The drink was thick and viscous, like baba de nopal. When we took sips, little slimy strings stretched from our lips to the glass. It tasted slightly sour. Kinda funky. (Kinda like… rotting food?) The guava flavor was better. And the celery, even better: like a fresh, bright jugo, accented with heat from the chile-encrusted rim.
From then on, my love affair with pulque didn’t grow, but pulque culture fascinated me. This drink, made from fermented maguey sap, contained thousands of years of history — priests drank it in pre-hispanic times for ceremonial purposes, and it rode a boom of popularity through Mexico’s viceregal years. Pulque was currently booming now with young chilangos. I wanted to know: how was pulque really made? Where did pulque come from before it arrived at the bar?
Finally, in early July, with the help of my friend Mojdeh (she runs a wonderful Mexico City-based tourism company called Journeys Beyond The Surface), my Eat Mexico guides and I were able to take a trip out to Tlaxcala. Mojdeh arranged for us to visit Nanacamilpa, a town in eastern Tlaxcala state whose agave farms supply at least one pulque bar (Las Duelistas) in Mexico City. It’s also home to a large operation that exports to the United States, although we didn’t end up visiting them.
We left Mexico City, bleary-eyed, at 6:30 a.m. A few hours later — after some windy highway roads, a dirt road through a forest, and a short, steep, rocky incline — we arrived at a small farm. The place was beautiful. Fields of corn stretched into the hillside, and neat rows of agave splayed their wild medusa hair in all directions.
The men here made pulque for local consumption only. They also planted quelites, apples, potatoes and fava beans.
One of the workers there, Don Miguel, graciously attended us. He was a rough-hewn man in a leather jacket and rubber boots. (A bunch of wild herbs peeked out of one of his pockets, which we later found out were for his favorite type of tea.)
He showed us around, explaining which agaves were ripe for harvesting, and how he’d eventually cut out a small piece of their core and scrape the inside, so the plant would start to secrete its own juices.
This juice would be transferred to a large fiberglass bin, where it would mix with a bit of the pulque starter, and then left to ferment. The liquid turned into pulque after about four hours, Don Miguel said. It would generally last up to eight days. There were no other chemicals or additives involved.
We wandered among the apple trees, the fruit dappled with dew in the chilly morning air. We met a few of the pigs. (From afar.) Don Miguel offered us a taste of lenguas, a type of quelite that grows like a weed on the farm. They reminded me a little of chivitos.
At the end of a few hours, he gave us some more small souvenirs: a gorgeous wild mushroom, known locally as “yema de huevo,” and a fresh mixiote, or the papery skin of the maguey leaf. The latter is used to steam meat or vegetables in Mexican cooking, and is usually wrapped around some sort of guisado.
To peel the mixiote, Don Miguel first climbed inside a maguey plant — literally; they’re that big — and then searched for the proper penca. He saw one and then gently tugged on its papery outer layer.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without trying the pulque. I’d hoped it would be the best pulque I’d ever tried, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, either — just the same thick, viscous, sort of tart drink I’d had before. This one, however, didn’t smell bad. It smelled like plants and yeast. I drank about half a water bottle’s worth (there were no cups there), and Don Miguel promptly filled up my bottle again for a second helping. I’m not sure if it was the cold air or the fact that I hadn’t slept, but finishing up the pulque, I was, as they say in Mexico City, “happy.”
We ended our visit to Nanacamilpa with lunch at a local fonda, which had been arranged by Mojdeh’s friend Gloria. There was only one table, so we crammed together in a spot not too far from the comal (which is actually the best seat in the house). Two women made us plates overflowing with tlacoyos, filled with alberjón as is typical in that area of Mexico, and various guisado-filled quesadillas.
I’m already thinking about going back. We spent half the day there and we didn’t see the market, or visit the larger pulque manufacturer who exports to the U.S. Next time! And next time I’m going to Hidalgo, too — there’s another pulque world that I haven’t explored.