil­lage. She saw that a lot of women were cook­ing in­cred­i­ble dishes in these dif­fer­ent ar­eas, but some spoke di­alects and oth­ers couldn’t write, so to pre­serve these recipes she started to write them down.

The city of Oax­aca is fa­mous for its – mean­ing sauce – and the most com­plex is a deep, black one. In the in­tro­duc­tion to the recipe in Oax­aca al Gusto: An In­fi­nite Gas­tron­omy, Diana says you need four helpers and an open fire to make it. I re­mem­ber think­ing in ex­as­per­a­tion: “Typ­i­cal Diana to make such a fuss. How hard can it be?” I made it and it took four of us the whole week­end. She was com­pletely right. It was in­cred­i­ble. These com­plex moles are a fine bal­ance of sweet and savoury.

The Cuisines of Mex­ico is prob­a­bly my favourite of her books. The ti­tle en­cap­su­lates just how dif­fer­ent the food is around the coun­try. In each recipe’s in­tro­duc­tion, there’s a para­graph about its cre­ator, which brings it to life.

We have a salsa on the menu at Wa­haca that is in­spired by a recipe in the book. It’s called salsa de

ti­jera. You snip up an­cho chill­ies with a pair of scis­sors and finely chop shal­lots and gar­lic, then let the an­cho, shal­lots and gar­lic mar­i­nate in olive oil and vine­gar for as long as you can. It’s very pun­gent, rich, red and oily. I’ve been us­ing it for years. The book is full of these gems, and gen­er­ally they are easy to make in.

Diana is one of only two Bri­tish peo­ple who have been given the Or­der of the Aztec Ea­gle – Mex­i­cans re­vere her. When I delve into her books, I’m al­ways in­spired to cook some­thing. She trans­ports me to Mex­ico.

Diana Kennedy in her gar­den in 1990: ‘I’m al­ways in­spired to cook some­thing from her books,’ says Miers. ‘I’m trans­ported to Mex­ico by her writ­ing’

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