It was the 34th hour of wakefulness and I found myself standing up on the tray of a ute, pounding maxi-cans of Tecate beer and chatting to my chef buddy Fabio Bernadini while we did 100kph through the sweltering heat of the Oaxaca coast as the sun dropped out of the sky, super quick, tropics style. Two trucks full of cops overtook us as we flagrantly abused the parameters of driving safety. They couldn’t have cared less. Welcome to Mexico.
This was day one of my chef’s pilgrimage through Mexico. About 8 months ago, Fabio had told me he was moving to Mexico City to work at Pujol, arguably the best restaurant in all of Latin America. The moment I put down the phone from that conversation, I realised I had to meet him there. It was unlikely I’d ever get a shot like this again. Thankfully, Fabio was equally enthusiastic about the idea and worked out a cracking itinerary covering 8 days.
We’d flown into Puerto Escondido and been picked up by Fabio’s fish supplier, Lalo. We were heading back to his house/fish processing company in Puerto Angel which is about 1 hour away by car. My husband Murray was in the cab with Lalo who explained to him that all the chickens wandering around the place were called “Sopas” (Soup). I like this guy.
Perched on the top of Lalo’s fish supply business is his family’s kitchen/dining room. Claudia, Lalo’s wife, rules this domain. She was waiting for us with a feast of fish tacos. We all drank beer accompanied by small glasses of mescal, a distillation of fermented and roasted agave. This one was made by Lalo’s mother who starts every day with a glass. As the fiery smoky liquor burned down my throat I felt my body finally began to relax into Mexico’s gravity.
Groggy and disoriented we found ourselves on the back of Lalo’s truck at 6am the next morning heading to the fish markets by the pier in the centre of Puerto Angel. Fabio got me sorted with a cup of atole (A hot drink/meal of sesame, corn, sugar and milk. Delicious!) Then we got into the thick of the fishing boats on the beach to see what was on offer.
The fishing boats are simple, open, 23 foot long fibreglass dories called Lanchas. I didn’t even see any fishing rods, we were told these guys catch tuna on hand lines! They just throw their catch in the bottom and cover them with chip ice. It doesn’t get fresher than this. We bought a whole assortment of species for dinner including a fish called Salema that is known locally as the hallucinogenic fish. Apparently someone had a 36 hour long bad trip after eating one of these at a restaurant in the Mediterranean.
We took our haul back to Lalo’s and snacked on firm, silky slices of mackerel (cocinero) while we prepped all the fish for dinner. A couple of hours later after a breakfast of chicharones (crispy pig skin) braised in tomatillos we explored the local market for vegetables. The whole room was filled with the scent of the large pale yellow guavas they grow down here. I became a giggling child amongst mounds of tomatillos and huge bunches of diesel redolent epazote, plum like local cherries and dusty brown piles of exotic zapote fruits.
Claudia gratefully turned over her kitchen to us for the afternoon and Akim kept the mezcalitos flowing as we threw ourselves into prepping dinner for a hungry household. Fabio set to grilling some of the small fish whole over charcoal while I fried mounds of sweet grey green zucchinis and buried them in epazote and lime salsa. We laid out torn salty queso Oaxaca with cherry tomatoes and pungent local basil on crispy corn tostadas, mounds of tortillas fresh from the lady down the beach who makes them all day over her charcoal fuelled comal, and platters of Hallucinogenic fish ceviche and mackerel crudo. All the nephews, nieces and cousins who work for Lalo piled around the table and we got into it.
We woke to find a bay being pounded by big Pacific swell. Only the brave or foolish were fishing today so it didn’t look like we were going to get a chance to go out. While we sat upstairs at Lalo’s and watched the locals trying to figure out how to right a capsized Lancha in the middle of the bay we spotted Fabio in one of the boats signalling us down to the beach. In no time at all we found ourselves off the point about two beaches south and in the pit of a whole new landscape. I turned towards the open ocean and saw a wall of deep blue pacific rising behind us. Lalo’s best fisherman, Beto was at the tiller, calmly piloting his Lancha that seemed to be an extension of his soul. Whilst the rocky coast was coated in white foam and we plummeted below the horizon, he stood casually in the stern scanning the currents.
I would have been happy to spend the rest of my week in this busy little bay contemplating a Mexican retirement from our comfy beach front room at the Hotel Cordelia but Fabio had plans for us. Next up was a bus ride to Puerto Escondido and then a short hop in a single prop plane over the Sierras to Oaxaca, which is considered by many to be the gastro capital of Mexico.