I first met Diana Kennedy 14 years ago. She must have been about 80. I took a four-hour bus journey from Mexico City to her eco ranch in Michoacán on the west coast to interview her. I arrived around 3pmand she met me at the gate with a glass of mezcal.
She showed me her garden: there were chillies, corn, tomatillos and coffee beans. Her larder was brimming with chutneys, chilli pastes and vinegars made with fruits such as pineapple and guava.
Mexicans are obsessed with vinegar – you need sharp acidic dressings for slaws and salsas to offset all those lovely slow-cooked gelatinous braises. Diana is a big environmentalist; she had a composting looand a solar-powered oven. At around 4.30, she brought out some very fine bone china, a pot of darjeeling and cake. It was extraordinary to meet this very British woman living in the middle of the Mexican jungle.
Diana was brought up in Essex, but has lived in Mexico for at least 50 years. She has written several very thick tomes on Mexican food. Very early on, she realised how regional the food in Mexico was, which is why her first book, published in 1972, is called The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.
The wealth of ingredients is astonishing. Diana would go to a state and discover a new chilli, herb or bean. She travelled around the whole country in an old pickup truck. She would arrive with a rollmat on her back and ask to speak to the best cooks in the village. She saw that a lot of women were cooking incredible dishes in these different areas, but some spoke dialects and others couldn’t write, so to preserve these recipes she started to write them down.
The city of Oaxaca is famous for its mole – meaning sauce – and the most complex is a deep, black one. In the introduction to the recipe in Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, Diana says you need four helpers and an open fire to make it. I remember thinking in exasperation: “Typical Diana to make such a fuss. How hard can it be?” I made it and it took four of us the whole weekend. She was completely right. It was incredible. These complex moles are a fine balance of sweet and savoury.
The Cuisines of Mexico is probably my favourite of her books. The title encapsulates just how different the food is around the country. In each recipe’s introduction, there’s a paragraph about its creator, which brings it to life.
We have a salsa on the menu at Wahaca that is inspired by a recipe in the book. It’s called salsa de tijera. You snip up ancho chillies with a pair of scissors and finely chop shallots and garlic, then let the ancho, shallots and garlic marinate in olive oil and vinegar for as long as you can. It’s very pungent, rich, red and oily. I’ve been using it for years. The book is full of these gems, and generally they are easy to make in.
Diana is one of only two British people who have been given the Order of the Aztec Eagle – Mexicans revere her. When I delve into her books, I’m always inspired to cook something. She transports me to Mexico.
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