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On authenticity

A lovely run-in with Sara Deseran at EatDrinkSF’s Taco Knockdown got my writing juices flowing. I was just going to the event, not intending to write about it, take pictures of it, just to enjoy it. A crazy conceit – line up some of SF’s best restaurants and have them make their interpretations of tacos. I am not a purist when it comes to tacos – as long as that balance of savory, acid and crunch exists, and the delivery device (whatever variation of a tortilla) holds up and is not drowned out by too much on top, I am down. I remember giving an ex-boyfriend a mix tape of blues music with the explanation of how every culture has blues music if you step away from the strict chord structure definition – what is fado or flamenco if not a serious case of the blues? Needless to say, the tape did not go over well. Words were exchanged for many many many weeks.

That memory came back strong when Sara and I talked about authenticity and she reminded me of the article she wrote about the subject (well worth the read if you haven’t seen it yet) and it opened a whole floodgate of feelings on the subject. I remembered the panel discussion that SoCal based writer Gustavo Arellano organized and moderated at Eat Real LA in 2011 all about the subject of authentic Mexican food in the United States and basically called bull on the very idea. Even in Mexico it is impossible to put that label on things, and really, why does it matter?

I can’t follow a recipe to save my life which is why I don’t bake. When I read a recipe I see a starting point and flavor guidelines. And then I have to change it up a bit. A cooking teacher in Oaxaca was horrified that I made my chicken broth with some epazote – traditionally, that is not to be added until you are making the soup. But I love to smell epazote and I love the smell of broth as it is cooking and so I put them together and created a great base for my Sopa Azteca, rendering it totally inauthentic. But it tasted damn good.

And that’s the crux of it, because really, when you have an Ichi Sushi or Chaya Brasserie or Dosa or Mekong Kitchen making tacos, you have to know there will be nothing “authentic” about them, and frankly I have no interest in creating a taco denomination. But they will be pretty damn good, and like Sara, I think that is what is most important when it comes to pursuing food. 

But how does this relate to mezcal, or why should it? With more people traveling to Oaxaca because of mezcal, this inevitably will lead to lots of discussion about what palenque or mezcaleria or mezcal is authentic, and of course the one upsmanship over who has had the most authentic experience or what constitutes authenticity. Whether it be traveling via car, colectivo, foot or burro to visit a palenque – achieving your alcohol grade by distilling to it, mixing heads and tails, maybe adding just a little bit of water get that 1-2% difference – triple distilling – fermenting in wood or hide – making an ensemble – cultivating silvestres — what makes any of these more, or less, authentic?

Soon we’ll see the final rules and regulations from the Consejo (CRM, previously known as COMERCAM) that will define artesanal, traditional and industrial mezcal — but I doubt they will ever define authentic. This is good and important and gives us guidelines, but what truly matters at the end of the day is if a mezcal tastes good.

Oh, and the judges favorite taco of the night? The  simple and traditional (and delicious) birria de chivo from Trick Dog. The crowd favorite? The duck curry from Dosa.

Last call for t-shirts!

The first Mezcalistas t-shirts.

The first Mezcalistas t-shirts.

We are about to start work on our next t-shirt design so we’ve stopped making our first designs and only have a few shirts left in a few sizes. You can see them in our Etsy shop here. We really only have smalls and mediums left with one XL Prometido and one XL Quitapenas but if you’re worried about a specific size just contact us with this form and we’ll hold it for you if we still have it or respond asap if we don’t. Stay tuned for our new designs!

 

 

Silvestre

A truly wild, aka silvestre, agave.

A truly wild, aka silvestre, agave.

The literal translation of silvestre into English is wild. In the mezcal world it means wild agave which is differentiated from the cultivated varieties. The mezcal made from silvestres generally taste extremely different from their cultivated cousins because of the combination of their genetic diversity and all the environmental conditions that they live through. These agaves aren’t irrigated and generally live in truly wild circumstances meaning that they’re about as far away as you can imagine from the clean row crops that spring to mind when imagining agriculture. True silvestres grow where ever anything else doesn’t, on hillsides, in forests, along roadsides. They can also be really difficult to harvest and transport to a distillery, cue the pictures of a guy with a burro stacked with piñas, and that isn’t far from the truth.

