August 12, 2011 10:06 pm

Raiding Mexico’s larder

Top restaurants in Mexico City are playing with native ingredients to invent spectacular twists on traditional dishes

My spoon glided through the velvety black bean soup, then cut through a dark tortilla filled with shrimp and avocado. A light dusting of avocado leaf powder completed the explosion of flavours: earthiness, meatiness, the rich quality of the avocado and shrimp after the initial textual bite through the corn and, finally, that wonderful herbaceous, aniseedy flavour of the avocado leaf powder (a plant used traditionally in Mexico to add an unmistakable but subtle flavour to black beans). It was a dish that literally made my heart skip.

I was at Biko, in the heart of the chi-chi Polanco district of Mexico City, a restaurant that earlier this year climbed to 31st place in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best after its initial entry in 2010. This was a plate of food that epitomises the revolution that has been under way in the Mexican food scene during the past five years or so. Restaurants here are no longer satisfied with mimicking European cooking to exceptional standards. Instead they are shrugging off the curse of “malinchismo”, an expression coined by the name of Cortés’ Mexican-Indian lover, La Malinche, who was infamous for turning her back on Mexico to embrace the exoticism of all things European.

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Now, when you visit Mexico City’s better restaurants you will probably find them embracing their own culinary traditions and celebrating Mexico’s ingredients, using them in a richly varied but extremely sophisticated level of cooking. What makes Biko stand out from some of the other top Mexican restaurants in the city is that there are two Basque chefs at its helm – Mikel Alonso and Bruno Oteiza. They arrived in Mexico City under the careful tutelage of another Basque chef, the celebrated Juan Mari Arzak, and worked in his Mexican restaurant for nine years before setting up Biko in 2007.

The restaurant’s name is Basque for “pair” and alludes to the partnership of the two chefs and their menu, divided into a traditional Basque half and a thoroughly Mexican one, albeit using some of the techniques that have put Spanish cuisine on the international map. For me, the interesting point is that Mexico has managed to attract two such patriotic chefs to its shores and keep them there. The secret of this attraction? The ingredients.

Mexico is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, alongside Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Peru. Its huge range of flora and fauna, combined with the country’s love of cooking, means that recipes and ingredients are a constant feast of learning and taste. The markets are packed with wild leaves, herbs, fruits and vegetables that do not travel outside Mexico’s borders. Ingredients such as corn, chillies, tomatoes, avocados and vanilla are indigenous, with hundreds of varieties of the first two. Even the language has been coloured by its food, with expressions for almost every occasion steeped in the traditions of cooking.

This year Unesco added Mexico’s cuisine to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list, which has confirmed its foodie credentials on the international stage. Indeed, renowned chefs including Pierre Gagnaire, Ferran Adrià and Jason Atherton have already long been avid fans of its cuisine.

Tostadas crocantes with salmón in escabeche and aderezo picante of chile chipotle

Tostadas crocantes with salmón in escabeche and aderezo picante of chile chipotle at Dulce Patria

For Enrique Olvera, whose restaurant Pujol also made it into the World’s 50 Best this year, this comes as no surprise. Olvera opened Pujol more than nine years ago after studying at the Culinary Institute in New York. His restaurant is a celebration of Mexican flavours, often originating in the traditions of its street food, cooked with a pared-back but modern style. While he never mixes more than a few main ingredients on a plate, they are always intrinsically Mexican, cooked with a quirky sense of humour.

The first dish I tried there was a take on pork scratchings and guacamole, a classic snack in the Mexican markets. Here it was a smooth, vivid green avocado purée in a shot glass, topped with a grinding of pork skin powder and an iced sorbet of tomato salsa, managing to be both elegant and playful. Other dishes on his menu that bowled me over included a tamal of huitlacoche, a traditional corn dumpling looking far from conventional, cooked exquisitely and flavoured with the corn fungus that is so prized in Mexico, with a zingy, light green tomato sauce and the earthiness of a recado negro “ash”. All the constituents of this dish are rooted in the traditions of Mexico. Nothing about it was old-fashioned, just clever and utterly delicious. Delicate pieces of suckling pig were equally wonderful, this time served with a rich peanut sauce (called a mole) and a scattering of chile piquin and Mexican oregano.

