Mex­i­can Trea­sure

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Ella Wind­sor

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)

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