In recent years the whole concept of a truly wild agave has been called into doubt, mostly by the increasing ability of farmers to cultivate previously wild agaves. The mezcal market has encouraged this development, who doesn’t like a different flavor in their mezcal? But that same demand has led to silvestres varieties like tobala being stripped clean from Oaxaca’s valle central and a race to the bottom in other areas. Thankfully the revolution in cultivating previously wild agave varieties means that they’ll live on. Unfortunately that has opened up another door of marketing dubiousness, how are you to tell whether the agave that went into your mezcal is truly wild? It may not matter that much to most people because the listed agave variety on a label tells you plenty about what’s in the bottle but verifying those high end purchases become even more important.

Looking at the world of mezcal

Craft Distillers, the Ukiah based distributor of well known and loved brands like Alipus, Mezcalero, and Los Nahuales has launched quite an impressive series of blog posts that dig deeply into everything that goes into their mezcals. They start with this really fun post on shipping a Hoga still to Oaxaca

And work through all the steps in making mezcal while addressing some important process questions like the impact of shredders and yeasts.

It’s rare that someone takes this much care examining issues and techniques, let alone for someone in the industry to do it publicly so we heartily commend Ansley Coale’s crew for taking on this labor. It’s fascinating and provides great information for all the discussions that mezcal nerds have all the time. Take a look, you may end up spending your entire day working through their posts.

Oaxaca dreaming

The unchanging panorama of Santo Domingo. Something is always going on.

The unchanging panorama of Santo Domingo. Something is always going on.

Susan is just back from Oaxaca while my most recent trip was in April. After years of relative stasis the city and region are positively exploding with change. There are new roads, updated facades, and the feeling of change in the air. A few notes for future travelers.

Calle de Manuel Garcia Vigil gets a face lift.

Calle de Manuel Garcia Vigil gets a face lift.

A cultural revolution

It’s nice to see so many local people doing interesting things. While Oaxaca has always been driven by cultural highlights like the Guelaguetza, Dia de los Muertos, various and sundry religious festivities, and all the  celebrations of the region’s crafts it also had a relatively underground house party feel to it. That meant fantastic street cred when only your friends knew about the great band playing that night because it was literally in their living room or a closed bar. But with the impact of social media and more galleries (an ironic result of the crackdown on street art – many of the artists now have collectives and galleries) and bars, there’s tons of stuff going on in town these days.

Street art moves into the galleries.

Street art moves into the galleries.

Music, movies, festivals, galore. It’s all there and it’s all out in the open. It’s breathtaking how many places are opening around town and where they’re fitting them in. There’s more and better coffee, mezcal, food, crafts, and everything in between. This of course all makes a very valid argument for the gentrification of Oaxaca– which Susan touched on here.

The Amublante film festival swung through Oaxaca to packed houses this April.

The Amublante film festival swung through Oaxaca to packed houses this April.

The coffee revolution hits Oaxaca

We haven’t found any white tiled, blond wood, espresso emporia in Oaxaca yet but the town is finally catching that third wave of caffeinated development that is busily leaving no point on the globe untouched. That’s a great thing given that such great green coffee is grown in the region. Cafes are appearing everywhere around town. It used to be that Oaxacan coffee culture started with Lobo Azul for good coffee, company, and bike maintenance and ended with the the completely oxymoronic Italian Coffee Company, neither Italian nor decent coffee.

Now local chain Brújula is ubiquitous in tourist areas while the Oaxacan Coffee Company has a cluster. Many independent places dot the landscape, but Fika at Reforma 406 is the place for your third wave fix. They will prepare a fantastic cup any way you want; Aeropress, chemex, espresso. The obsessive attention to detail shared by the tattooed and aproned classes is in evidence. And I even wandered into a cupping of local beans. More of that please!

