Aside from my emotional breakdown at Heathrow departures, this blog has largely painted a positive picture of my foodish endeavours. But that’s not to say it’s been an easy ride. Quiet apart from anything else, as I’d never travelled like this before, it’s been a huge test of mental strength to spend a year on the road, moving locations on a weekly basis. So it was perhaps inevitable that, arriving in Mexico City’s unfamiliar environment and foreign culture, I felt homesick. I certainly hadn’t suffered like this since my first weekend at Scout camp, sat in some sodding tent, crying in the rain.
As is often professed, one of the best ways to cheer yourself up is to do something for someone else. With this in mind I was grateful to spend my first week in Mexico City with Jane from Virtuous Breads, an organisation that focuses on bread making as a catalyst for social change. Jane would be teaching me all about Mexican breads and their history. We would also spend time helping at the nearby Ednica, an organisation that supports children and adolescents at risk of working on the streets. Before this project started, I never anticipated I’d be teaching Mexican children how to cook, but they probably didn’t expect being subjected to a rather strange-looking ‘pesto’ by an English chap.
Back at Jane’s house I learned how Mexican cuisine changed after the Spanish conquest c. 1518. Although Spain’s biggest influence was pioneering meat and dairy-farming, they also brought a variety of new ingredients to Mexico, such as olive oil, garlic and coriander, as well as new cooking methods, such as frying. However, due to the cost and scarcity of Spanish ingredients, the indigenous diet of corn, beans and chilies still prevailed. New did not replace old, and the two cuisines joined to form the Mexican food we know and love today.
Another crop brought to Mexico was wheat (after all it was the only material permissible for the wafer during the Catholic Eucharist). Despite Spain’s best attempts, the indigenous population were reluctant to adopt wheat for some time. It wasn’t until the 19th-century invasion by France that Mexicans developed a taste for bread. With the French defeated in 1862, Mexico continued to embrace their invaders’ culinary offerings, and bakeries sprung up everywhere – albeit with their own take on their predecessors traditions and customs. Good bye croissants hello cuernitos!
Over the next few days, Jane and I baked Mexico’s take on French classics such as bolillos, a Mexican ‘short baguette’. Mexico’s cultural influence in baking is best found in ‘enriched’ breads. As Jane explained, ingredients beyond mere flour and water, such as eggs and sugar, were expensive and so would only be baked at special times, for example at pan de muerto, the festival of the dead. I tried my hand at making some conchas – a take on a French brioche, topped with a sugary dough and scored to resemble shells.
Time with Jane outside the kitchen was of course spent eating, and if bread baking gave a history lesson in colonial influence, then my mid-week lunch with Cristina Potters, from Mexico Cooks contrasted this with something more ancient. We headed to La Casa de Toño in search of Pozole, an Aztec soup of corn, meat and chilli, still enjoyed throughout Mexico, and in particular on the eve of independence (15th Sept). The Aztecs discovered that soaking corn in an alkaline solution meant that the corn could be digested. Perhaps the only thing to change since then is the use of pork instead of human flesh!
As is typical in the central region of Mexico, we feasted on red pozole (which is white in the North, and green in the South). To our pozole we added some shredded lettuce, radish, freshly squeezed key lime, dried oregano and some hot red salsa to give it an extra kick. Served with tostados (fried tortillas) and chicharron (Mexican pork crackling), this would have normally been a meal I’d be singing from the rooftops about. Sadly, however, I found it hard to show interest with the dreaded cloud of homesickness still looming over me. Shamefully, as a self-professed curious eater, all I wanted at this moment was a Sunday roast, hot bath and night in with the family watching Downton Abbey.
My first week in Mexico was certainly the toughest yet. However, if the rich and diverse history of Mexican cuisine can teach me anything, it is that embracing aspects outside of your comfort zone is a recipe for a tasty future. With that in mind, so continues the story of a Foodish Boy. Onwards and upwards!
Many thanks to Jane & her family, for their kindness and hospitality during my first week in Mexico as well as Cristina and her wife Judy.
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