Chef and TV star Rick Stein talks with Sarah Daniell about his love of Mexico.

What's your current state of mind?

I'm really fresh. I'm normally doing lots of promotional talks but I haven't done any for a while so, yeah, I'm fresh.

Talking of fresh, you went from San Fran to Mexico as a 21-year-old. What did you notice had changed this time around?
I now have enough money to eat well in Mexico. When I went at 21, I wasn't penniless but I was travelling a lot. I had to eat in the cheapest places. There are still good, cheap places to eat. But what changed a lot was my appreciation and understanding of food.

What struck you about the food way back then?
I'd never tasted anything like it before. So it was a game-changing moment, I guess, in terms of what I was used to in non-British food. It was very different to Indian and Chinese food I had in restaurants in England. So getting to Mexico - the tastes and the heat - the chilli heat, tasting avocados for the first time, tasting coriander for the first time, was a bit of a mind-blowing experience really.

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The shock of the new?
Exactly. The other thing that changed for me is a perception thing. Mexico's always had quite a difficult history, and one of the things that attracted me to it was reading books like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, and realising it had quite a violent history - a different kind of violence associated with narcotics. I was on edge about that when I arrived this time, but there was very little evidence of the violence. It's one of those weird countries where you're told stuff is going on but you never see it. What I'm keen to establish is it's a perfectly safe place to go to as a tourist. The thing I love about Mexico is it's ever-so-slightly dangerous. But it's a great country with a good set of values, a sense of family, and hospitable people. They welcome you with open arms. They are lovely people.

Do you often read books about a place before you go there?
I do. I love reading books about where I am. I read a book by D.H. Lawrence before I went to Mexico. Essays called Mornings in Mexico. And Under the Volcano [Malcolm Lowry] - about a drunken consul's last days. It's all a bit gloomy but it added to the atmosphere of a sultry country.

Do you ever feel concerned about the impact of tourism on their culture, or their environment?
Like many developing countries they welcome tourism because they need the money. It's a country of contrasts - there's a lot of wealth and a tremendous amount of poverty. I think it's so beautiful that the people are so nice, and you might be messing it up by being there but ... what can you do? At least you're bringing valuable currency.

I've heard gorgeous phrases, like, in Oaxaca, chocolate is the portal to the soul. Is there a single food or ingredient that you think of when you think of Mexico?
I suppose the most important is corn. The corn tortilla is the flavour of Mexico. Smelling corn and going back again is as evocative to me as someone going back to France and smelling Gauloises (French cigarettes) and French coffee. With the first whiff of warm corn, you think: "Ah it's great to be back."

We haven't been particularly well served by authentic Mexican food in New Zealand. Grated cheese and sour cream, etc. What preconceptions did you have and what were you surprised by when you got there?
My memory of Mexico was of things like lime juice, chillies, coriander and corn, and on my way back from Australia in the 80s I went through LA with my family and insisted on taking them to a Mexican restaurant near the airport to have some authentic Mexican food. We piled into this cheap restaurant and it was exactly as you describe it - nachos, and lots of cheese and lots of cream and I was a bit embarrassed.

In Mexico it must be different though?
The reality is you have to get right into Mexico to understand what it is really like. I 'spose the sorts of things you're describing are street food, but not all street food is like that in Mexico. Tom Parker Bowles wrote a whole book on street food. It's not just about poor people's food. A lot of taco stands have been established for generations. One decades-old taco stand in Oaxaca has a farm and an industrial unit where they make all the tacos.

It's a fairly embarrassing, Westernised and condescending view of the street stall and the vendor, to think they are all poor or struggling.
Agreed. They are smart.

What's your tipple of choice over there?
The mescal we have on the programme is wonderful - it's from a tiny distillery in Oaxaca - near the desert but not quite. They were pressing the juice out of the roasted agave and that's the mescal I just loved, and we went to a boutique tequila place and I loved that. The problem with tequila is that most of it is grain spirits or wheat and agave added for flavour. I love their chocolate with cinnamon. I can't drink hot chocolate now without cinnamon.

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When you are making a show like this what, in terms of the audience, do you have at the forefront of your mind - an abiding philosophy in terms of the audience?
It's really trying to get your audience to feel what it's like. The best way you can do that is by being as normal as possible - so if something is a bit scary or stinky or weird, to communicate it as naturally as possible. Let the audience feel it. Trying to be as spontaneous as possible.

What shocks or surprises you still?
I'm endlessly surprised by people's enthusiasm for their foods, even in the most dire circumstances. I remember a British food programme talking with some Syrian refugees who had arrived in England and set up a food kiosk to remind their fellow Syrians how wonderful their cuisine is. It was a reminder that when all else fails, keep your spirits up and keep on cooking. And that, wherever you go, however poor they are, when you start talking to fellow human beings about food, that's what keeps me going.

Lowdown
Rick Stein's Road to Mexico, Wednesday from June 13, 8.30pm, Food TV, Sky Channel 18