“Chile, they say, is the king, the soul of the Mexicans – a nutrient, a medicine, a drug, a comfort. For many Mexicans, if it were not for the existence of chile, their national identity would begin to disappear.” - Arturo Lomelli.
I never expected to hear the words “chocolate”, “chilli” and “meat” in the same sentence – it was as outrageous as “giant Jewish lock forward.” But then I saw what was to become one of
my all-time favourite movies, Chocolat. As the name suggests, the plot of this film revolves around chocolate. Set in the late 1950s in a village in the French hinterland, a woman called Vianne and her young daughter open up a shop where she
sells all things chocolate. Vianne is a woman free of spirit and prejudices, who flouts the conventions of the time. This incurs the wrath of the mayor - a puritanical man obsessed with morality – and he tries every dirty trick in the book to make Vianne
leave the village.
Throughout the film there are the most wonderful scenes of chocolate - from the preparation of the beans to the eating of the finished articles. One of the most memorable scenes is when Vianne caters for a small dinner party
to celebrate her landlady’s 80th birthday. The old lady invites the few villagers who haven't succumbed to the mayor's pressures. A goose is served for the main course, accompanied by a chocolate sauce which the guests devour with relish. Until
then I had regarded chocolate as a sweet treat, but some quick research revealed that it had been used in savoury dishes for centuries. The Mayas of pre-Columbian Mexico had devised a rich sauce of bitter chocolate, combined with the bite of poblano chillies,
which was usually served with venison or turkey. Queen Victoria and her inner circle were reportedly very fond of grouse served in a rich, dark wine sauce finished with a small amount of bitter chocolate, so the combination has been around for a long while.
The ancient sauce of the Mayas has survived to the present, and is known as Mole Poblano (Puebla-style Mole) by their descendants and it is regarded as Mexico’s national dish by many. Containing around 20 ingredients, of which the most
notable are chili and chocolate, this dark sauce is usually served over chicken or turkey and is regarded as a treat on special occasions. The sauce combines equally well with red meat, and I am particularly fond of fillet smothered in it. Should you find
it hard to obtain the authentic Mexican chilli varieties, substitute them with other medium-hot ones; around 10,000 Scoville units.
Preparation time: 4 hours
Cooking time: 3 hours
Traditionally enjoyed with
tequila, but I quite like Merlot or Tinta Barocca with this dish
For the meat:
1.5 Kg beef or venison fillet, sliced into 10cm thick roundels
2 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Coarse sea salt
and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
White rice for serving
For the sauce:
12 Dried Poblano or Jalapeňo chillies
12 Dried Guajillo or Paprika chillies
10 Medium garlic cloves, crushed (about 10 teaspoons)
6 Dried Pasilla or Hungarian Wax or Carrot chillies
3 Dried bay leaves, crumbled
4 Cherry tomatoes, rinsed and quartered
2 Slices white bread
2 Uncooked corn tortillas
1 Large ripe tomato, quartered
1 Large onion,
1 Stick cinnamon (4 -5 cm), broken into pieces
3L Beef stock
2 Cups sunflower oil
1 Cup dark bitter chocolate, finely chopped
½ Cup almonds
½ Cup raw peanuts, shelled
4 Tbsp. sugar,
plus more to taste
4 Tbsp. sesame seeds
2 Tbsp. pumpkin seeds
2 Tbsp. raisins
1 Tsp. whole aniseed
1 Tsp. bruised black peppercorns
1 Tsp. thyme leaves
½ Tsp. whole cloves
½ Tsp. dried marjoram
Coarse sea salt to taste
- Pan-sear the pieces of fillet over high heat in a large frying pan containing a little oil, about 2 minutes per side. Set aside until ready to assemble the dish.
- Remove the chilli
stems and shake the seeds out into a small bowl.
- Tear chillies into large pieces and set them aside.
- Place 4 Tbsp. of the reserved chilli seeds, as well as the sesame seeds, in a small frying pan over medium heat.
- Toast the seeds,
stirring occasionally, until lightly brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer the seeds to a spice grinder.
- Put the aniseed, peppercorns, and cloves in the now empty pan. Toast until fragrant, about 1 minute, and transfer to the spice grinder as well.
- Add the thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, and cinnamon to the contents of the spice grinder.
- Grind all the seeds and spices into a fine powder. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat
to shimmering point.
- Working in batches, fry the chilies until slightly darkened, about 20 seconds per batch. Transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate as each batch is finished.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and reserve it and its cooking
- Transfer the chilies to a large bowl and add enough boiling water to cover them.
- Let the chillies steep for 30 minutes. Strain them, reserving the soaking liquid.
- Transfer a third of the chilies, 3 Tbsp. soaking liquid, and
3 Tbsp. beef stock into a blender and purée until as smooth as possible. Repeat the process twice, i.e. make three batches.
- Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and strain the chilli mixture, using a rubber spatula to push through as
much chile mixture as possible. Discard all solids and set the purée aside.
- Return the saucepan with oil to medium-high heat.
- One ingredient at a time, fry the almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds and raisins until toasted, about 1 minute
for almonds, 45 seconds for peanuts, 20 seconds for pumpkin seeds, and 15 seconds for raisins. Transfer each batch to a paper towel-lined plate as it is done.
- Transfer the almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and raisins to the bowl containing the spice
- Fry the bread in the saucepan until golden brown - 1 to 2 minutes per side – and transfer to a paper towel--lined plate.
- Fry the tortillas until golden brown, about 1 minute per side, and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
Remove the saucepan from the heat.
- Break the bread and tortillas into small pieces and transfer to the bowl containing the spice mixture.
- Set a fine mesh strainer or sieve over a small bowl and strain the oil from the saucepan.
2 Tbsp. of the strained oil to the now-empty saucepan.
- Heat the pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add in the onions and cook, stirring, until browned - about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Transfer the onions and garlic to the bowl with the spice mixture, leaving as much oil in pan as possible.
- Return the pan to medium-high heat.
- When the oil is shimmering, add in both varieties of tomato. Cook until softened, about 10
- Transfer the cooked tomato to the bowl with the spice mixture.
- Add 2 ½ cups of beef stock to the bowl and mix in.
- Working in two batches, purée the spice mixture in your blender; as smooth as possible.
- Strain the mixture over a large bowl. Discard the solids and set the spice mixture aside.
- Heat 3 Tbsp. of the reserved strained oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until shimmering.
- Add the chilli purée and cook, stirring
constantly, until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of tomato paste, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the spice mixture, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes.
- Stir in 4 cups of
stock and the chocolate. Simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
- During the last 15 minutes of cooking time, add the fillet and ensure it is heated through.
- Stir in the sugar and check the seasoning.
- Serve with
the white rice, garnished with the toasted sesame seeds.
“The fruit of the chile is as indispensable to the natives as salt to the whites.” –Friedrich Alexander von Humboldt.