Tomatillos and salsa verde, the taste of, um, er, Devon?

South Hams, Devon September 10, 2004 Having lived in Devon for what, over 25 years now (frightening how the years have flown by), I have generally adapted to life and food here in the West Country. For we are fortunate indeed, especially in recent years, to enjoy a range of truly wonderful, locally grown produce, as well as excellent meat and Devon landed fish and shellfish. Some flavours, however, lie dormant within our souls, linking us possibly even to our earliest days, so that every now and then an inchoate desire comes over us, a wave of nostalgia and remembrance, and we long to rediscover the tastes of our past.
For example, I was born in Mexico City and spent many childhood summers in nearby Teotihuacan, so even just the smell of flame-toasted cornmeal tortillas instantly transports me in time and place to another era of my life. And is there anything that can beat puffy, batter-fried chiles rellenos as we used to enjoy in the archaeologists’ lab in San Juan Teotihuacan on endless boyhood summers (except perhaps for the memory of them)? Another favourite is salsa verde, made with tomatillos, or green husk tomatoes, that tart, chilli-hot salsa, redolent of pungent cilantro, an indispensable taste of Mexico, spooned over huevos rancheros, dolloped into warm flour tortillas with shredded chicken and a spoonful of thick sour cream, mixed into guacamole, or used as a topping on frijoles and rice.
The tomatillo, in spite of its name, is in fact no relation to the tomato. A plant (Physalis philadelphica) native to Mexico, archaeological evidence indicates that its fruit was used by the Aztecs and other pre-Columbian peoples. With its papery lantern-like husk, it is related to the Cape gooseberry, and has a flavour that is highly tart and acidic. When cooked it gives a texture that is thick and almost jelly-like. Combined with the fire and flavour of chilli, it is an indispensable taste of Mexico for which there is simply no substitute, hence my perennial longing for salsa verde.
I never dreamed or even hoped that tomatillos would ever be available here in Devon, so I was absolutely astounded and delighted to discover recently that the South Devon Chilli Farm at South Milton near Kingsbridge n
ow grows them, together with typical Mexican chillies such as serranos, poblanos, habaneros and jalapeños. While the South Devon Chilli Farm sells through its web site and despatches chillies by post (as well as attends local Farmers Markets such as Exeter on Thursdays), I wanted to get my mitts on sufficient quantity of tomatillos to last more than a mere afternoon or two. Fortunately the company delivers regularly supplies of its delicious chilli jam and jellies to Topsham’s Country Cheeses (one of the best independent cheese shops in the country), and so, after repeated emails to Jason, we arranged for Topsham delivery of a couple of kilos of tomatillos together with some jalapeño and habanero chillies. These arrived yesterday and I’ve been in tomatillo heaven ever since.
Food writer friends Rachel in Guanajuato, Mexico, Sue, formerly of Mexico City, now in Alsace, France, and Kim in Dallas, Texas gave me detailed instructions on how to make salsa verde and it couldn’t have been simpler. Remove husks from the gorgeous tomatillos, rinse if overly sticky, quarter, and add to a pot together with chillies to taste (for around 30 tomatillos, I used a 6-8 jalapeños). Cover with water, bring to the simmer and leave for no more than 5-10 minutes. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, allow to cool, and liquidize roughly (in Mexico, the volacanic stone molcajete might be used, or these days more likely a blender — I used the food processor, but made sure not to over-process). Afterwards, add salt to taste and a generous amount of roughly chopped cilantro.

The result was sensational and wholly as I remembered it (that’s sometimes the problem with food memories: when you recounter the taste years later, often it's disappointing for it can never be as good as in your mind — but that was definitely not the case in this instance). We enjoyed this magnificent Mexican condiment simply on flame-toasted corn tortillas (from Dodie Miller's Cool Chile Co and afterwards with Michele’s famous black beans, together with rice, grilled chorizo piquante (also from Cool Chile Co), and a stack of warm tortillas. To wash this simple feast down? It should have been tall-neck bottles of Dos Equis, but we opted instead for a good bottle of Pinot Grigio.

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