THE SOUTH AMERICAN CONNECTION
If you like cooking and enjoy sleuthing for unusual ingredients, here’s a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to source chillies from a home in the Outer Hebrides …
Back on Christmas Day 1983, my parents gave me a great cookery book called The Spice of Life, which was written to accompany a C4 series about the history of spices and the European empires that were built on them.
One of the recipes is for a Mexican dish of chicken cooked in chilli and chocolate. I was very interested in giving this a go, but getting hold of the correct chillies was problematic. In Bradford, I could get any number of Asian chillies, but this dish called for specific South American varieties – ancho, pasilla and mulato – which were impossible to find.
A few years later, a copywriting buddy of mine on a round the world trip announced he was on his way to Mexico City. I immediately sent a begging letter, and when he returned a month or two later, he had a carrier bag full of chillies, and lavish descriptions of the specialist chilli shop where he’d found them.
A year or two later, we had moved to the Outer Hebrides and I had all but run out of my South American treasures. In a flash of inspiration, I contacted the Mexican Embassy in London, who kindly supplied a list of wholesalers exporting chillies to the UK. Unfortunately, most of them were only interested in selling by the sack, so with a sigh I put the list of addresses, which included everywhere from Mexico to Buenos Aires, Rio and Bogotá, into the dashboard of the car, and forgot all about them.
At this time, the car was playing up, and an acquaintance in the village recommended a bloke up the road. “He’s the best motor mechanic in Europe,” he said extravagantly. “He’ll do anything for a bottle of vodka.”
The man in question did indeed turn out to be a fine mechanic, diagnosing an extremely subtle fault in the engine. We got the car back, paid in the proper spirit and drove it home.
A few days later, I had a call from a friend, who said she had no idea we were cocaine barons and how cleverly we had concealed our activities. It transpired that while working on our car, the mechanic had gone into the dashboard looking for the manual, and come across the list of South American addresses. As far as he was concerned, the only products that came out of South America were illegal drugs, and we were obviously running an elaborate operation from the privacy of our blackhouse.
I was never entirely sure that my cover story about trying to get hold of some ancho chillies was believed. Now we have the internet, it’s pretty easy to pick up any kind of chilli you care to mention – with no risk at all to one’s reputation.