A group of lucky Capetonians saw in Mexico’s national day on Friday morning with the country’s ambassador to South Africa, Mauricio Escanero, and most famous chef, Jorge Vallejo, at a late night event hosted by sommelier Xavier Didier at the Collections wine bar in Camps Bay.
The nibbles, served at around midnight to a diverse group raising a glass to the 206th anniversary of Mexican Independence, were fairly recognisable from the “101 of Mexican Food Served Outside of Mexico”, although the flavours were much more subtle and the tacos were not loaded with or overpowered by anything, least of all cheese. The lightest of dustings of chilli suggested an invisible hand as it delivered real punch without any pain.
Not that most of the party gave a hoot about the late night snacks since they had come from a multinational, multi-course dinner at no less than the Pot Luck Club in the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock. Here they learned that Mexico is a lot more than taco and tequila country.
A collection of local dignitaries and celebrities at the “Mexico-South Africa Friendship Gala Dinner”, hosted by the ambassador, had been treated to a dinner made by the two countries’ leading chefs.
Vallejo – the chef and founder of the celebrated Quintonil Restaurant in Mexico City, ranked number 12 on the San Pellegrino List of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – prepared the dinner with South Africa’s gastronomical star, Luke Dale-Roberts, whose restaurant The Test Kitchen, number 22 on the same prestigious list, is widely considered to be the best in Africa.
The 150 places made available to the food-loving general public at dinners on Friday and Saturday as part for this series were sold out within three hours of being made public.
These haute cuisine encounters are part of a programme to expand and deepen ties between Mexico and South Africa.
Speaking at the after-dinner event, Escanero told Call Off The Search: “We want to be closer with South Africa, we want to take the relationship to the next level.”
He said the two countries were working in all fronts, “enhancing our political dialogue, our bilateral legal framework, our economic links, our cultural and academic exchanges and our co-operation for development.
“We share a rich natural and cultural diversity, we want to explore these kind of connections,” said Escanero, adding that the countries had much in common in many areas.
“We are both members of G20, middle powers with a regional impact,” he said. “Both are countries of contrast, of inequality … with a lot of challenges and a lot of potential.” He added that Mexico could learn a lot from South Africa and vice versa.
Trade between the countries is already not an insignificant U.S.$1billion a year.
Escanero mentioned maize as an area where the depth of the connection between the two countries might be surprising to many, way beyond the fact that white maize is the essential staple of the popular diet both in Mexico and South Africa.
Four years ago Mexico, “had a similar problem” to what South Africa is suffering today with the current shortage of white maize caused by the drought. Mexico solved that problem by importing maize from South Africa.
“This time around, Mexico has surplus and is gladly contributing to the supply of white maize in Southern Africa.
“Maize is part of the deep cultural connection we can build,” he said. “But maize for Mexico and South Africa is more than trade.”
The story goes way back in time. Mexicans domesticated maize thousand of years ago. There is a very rich diversity in the country, where more than 150 species are cultivated, and a wide and deep canon of knowledge around cultivating maize and preparing it for consumption, he said.
When the early explorers brought maize to Africa via Europe it came without the indigenous knowledge associated with it. He said that knowledge, built up through centuries of production and processing, includes how to cultivate it in a harmonious way with beans, chillis and tomatoes (which also, by the way, came from Mexico).
The Mexicans had also learned how to obtain the highest nutritional value from maize through a process called nixtamalization, where grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. Without this process, maize, in the form it is consumed in Africa for example, has a lower nutritional value and higher levels of mycotoxins.
In commemoration of World Food Day next month, the Embassy of Mexico and the government of South Africa are organising a high-level workshop where key stakeholders, with the support of five Mexican experts, will assess prospects for maize nixtamalization in Southern Africa.
“We are holding this workshop in order to explore the contributions that the indigenous knowledge of Mexico, as the country of origin of maize and the site of its richest biodiversity, may have for the benefit of sustainable development and nutrition and food security in Southern Africa,” Escanero said.
In addition to practical motivations, the ambassador said, the gastronomic adventures were included in the programme to deepen relations because of the “human element”, and in recognition of the fact that Mexico is foodie country.
Local fans of salsa and refried beans might not know that there is a lot more to Mexican cuisine than what is served by sombrero-wearing waiters in a Mexican-themed restaurants around the world.
In fact, Escanero said, Mexico was the first country to have its cuisine listed on the Unesco World Heritage Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So had he experienced any of South Africa’s many examples of Tex-Mex and Co restaurants, I asked.
“There are some interesting exercises in Mexican-inspired restaurants,” was what the diplomat might have said to the vicar. “But we want to share more of the authentic Mexican cuisine.
“That is why we are developing the gastronomical programme, we want to enrich the experience, this appreciation that is happening in South Africa about our food.”
Of course, no discussion about a South African idea of a good Mexican night out would be complete without a comment on tequila … so I asked.
And the ambassador helpfully responded: “You can enjoy in a more civilised way, enjoy it drop by drop.”
– African News Agency (ANA)