Zandunga's long restaurant features great mezcals

Zandunga’s long restaurant features great mezcals

The culinary evolution begins

It used to be that traditional food dominated. You went to Oaxaca to eat mole and tlayudas. Some places like La Biznaga or Los Danzantes added atmosphere, technique, and novelty even if it was still impossible to find some of the rich vegetal representatives of the local farms on menus. Today restaurants are opening at an astonishing clip. The amazing Zandunga, Zicanda, and Origen are just three of the more recent and most accomplished which polish regional cuisines while other innovations seep in. Chilhuacle Rojo and the sister Mexican tapas/mezcal bar Chimiscuis are mixing Adria technique with local ingredients from their ranch about an hour or so south of the city. We can only hope that these are signs of what’s to come.

Assis Cortez's mezcaleria.

Assis Cortez’s mezcaleria.

Mezcal and how

You may think people have always gone to Oaxaca for mezcal but that’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only been in the past 5-7 years that mezcalerias have appeared and, even then, they have been relatively thin on the ground. Now they’re opening like some form of breeding program gone awry – in just the past year or so you have La Medida, Mezcalogia, and Piedra Lumbra to name a few. They are opening here and there, in clusters, in waves, everywhere in town. There is even a bona fide mezcal boutique, Mis Mezcales, just a few doors down from Mezcaloteca with a cluster of artisanal brands.

The always endearing details at mezcaleria In Situ.

The always endearing details at mezcaleria In Situ.

Speaking of Mezcaloteca, it’s still there, just as great as always. Ulises Torrentera’s In Situ is old by the new mezcaleria standards but still more than a benchmark. Los Amantes is still booming night after night. But Oaxaca has finally come into its own as far as mezcal is concerned. It’s even, gasp, starting to feel like too much of a good thing.

An assortment of local beers.

An assortment of local beers.

Beer here!

While we’re scandalizing you I’ll say this: Mexican craft brews are equally as interesting as mezcals. The country’s long history of German immigrants creating light pilsners and traditional low IBU beers has been picked up and developed. The heavy hop fixation north of the border is seeping through the cracks but it’s really nice to see Mexican brewers build on that German heritage and run off in different directions. They’re adding fascinating ingredients like flor de jamaica which really raise the game. Look out for brands like Saga from Puebla but Oaxaca is well represented with at least three breweries right now. And check out local brew spot La Santisima for some really interesting beers.

Hijuelos, seeds, bulbils – Or how your agave is grown

Hijuelos

Agaves are really strange plants because they reproduce in three ways, none of them exclusive. They sprout little clones of themselves from their bases; these are most commonly called hijuelos and can be produced throughout an agave’s lifecycle. If you live in the southwest you’ll frequently see agave plants growing in gardens or medians that have all these little agave plants sprouting from the base of the plant, occasionally crowding out the original. Those are hijuelos.

A whole mess of hijuelos.

A whole mess of hijuelos.

In Spanish the literal translation of hijuelo is young or a plant shoot. Sometimes it’s used specifically to refer to one of the so-called “pups” which are genetic clones of a mother agave: They literally emerge from the root system of an agave and grow along side of it. More generally it’s used when discussing the propagation of baby agaves in nurseries across Mexico. This is all a tricky and contentious business that gets to the very heart of mezcal because it determines exactly what sort of fruit goes into your bottle.

Fresh from a seed pod dropped from a quiote.

Fresh from a seed pod dropped from a quiote.

But agaves also create seeds, it’s just that these are only created once in an agave’s life. At the end of their lives agave plants grow a huge flower out of the center of the plant known as quiotes. The quiotes are majestic sights which soar into the air, usually 20-some feet, and display amazing yellow flowers. Frequently people will dry them out and lean them against a wall as a fantastic decoration.

But back to how they function, the quiotes sprout seeds which are pollinated by birds and bats. Yes, bats are one of the great pollinators in the agave world! After they are pollinated the seeds fall to the ground and can produce genetically distinct agaves. In practice, this is nature’s crap shoot because agave seeds aren’t the most prolific producers. But it’s also critical because this is the way agaves obtain genetic diversity, making them disease resistant and, over enormous amounts of time, allowing for different varieties to evolve which is where you get all the wonderful agave varieties that make for such diverse mezcals.

A quiote towers over San Francisco.

A quiote towers over San Francisco.

