One 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 of making my mind up. Before I get hate mail, the Isle of Wight and the holiday park were charming places, and we had a lot of fun. I also did a bit of research 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 were 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. However, 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!
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. The main course was again pork, this time in a Traditional Cochinita Pibil. 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 mealtime, sour oranges, vinegar, guajillo and habanero chillies served with relish and tortilla. It’s what I call a no-nonsense dish, gutsy, big chunks of fatty meat, lots of flavours and straight to the point, absolutely delicious, right up my street.
The 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.
The 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 say our goodbyes and head off further into the jungle to a place called Tankah, an area of the jungle still owned by the Maya.
After a long day of filming (plus the heat and humidity), we head back to the hotel for a very cold beer.
For our final day filming and we head off to find Mexican street food in Playa Del Carmen. I 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 helpful because 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, and I love watching locals abroad when they shop for food. They really are meticulous 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 would sometimes shop twice a day to get the freshest food and ingredients.
We order several dishes, including a lovely sounding pumpkin flower quesadilla and 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. It’s 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.
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 of the country. I will not be trying a green, slightly acidic, sludgy drink!!!