Just up the road is another Mexican, Martha Ortiz, with her restaurant Dulce Patria. She has been a restaurateur for longer than Olvera, and her style has an air of the artist Frida Kahlo about it, with flaming pink and red flowers everywhere and brightly coloured decorations on the plates.

If Olvera’s food is minimalist, Ortiz’s is simply beautiful. It is rare in a restaurant that I want to take pictures of every plate of food that lands in front of me, but here one’s hand automatically roots around for anything that might record the artistry. The starters, a delicious range of snacks from quesadillas and ceviches through to tostadas and mini tarts, are exquisitely presented on a variety of carefully sourced plates and boards. Again the emphasis is on authentic ingredients.

Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso

Biko chefs Bruno Oteiza (left) and Mikel Alonso

My favourite of all these dishes was a delightfully light salad of purely Mexican provenance: tomatoes, the Mexican cheese quesillo and grasshoppers. The tomatoes included several red varieties, a yellow and a green, whose tart acidity balanced beautifully with the fresh curd cheese. The dressing was accented with fresh epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, while the garnish was a spectacular-looking aged cheese “crisp” with roasted grasshoppers suspended in its web.

If ever Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, who disparaged Mexican food earlier this year, returns to the country, he should lift his visor and look around him for some of the stuff that we were eating, the stuff that foodie dreams are made of.

Thomasina Miers’ television series ‘Mexican Food Made Simple’ is on Channel 5

Biko, www.biko.com.mx

Pujol, www.pujol.com.mx

Dulce Patria, www.dulcepatriamexico.com

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Tequila’s sunrise

It used to be a prospect endurable only with the help of salt and lime, writes Ian Williams.

Tequila, signature drink of Mexico, was at worst a rite of passage for young party-goers, at best a base for a margarita. After all, compared with decades for a single malt whisky, even “añejo”, or aged, tequila might have spent only a year in the barrel.

But the tequila makers are fighting back – and finding new markets. Tequila, they are keen to point out, is already “pre-aged”. The blue agave plant used to make it is nurtured in volcanic soils for at least eight years before it is baked, milled, fermented and distilled.

They are also experimenting with barrel types and ageing their product for longer. Most tequila is currently divided into three categories: “reposado”, aged two to 12 months; “añejo” one to three years; and the recently introduced “extra-añejo”, which must be aged for at least three years.

But ageing is a delicate process. Jack Robertiello, spirits expert and judge of San Diego’s annual “Spirits of Mexico” competition, says: “There is still a steep learning curve for [the producers] to understand oak the way the Scotch distillers do ... They are learning as they go.” He adds that “what can get lost in the ageing is the agave-flavoured sweetness. Very few of them have that fresh vegetal edge”.

The tequileros are well aware of the relationship between oak and agave. Manuel Fernández San Martín, who moved from tequila giant Jose Cuervo to launch Tequila 1519, says: “If we used new oak, of the kind used in bourbon, it would take a mere six months to drown out the agave.” He tried using casks from Tennessee but lately he has favoured “hybrid” casks, with staves of different oaks. “The final product is going to be different, distinctive, and that leads naturally to single-barrel batches ... Single-barrel bottles will retail for between $100 and $200, bottle sealed and certified. We want to hit the premium market.”

Jose Hermosillo, chief executive of Tequila Casa Noble, is another evangelist for top-end tequila. “It’s amazing how many different notes and aromas it can have, based on the different contributions of the terroir where the agave is produced.” Casa Noble has, he says, “complex fruit notes, spices, white pepper, peppermint” and is aged in oak barrels for up to five years for the extra-añejo.

“We’re using French white oak which is unusual for tequilas, so you are getting vanillas, chocolate, dried fruits, all those marvellous aromas complementing the original.” No need for salt or lime.

Ian Williams’ ‘The Global History of Tequila’ will be published by Reaktion Books in 2012

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