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Chillies and chintextle: the story of Gran Luchito

Mexican done right: the story of Gran Luchito

by Great British Chefs 30 January 2018

After experiencing the incredible food of Mexico, Fergus Chamberlain decided to bring the flavours of back to the UK. We talk to him to find out why he fell in love with the Mexican food.

Mexican food has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the UK over the past few years. Chefs like Thomasina Miers kick-started our love affair with the cuisine and today there are dozens of restaurants offering an authentic taste of the country. We’re also spending our holidays in Mexico more than ever before – over half a million of us visited in 2016. But what about those of us who want to cook authentic Mexican at home?

That’s where producers like Gran Luchito step in. Founded by Fergus Chamberlain in 2012 after a trip to Oaxaca, it was one of the first companies to offer a real taste of Mexican cooking. Starting his career as a food buyer at Sainsbury’s, Fergus always knew he wanted to own his own food business, but it wasn’t until he was living in New York training as a chef that he started to experience proper Mexican cooking – something that was still quite rare in the UK.

‘Mexican food in the US is a bit like Indian food in the UK – there are Mexican restaurants everywhere,’ he says. ‘I wanted to learn more about it so I booked a two-week trip to Oaxaca to do some research, and instantly fell in love with the place.’

Mexican food is very regional – while certain specialities such as tacos are found everywhere, the flavours and ingredients used to fill them vary. A steak taco from the Yucatan would be very different to one you’d find in Oaxaca, but there are certain ingredients – such as the piquant, gooseberry-like tomatillos and smoky chipotle chillies – that are universally loved. Those were the flavours Fergus wanted to bring home with him. ‘There’s good food to be found wherever you are in Mexico,’ explains Fergus. ‘For example, in Oaxaca, the city is in a deep valley surrounded by mountains and originally there were seven different indigenous groups living there, each with their own culinary traditions. When the Spanish arrived they built the city and all these different groups of people started to trade and share their recipes. That’s why it’s where some of Mexico’s best food and drink comes from, such as mole and mezcal.'

In Mexico, chillies were traditionally smoked to preserve them for use later on in the year – much like smoked salmon in Scotland – but now they're smoked simply because they taste amazing. In Oaxaca, these smoked chillies are then often made into a paste called chintextle, which contains lots of other ingredients such as dried shrimp, seeds and nuts. After returning home and realising there was no way of of buying chintextle, Fergus set about developing a recipe for a simpler chipotle chilli paste that still captured the flavours of the region.

The first thing to do was to make the paste a little differently to most others available in the UK by removing the seeds from the chillies. ‘It’s quite a labour-intensive process, but it’s worth it as they have a sour, bitter taste which takes away from the overall flavour. It took a lot of work to find someone who would make it this way for me, but I eventually stumbled across a family-owned company in Mexico City where all the employees are female. The factory is more like a giant kitchen than anything else – there aren’t giant machines blending everything together.’

Fergus’ first product was created under the Gran Luchito name, and word soon spread about its ability to bring home-cooked Mexican meals to life. Spurred on by its success, Fergus started looking at producing salsas, an iconic Mexican condiment that is spooned over pretty much everything, stirred into sauces or used as a dip. And of all the different salsas found throughout Mexico, there are two that always take pride of place on the table – those with the smoky heat of chipotle, and those with the sour tang of tomatillo. But again, to find these authentic flavours in the UK proved difficult.

‘UK-produced salsas are made with tinned tomatoes, which means you can’t use the traditional cooking method of roasting them until they char, which creates a wonderful smoky flavour,’ explains Fergus. ‘They also require added sugar to make them sweet enough – something I really didn’t want to have in my products.’

As the UK’s taste for Mexican food continued to grow, so did Gran Luchito’s range of products. Joining the chilli paste that started it all and the new salsas was a chipotle-infused mayonnaise, for those looking for a gentler introduction to Mexican flavours. But it’s in the past twelve months that things have really taken off. ‘This time last year we had five products, but we’ve launched another ten since then, so it’s really snowballed,’ says Fergus. ‘There’s a real demand from cooks who want to prepare restaurant-quality Mexican food at home – I think they’ve become bored of the Tex-Mex meal kits that people used to associate with the country and are after something more.’

Our newfound love for proper Mexican food is certainly here to stay, but we still have much more to learn about the regional cuisines and indigenous ingredients found throughout the country. It’s people like Fergus, however, who bring these flavours to the UK, that we have to thank for making that possible.

Gran Luchito is available from Ocado and Waitrose.

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