Discover more from ingredient by Rachel Phipps
Mexico was everything we wanted it to be. But one part of the food let us down.
Or, why I don't hate mass catering but I can't deal with too much sugar + breakfast buffet lessons I've filed away for later.
This month’s belated edition of ingredient is now in production but for now a diary from our tip to Cancún. Or: what happens when a food writer spends almost two weeks (minus a trip into the jungle) eating exclusively at an all exclusive resort (hint: I learned a lot about mass catering brunch parties!)
So you don’t miss out on the upcoming recipes, Kitchen cupboard features, more diaries and essays like this, plus my Nibbles roundups of recipes and stories at the end of each month make sure to become a subscriber / upgrade to paid / refer some friends to become a paid subscriber for free!
As a couple, we like to travel and adventure but it is only over the past few years we’ve had the money and time to be able to; our first holiday together (we’re not counting time spent at my parents old house in Brittany) was to Dubrovnik where we crammed in as many sites in the old town and Croatian meals as possible, and whilst we did not quite connect with the food in Austria, we crammed in so many sights and cultural pursuits in Vienna at the start of the year I had to limp onto the plane.
Mexico was intended to be a different type of holiday. Work, extracurricular commitments, and big projects not getting started in the timeframe we wanted had taken their toll and we were both utterly burnt out. We flew to Cancún in order to sit by the pool for two weeks, drinking cocktails and reading a new book every single day. Yes we made it out of the resort once to visit Chichén-Itzá (how could we not?) but the whole point was to recharge, and we can happily report that despite Expedia’s best efforts to first prevent us getting on the plane then trying to strand J in Mexico at the end of their trip (don’t book flights or hotels with them, it is not worth it - but do book flights with Delta who managed to fix things in very stressful circumstances!) we’ve come back totally refreshed.
But, obviously, with this type of holiday I knew that food was not going to be central to the trip. Our resort was all-inclusive, adults only, so my only hopes were for a good margarita (gutted I never found one, but more on that in a moment) and some of the best guacamole I’ve ever had (which I enjoyed in spades). But what I did not expect eating resort food for two weeks was where our culinary likes and dislikes were to be found. We had some excellent meals, we had some terrible meals, and whilst the food was no way the best cultural or authentic experience I still want to tell you all about it.
I ate breakfast every single morning. Even though there were some areas I avoided (I’m sorry, I love you America but the way you overcook bacon - and therefore the way the resort catering to a 90% American audience did - is a crime and I don’t care who, including J, disagrees with me!) sticking to the Mexican dishes and the fresh fruit it was easily my favourite meal of the day.
I ate chilaquiles, pictured left - fried or dried tortillas simmered in either green or red sauce, topped with red onions, coriander, crema and queso fresco - every single morning, except for the morning we left where I was gutted to find they’d not been put out on the buffet yet. Some days my chilaquiles were better than others, but the biggest lesson I learned eating so many platefuls was what you make them with does not matter as much as how you make them - they are a dish designed to mop up leftovers, after all. The version I had off room service the only morning we did it was too dry and dissatisfying; you want to leave the tortillas to soak up all the delicious sauce. They were worse when they were made to order.
With my chilaquiles I always had eggs, which is where I learned an important lesson for serving eggs to a crowd by the fact they still tasted excellent out of catering salvers: salsa is your friend.
Most mornings I opted for fried eggs sitting in either green or red sauce, which just made them better and kept them warm in a gentler fashion than I’d become accustomed to at boarding school for breakfasts in the mornings (the food at my school was fantastic but I still opted for a boiled egg each morning as the safest option!) but when they appeared in the rotation of scrambled eggs with chorizo / eggs with sausage / eggs with salsa I indulged in the latter: if you want scrambled eggs to not taste like scrambled eggs that have been sitting out for a while, it turns out the way to do it is stir through a tonne of delicious red salsa once they’re done cooking!
The fruit was - obviously - out of this world as it was picked ripe, rather than underripe before being shipped across the Atlantic to us. The mangos were mouthwatering, papaya fruity without having an oily taste, and it turns out that unlike every single imported one I’ve ever tried, dragonfruit actually tastes of something, and something very tasty at that!
By the way, does anyone know what this fruit is? It was delicious, but I still have no idea!
When we booked our trip out to Chichén-Itzá we had no idea our tour (again, we’re not tour people but it was the easiest way to do it on a trip where the point was not to plan anything!) included a trip into the stunning town of Valladolid (I’ve shared pictures on my blog) for lunch. Now, I’m not one to knock food on a tour: my parents hate flying so I’ve done many tours off of cruise ships eating piles of Norwegian waffles with jam and cream on the side of glacial lakes, cream cakes in picturesque lighthouses, and in the time before blogging, one very memorable, delicious meal in St. Petersburg where the rest of our tour lectured my parents on letting their 15 year old daughter drink the small glass of sparkling wine and do the shot of vodka that came with the meal. But when you’re led through a tourists gift shop into a muggy courtyard full of catering trays you don’t expect to have a fantastic meal.
But, the metal trays of Yucatan classics turned out to be some of the best food of the trip. I’m a fan of the carbs always served with out meals in Mexico: well seasoned rice packed with veggies, and warm corn tortillas, but the true centrepiece was the chicken simmered with achiote - a brick red, slightly sour seed used to flavour food in the Yucatan region as well as as a natural dye - orange, garlic, onion, and Mexican oregano. Rich, flavourful and unique I was depressed the bird they were serving tourists on the tour was also of far better quality than I pay a lot of money for here.
Whilst I thought the chicken was so good they were overkill I also piled up my plate with the excellent black beans - I learned in Mexico that when cooking Mexican-style beans here we massively overcook them and serve them way too thick - Pico de Gallo, lightly pickled red onions and a habanero salsa which was mouthwateringly good but a little too much for me by way of heat!
Alongside we were offered the choice of hibiscus water - a lovely foil for all the flavours whilst being a bit bold in it’s own right - and horchata, which was charmingly translated to us as ‘rice water’.
Along with the buffet and the coffee shop, our resort had four restaurants open to all guests: a Mexican grill and steakhouse, a Pan-Asian, a fine dining Italian (the less said about that one the better!) and a casual Italian. The very best thing we ate at the hotel was to be found in the Mexican grill which is what taught us to order not the food designed for us guests to eat, but the hidden extras that were on the menu because the chef had gaps to fill and wanted to put them there.
Whilst the table behind us suffered through a perfectly cooked steak being sliced, placed on a sizzling hot platter alongside a lobster tail and some shrimp, being doused in either whiskey or tequila and being set on fire, we tucked into our second time ordering the lamb birria. A traditional stew designed for the scraggly cuts of lamb, beef or goat (they used shoulder here) it is marinated with herbs (rosemary was prominent) and dried chillies and spices to yield a rich, brothy stew served with warmed tortillas, pickled onions and an avocado salsa. Simple, rich and hearty I’ve already started work on my own version to simmer away in a cast iron pot.
Their chicken mole was also layered and complex, but it turned out not to my taste. However, I’ll take my V8-based, fresh, vibrant version of a Mexican Prawn Cocktail any day over their ketchup-heavy version (though every single shrimp we ate was fat, juicy and fantastic). The night I discovered the lamb J had a grilled version of that Yucatan chicken, which was also worth exploring come next years barbecue season, and I also need to note I’ll be sweetening my mashed sweet potatoes with very fragrant honey next time I make them too as that was another thing we ate worth filing away for later recipe development.
I’ve mentioned the fresh fruit, and as I just touched on with the shrimp, seafood is something worth seeking out in Mexico. It is just better, and I’m talking about better than a lot of what I’ve eaten in coastal Europe too. I had this fresh spaghetti with seafood, tomato and squid ink twice in the casual Italian (the second time it came out black with the ink) because it was just so good: juicy, flavourful shrimp, and the most tender squid and cuttlefish I’ve ever eaten.
By the pool, where we spent most of our days the snack bar was the best food option, and not just because they cooked their hot dogs the way they’re enjoyed across the pond on the grill, sliced and smokey - I’m sure we only don’t bother with this as we have British bangersto barbecue instead. Perfect guacamole - again, what you get when avocados are picked ripe rather than hard - and Pico de Gallo made with juicy, firm tomatoes were the trick, as was their excellent grouper ceviche which came sometimes with tomato, sometimes without, but always with cooling, crunchy pieces of cucumber and in a light, heat-building jalapeño sauce.
I mentioned at the outset that one of my biggest disappointments of the trip was that I did not find a good margarita. I also mentioned in the tagline for this newsletter that whilst I actually quite like some catering food, I can’t deal with too much sugar. The only thing that really got to us about our resort was the amount of sugar in the drinks, and it was not just us: every European be they British, French or Ukrainian we encountered at the swim up bar felt the same.
I know I might offend a lot of my readers by saying this (47% of you are based in the United States, after all) but the American audience at our resort - who I think are used to a lot more sugar in casual vacation and convenience food - was our problem. And I mean rather than an actual ‘problem’, simply a ‘problem’ for someone with a European palate where Mountain Dew is sold as an energy drink and not in the soda fountain at Taco Bell. I adore food in America: Los Angeles is one of my favourite cities in the world in which to eat, I cook so much classically American food from American food writers, and I ghost-write for several American food websites. I adore American food culture, but just like the frozen convenience food section in my local Ralph’s, the taste of what you’d expect in an all-inclusive resort say in America, versus in Greece (where we were also considering - Rhodes actually, thankfully we did not!) was not to our European tastes. It was a problem with what we were used to, not what was on offer.
I’m curious as to the thoughts of the 47% of you on this. Am I being really unfair (also in pinning this on America, or should I be considering Mexico as a country who loves sugary drinks more?), or as food people interested in cooking and eating enough to be subscribed to this newsletter do you think I’m articulating our sugar problem at the resort correctly?
So the fact I could not get a margarita made without over sugared sour mix even at the ‘mixology’ bar in the evenings? That upset me.
But it is not going to stop me recreating my new favourite Ojo Rojo: Mexican beer blended with Clamato juice, lime juice and a touch of Worcestershire sauce (depending on the bartender) with a Tajin rim or the frozen Bahama Mama’s we enjoyed a couple of each day until we could taste the sugar rush, where fresh banana added creaminess and took the edge off the sweetness of the grenadine and Malibu.
But do you know what the best food and drink highlight of the trip was? That it all did what it was supposed to: you all know I love to cook, but for the first time in years I could not remember the last time I’d chopped an onion. And for once that was bliss.
One of my poolside reads was the fantastic Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey by Felicity Cloake where I learned we call sausages bangers because after rationing there was more water and filler in sausages and the water content caused them to explode with a bang once they were heated in the pan.