The daily car horn symphony of Mexico City traffic was in full swing. The traffic cop’s whistle was drowned out hopelessly as he gesticulated and pleaded in the midst of utter traffic chaos. You have to see the comic side of it or you will be driven insane. Our cab driver honked his horn and somehow miraculously slipped into the wall of traffic on our right. As we approached a fistula of traffic converging on an eight street intersection, horns reached a crescendo. Our cab driver smiled as he turned to us, “Insane, right?”
It was a day of chaos. When we got to the Zocallo, the gigantic plaza in the centre of the city, we discovered it was closed for the filming of the latest James Bond film. We briefly joined the crowds of rubberneckers as we watched a helicopter gush smoke and simulate distress high above the vast Zocallo. Groups of extras clustered around in day of the dead outfits. Skinless brides and grooms leaning on giant floats of mechanised skeletons.
With our touristic plans thwarted we then stumbled off and shortly fell upon the surreal street of weddings and the 15 year party. Losing ourselves amongst mirror-lined displays of brightly coloured toile confections spinning on their pedestals cheek by jowl with lucha libre and super hero outfits and spiffy Mariachi outfits for 5 year olds. However nothing was in my size and I gave up on my mariachi aspirations and we headed home to get ready for dinner at Pujol.
Pujol is arguably Mexico’s finest restaurant and sits in the top twenty of the San Pellegrino list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The whole reason we had come to Mexico was to hang with my friend Fabio, who has been the sous chef at Pujol for the last 8 months. When we arrived at the restaurant he treated us to a full tour of the prep kitchen upstairs. We went through every inch of the fridges and dry stores, sniffing and sampling some of the finest ingredients harnessed from all over Mexico. We also sipped our way through all the fruit and starch ferments Fabio had prepared for his vinegar project. Large vats of corn were sitting near the grinder being slaked with lime. The big fat white kernels are brought in from Oaxaca and ground daily into masa for the tortillas that are made fresh for you throughout the meal.
This same grinder is also used for Pujol’s 621 day old Mole. Chef Enrique Olvera has dispensed with the chicken component in this classic dish. He simply serves a black and red target of Mole Madre and Mole Nuevo in the centre of a white plate accompanied by the aforementioned fluffy and fragrant, freshly made tortillas.
The tasting menu we embarked on that night began with a tisane of corn and coriander to freshen our palates and ready us for the Mexican food odyssey that Pujol is renowned for. The restaurant is famous for its reworking of ancient Mexican food customs such as the Mole Negro and the introduction of reworked classics like the Hoja Santa tamale filled with unctuous corn and potato filling. A particularly memorable dish was the suckling lamb taco. This dish was inspired by the very same lamb barbacoa stall we had visited in the Tlocalula market. A pillow like tortilla, coloured a vivid green by cilantro filled with meltingly tender shards of braised lamb and pumpkin flowers delicately accented with the earthy herb, criollo and guacamole. I have to say, that lamb took me right back to that market. That sense of place is hammered home with the Mole Negro. Its rich complexity grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shouts “You are in Mexico!”
The next day we found ourselves at the beginning of the 2 mile long avenidos del los muertos marvelling at the pyramids of the sun and moon. These pyramids are hell of a steep things to climb and they are crawling with kids and grandparents, some of them crawling back down the giant stairs on their butts trying not to let their vertigo get the best of them. If this site was in New Zealand, you would not be able to enter the site without a full climbing rig and an accredited guide and they would only allow 50 people on site at a time. But this is Mexico, have at it! Luckily no-one appeared to get injured whilst we explored and the view from the pyramid of the moon all the way down the avenue of the dead was a cracker.
That night we had a farewell meal with Fabio at Maximo bistrot local. This is a laid back and very busy little neighbourhood place in Colonia Roma not far from the hip Condesa neighbourhood. Fabio knew the chef here, so we didn’t even see a menu till after the meal. Food just kept pouring out of the kitchen onto our table. The first dish of burrata with slivers of heirloom carrot, virgin olive oil and coriander was a stunner. This was followed by a procession of simple yet beautifully cooked dishes like crispy skinned suckling pork you could eat with a spoon, gigantic sweetbreads with caramelised onions with a texture like custard and a stunning dessert of mamey flan, the exotic fruit beaten into a custard and baked to an almost cake like consistency and served with ice cream and almonds. It was essentially a meal made with European style and technique but composed of Mexican ingredients and memories. It was thoughtful and soulful and a lovely meal to end our journey with.
Although the association of Mexico with beans, sombreros and nachos may have slid into the past as a distant stereotype, this journey has left me in awe of the depth and variety of Mexico’s food culture. There is a clarity to the flavours of Mexico that Mexican cooks seem to innately understand. Memories of meals there are filled with thoughts of ingredients and places, not chefs and techniques. I call that soul. I’ll be back for another helping.