But wait! The story of agave reproduction doesn’t stop there. Agaves are really strange plants for a variety of reasons but one of the best is their third method of reproduction. This is another clonal method but is really strange: Small, baby, agaves grow off the top of the mother agave, fall to the ground, and root themselves where they fall or are carried. This is rare and hard to see. And they have a great name “bulbils.”

So, why should this matter to you, my fine mezcal connoisseur? Well, how agave is grown has a huge impact on what you’re drinking. That’s why.

Note the diversity of types.

Note the diversity of types.

Right now the vast majority of mezcal is produced from a single species of agave called espadin, also known by its latin name Agave angustifolia, because it has been among the easiest agaves to cultivate in controlled circumstances. It has been easy because farmers could grow it from seed and hijuelos, it matures at a relatively well defined rate, and yields a reasonably consistent level of starch. Farmers love that sort of consistency because they know that if they plant an espadin hijuelo today, water it, and do the minimal field maintenance –  they’ll be able to harvest it in 6-8 years. Note that variation, 6-8 years – that means if you plant a field of espadin today you’ll be harvesting it somewhere between six and eight years down the road, potentially longer. That counts as consistent in the mezcal world. In comparison a vineyard manager in Napa or Sonoma measures consistency in an annual window of the months between August and October. Incidentally, espadin is the genetic parent of blue agave used to make tequila so they have lots in common, especially the ease with which they’re grown.

The level of consistency in planting espadin is critical for mezcal because farmers can set up a reasonably controlled, agricultural, production line and know that they’ll be able to make a certain amount of mezcal at a certain time in the future. They can scale this process up by using nurseries but that also takes more time, again, they have to be thinking in those long 6-8 year intervals. These green houses bear no resemblance to the metal framed glass enclosures of a nostalgic European past nor the sealed plastic enclosures of our acquaculture present. No, generally these are just plots of land devoted to getting young agave plants through their first years which may have a bit of burlap or woven plastic propped overhead to offer shade in particularly brutally sunny locations.

An agave nursery

An agave nursery

One of the more interesting developments in the world of mezcal in recent years is that agave growers have figured out how to cultivate many other types of agaves that everyone used to assume would only grown in the wild like tobala, madrecuixe, and cupreata. Luis Mendez in Sola de Vega was the first person we can find who started experimenting with cultivating tobala and other wild agaves (more on this as Susan visited him during her trip in July.)

Today more people are embarking on projects to cultivate silvestres, to mention just a few: The Fundación Agaves Silvestres is working in San Dionisio Ocotepec while Vago has been working in Candelaria Yegole and Tosba up in the Sierra Norte. This is of enormous importance because there’s only so many wild agaves to go around, in some areas of Oaxaca’s central valley where tobala used to grow in abundance you’d be hard pressed to find a single plant. Many other areas are getting stripped bare in the silvestres gold rush. Others are managing their stocks aggressively but it’s an incredibly tough proposition; if you could get a ton of money for the wild agaves on your property today wouldn’t you be tempted?

Cultivation also makes production more predictable which means that agave growers can also plan on income for important things like future investments in their business and crucial things like paying for their kids’ education and health care. The big picture here is really important exactly because so many people work in the cultivation industry: If they can earn a living wage and hew a path to development in the mezcal industry it makes everything better, literally. It develops the mezcal industry, which results in consistent revenue streams to farmers, distillers, and everyone else in the supply chain. That means they can all feed their families and invest in other, more sustainable or profitable, enterprises. It also has a huge impact on immigration and every other facet of Mexico’s relationship with the world, especially with the United States.

Of course there’s a downside to this development as well: Truly wild agaves are unique and can be used to produce mezcals of truly unique flavors. That’s another way of saying, you really might want to save the bottles of mezcal made from truly wild agaves sold today because they’re literally unique. In a few years many mezcals made from previously wild varieties of agave will be the product of cultivation with different flavors. That’s not to place a value judgement on them but they will be different.

Read more of our entries in the Mezcalistas Encyclopedia of Mezcal and email us questions or ideas for future entries.

Women – the new face of mezcal?

Let’s get one thing clear, women have always been part of the mezcal industry. Historically mezcal production has been a family affair and women were intimately wound into most aspects from selling the mezcal at markets, to preparing the meals, to handling the finances, to actually making mezcal. What seems to be the new trend is women actually getting recognition for their part.

