Pulque & Mezcal
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.My first pulque experience happened at La Pirata, a pulquería in the Escandón neighborhood where locals go to drink and play dominoes. My friend Jesica had warned me that pulque was an acquired taste, but I didn’t realize how much. The drink was thick and viscous, like
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: 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.) 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. 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. 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.
Lesley's husband Crayton is filling in this week with a few posts. maguey. (Americans sometimes call it a century plant.) It's a variety of agave, a cousin to the blue agave from which tequila is made. But maguey and other agave family members produce their own special drink, called mezcal, with a sharper, smokier flavor than tequila. While top-shelf tequila stopped being an oxymoron decades ago, mezcal has had an undeserved reputation as tequila's redneck cousin. (This probably had something to do with some misunderstandings involving a worm.) This is starting to change as people discover mezcal's world of flavors and tones. At the end of the day, what you need to know about mezcal is that it tastes good and it will get you toasty. Here in Mexico City, one of the best places to find a good variety of handcrafted mezcal is in the Colonia Roma Norte, where a cluster of businesses are doing a good job of promoting products from small distilleries, mostly from the state of Oaxaca to the south, but also from Guerrero, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and others. (Coyoacán, the beautiful Mexico City neighborhood to the south, is another mezcal lover's paradise.) Roma Norte is closer to me, though, and thus became the site of Mezcalapalooza (thanks, Leslie Limon!), an alcohol-tastic journey I took recently with friends Martin and John. Martin took all the photos you see in this post, and they are his and his alone, so no thieving! ...There is a plant in Mexico called the
While Lesley’s studying at an ashram in India, her husband Crayton is guest-posting. Please be kind to him. Mezcal (also spelled mescal) is alcohol distilled from the agave plant. If it's made from the right type of agave plant - the blue agave - it's called tequila. Or at least that's my understanding. Liquor snobs, feel free to correct me. Mezcal is much smokier than your typical tequila, and Mexican distillers have a lot of fun throwing different ingredients into the process. You can find lots of citrus and herb mezcales, and a popular option is mezcal pechuga, which literally means "chicken-breast mezcal," because the mezcal maker has actually put a raw chicken in the still, adding a really nice roasted flavor. There are obviously lots of sanitary implications in the mezcal pechuga process and I prefer not to think about that. (Good discussion of mezcal varieties here.) Mezcal is still a pretty small-time industry compared to the tequila business in Mexico, although there are some exports being manufactured now. Most of Mexico City's nicer restaurants now have a mezcal option or two, and some of the coolest places in town have a long list to choose from. Most places will serve it as you see above at one of Lesley's favorite haunts, Al Andar in old downtown Mexico City, with some slices of orange sprinkled with pepper. There are also bars that specialize in mezcal, known as mescalerias. Commenter Martin has suggested I go and try some out with him. I am going to take him up on this challenge and will have a full report. Nothing brings people together like booze and the Internet. If you're familiar with any Mexico City mescalerias we should try, let me know. I've got La Botica, Red Fly, Mestizo Lounge and of course Al Andar on the radar screen. Los Danzantes is a good spot in Coyoacan, too. Any other suggestions? I could also use a good name for this mezcal tour. I was thinking Mezcalathon 2010 but that doesn't seem very creative. Your ideas are welcome.
A Mexican friend was kind enough to show me a "bandera" a few days ago. It's a shot of lime juice, tequila and sangrita, and the colors represent the Mexican flag. You can order it with any tequila you want, and you sip it in the order I mentioned. (Yeah, it's a sipping thing -- no shooting.) This bandera came from a bar in our new neighborhood. We're actually moving this Saturday, yay! Our new address is on a street called Rio Papaloápan. We had semi-high hopes for this street: