There’s a sweet, spicy scent in the air and the two communal tables aligned side by side down the centre of the teaching kitchen are decorated with jewel-like chillies in appropriately autumnal shades of red, brown, orange, yellow and even purple. The second Supper Club at the Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath is dedicated to a Mexican theme, and not surprisingly, chillies are the star attractions.
Chillies are potent little powerhouses of flavours, colours, textures and aromas, they are packed with vitamins A and C, and all sorts of claims are made for their health-promoting properties, from pain relief to stimulating digestion and boosting the metabolism. But their real mystique lies in the heat – that exquisite balance of pleasure and pain that delivers a rush of feel-good endorphins with every bite. You may be intimidated by the prospect of cooking with hot chillies, but tonight, Rachel Demuth and her team of chefs at the VCS set out to demonstrate that there’s a perfect chilli for every dish, and you don’t have to endure a tongue-singeing experience – unless you want to.
As we settle in our seats and make introductions with our neighbours, we pick over the devilish Scotch Bonnets and milder Bishop’s Crowns, and examine the deep reddish brown wrinkly Anchos – we later discover the wrinkly ones are the ones to watch, hiding the fieriest heat behind their innocent, shrivelled exteriors. The assortment of diners is no less eclectic than the array of chillies. There are young couples, pairs of friends, adventurous retired ladies and pretty much everything in between. The demographic variety is part of the appeal of a supper club, of course, and singles, couples and small groups rub along together beautifully, the communal tables making for a far more sociable set-up than a conventional evening at a restaurant. Conversation ranges widely from travel (whale watching in Baja, appropriately enough) to our varied experiences at local restaurants and the exploits of our children. Interestingly, given the venue, with the exception of two vegan couples at the end of our table, very few of the guests on our table seem to be vegetarian – but no one remarks on the lack of meat or fish, the flavours are plenty big enough to keep everyone happy.
First come handmade tortilla chips served with a fresh tomato salsa and a spicier chipotle salsa, made with one of the most familiar Mexican ingredients, the smoked jalapeño. Some of the group are a little anxious about tasting really hot chillies, so there’s a spirit of adventure around the table as we delve courageously into each dish, true Brit style, braving even the green chilli dip that chef Helen brings around, warning us that it’s the ‘hottest salsa we’ve ever made’ before placing it carefully on the table like an unexploded bomb. We laugh, nervously, but most of us are game enough to give it a try. There are varying levels of heat in every dish we taste throughout the evening, but we soon discover that chillies are truly multi-dimensional ingredients, bringing not just a tingle to the tongue but also distinctive texture, colour and flavour to each dish.
Tamales are classic Mexican street food, and ours come authentically wrapped in corn husks, the masa (traditional corn dough) encasing a possibly not so strictly authentic, but certainly delicious, combination of roasted squash, feta and, of course, hot red chillies. Served with mole, a chocolate-and-chilli sauce enhanced with aromatics including cinnamon, clove, cumin and ginger, the mole adds a powerful flavour and colour when drizzled over the tamales. “How much mole should I use?” questions my neighbor, Heather. “About half as much as this,” quips Ann opposite, indicating her accidentally rather over-moled tamale. But experimenting is all part of the fun.
Handmade corn tortillas (doughier and much tastier than the thin plastic-wrapped supermarket varieties) are served with our hongas con chilli (wild mushrooms with chilli); the classic frijoles negros refritos (refried black beans) and aromatic poblano chillies stuffed with Mexican rice. The poblano is one of Mexico’s most popular chillies, and is another reminder that in Mexican cooking, chillies are not just spices but can be used as vegetables in their own right. A drizzle of ancho cream, made with the poblano’s dried incarnation (when it becomes known as ancho), brings out another aspect of this versatile chilli’s taste spectrum.
A tequila guacamole adds a cooling, creamy dimension to the ensemble, but it isn’t the only time Mexico’s famous spirit features on the menu. Chef Jo Ingleby’s demonstration of the correct method for knocking back tequila slammers is a highlight of the evening. It is a teaching kitchen, after all. Possibly reliving moments from our mis-spent youths, we all manage to get the hang of the salt-and-lime tequila technique quite quickly, although some need another couple of rounds to perfect it…
A wonderfully cold and sweet tequila and cointreau sorbet cleanses the palate, in preparation for the glorious finale, a chocolate torte. The lively buzz of conversation hushes and the tables fall remarkably silent as everyone concentrates on the gluten-free, rich, firm-textured torte made with dark chocolate and a comforting hit of warming spices, served with aromatic mango slices and a fiery sprinkling of fresh red chilli – just when we thought we were safe.
Our verdict: La comida mexicana es deliciosa!
The next supper club at the Vegetarian Cookery School will be a Festive Feast on Wednesday 7thDecember 2011. £30 per person and bring your own bottle. To book visit: www.vegetariancookeryschool.com or call tel: 01225 427938. You can follow Rachel Demuth @demuths and the team at the Vegetarian Cookery School @vegcs
Try Otomí in Clifton Village, Bristol, for Masa and other authentic Mexican ingredients. Follow on Twitter @Otomiuk or visit: www.otomi.co.uk
The chillies were sourced from The Upton Cheyney Chilli Company. Follow on Twitter @chilli_farmer or visit: www.uptonchilli.co.uk
Review by Lindsey Harrad, freelance writer and editor.
Follow @FabVegWriter or visit: www.lindseyharrad.co.uk