Thomasina Miers' Oaxaca

An unplanned trip to Mexico set Thomasina Miers on a culinary path forever connected with the country – and she paid tribute to a favourite state by naming her Mexican restaurant chain, Wahaca, after it

Thomasina Miers' Oaxaca Photo

Mexico was pretty much a last-minute decision for Thomasina Miers. With time running out on her gap year, she’d yet to embark on that all-important, life-changing overseas adventure. So when an old school friend mentioned she was heading to the central American country, 18-year-old Miers decided to join her. ’It’s funny how one little decision changes things,’ says Miers. ’I was broke, and so when she said “why not come with me?‘’, I just thought “why not?“.’

Backpacking across the country with her hammock to string up as a bed for at night, Miers made a discovery that shaped the rest of her life. ’I was completely blown away by the food,’ she says. ’I just had no idea that it was so good. Like so many people, I thought Mexican food was Tex-Mex and that I’d just go there and eat fajitas. Yet I discovered this incredible cuisine.'

'I travelled around for four months and everywhere I went the food was just so good. How did people not know about this?’

Miers went through Mexico City, Pueblo, Oaxaca and then east to San Cristóbal de las Casas and Yucatán. ’The first thing I noticed was how the food changed dramatically as I moved. Around the coast it was fresh and vibrant: like the searing hot ceviche. I was drinking a lot of tequila, so I’d have a massive hangover and then go and have spicy, fiery, citrussy ceviche.

’Then it was the street food,‘ she says. ’You’re just picking up incredible food for very little money. When I went to the mountains around San Cristóbal the food changed again: dried chillies, more chicken-based. Then you had the mole of Oaxaca. All these different chillies, too. How did they know when to use a guajillo or a pasilla? A chipotle or an ancho? How could they fathom which was appropriate? I remember finding it quite confusing.

’Going to the Yucatán, it was different again. Lots of Caribbean influences: coconut, pineapple, achiote [spice paste], recado negro [a meat and chilli stuffing], Seville oranges. It was a completely different balance of ingredients and people. ’I stayed with people in Mexico City, who’d been there 30 years, and they were working out on an anthropological level why the food was good and why it was so different,’ continues Miers. ’They thought a lot of it was down different native Indian sub-groups that would stay separated from towns next door by language, race and geography – rivers, plains and mountain ranges.’

When Miers returned to the UK, she began to notice the complete absence of Mexican food. ’Because I’d been awakened to it, I suddenly noticed you couldn’t get soft tortillas or proper tacos or any of the food I'd had,‘ she recalls.

’I just thought "well, somebody is going to open something at some stage." I kept thinking:“this is crazy, there’s this huge country with amazing food and nobody seems to actually know it even exists.“ It felt like this culinary secret that nobody had tapped in to. I kept waiting, and no-one ever opened.‘

A chance meeting with the late Clarissa Dickson Wright at a fashion show led Miers to taking her advice to take a course at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Its founder, Darina Allen, became something of a mentor to Miers. ’She had really good friends in Oaxaca, so she knew all about the food and back then there was only about a handful of people I could talk to about Mexico,’ she says.

Later she met with Sam Hart, of Barrafina, who was exploring Spanish food – and is a fluent speaker – and, as luck would have it, he had a friend looking for someone to manage a bar in Mexico City. ’I flew out and lived in Mexico for a year – 10 years after I’d first been there,’ says Miers. ’At that stage I couldn’t work out if I’d imagined all this Mexican food, or just dreamed it up, so I wanted to go back to find out and the job was the perfect excuse.

Not only did she run the cocktail bar, but she also travelled, cooking in people’s kitchens and even on market stalls. ’I tried to get to every kind of foodie region I could find. Veracruz blew my mind,‘ she says. ’It’s heavily controlled by the bandits [banditos], but it is the most incredible state with extraordinary food, rainforests where vanilla comes from and seafood.

‘One dish has dried chilli paste slathered over fresh crab which is cooked over charcoal. ‘There’s this little place called Xico, just outside of Xalapa, which is where jalapeño chillies come from. And here, they have their own particular mole, mole de Xico. It uses burnt dark chillies, which gives it this real depth of flavour and a bitterness to offset the sweetness and with a touch of anise. It’s really very special.

