It was the sight of Tom Parker Bowles in a pinny that did it for me. There he was, sleeves rolled up, sweat on brow, glass of tequila in hand, taking a break from his labours preparing one of two ceviches in the kitchen of Black’s club, which is about the size of a guardsman’s sentry box. The kitchen, not the club. Clearly, Tom meant business.
When he had said that he was hosting a Mexican lunch, I had imagined him swanning around, pressing the flesh and making sure that liquor flowed like the Rio Grande. But no, there he was, very much the hands-on maestro. Mind you, it turned out that there was no need to worry about tequila. Cleo Rocos, once the muse of the Kenny Everett Show, now the impeccably graceful first lady of tequila in London, was on hand to make sure that Mexico’s national tipple was famously represented. As was the Mexican ambassador himself, señor Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, in remarkably unbuttoned mood, together with his family. And a whole host of other luminaries – my memory grew dimmer as the tide of tequila rose higher.
To be honest, I have never been entirely convinced of the beauties of Mexican food. Tom, and Thomasina Miers, the lissom frontwoman for Wahaca restaurants, are passionate advocates, always assuring me otherwise.
“One of the world’s great cuisines,” Tom says. “Up there with Chinese, French, Italian, Indian.”
“Is it?” say I. Certainly not, to judge from what’s on offer in London. Gooey, gungey, clumsy and bland in spite of chilli, would have been my verdict.
However, my views might be undergoing a change as a result of that lunch of quesadillas (one with cheese, the other with chicken tinga, a Mexican classic); cochinita pibil, a pork dish from the Yucatan; lamb birria, a spicy stew; some black beans; and, of course, Tom’s ceviches, one of which was studded with pomegranate seeds like so many rubies. I could finally begin to understand what they were talking about.
The ceviches, one also bearing Tom’s signature of tiny brown shrimps, found that seductive combination of unctuous (avocado), firmness (fish cured in lime juice), crunch (pomegranate seeds), refreshing (lime), sweetness (shrimps) and warmth and fruitiness (chillies). The quesadillas came warm, the pastry casing fine, dry, crisp and light, the fillings well-balanced and full flavoured. The cochinita pibil was a fine stew, the pork rendered to a luscious, shredded state, enlivened by a citrus-based marinade, achiote paste and other things that I can’t remember, or possibly I wasn’t told about them in the first place. The lamb birria was pretty bouncy, too, but with spices more associated with the east than the west that presumably hark back to the days when the Spanish trade extended from the Americas to the Spice Islands. It was all cheerful, accessible, heart- and tummy-warming stuff.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t quite in the mood for serious, professorial analysis of what was going on with my tastebuds. The mood in the higgledy-piggledy, rackety rooms at Black’s was festive and diverting, and that essential sociability seemed to me to be as much in keeping with the spirit of Mexican gastronomy as the food. They fed off each other. Possibly fed too well in my case: I only just managed to wake up in time to scramble off the train when it came to my station in Gloucestershire.
Black’s, 67 Dean Street, London W1D 4QH. Tel: 020 7287 3381