Foodie 'membrances

This weekend, my private dining society met to enjoy Mexican food. The date had been chosen for its proximity to el Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration in remembrance of lost family, friends and admired figures from history. The Day of the Dead is a deeply significant occasion for Mexicans. While Europeans and Americans might celebrate Hallowe’en as a carnival holiday for games and fancy dress, Day of the Dead is both culturally and spiritually profound. Originating in pre-Christian beliefs, the celebration marks the moment the dead may return to the land of the living for a while. In order to persuade them to come, offerings of foods and lively music were provided. With the arrival of Christianity, the celebrations were augmented and embellished with themes from the November feasts of All Saints and All Souls; the prayers for deceased family and recognition of holiness being blended with ancestor-worship in a lively celebration of the people we have loved and lost, and their continuing love for us.

Our celebration was centred around a family meal, much as it will be for Mexican families. Images of carnival parades and all-night parties owe as much to Hollywood as they do to the real cultural roots of the festival; family is what it is about. We decorated the house with flowers, bunting and lights and created an ofrenda in a place of honour. The ofrenda is an important, almost sacred, space where photos and mementos of lost family and placed with offerings of tequila, decorated bread and other favourite foods. Each guest was invited to bring along their own tokens of remembrance to place on the ofrenda. It was wonderful to listen to each person's memories of parents, grandparents and dear friends, a moment of real peace, respect and love. 

Day of the Dead is by no means a sombre festival. Mexicans believe that our joy and liveliness at their presence is what persuades the dead to come and live among us for the night. Accordingly, our dinner was accompanied by dance tunes, margarita cocktails and sparkling wines. We shared silly stories, family scandals, impressions and all manner of anecdote to make the personality of our loved ones really come alive in the company of friends. One guest treated us all to a glass of her Dad's favourite liqueur; I shared sweets in memory of a great aunt who loved to 'bribe' us to visit by keeping confectionery in the dresser draw; another showed us her grandfather's pipe, prompting her brother to recall the brand of tobacco he used.

In the menu that was served this weekend, I tried to avoid street-food stereotypes. Mexican cuisine is complex and vibrant. Ancient grains, pulses and vegetables are mixed with meats that came with the Spanish conquerors, Caribbean spices, European herbs and fish from both Oceans the country is washed by. Spanish technology allowed the development of the distilled spirits Mexico is famed for: tequila and mezcal. Tequila is distilled from the fermented juice of the agave plant. Despite the poor reputation of certain cheap brands available in the UK, true tequila should be fine and smooth and be made from 100% agave. It can be white (joven), golden (reposado) or deep amber (añejo), depending on the time spent maturing in oak casks. Mezcal is also made from agave but is often higher in alcohol. It is characterised by a smoky flavour derived from the process of roasting the agave before juicing and fermentation. Like tequila, it can be sold young or aged.

Following an aperitif of margaritas with fried tortillas and bean dip, the meal consisted of chicken and avocado soup, a stunning, Bloody Mary-based seafood cocktail from Tomasina Miers, Yucatan-style leg of lamb, stuffed with zesty citrus peels and herbs, and lime-dressed beans. The evening was rounded off with almond crème caramel and a final round of tequila.

Although the number of guests was smaller than I'm used to (just six, where we would normally be ten), I think the intimacy of the occasion worked in our favour, by creating a safe space to share stories of love, loss and grief, while making that love the source of our joy. Perhaps one day, this dinner itself will be remembered at someone's table, and we will be made present again through someone recounting the tale of our company and the menu we shared.

Pan de Muertos - 
a sweetened bread with anis seeds


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