• Mexico

    Mexico

  • Mexican - Markets

    Mexican - Markets

  • Mexican - Food

    Mexican - Food

  • Mexican - Cooking

    Mexican - Cooking

  • Mexican - Food

    Mexican - Food

Mexico

MexicoOne of my many bosses Janice called me and asked if I would like to participate in one of ITV’s This Morning competitions. Now this really hasn’t been my cup of tea over the years for various reasons, primarily though because I’m a cook and that’s what I do. I did explain this to her but she sort of ignored it and tried many ways to sway me. In the end she explained that I had been on the show for 18 years and it was about time, plus she sold it to me saying that it would be fun working with Alison Hammond (a fellow presenter on the programme) AND she would buy me a lobster lunch! Well forget the first two, lobster lunch was the game changer, and I duly succumbed. Now for the few people who have made rather disparaging comments on social media about my involvement in competitions, trust me I haven’t ‘sold my soul’ or ‘sold out’ it purely was the lure of the crustacean end of.

The first competition I was involved in was with Alison in a caravan park in the Isle of Wight. Now you can see why lobster was a big part in making my mind up. Before I get hate mail the Isle of Wight and the holiday park were and still are truly lovely places and we did have a lot of fun. I did a bit of research also watching the master at work a certain Andi Peters, who has been working in this area for years. His sleek, super presentation and toned torso was a bit daunting, if I’m being honest but I got a good gist of how a real pro does it. The competition went down well and Alison and I hit it off from the start, however, no lobster appeared!!!

A few weeks later I was asked to go back to the same location, for a new competition. I flatly refused, due to the fact that my lobster never appeared last time. Janice promised me that the crustacean would make an appearance this time; it duly did after we had a good time filming.

So with the above in mind when Janice asked me to go to Mexico for a rather special competition, I didn’t really need to think about it too much. The reason being (not a lobster dinner) but we were to make two food strands for the show also, one on great Mexican food and of course Tequila, bingo…. sold!

We flew with BA from Gatwick for just over 11 hours, all pretty straight forward and landed into Cancun and very nice 28C. Getting through customs with a film crew can be a little bit of a pain, especially when they check every bit of kit! Once through there was a further delay trying to find our driver and minibus, finally we head out on the road to our resort. On the way the heavens opened and boy did it rain.
In fact, it rained so hard, Rich (soundman) had to ask the driver to slow down because the windscreen wipers didn’t work very well, plus it was dark and we narrowly missed an oncoming truck…welcome to Mexico.
So, after the best part of 15 hours we finally arrived at the hotel.
The hotel Unico Riviera Maya is a five star resort, like many of the places on this strip of coast. Gated, plush and very well organised its rather impressive if you like this sort of thing. The place is packed with loud, rich young Americans on a few days break.
My room looks out to sea and is very spacious, including a hot tub on the balcony (as if you need one, its very hot) This place is huge, with 5 swimming pools and 6 restaurants, numerous bars plus a coffee shop. The staff are charming and really attentive. The staff are charming and really attentive.
Dinner our first night was in the Mexican restaurant and was very good indeed. After the obligatory Margarita I scanned the menu expecting what I deem as Mexican food tortilla, guacamole etc etc. Apart from guacamole that is made in front of you, the rest of the dishes are completely new to me. The guacamole as I said is made in front of you, the avocado is gently pounded in a pestle and mortar, before salt, chilli, lime, tomato, white onion and coriander are added, all very carefully and slowly, so as to not break up the flesh too much. Its served with bog standard tortilla chips. The avocado is very ripe and creamy, and is delicious. We were all pretty stuffed after that lot, so we called it a very long day and went to bed.

Next, I order Pork and Tongue Salbut, a fried tortilla with pork and tongue cooked in a rich tomato sauce, topped with egg and red onions. Main course was again pork, this time in a Traditional Cochinita Pilbil. This consists of shoulder or pork, cooked slowly for about 6 hours with plenty of achiote paste (annatto) something we would encounter pretty much at every meal time, sour oranges, vinegar, guajillo and habanero chillies served with a relish and tortilla. Its what I call a no-nonsense dish, gutsy, big chunks of fatty meat, lots of flavour and straight to the point, absolutely delicious, right up my street. 

