Thursday 12 December 2013

Diana Kennedy, the Doyenne of Mexican Food: A Long-Promised Visit

Diana Kennedy arrived to collect us from our little hotel near Zicateuro in the state of Michoacan in Mexico in her aged Nissan truck, a feisty 89-year-old who on her own admission doesn't suffer fools gladly. No power steering here, we were flabbergasted by her sheer physical strength as she turned this trusty old vehicle with 12 inch wide tyres in an impossibly awkward space, Diana was not to be defeated and off we sped up the bumpy cobbled road to her little farm, a biological preserve she has created on seven hectares gradually acquired over 35 years.

She is a truly remarkable woman who has created a body of work on Mexican food of such importance and integrity that she has been awarded the highest honor given to foreigners by the Mexican government, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for her work of disseminating Mexican culture through its foods. There have been numerous other awards from gastronomic institutions all over the world and an OBE from Queen Elizabeth for her contribution to strengthening cultural relations between Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Diana, originally from Essex was first introduced to Mexico by her husband Paul Kennedy, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times in the 1970's.

We are welcomed up the stone steps into her beautiful, rambling house built on several levels around the huge boulders of the hillside, the atmosphere is gentle and relaxing, lots of timber, book-filled shelves, simple antique and craft furniture and a splendid collection of utilitarian pottery from all over Mexico.

Diana's kitchen is so beautiful, long horizontal timber windows overlooking the outdoor eating area with wood-burning ovens and a char-grill. The dresser is laden with beautiful pots and casuelas, well-used and much loved. There's a tiled 'peninsula' in the kitchen with several gas jets and pots and jars full of intriguing ingredients and utensils, lots of assorted wooden chopping boards and blue enamel spoons. Along the walls and overhead, there's a pleasing collection of saucepans, sieves and other Mexican utensils including a Molina for frothing up hot chocolate.

We've been invited to join Diana for comida, the traditional Mexican main meal usually eaten at 3pm. First we have a relaxing beer and catch up, it's been several years since we met, conversation ranges from Diana's research for her last book on the food of Oaxaca, a province we both know and love, to the myth about fat, and the preservation of her jotters which contain the notes from her travels through Mexican villages and the recipes she has collected from cooks throughout the country over a period of 35 years., a priceless resource which will now be preserved.

Our feast started with a rich yellow ochre squash blossom soup with roast poblano chili and squash blossom on top. This was followed by a delicious chicken cooked in pulque with rice and pickles.

Next we had a nopale leaf salad with lettuce from the garden. Nopale are huge cactus leaves as big as a table tennis bat, which are trimmed of thorns and cooked to tenderness.

Finally a selection of sweetmeats, all homemade: peaches from the garden, green mango, squash, figs, all preserved. Diana loves to cook and does everything from scratch.

The coffee, served in pretty china cups, is home grown, Arabica beans, fermented, roasted and freshly ground.

After comida, Diana took us for a walk around the vegetable garden and farm, the biodiversity on this little farm is truly astonishing, vegetables and fruit even watercress, asparagus and raspberries beside loquats, guavas, and a variety of citrus.

Next day, we went with Diana to the bustling market in Zitacuero, I bought several bunches of beautiful cinnamon and a couple of casuelas, Numerous types of chilies and dried shrimps, sacks of beans, corn-fed chickens, freshly butchered meat and every imaginable type of offal were piled high as well as fresh vegetables and fruit, Mexican herbs and spices. Other stallholders sold kitchen utensils, fresh fish, a variety of bread and freshly squeezed juices.

The comida that day started with a salad of leaves from the garden with little foie gras croutons and sublime Huitlacoche crepes and sweetmeats once more followed by excellent coffee.

Diana has a solar plate warmer to heat her plates and another to heat up her kettle, it's several thousand feet above sea level, so it takes ages!

We ran out of time because we had to get back to Mexico City before dark, we didn't realise that we were in the middle of narcoland, a totally no-go area for Americans, so no driver would agree to drive after dark, aaaaah!

We stayed at the airport Camino Real so we could catch our 8am flight to Oacaca and another adventure.