The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Cool Chile Co
“Mexican cuisine is as complex and time-consuming as classic French cuisine,” says Dodie Miller, owner and founder of Cool Chile Co. Five years ago, we’d have pointed at a late night burrito and chuckled knowingly. Today, though, we only have to look at the number of high-end Mexican restaurants that have opened in London recently to know she has a point.
It takes hours for Mexican producers to make the masa hirana (ground nixtamalised corn) she uses in her fresh corn tortillas—a process which dates back thousands of years and has barely changed in that time, she tells us. “It was the Aztecs who first realised that cooking dried corn in alkali water removed the skins of the kernels, making it easier to grind and digest. They would boil and soak the corn in water and wood ash”—a solution which is, you’ll be pleased to hear, slightly more refined these days, though the corn kernels still take at least four hours to soak.
While corn can of course be grown in many areas of the world, that used in the Cool Chile Co’s tortillas is still grown and slaked in Mexico “to ensure the best possible flavour”. The same is true for the chillies. “Mexican varieties of chilli can be grown commercially in other countries, but the flavour, size and heat just isn’t the same.”
Love and experience
Jaime, the farmer from whom Dodie has been importing her chillies since she started, boasts not just the ideal soil and climate for growing anchos and guajillos on his farm, but the experience and love that comes from a culture in which chillies have always been venerated. “Chillies are integral to Mexican culture. The job of growing and drying them”—in the sun, typically, for several days—“is an important one!”
Back in the UK, our appreciation of chillies has taken somewhat longer to cultivate—about 25 years, if Dodie’s experience is anything to go by. She and her business partner set up the Cool Chile Co in 1995. “We first imported just three chillies, to a very absent Mexican market. We talked to lots of chefs and cooked with them too, to increase awareness that Mexican chillies are as much about flavour as they are heat.”
Take the mulato pepper, for example: a mild, richly-flavoured variety that is just 1-2,500 on the Scoville scale. The habanero, by contrast, can be 350,000. Part of Cool Chile Co’s commitment to Slow Food values comes from their investment in educating people for whom the words ‘chilli’ and ‘spicy’ have up until recently, been synonymous with mouth open, gasping for water, sweating levels of heat.
At the stall, Dodie and her team talk her customers through their products, their (often historic) origins, and the various ways they can be used. “We have an ethos of honouring traditional Mexican recipes. It is an ancient cuisine that deserves careful following and respect,” explains Dodie. You won’t find preservatives in her pastes or sauces, or indeed anything other than that which the family recipes she learnt in Mexico dictate should be there.
“Making our mole poblano paste (a speciality from Puebla, central Mexico) is something that we don’t trust to anyone. We fry all of the chillies slowly until they are just as we like them: fragrant, with just a whiff of smoke. Then we grind them with whole spices and our own Mexican chocolate to make a paste that is rich and unctuous”—a time-consuming process, done in small batches, by hand.
“We also make a traditional Yucatecan paste using achiote seeds from this region. It is fragrant with garlic and stains everything red!” You can tell who has been on achiote-making duty, she continues, as they look strangely orange after mixing.
Sophisticated culinary culture
Mexico has an extensive and sophisticated culinary culture, “with a great variety of dishes (influenced by Spanish and French explorers) which are not often seen outside their regions,” she enthuses. It is these more regional concerns that Dodie is increasingly keen to reflect. “Now that people are much more familiar with Mexican chillies, we are more likely to share recipes with our customers than explain what the chilies are.” This extends to good ways to reduce waste, with tips on frying stale tortillas to make tostadas or taquitos, and storing chillies and paste.
“It is great to see how Mexican cuisine is growing in this country,” Dodie says—in scale, but also in quality: something which is more or less summed up by the appearance of fresh Mexican cheese from Gringa Dairy at the Cool Chile Co. Using fresh, still-warm milk from an organic farm in Kent, it is made just down the road, in a Peckham railway arch, by owner Kristen. In her cheese joining the chillies, tortillas and pastes—much like all of the committed growers and producers that supply Dodie’s stall—there is a great meeting of minds; a communal commitment to not only sustainability, but authenticity and quality.