Next day we were up early to film in a bit of peace and quiet before our loud American friends surfaced. It was a really warm day and after a couple of hours we were all feeling it, but we battled on.

Alberto the chef from the resorts best restaurant

Alberto the chef from the resorts best restaurant

As we were filming a competition its really important that we get the best shots of the hotel and its amenities, so this takes a bit of time and many changes of clothes as you sweat like mad, so we always start early.
After lunch I was to cook a couple of dishes with Alberto the chef from the resort’s best restaurant. Quite weirdly it’s an Italian themed restaurant, not what I was expecting at all.
After chatting with him it pans out (forgive the pun) that his parents were Mexican and Italian, plus he had worked in an Italian restaurant in Mexico City for many years.
His vision now was to mix the two cuisines together carefully and thoughtfully.
First up was his version of guacamole, pretty much similar to the version we had had the previous evening. He added hotter chillies this time, lots more coriander but no tomato, sliced red onion. Again the avocado was very gently crushed and as Alberto explained, he wanted to end up with a creamy, soft guacamole.
As like with a lot of great, simple food, this dish relies on the ripeness and freshness of all the ingredients to marry together perfectly. Its was very nice indeed.
Next was another simple dish a ceviche (he called it something else and I can’t remember what it was). Basically it was a fresh prawns, marinated in a chilli water, with cucumber, fresh coriander, avocado, sliced red onion and salt.
The prawns were deveined then butterflied, and pressed slightly. The dried chillies were pounded in a pestle, to which a little water was added along with a little salt. The prawns are deveined then fanned out of the plate and the chilli water was drizzled over. A light sprinkling of cubed avocado and cucumber, then finely sliced red onion and chopped coriander and that was it. If you can leave the prawns to marinate for a while, then all the better. Like the guacamole for this dish to work you are again relying on the freshest, tip top ingredients. It was hot to eat but very refreshing.
 

Next stop was a cookery lesson deep in the jungle at the Mexican Lindo, with Chef Alejandra T.Kauachi, or as she likes to be known Ale. Her beautiful restaurant/kitchen is set deep in the jungle and boasts its own garden where a lot of the produce is grown for the teaching kitchen.

 

We tour her garden, that’s bursting with so may chillies I cannot remember them all, plus herbs are grown in abundance. Papaya and even pineapples are cultivated in this small oasis in the jungle, what a lovely place.
We arrive late (as usual when filming) but all is fine and after a refreshing hibiscus water.
We crack straight on with Ale’s version (quite by chance) of the Cochinita Pilbil, the pork dish from the previous evening. Her version used lots of achiote seeds and paste, not only to give flavour but a deep red colour. This in then mixed with garlic, peppercorns, paprika, oregano, Seville orange juice and water. Shoulder or leg of pork is marinated and then cooked in a wood fired oven in banana leaves.
The result is stunning, soft flesh, deep flavour with a whiff of woodsmoke. This was served with soft corn tortillas (flour is used in the north of Mexico, so she tells me) and pickled red onions. We also tasted a lemon soup with shards of fried tortilla, all very nice.
The result is stunning, soft flesh, deep flavour with a whiff of woodsmoke. This was served with soft corn tortillas (flour is used in the north of Mexico, so she tells me)
...and pickled red onions.
We also tasted a lemon soup with shards of fried tortilla, all very nice.
 

 We say our good byes and head off further into the jungle to a place called Tankah, an area of jungle still owned by the Maya.

  

This is sacred ground and the rules here are very strict on what you can and can’t do (and so they should be) we meet up with our guide Carlos, who is going to show us around
We start by filming in the cenotes, natural pools that flow under the limestone. In ancient times they were used for water supply and religious ceremonies.
Most cenotes are filled with clean water that’s filtered through the rock, so the water is pure and clean.
These days they are used for swimming and snorkelling and admire the wildlife that thrives here in and out of the water.
Plus you can do a bit of zip wiring if you’re in the mood…
 

 After a long days filming (plus the heat and humidity) we head back to the hotel for a very cold beer.

