Rick Stein, the celebrated seafood authority, famous chef and restaurateur extraordinaire – a man who’s travelled the world eating and collecting traditional cooking techniques, magpie-like– claims to be “only a very, very enthusiastic amateur when it comes to Mexican food”.
Flicking through his latest cookbook, The Road To Mexico, which has a BBC telly series to match, ‘amateur’ is not the word one would reach for. ‘Enthusiastic’, however, is pretty spot on.
The 70-year-old, usually synonymous with Cornwall’s Padstow (‘Padstein’ to the locals), retraced a journey he took as a hungry 21-year-old in 1968, through Mexico and into California.
Although this time, instead of hitchhiking, he travelled in a rather lovely, powder blue convertible Ford Mustang.
He remembers how, despite tucking into the odd batch of Indian food in Sixties England, on his original trip, Mexican food “was the first truly foreign and exotic food” he’d ever tasted. “The chilli, the sourness and the freshness of everything I tried there really struck a note with me,” Rick recalls. “It’s so in your face.”
The appeal of returning to California was to see how it had moved on and changed, he explains: “I was there in the hippy days, although I wasn’t a hippy myself, I hasten to add.”
Mexican cuisine is more varied and complex than you might expect.
Rick’s enthusiasm for Mexican food really is boundless, whether its fresh ceviche (“The way they make it in Mexico is so special”), Wahacan cheese (“They make it by pulling the cheese into longer and longer strands, and then roll it up like knitting wool into a ball”), or stuffed and refried tortillas called panuchos - the best of which he ate at a Holiday Inn in Campeche
(“Yeah, they were really nice!”).
He says we often misconstrue the cuisine and mistake it for something it’s not; nachos and fajitas for instance are Tex-Mex, not Mexican.
“There’s actually a lot of lighter, fragrant dishes; it’s not all about loads of meat, cheese, cream and tortillas - it’s much more varied than that.”
Then there’s the street food, which Rick calls “among the best in the world”, and describes as hinging on family, history and culture. The tacos in particular.
“They have a bit of meat, a lot of tomatoes, lettuce, onions and often avocado, then there’s chilli, salsa and radish in there – tacos are really balanced. The only fattening thing about them is you do tend to eat too many because they’re so scrumptious.”