There he was: well-positioned in Piccadilly, on a bed of crushed avocado infused with pomegranate. He might have been a decoration or a gilded crisp. But no, close up and confirmed by a girl with flowers in her hair, he was in fact a golden grasshopper.
This gold painted appetiser led me into the world of top Mexican chef Martha Ortiz and in turn, the delights of Mexican gastronomy (a UNESCO declared ‘world treasure’). Ortiz is a passionate advocate for her country’s culinary wonders – ‘Mexico’s natural bounty’ – and even more so for the sophisticated Mexican haute cuisine or ‘alta mexicana’ movement, which proudly presents ancient pre-Hispanic dishes and ingredients in an innovative way. To this end she is a dedicated artisan.
‘I have always believed that gastronomy, more than an art, is a craft that requires masterfully spinning and embroidering ingredients in all recipes.’
In her first London restaurant, Ella Canta (‘She Sings’), plumes of dry ice announce the unveiling of breath-taking dishes such as turbot with mint and pistachio or lamb shank with ‘morita chile’. Such masterpieces alight bedecked in multi-coloured edible flowers or outlined with ribbons of coloured salt, like vivid squiggles of paint. Bespoke menus for different seasons include an entirely black menu in homage to the Day of the Dead with ash garnished fish and black cocktails. Courses are otherwise presented as theatrical acts. Final Curtain includes a mysterious pudding referenced with the words: Maria Has Arrived.
Ortiz is driven by her creative mission to show ‘the profound and great gastronomic culture of my beloved Mexico’ which she does through ‘colourful and tasty flavours that make the soul and palate vibrate.’ She invites her audience to engage with her creations or ‘stories’ through all
their senses. And she is nothing short of persuasive. Given Mexico’s own culinary history it is not hard to see why.
Since Mesoamerica’s pre-Hispanic days, Mexican cuisine has boasted an astonishing variety, history and artistry of ingredients. Hundreds of species of insects were regularly consumed by the Aztecs, Mixtecs and other early civilisations as a vital source of protein, along with vegetables and spices like chilli, squash and maize, found in the region between 68005000 BC. All these have endured to this day, and are consumed on a daily basis, whether alone or in dishes that delight the imagination. The culinary treasures never cease; from the legacy of sumptuous Mayan feasts to fifty plus ingredient moles, to the decades long production of mescal. Not to mention the relish for insects…
One need look no further than the Mayan banquet for many of the ingredients still celebrated. The typical offering says it all: toasted corn, chilli peppers and cocoa, corn soup, fowl or fish stews, squash and tortillas toasted on hot stones.
Maize is key to the history of the land that is Mexico today and a staple of almost every meal, from cornbreads to tacos to tortillas in white, yellow and blue. For Mayans, even the flesh of the first mother and father was made of yellow and white maize. They, like the Zapotecs, had a Maize God whose blessing they needed to grow a decent crop. Chilli peppers were also popular, and those the Mayans didn’t eat they rubbed onto naughty children.
Chocolate, meanwhile, was a great Aztec pleasure. Its very name comes from the Nahuatl (Aztecan) xocola-tl – pronounced chocola-tl (meaning chocolate and water). In pre-Columbian times it was always drunk rather than eaten. The Aztecs drank it cold and the Spanish conquistadores later drank it hot. It was usually consumed by the nobility and always reserved for special occasions.
Today at Ella Canta, Ortiz serves a sensational ‘pre-Hispanic’ hot chocolate
with two kinds of chilli, vanilla and avocado leaves. Meanwhile Alejandro Ruiz, the best-known chef of the state of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s major culinary capitals, serves his with almonds and cinnamon. In Oaxaca, he says, chocolate is a treat, typically enjoyed on Sundays, weddings and birthdays.
Since the seventeenth century, chocolate has also defined the most refined of mole (pronounced ‘ mol-ay’) sauces, the Mole Negro, kept too for special occasions, and the more generic rich, red-brown Mole Poblano, served with turkey or chicken.
Originally hastily concocted by Dominican nuns from what they had to hand to please a hungry Archbishop (so one story goes), the mole incorporated many of the Mayans’ favourite banquet ingredients like corn, chilli and chocolate, as well as old bread, nuts and cinnamon. Each mole, carefully ground together, took days to assemble and in time took on various forms. Today there are many versions, some including tomatoes, raisins and avocado leaves, with twenty plus ingredients (Ortiz makes one with fifty) and the sauces, eaten throughout Mexico, are famously difficult to master.
The making of mescal, tequila’s stronger cousin, made from thirty agave species, is no less of an art. It takes quite some mastery to perfect, as well as time. Some fifteen or more years are needed just to grow the agave plant before it can be harvested. This is then followed by weeks of cooking the heart, softening and fermenting the mash, then boiling, steaming and twice distilling the liquid produced. Some of the product can then be aged for around twelve years.
One of the more traditional mescals is garnished with a maguey worm, to flavour the spirit. You can almost see him as a poster boy for Mexico’s famous use of insects in the national cuisine.
Today, insects are clearly a food trend, with certain species at the helm of the wider alta mexicana, both in Mexico and beyond. In Mexico City, for instance, while said grasshoppers or crickets abound, treasured delicacies
served in smart restaurants include ant larvae, stink bugs and water bug eggs, aka ‘Mexican caviar.’