'They rehydrate smoked chipotles and then stuff them with picadillo, which is a braised mince beef and pork dish with plantains, chillies, pineapple, apple and spices. It's deep fried in a light egg batter, covered with mole and sesame seeds – so delicious.‘

In Veracruz, she also found a European influence. ‘There were lots of Spanish flavours because that’s where they first landed,’ she says. ‘Back then they were also bringing over ingredients such as capers and olives from Sicily [also under Spanish control at the time].‘

Another aspect that sets Mexico apart is the sheer variety of the country’s larder. ‘What I love so much is its biodiversity. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Mexico classifies as megabiodiverse and you can see that at the markets. ‘That’s what’s so fascinating about Mexico for anyone that loves food,‘ continues Mier. ‘There are 200 varieties of chillies and scores of varieties of corn – some are tainted black or blue, or red or white. Then there’s the varieties of beans; the wild herbs and leaves. It’s this deeply biodiverse and regional cuisine. For Mexico to have one cuisine is an absurdity. Even Oaxaca, an area I love passionately, has seven regions within it that one state that are all different.‘

Oaxaca remains at the heart of Miers’ passion for Mexico. ‘You have unbelievable beautiful colonial towns, with cobbled streets and wonderful colours,‘ she says.

‘It’s got its own microclimate, and is famous for seven mole – complex sauces that are fun to delve into. The food markets are incredible, too. There’s the main wholesale market in Oaxaca. It’s astounding what you find there. On particular days villagers come from those seven regions to bring their wares.‘

Miers returned to the UK to share what seemed to be a gastronomic secret. First, it was on MasterChef, which she won in 2005, where she took the judges off-guard in the semi-final with her grouse and mole dish. She then opened Wahaca, which now number 18 around the country.

She returns to Mexico at least once a year. ‘We take the teams out to get them as excited about Mexican food as we are,‘ she says. 'The Mexican food revolution has been mirrored by what’s happenedin the UK. There was once this feeling that everything from Europe was superior to home-grown. Very few people were doing modern Mexican, that were saying “look at our food, look at our ingredients, isn’t it great?“. Whereas now every single state has really incredible home-grown talent.

‘Enrique [Olvera, of Pujol] is almost a River Café prototype. These incredible chefs are coming from his kitchen and opening incredible restaurants.

‘The last time we were in Oaxaca, one of Enrique’s guys had just opened a restaurant, Criollo, which is the most sexy, incredible restaurant. You go into this beautifully lit courtyard, there are sand floors, low lighting and beautiful design. The food is cooked on firepits, and they use ancient Oaxacan techniques for all of the rubs on the meat and their mole. It's just totally different to anything you’ve tasted before. ‘There are lovely mezcal bars; old-fashioned restaurants like La Teca serving traditional food; modern places and breakfast cantina.

Breakfast in Mexico is a thing of total joy: tropical fruit juices and smoothies, freshly-made sweet sticky breads to dip into hot chocolate, different egg dishes and differently coloured corn tortillas. ‘Another very talented chef, Alejandro Ruiz has opened Oaxacalifornia, a fusion of Oaxaca and Baja California.

‘Essentially, if you love food, architecture and art, you’re spoilt for choice in Oaxaca.

‘Whenever I go I can’t escape that feeling that I’m at home,‘ she admits. ‘I’ve been there so much I normally end up wanting to live there and buy a house, but then I come back to England and get on with normal life.'

Thomasina's hotspots

Casa Oaxaca Afresco dinner on the terrace at Casa Oaxaca restaurant, a sumptuous breakfast at Café Casa Oaxaca in the business district, or the Baja California-inspired seafood at Oaxacalifornia – all three venues hit the spot.

Criollo A stunningly elegant and hip space with outdoor courtyard and the most delicious food from Enrique Olvera alumni Luis Arellano. Highly recommend.

Casa de las Bugambillas A charming, more rustic B&B decorated with local folk art with a delightfully friendly team.

Hotel Casa Oaxaca Gorgeous local design and seriously great food from Alejandro Ruiz and his team.

Origen A beautiful formal restaurant found just off the main square in Oaxaca, owned and run by Rodolfo Castellano. Expect fantastic seasonal food, rich in Oaxacan ingredients.

Words by Alex Mead.

This interview was taken from the March/April 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.

Thomasina Miers' Oaxaca Photo

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