Cloudy with a chance of locusts

It was dark at the Moxi restaurant in the Hotel Matilda, one of about a hundred exquisitely wrought boutique hotels in San Miguel de Allende, but you’d have to be blind to miss the fact that the waiter is what my mom would call a looker – the kind you dare hope for in a place where the tasting menu is $780 pesos per, and has been concocted by Enrique Olvera, Mexico’s best-known chef, master of the legendary Pujol in Mexico City and number 17 on the San Pellegrino list of best restaurants in the world for those who are keeping track. Olvera is the chef about whose brand new Nueva York restaurant Cosme the NY Times says, “the cooking is a thrill, largely because it sails right over ideas like tradition, authenticity and modernity”. Other Big Apple eaters – all of whom seem to chow down and report back with a ravenous competitiveness – have been variously savouring and swooning about Cosme, or at least they were in February. A thrill, in fact, is what we were hoping for at Matilda, and we got it. And we’re here to tell you that maybe Enrique Olvera sails right over ideas like tradition and authenticity, but he walks smack into the entirely authentic and completely traditional Mexican nest of worms, and serves them up for dinner. OK, maybe not in the traditional way, but still. It was the good-looking waiter who spilled the beans as he served the beef fillet, chinicuil sauce, broccoli puree and sautéed vegetables from Purísima de Jalpa. “This is beef with sauce from worms, broccoli puree, and sauteed vegetables,” he said smoothly, laying down the plates with such tenderness that our party, men and women alike, was besotted and forgot he’d said ‘worms’. But once we had licked our plates clean, one of us snapped out of our rapture and asked if we’d heard right, and he assured us in his bewitching accent that yes, we had indeed oohed and aahed over the edible larva of the moth Hypopta agavis , which infest the roots of maguey and agave plants before being harvested for eating. Lonely Planet, which appears to have acquired a taste, says that “Chinicuiles are red, fleshy, and considered highly nutritious, containing high levels of protein,” and advises you to “consume these critters alive, deep-fried, or roasted inside tacos with guacamole.” The steak was superior, trust me, but I made a note to read more guidebooks before, rather than after dinner, in order to better appreciate my protein sources. The waiter disappeared and came back with a small bowl contained unground-up versions of the worms, which we chewed gravely, trying not to sound like six-year-olds whose parents have just sprung liver on them, which was hard for some of us. The worms – wait, are those dark things eyes? – didn’t taste like chicken; they’d been savvily spiced so that only a suggestive zip of flavour and the crunch remained. We were feeling like we’d been let into a secret society of worm-eating savants, and thinking that we understood why René Redzepi and his fellow foragers have declared Mexico to be the next great flavour capital of the universe, when the waiter also said that those of us who had enjoyed the seared fish with habanero ash, huitlacoche nixtamalizado, quince puree and truffle oil had tasted what American farmers refer to – and enthusiastically try to stomp out – as corn smut, and what people who hang out with Enrique Olvera call Mexican truffle, for they are, indeed, as deliciously homely as truffle, maybe even uglier, because they grow, like a gruesome outsized science fiction appendage, on ears of corn. Grateful for the fact that the huitlacoche had been assimilated into the fish flesh, we moved on to dessert, creamy chocolate with mezcal and Mandarin orange, then left our waiter, the lovely cherry on the sundae of our evening, with a big fat tip for opening the door to something that two billion of our fellow earthlings, connoisseurs of maggots and grasshoppers, already know. Thanks, Enrique, and pass the fried octopus taco with morita chili oil, peanut and creamy avocado. We’ll be back.

story © Dianna Carr           image © Francis Tremblay