Last week we went to Mexico for a few days. I have tussled over how to write about it, since we went there as tourists and were treated as such; by which I mean we were treated with respect and mostly a benign indifference. At times it was quite funny, how we would go back into a shop having spoken to the owner perhaps half an hour before, who now had no recollection of us. This happened quite a bit. Perhaps we do all look the same.
We were staying on the sea near the small town of Todos Santos, on the Baja peninsula. The road leading up to the town was entirely flat and straight and shimmered with that wet heat so beloved of mirages. Either side of us was an ocean of cacti, frozen with dust – imagine stalactites in reverse – with the odd blossom or patch of green as if the landscape was suddenly surprised by something. Loosely tethered horses stood looking at the ground. Nothing else moved, but us. The arrival into Todos Santos is heralded by a banner reading Welcome to Todos Santos, “the magical place”.
These are interesting words, conjuring up the crossing of a threshold, of stepping from one world into another – you walk through the back of a wardrobe and feel the snow underfoot. And entering Todos Santos does have a sensation of time travel. There were pick-up trucks everywhere baked in mud, with kids in the back bouncing up and down on their way to and from school. A child of about four sat helmetless on the front of a motorbike at the one solitary traffic light, her legs wrapped like elastic bands around those of the driver. His movements were dreamlike as he took off, like liquid running slowly through dust.
We found a grocer that sold, amongst other things, eggs, avocados, tomatoes, green tomatillos and garlic. There were mountains of avocados, black, wizened and almost fungally soft. I bought the least mushy. We also bought eggs. I was expecting the avocados to be uneatable. But they were not; behind the skin lay a soft and nutty clay. They were truly gorgeous, a deep, khaki green and I ate them as you would an ice cream in a cup – half-peeled with the ‘peak’ showing, the base sitting in the palm of my hand. I ate avocados all day long from then on, not minding their ‘decaying breast’ appearance.
We ate like this whenever we could; out of hand, from roadside stalls or local shops. We couldn’t pretend to be locals ourselves, but we tried to avoid any obvious tourist spots or hostelries run by sour-looking ex-pats. Apart from avocados, I ate a lot of guacamole. There were different versions of this, ranging from sloppy, almost a slurry of bright and sharp tastes, to thick and smooth like a paste. The one I liked most was all green with no tomato. There was texture from the onion, there was a hint of acid from the lime, there was a kick of freshness from the cilantro and a bloom of warmth; chile perhaps. And of course the divine clay – soft and sweet. I ate it with parrot fish.
I feel reticent to say it was actually our poshest – by which I mean our most expensive – meal. Everything came directly from the sea in front or from the organic garden in a field leading up to the place. You couldn’t miss it; aubergines, tomatoes, nasturtium, sunflowers, papaya trees, everything trailed and sprouted and stretched up to the sky, happily engorged on sun and regular irrigation. We got out of the car and wandered amongst it all before surfacing to ask about the menu. When we returned properly dressed an hour later, no one recognized us. “We just came here. We asked you about the menu, what the catch of the day was.” “Ah, yes, yes!” etc.
There are some moments that seem purely fantastical to me now: sitting in the square in Todos Santos eating an ice cream and hearing the clack-clack-clack of a typewriter from an open office window. Standing in line at the supermarket and opening the lid on a pot of tamales that was sitting on the conveyor belt. They were apparently for sale (pot not included). A cat with half a lizard in its mouth. Our hitch-hikers – two teenage missionaries from Peru, with starched white shirts and ties, so polite it hurt. The wild white fangs of the sea and the surfers bobbing like seals. I hope I can go back. I hope it really exists.
Classic Mexican guacamole
Adapted from Food 52
& Roberto Santibañez, Truly Mexican
Santibañez believes texture is the key to a good guacamole – “you want to feel everything” – and crushes some of the avocado but leaves the rest in chunks. The pummeled chile, onion, salt and cilantro acts as a sort of thick dressing here.
Half a white onion, finely chopped
1 tbs of serrano or jalapeño chile, including seeds, minced
1/2 teaspoon flaky salt
A large handful of chopped cilantro (coriander), divided
1 large or 2 small ripe Mexican Hass avocados, halved and pitted
A few good squeezes of lime
Makes a medium bowlful
Mash the onion, chile, salt and half of the cilantro to a paste in a molcajete or other mortar. You can also mince and mash the ingredients together on a cutting board with a large knife or a fork, and then transfer the paste to a bowl.
Score the flesh in the avocado halves in a crosshatch pattern (not through the skin) with a knife and then invert into the mortar or bowl. Keep some of the avocado back to add at the end. Toss the guacamole well, then add the rest of the cilantro and avocado and mash briefly and coarsely with a pestle or a fork. Season to taste with lime juice and additional chile and salt (if you like).
Our posh meal was at Rancho Pescadero. If you’re ever in the area, go there.