This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Dodie Miller has been the attractive and passionate conduit for distributing the most authentic Mexican ingredients to both professional and amateur chefs across the UK for the past 15 years.
The happy confluence of a new-born son and her introduction to a copy of American chef Mark Miller's The Great Chile Book came together to inspire the female Miller (no relation) to launch The Cool Chile Company as a way of working from home.
The expansion of Miller's business has subsequently led to ever-larger premises on various industrial estates and a stall on Portobello Market, where she cooked take-away Mexican. Prompted by popular demand for her food, three years ago she opened her first cafe, Taqueria, with her partner Fred Taylor in Notting Hill Gate, as well as running a stall in Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays and overseeing a thriving mail order business to retailers, restaurants and cooks at home.
But what particularly excites Miller today is a piece of machinery located at the back of her latest warehouse in London W10 whose racks are piled from floor to ceiling with boxes of various chillis (the English spelling, chile is Spanish) in different forms, Mexican herbs, spices, corn products, beans and Mexican chocolate, all of which combine to imbue this rather drab corner of north-west London with the air of a much hotter clime. And just a brief glimpse and sniff of the very hot chilli habanero, the diced chilli chipotle, the strong aroma of aniseed that exudes from the avocado leaves used in soups and the pungent Mexican oregano made me acutely aware of how much this distinctive style of cooking has to offer.
But Miller was keen to lead me beyond these heady aromas to where she has installed for the princely sum of £100,000 the first machine in the UK that can produce fresh corn tortillas (until now these have been shipped in from the US or Spain). At over 10 metres long this monster, manufactured by Lawrence Industries of southern California, is not only capable of producing 3,500 tortillas an hour but also of cooking them crucially three times to ensure the correct bubbling on the surface. Preservative free, other than the gum to ensure their elasticity, these tortillas have a ten-day ambient shelf life and will, Miller hopes, be the next stage in the growing British appreciation of Mexican food. "I believe these are even more fundamental to Mexican cooking than freshly baked bread in French restaurants or even fresh pizza dough in a pizzeria. One day I hope every city in the UK will have these corn tortillas on sale", Miller said as another batch came off hot off the press to be trimmed and bagged.
Over a cup of hot chocolate, ground from cocoa nibs, sugar, cinnamon and almonds, Miller explained that while it was her American father who kindled her interest in food it was her mother's decision to send her to boarding school in Dorset, which shaped her professional future. "I then spent several years working in various London restaurants, which I loved although I learnt that the essence of being a good waitress is rather similar to the behaviour of a shark, trawling round but never stopping."
Today, Taqueria offers – alongside Wahaca in Covent Garden, Mestizo in Camden Town and Green & Red in Shoreditch – a level of Mexican cooking that has been missing in London hitherto. And for any neophyte, Taqueria may be the easiest place to start.
This is partly to do with its layout: three bright, interconnected rooms which obviously grew organically (it used to be a Sudanese restaurant) with an open kitchen, where the chefs wear their baseball caps nonchalantly back to front. Behind the bar is a television set showing DVDs of the wrestling programmes so popular in Mexico, while on each table are bowls of pumpkin seeds that have been toasted and then liberally covered in lime juice, sea salt and chipotle chilli powder. Nibbling on them makes the first marguerita essential and the second even more pleasurable.
Taqueria's menu focuses on the food that is served around Mexico City, Oaxaca and Guadalajara, which Miller described as 'Mexico's corn and black bean belt'. Our meal comprised crisp tostadas with sea bass ceviche; cheese and chicken quesadillas; light corn tortillas topped with slow cooked brisket; flautas, rolled and fried tortillas filled with tomatillo salsa; camaron, beer battered prawns with chipotle mayonnaise; fried plantain and avocado; and two interesting desserts, more plantain this time with a goats milk toffee and a lively ice cream made from papaya and tequila.
Served by enthusiastic staff to the accompaniment of Mexican music, this meal was fun and at less than £20 per head for a considerable amount of food, equally good value. But it was the flavours that most impressed. All were clean and fresh, far more so than the Mexican food often encountered by anyone travelling across the US.
In converting her well-sourced ingredients into the relaxed atmosphere of Taqueria, Miller encountered two particular challenges. "The first and most obvious is that everyone expects Mexican food to be cheap but it can't be given the prices here for staples such as avocados and limes or the free-range meat I insist we use", she explained. "And that's before the massive hike in the price of corn."
"The second has been more subtle. Taqueria has obviously attracted a lot of Mexicans either living in or visiting London and all of them are very passionate about their food. Some have almost been in tears with pleasure at being reminded of what they used to eat back home while others have been less impressed. The reason for this, I came to appreciate, is that Mexican cooking, like Italian, is very regional and the preparation of the dishes, particularly the sauces, can vary enormously. Mexican food is hugely emotive but that for me is a big part of its charm. If there was only one way of cooking a mole, the chocolate based sauce that they serve with turkey, it wouldn't be as much fun."
As I left Miller and Taylor in their jam-packed warehouse they were preparing for a new logistical challenge. To make even more authentic tortillas they are about to switch the source of their corn flour from Italy to the US and were expecting the imminent arrival of their first delivery, a mere 10 tons. Miller, however, seemed unfazed. "I love corn and I want these tortillas to be as delicious as possible."
The Cool Chile Co, www.coolchile.co.uk
Taqueria, 139-143 Westbourne Grove, W11, 020-7229 4734, www.coolchiletaqueria.co.uk
Green & Red, 51 Bethnal Green Road, E1, 020-7749 9670, www.greenred.co.uk
Mestizo, 103 Hampstead Road, NW1, 020-7387 4064, www.mestizomx.com
Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, WC2, 020-7240 1883, www.wahaca.co.uk