Fergus Henderson's heavenly tastes of Mexico City
Author: Fergus Henderson
It's amazing how food gets you about the world, and indeed there's not a continent where food hasn't taken me. But on one memorable occasion, it was food and cigarettes. Let me explain. I was invited to Mexico City to cook a meal in celebration of a famous tobacco brand. I know that this wasn't the most ethical reason to go to Mexico and I hesitate to admit that they were very fine hosts.
Having handed my preferred brand of smokes over to the organiser at the airport I was now a man loyal to their product, every pocket stuffed full of their supply. Every morning I gave a few interviews, drinking Fernet Branca and smoking these cigarettes (I've since given up, and feel all the better for it). But then came the important part: lunch! Fantastic. I've never eaten so well constantly for a week as I did on this adventure.
Interviews done, a car would come and pick me up and take me to these lunches. I realised very quickly that this had nothing to do with the generally sad and pallid version of Mexican food we had back home. Here the respect shown to the ingredients, and to the pig in particular, was fantastic. One day I was taken to a veritable temple to pig offal: skin, ears, flesh - some crisp, some lip-stickingly giving. Red and green chilli sauces sat in bowls on the table, and these weren't just any old sauces; these were perfect companions to pig. The walls were clad in white tiles, and everyone was charming and greasy with pig. I was in heaven.
From pork to seafood, each day brought a seamless transition from one delicious lunch to yet another. In every restaurant, however crazy, the respect for the tortilla was strong and since this is the backbone of Mexican food it deserves all the respect it commands.
Contra Mar was a big bright, white, bustling restaurant specialising in fish, and here they brought those tortillas out two at a time, freshly cooked, starting with crisp ones filled with raw fish and paired with a glass of tequila. Heaven once again. That fish was treated with the same respect as the pig, and I can only imagine that the ants I ate were, too. This was just one of a few out-there moments, but by then I had such faith in the Mexican kitchen that I thought, "Ants? Bring 'em on." Sadly I can't recall much about them. I vaguely remember a slight honey quality, but there were so many tastes that week I may well be wrong.
The big night arrived and finally here it was: my own moment to shine on behalf of our generous hosts. But let me give you a bit of advice that I learnt that night: don't assume that animals are the same all over the world. I foolishly assumed that crabs were crabs. In Mexico City, they were not. Oh, bother! They were tiny! I counted my lucky stars that I'd had the foresight to bring Phil Dirtbox with me: my old friend, poet and crooner. The piano player who had been scheduled to accompany this feast had done a runner at some point in the afternoon, and fortunately my glamorous friend stepped in. I was forgiven for the crabby oversight as we ducked and dived and made it through the evening without any tears (and without any crab).
In spite of this crustacean disaster, my hosts were a joy. To top it all they owned a nightclub where we danced and imbibed tequila until the ruffles from the early evening seemed to iron themselves out. And it gets better still - there was a waiter in a white jacket who was entirely devoted to administering tequila to us.
This all seemed a long way from the stag-night tequilas and the sad pub nachos that have been the face of Mexican food in the UK for so many years.
And finally, farewell. The following day, our last, proved the point: a fascinating early-morning visit to Mexico City's main food market was a raucous hymn to the cuisine - stalls as far as you can see selling Spanish onions and limes. So this is how many onions it takes to feed a city of 28 million people.