For our final days filming and we head off to find Mexican street food into Playa Del Carmen. Wasn’t sure what to expect really, but after an hour’s drive we arrive at the town. I have to say I was a little disappointed. It was a bit dingy and slightly run down, nothing like the photographs you see. In fairness it wasn’t helped by the fact that we had a mighty downpour as we were just about to start filming, but even then it wasn’t particularly nice. Filming in the street was right out due to the weather so we asked our fixer to find a small market/shop with a café. He did us proud and we found a small covered market/shop.

There was a huge range of fresh and dried foods, from dozens of varieties of dried chilli, palm sugar and spices, to fresh fruits and meats.

Next stop a late lunch at the village

Next stop a late lunch at the village

We sit in a small hut and feast on chicken in a huge black cauldron with achiote (again) braised black beans, rice, guacamole, griddled thin slices of cooked pork and two chilli sauces. One red, nice warm heat, with peppers and tomatoes.
The second, dark green habanero, thin and watery, but my god was it hot. I tasted a small spoon, I reckon ½ a teaspoon that’s all. Well within seconds and I mean seconds I could feel my tongue swelling one side, it felt like I’d place a hot poker in my mouth.
Carlos was laughing, and tried to tell me that all his family eat that sauce, yeah right!!!!! After the initial shock the rest of the meal was very good and great to see corn tortillas being made and cooked over an open fire.
Here they mix a corn meal, similar to fine polenta with water and make a pulp. Its then left to thicken and swell, then deftly rolled and griddled until puffy. They are very different from the flour version, that’s more Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican.
 

After a long days filming (plus the heat and humidity) we head back to the hotel for a very cold beer.

For our final days filming and we head off to find Mexican street food into Playa Del Carmen. Wasn’t sure what to expect really, but after an hour’s drive we arrive at the town. I have to say I was a little disappointed. It was a bit dingy and slightly run down, nothing like the photographs you see. In fairness it wasn’t helped by the fact that we had a mighty downpour as we were just about to start filming, but even then it wasn’t particularly nice. Filming in the street was right out due to the weather so we asked our fixer to find a small market/shop with a café. He did us proud and we found a small covered market/shop.

There was a huge range of fresh and dried foods, from dozens of varieties of dried chilli, palm sugar and spices, to fresh fruits and meats.

 

Sadly I cannot remember all the varieties of chilli, but there were about 40 in total, all specifically used for certain dishes.

The market was a bustling place, I love watching locals abroad when they shop for food. They really are very careful about what they buy. Checking, smelling, feeling and occasionally rowing with the vendor if they thought that quality was not up to scratch. Our fixer told us that the locals will shop sometimes twice a day to get the freshest food and ingredients.

We order several dishes including a lovely sounding pumpkin flower quesadilla and a chilaquiles with side sauces that are hot, hot and even hotter!!! The food is simple and basic, but is very fresh and tastes very good.

We also taste a chaya drink, the green glass above; it’s a sort of tree spinach. My fixer Carlos tells me that its fine to eat when cooked and is very good for you (I’m not so sure, subsequent research when I got home found that it does have a cyanide compound in the leaves) Or if you drink it raw you have to add some acid like lemon or lime to neutralise the plant or it can be toxic. I’m in two minds whether to try it…… I do and 2 days later when I’m climbing out of bed for the 14th time in one night rushing to the loo, I really wished I hadn’t. Its probably the worst food poisoning I have had even worse than the parasite I caught eating a beating cobra heart, warm cobra bile and blood in Vietnam once.

We move on to the final piece of our film and kept it to the end on purpose, a very large Tequila shop!!!!

We move on to the final piece of our film and kept it to the end on purpose, a very large Tequila shop!!!!

We were flying out that night so it was a suitable way to end our great trip to Mexico.
My experience with the fiery water was quite limited, pretty much the only time I drank the stuff was in a slammer as a young chef. Here though this shop took the stuff to a whole new level. There must have been over two thousand bottles, in all shapes and sizes.
We did in fact taste several from the bog standard clear version to a 10 year old offering matured in sherry barrels. The experience was rather good fun, and the 10-year-old, was like drinking a seriously good French Armagnac very smooth and sophisticated.

All in all we had another great trip and as always I learnt a hell of a lot about Mexican food, drink and culture. The food here on the Yucatan peninsula is a far cry from the stuff we get at home and that was really nice to experience. I just need to come back and taste food from a different part if the country, I will not be trying a green, slightly acidic, sludgy drink!!!


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