Not long after witnessing the golden grasshopper in London I travelled to Mexico City, for Zona Maco, a vast contemporary art fair. The parties packed a punch. On the second night, I found myself in the Tamayo Museum for a show by Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans. Afterwards drinks were served; an array of beautiful tequila-based cocktails. No less chic the canapés. I was delighted to find that the flowers sailing my way on a special platter of their own were indeed edible. I thanked the waiter and reached for one. Oh? It seemed they were not alone, after all, but had some sumptuous filling. Something dark and fried and juicy looking. What could it be? Devils on horseback perhaps? Ah, wait. Are those – legs? Yes? Gosh. I took a closer look. Oh, my! Yes these are a real treat, I learned. A very special delicacy. A kind of cockroach-size bug that cannot be forgone.
I am afraid I balked at this and fled somewhat smugly to my dinner reservation, at Ortiz’s Mexico City restaurant: Dulce Patria (Sweet Homeland). Yet, minutes later Ortiz (whose personally chosen menu for our table included Vampire Ceviche) was telling us the best food markets in town and listing the key items to procure. She had three words for us:
Insects: Grasshoppers. Ants.
The next morning we found ourselves in Mercado San Juan. Here we came across everything from blue tortillas and edible flowers to a somewhat startling ‘Exotic Burger’ stand proclaiming meats like lion and tiger, as well as our grasshopper friends. Some of these meats are likelier than others I learned, hoping that lion and tiger burgers were fiction. Still, grasshoppers always meant grasshoppers. Seeing my companions guzzling scorpions and worms (as well as cricket kebabs), I decided I had little choice. The time had come to venture into the world of insect consumption. I held my breath and settled for one large grasshopper and some small grubs that
looked like gnats.
Of course, sautéed as they had been in garlic, olive oil and chilli and sprinkled with a dash of lime, there was very little to mind. Yes, they were crunchy, but so are fried shrimp with their tails on (something I happen to love). And the bulbous body of the bug served at the art party was nowhere to be seen.
Aesthetics aside, meanwhile, throughout my time in Mexico (later I ate an ant egg taco, to my initial horror, then my pride) I was increasingly aware not just of the idea of insect eating as a certain taboo (for me, it seemed especially questionable given my innate horror of all creepy crawlies) but also of the benefits of shaking it.
Mexico is way ahead of the game in this respect since entomophagy today is not only increasingly desirable and ever more widely practiced here than it was until a decade ago but has even been decreed the future of (sustainable) protein, good for the planet and a potential answer to world hunger. Whereas meat is unsustainable longer term, hard to come by for many and riddled with hormones and chemicals, insects are an accessible source of protein with a far higher protein count. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has indicated that feeding the world in 2050 may well require twice the food produced today. Cultivating insects demands less land and produces fewer greenhouse gases than cultivating traditional meats. So insects could well be a solution. And Mexico, with some 300550 edible insect species (more than any other country) seems well placed to lead that movement.
Gone is the relegation of insects to the exotic food camp. Now, instead creatures like the widely affordable and ubiquitous crickets are not only available in markets, alongside scorpions, worms and flying ants, but served in all restaurants from rural roadside cafes (typically sautéed in salt and garlic and served rolled in tacos or by the handful) to the more established venues in the cities.
As Alejandro Ruiz explains, where Mexico’s more privileged society once shunned the eating of insects now it is as normal as eating bread. And knowing its popularity he knows he will have no trouble offering them in his favourite dishes at his restaurants. ‘Now I have a new recipe’, he says proudly, ‘a tostada with guacamole, flying ants, grasshoppers and maguey worms.’
Meanwhile, insect consumption is picking up an impressive international reach. Danish restaurant Noma, for one, has been advocating this for years. And clearly Mexican food champions like Ortiz are bringing this wisdom to London, one grasshopper at a time.
‘London is a cosmopolitan city open to trying the flavours from other cultures’ says Ortiz. ‘From my lyrical point of view, I think it is the perfect union between the Old and New World, with its references of mutual conquests. Mexican gastronomy is ideal for the sophistication of London.’
Indeed, along with Ella Canta a crop of fine Mexican dining has recently emerged in the capital, with restaurants like El Pastor and Santo Remedio in its remit. Even the exclusive new Annabel’s club includes The Mexican, a much revered in-house restaurant, led by Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, founder of the famous Pujol in Mexico City and a key player in Mexico’s farm-to-table revolution. Here you can find the finest Mexican dishes fused with other delicacies. One big hit is a sumptuous guacamole served with caviar.
Mexico is clearly at the vanguard of gastronomy and to foreigners like me, insects are but a factor of an exciting, far wider charge. Mexican cuisine is simply something to wake up to. It is filled with surprises – for Mexicans too at times – even in the way it announces itself. While earthquake alarms (recently installed in buildings to pre-empt a tremor by up to sixty seconds) usually consist of a recorded voice advising leaving the building in the tone of a market vendor, the one-man pedalled street-cart with a chimney, selling hot steamed sweet potatoes (which comes out when the temperature drops), makes a loud shrill whistle wherever it goes to alert home dwellers
to its presence. It reminded me of hearing the magical tinkle of an ice cream van as a child, though only in the thinking behind it; the noise the sweet potato cart makes is truly alarming.
It certainly made my grasshopper venture pale in comparison. I still don’t feel quite ready to gobble up a bug like that one in that flower. However, having witnessed hundreds more insects prepared for consumption during my travels in Mexico I soon found them less disturbing after all – though certainly no less intriguing.
The next time I encounter one, dressed up in gold in Piccadilly, I shall give him a knowing nod, before calmly closing in.
Thin Roman bricks, baked on a day like today by sweatingslaves, burning limestone for cement. And someone, shattered apart by grief for that one irreplaceable soul who used to hold his head justso, and say, Life is long enough…
if the whole of it is well invested who liked to stroll the Via Appia at sunset, who would have nodded approval as we passed. (Quotes from Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life’ translated by John W. Basore, 1932)