Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘You can’t get bored in Mexico’: A food tour of Mexico City with a British diplomat

Leaving Mexico, whether for one day or ten, is always hard for me. It doesn’t matter what my destination is, I always want to return before I’ve even left.

So when the assistant to Rachel Brazier, the Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Mexico City, asked me to join their team on a food tour of Mexico City the day before I had to spend a long weekend in the U.S., I scrambled at the chance. No better way to say hasta luego to my favorite country than with curated bites of the capital’s secret culinary gems, am I right?

Rachel Brazier (left) sat down with Bethany Platanella, to eat tacos and talk about the U.K.

(For the record: I was right.)

Everything about the tour was superb, from the scheduling to the company to the smart selection of dishes. I now know where the best torta stand is located, where to get veggie tacos in my neighborhood, and my preferred flavors at Nevería La Michoacana. 

What’s more, a burgeoning culinary relationship between Mexico and Britain was unveiled right before my very eyes. 

I know what you’re thinking. There is no way I can possibly compare the cuisines of these two drastically different countries. But I’m here to tell you I can, and I will. Not by unsuccessfully attempting to link the flavor of fish and chips to tacos al pastor, but rather through the experience of a select few foodies who fell in love with Mexican food and are working to bring it to Good Old Blighty.

Let’s start our journey in London, where Mexican cuisine finally started making a significant splash with MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers’ first installment of her ever-growing chain Wahaca. This might come as a surprise, but the coveted menu was inspired by the year she spent cooking and living in Oaxaca. Forbes described the sustainably-focused creative cook’s eateries as the first “mainstream, authentic Mexican restaurants on the London scene.” 

Around the same time, Mexico saw a spike in British tourism and a rise in demand for all things Mexican followed close behind. In 2017, Mexican celebrity chef Martha Ortíz opened her high-end Ella Canta in the buzzing British capital. English cook Fergus Chamberlain started a line of “real Mexican products” called Gran Luchito after an inspiring trip to Oaxaca. When I asked Wahaca’s Head of Food Jenny Idle if she thought the demand for Mexican food was still growing in the UK, her response was enthusiastic. “Completely! When Wahaca first started 15 years ago there was a big educational piece to do as customers had a very “Tex Mex” skewed view of Mexican food, thinking all tacos were hard shells (if they even knew what a taco was)! We see a lot more customers now who know, understand and love Mexican food, and its popularity continues to grow with the British population.”

She’s not wrong. At the time of writing, London’s biggest food and drink magazine Foodism had a feature article about dining in Los Cabos. Deputy editor Molly Codyre highlighted London’s “modern-Mexican” Zapote in a 2023 list of her favorite meals — in the world. In February of this year, Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo opened his vibey, casual taco shop Trejo’s Tacos in Notting Hill.

Needless to say, Mexico’s moment in the U.K. doesn’t seem to be losing steam.

But where did it start to sizzle?

Some say it was in the kitchen of English cookbook author Diana Kennedy.

Diana Kennedy is often touted as the English-language authority on Mexican cuisine. In order to complete her 9 books about the craft, she hopped in an old, white pickup truck and conquered dirt roads, potholes, hail storms and oppressive heat waves to discover the best dishes in Mexico’s most remote villages. She worked as an apprentice in local bakeries, scoured street markets, and even wrangled invitations to family dinners with strangers, all in the name of food.

It was through these intimate experiences that Kennedy learned the intricacies of Mexican cooking, along with her self-described tenacity and love of eating. She believed in tradition and immersion, which is why she moved to Michoacán from New York City after the death of her husband in 1967. She lived here in an adobe house, growing her own vegetables and grinding her own corn. She continued cooking and learning and teaching others how to master the art of Mexican cuisine until she passed at the ripe old age of 99.

“I would have loved to meet her,” says Rachel as we sink our teeth into our very first torta. The soft, chewy bread and lightly battered Oaxacan cheese stuffed poblano pepper fire up my taste buds. I immediately dive in for another bite before I’ve even swallowed the first. It’s nothing short of heaven. Rachel has been living in Mexico City with her family for just over a year after multiple postings in Latin America, the UK and the USA. 

“It’s an amazing place for teens, my kids love it,” she informs me in between chews. Rachel’s experience as an expat in Mexico feels similar to mine, despite our vastly different professions. It’s happy, it’s easy, and it’s full of things to do. “I can get a coffee, go shopping, or see a movie within a few blocks of my place,” she beams. Like me, the lush greenery and expansive parks often cause her to forget that she’s in one of the world’s biggest cities. 

This is a big statement from a woman with such an interesting life. Her father is a retired mapmaker and her mother a school teacher, meaning Rachel has been traveling extensively since she could walk. While her father measured his way around countries like Kenya and Botswana, the family got up close and personal with the wildlife. “I remember (in my young mind) living in the bush. Dad and all the guys jumped out of their tents in the middle of night and into Land Rovers to flash the lights and beep the horns to get rid of a pack of lions!”

With a childhood as exciting as Rachel’s, it comes as no surprise that her professional life would follow suit. In 2001 she landed a job with the British Embassy and her life in Latin America began. “My first gig was in Ecuador. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the landscape was. I loved the adventure of it — riding, mountain climbing, diving, white water rafting. And I loved the friendliness of the people.” 

Her expertise in Latin America grew along with her command of Spanish, and she continued on to posts in Uruguay, New York, Colombia, and the UK, respectively. In 2023, Rachel and her family moved to Mexico. 

As I try to enjoy the final chunk of my torta, comforted only by the fact that there is another stop for tacos after this, I wonder out loud “So, having lived in all these places and now in Mexico, what do you think of the food?” Her eclectic upbringing no doubt has introduced her to a variety of tastes and dishes and I’ve just got to know how Mexico ranks on her palette scale. Her facial expression says it all. “With the flavors, the spices, the creativity, you can’t get bored in Mexico.” 

I lingered on that statement for a while before I decided not to clarify it. Maybe she’s talking about the food, or maybe she’s talking about life here. It doesn’t actually matter. However you dice it, Rachel is right. You simply can’t get bored in Mexico.

Bethany Platanella is a travel planner and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. She lives for the dopamine hit that comes directly after booking a plane ticket, exploring local markets, practicing yoga and munching on fresh tortillas. Sign up to receive her Sunday Love Letters to your inbox, peruse her blog, or follow her on Instagram.

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