Mezcal and the milpa in the state of México

One of the things I love about running Eat Mexico is that I get to meet people who are passionate about Mexican food and Mexican traditions. This weekend, two of those people — Gustavo and his girlfriend Karina, who help me with my mezcal tour — offered to take me to the state of Mexico, one of the states that borders the Distrito Federal, so I can see how mezcal is made up-close.

Only seven states have been certified by the Mexican government to make mezcal: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato and Durango. But mezcal is actually produced in several more places, including the state of Mexico and Puebla. By law, these states aren’t allowed to put the name “mezcal” on their liquor, even though they’ve been making mezcal for generations.

Our destination was Zumpahuacán, a small municipality about two hours west of Mexico City. From the Colonia Roma, we headed west toward Santa Fe and then up over the hills past La Marquesa, the forest of pine and fir trees. (Yep, there’s a forest right outside Mexico City. I really need to get out and see it more often.)

We drove past Toluca and through Tenancingo, a town known for its rebozos and obispo tacos. We zig-zagged for several miles on a windy road that cut through the hills, and then we finally pulled off and parked under a shade tree.

This was our view:

Look, a real squash flower!

The mezcal tour begins

The maestro mezcalero, Sr. José Luis, greeted us in person, wearing slacks, a button-down shirt and leather sandals. He served us mezcal in little clay jarritos, and we sipped and talked on his patio. His dog lay nearby in the sun.

His mezcal-production area lay about a kilometer from his home, down a dirt path. The sun shined high and hard overhead. I regretted not bringing a hat. (Speaking of which, I need to replace my American baseball caps for a straw hat like these guys are wearing.)

The maestro mezcalero, Sr. José Luis, and my friend Gustavo

The view of the countryside in Zumpahuacán, Estado de México

Sr. José Luis makes his mezcal from wild agave. I’d never seen one up close before, and the first plant we saw had a rounded, raised pattern on its leaves. The design reminded me of similar shapes I’d seen on murals at Teotihuacán and the Anthropology Museum. It was kind of an ah-ha moment.

Agave criollo, one of several types (all called criollo, for lack of a scientific categorization) that grow on Sr. José Luis's land.

Another agave criollo

Sr. José Luis, using his machete, shows us how to determine when an agave is mature.

The milpa in Zumpahuacán

We learned about his mezcal distillation process, and we saw the earthen pit where he roasts his piñas. Piña, in this instance, doesn’t mean pineapple. It’s the name for the core of the agave, which is what mezcal is made from. On the way back, we got a bigger treat: Sr. José Luis led us through his milpa, where he grows corn, beans and squash for his family.

The word milpa signifies a small plot of land where things are grown synergistically. The beans use the corn as a natural trellis, snaking around the stalks; the squash naturally harvests just after the corn does. The milpa was the most important farming practice in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.

And there I was, standing in one.

“This is where it all started!” I wanted to tell everyone. Of course, they knew too, and we all stood around sort of dazed.

A variety of white bean, hanging off a cornstalk in the milpa

How amazing is this? The bean stem, trellising around an ear of corn.

Black corn

Black corn, one of the varieties grown on José Luis's milpa. This one isn't ripe yet.

Wild cempasúchil, the traditional flower of Day of the Dead

Wild cempasúchil, the traditional flower of Day of the Dead

A yellow flower -- I forgot the name -- that grows wild in Zumpahuacan. It's gathered and formed into shapes (like crosses or wreaths), which are placed over people's doorways on holidays.

As we were walking back through the flowers and the sunshine, I asked Sr. José Luis what Zumpahuacán means. He said, “Place where the skulls are found.” Turns out the name actually means “place where the skulls of the sacrificed are kept in colorín trees.” Huh.

The day comes to an end

Sr. José Luis plucked off few fresh ears of corn for us to take home and his family roasted a few more for us to munch on. The kernels were nutty and toasty, almost popcorn-tasting.

On the way home, we listened to Tin-Tan and I tried to figure out a way to fit my two bottles of mezcal into my tiny tote bag — a bag already stuffed with sweet bread, tomatillos and manzano chiles from Tenancingo.

I really, really need to get out of the city more often. We’ve got too many amazing things in our backyard.

13 Responses to “Mezcal and the milpa in the state of México”
  1. Brenda

    thought you might be interested in a project we share with friends in San Felipe de Aqua near Oaxaca, Oaxaca, we’ve been visiting Mexico (from BC Canada) for more than twenty years and working on the milpa project for more than seven years

    • Lesley

      Hi Brenda: Wow. What a wonderful idea. I’d love to contact you offline for more details.

  2. Obet

    I liked a lot this post.

  3. Jay Porter

    This a fantastic post, thank you.

    • Lesley

      You’re welcome Jay. Hope you’ve been well.

  4. acginc

    yei, mezcal rocks, you don’t get a hangover like the one of tequila and the bottles usually have the worm that likes to eat the plant

  5. Ben

    I wanna go there now! :)

    • Lesley

      Ben: Maybe next year I’ll invite you to come with me, in exchange for two dozen of your bisquet molletes. :-)

  6. EL CHAVO!

    Awesome pictures and great post! I read so much about the beans growing on corn but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. At least now I have, in a pic.

    • Lesley

      Isn’t it amazing? I was awestruck.

  7. Alicia

    I really loved your post! So great what you’re telling about the milpa and the mezcal.
    Right now I’ll go to my mercado, to buy some masa de maíz para hacer sopecitos! Yummi! I really love Mexican Food and recently started learning to cook it.
    Saludos y un abrazote,

  8. James

    Did i miss something? Whats the name of the product produced by these beautiful wild agave plants? I’d love to try some…

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi James: It’s mezcal, or legally, a “destilado de agave.” According to Mexican beverage regulations, the word “mezcal” only legally applies to the eight states that hold a Denomination of Origin. Many other Mexican states produce mezcal, but they are not legally able to use the word mezcal on their bottles. I personally don’t think it makes much sense, as it’s not clear in the first place why some states have the D.O. and others don’t.

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