Tiny fiery red chillies were drying in the sun for sale in the centre of the village, in the hills outside Chiang Mai. Other wares too were proffered for sale; tiny fish, pickled in recycled whisky bottles, eyes staring out from all sides, fermented tea, 'miang' damp and pungent, for chewing - packed in buckets and weighted with stones. Unfamiliar fruits and vegetables flowed out of bowls and containers, spiky beans, young coconuts, papaya, pak choi - on a makeshift counter and all around on the earthen floor. The smell though, was overwhelmingly chilli - sold as the basis for spicy Tom Yam soup, blended with galangal, bergamot, shallot and lemon grass. Small packets of the mix hung from a piece of bamboo, slung carelessly under the awning that provided shade from the sun.
Inside, coffee is on offer, the specialist village brew or a more familiar Nescafe. Behind the shop, water rushes; tumbling over stones making a busy, refreshing roar. And everywhere flowers - poinsettias grown to near-tree size, flaming red in time for Christmas, bougainvillea, lantanaa pendulous white trumpet flowered shrub and orchids, growing casually from the trunks of trees.
Northern Thailand. We're up high in the hills outside Chiang Mai in an eco-village where the people make their living from growing crops in the surrounding forests. Our local guide from the village awaits. He will take us into the forest and explain the culinary and medicinal purposes of the plants we will see. It's getting hot - we've tarried too long over coffee, seduced by unfamiliar food in the shop and soothed by sounds of the majestic waterfall that powers the village.
I'm on a culinary exploration of Thailand. Sampling dishes, finding out how and where things grow, exploring local markets and, best of all, learning to cook the food for myself, with the help of those who know best - the women of Thailand. I'm off to find out not just about recipes and ingredients, but also about 'food culture' and etiquette-what to eat with what, how to prepare different vegetables and fruit, where to buy it and how much to pay for it. This is a cookery course with a difference!
Now it's time to leave the village.
I've picked plenty of ingredients to take back to show Mae and ask her what to do with them. Mae, a retired nurse lives with her husband Por and their extended family just outside Chaing Mai.
Mae is a cook extraordinaire and Por loves tending to his garden. Their delightful 'House of Clay' is a wonder with a cavernous main house and a private guesthouse, set in beautiful jungle-like gardens full of the family's efforts at pottery.
A winding path leads through shrubs, plants and statues, shaded and peaceful, past the old Lanna-style wooden house, with its verandahs tumbling with flowers to a tree-house, recreated from wood, bark and Thai antiques, roofed with leaves.
Mae's daughter helps me with my first dish, Som Tam - papaya salad, a traditional dish from Isan, the north east. First, I have to choose how many tiny red chillies to crush with a pestle and mortar. Mae laughs at my western European resistance to crunching these little bombs as a casual snack. We settle on just half a chilli, leaving the rest for decoration. Mae tries to sneak extra chillies into the dish when I'm not looking, saying otherwise it will be tasteless. We compromise and I prepare another dish for everyone else with full chilli strength. Next I learn to fry tofu in a wok and make a tamarind sauce with sticky coconut sugar, lemon juice, soy sauce and peanuts. 'Everything should be a little sweet, a little sour and a little salty', Mae says, 'This is the basis of Thai cookery.'
Over the next few days I build up a real rapport with Mae and her whole family. Although more culinary adventures await me in other parts of Thailand, I am sorry to be leaving. On my last evening Mae astounds me by declaring her love of 'The Sound of Music'. We listen to the CD and sing along, she knows every word. Unn, Mae's daughter, explains the tradition of young women giving their mothers a massage after the stresses of the day - mothers in return tell stories about the past, family history, tradition, childhoods long gone. She comes round behind my chair and starts massaging my neck and shoulders, then arms and hands. Mae sings a song - she apologises for her deep voice. 'I had accident', she says, 'with my tonsils.' Unn translates: 'We must do the best we can..we must accept what comes..we must be happy.'
My last morning is beautiful. It's early but Por has already replaced yesterday's chrysanthemum heads floating in a ceramic container which were red for Sunday parasols to yellow for Monday's colour.
Sunlight dapples through the leaves and flowers. I feel as if I have been here forever. Mae and I have an emotional farewell. We've built up a solid relationship in a very short space of time. We hug and cry as my driver waits. Mae gives me a tiny terracotta laughing pig she has made, a good luck symbol for Thai and Chinese people. 'I hope you will come back to Thailand', she says. I hope I will too.
I promise to write and visit again next November for Loy Krathong, the festival of lights.
I'm going to miss 'The House of Clay' and everyone there; it's a world away from life in London. But whenever I walk down Portobello Road market and see those little red chillies peeking out from a vegetable stall, I know I'll hear Mae laughing and feel the warmth of the people and sunshine of Thailand.
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