This has been an area of interest for me since, well, mezcal has been of interest to me. As a woman, navigating the very macho world of spirits in general, and then specifically mezcal in Mexico, I can’t help but be drawn to this.

Today, women who are running mezcal businesses are few in number, though perhaps growing. Graciela Angeles Carranza of Real Minero is perhaps the greatest example of a woman at the helm of a family business who has grown it exponentially and is now shipping product around the world. Then you have Reyna Sanchez who learned how to make mezcal from family and has been producing fantastic mezcals while she works her way through the labyrinth of certification. I first met her in November of 2012 when she was making mezcal out of her cousin’s palenque in San Luis Amatlan. Through a grant, she built her own palenque and is known in Oaxaca for her madrecuishe and tepestate. You also have women like Sosima Olivera Aguilar who works with a collective in the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca and sells to bars, restaurants, and mezcalerias in Oaxaca.  And of course you have others like Andrea Sánchez López of Aguas del Corazon mezcal, and Cecilia Murrieta of La Niña del Mezcal who have founded their own brands and work with mezcaleros in Oaxaca, and in the case of Cecilia, now Jalisco.

It makes for a great story: Women are beating the odds and finding economic opportunity in a male dominated industry! But I wonder just what the reality is. After all, Mexico really is a bastion of machismo in all its subtle and explicit varieties. So, this last trip I made a point of visiting the female mezcaleros I know and searching for any that I’d been missing.

I started by telling Ulises Torrentera – mezcal expert extraordinaire and co-proprietor of Oaxaca’s In Situ – that I was interested in meeting women who were making mezcal and he made it a point of introducing me to various women at the Maestros event I went to in Oaxaca.  I was fascinated by one in particular,Oliva Ramírez Laoreano, primarily because at 22 she is very young, and because she doesn’t fit the mold of the classic off the grid mezcalero that I frequently meet. I’m used to meeting men with hardened hands and little experience with contemporary life while Olivia was texting away on her phone and just like a 22-year-old anywhere. At the Maestros event Oliva was pouring tobala, espadin and some of her cremas. The latter lends itself to lots of confusion because the literal English translation is “cream” but no dairy products are present in a mezcal crema, they are actually fruit based mezcals, usually blends with jamaica or tamarind. We chatted briefly at the Maestros event and then made plans for a visit her in Sola de Vega, where she lives.

While at the Maestros event I also met anthropologist Ronda Brulotte, a professor at the University of New Mexico who is working on a huge research project about mezcal. We got together for breakfast a few days later in Oaxaca and talked through some of the issues and questions she has when discussing women and their role in the mezcal industry. While I tend to focus on the role of women as mezcaleras, Ronda digs deeper and has been asking whether the visibility of women in the mezcal world means that the deeper economics are changing. She wonders whether mezcal is actually bringing in more money to the families that make it and whether that’s changing the economics within the family income structure and whether women are getting more power or just sitting in traditional roles. After that breakfast it was quite clear that the story that we’d all love to believe, of  a trend of women making mezcal, just isn’t that simple. We are seeing more female faces in the business when it comes to marketing and pr but we don’t have any data to show there are more women making mezcal so it’s very possible that this whole idea is just wishful thinking. That really weighed on my mind as I got ready to meet up with Oliva.

The drive to Sola de Vega is beautiful – especially because it was the rainy season when everything is verdant. Coming from drought stricken California I felt like a broken record – it’s so green, oh my god look how green everything is, it’s just so, wow, green. Located in what is called the Sierra Sur, it is mountainous and reknown for tobala. Like all road trips, there is always a hitch, this one being we had no cell service and had to stop at a miscellenea to use a landline to figure out where were supposed to meet Oliva. I point this out to anyone wanting to do excursions outside of Oaxaca to more remote areas of Mexico – always have a communications back up plan, and consider making sure any cell plan is with Telcel as Carlos Slim seems to have negotiated contracts for the most coverage. We were supposed to head to a supply store and, after some initial confusion as to which exact supply store, we found one other and headed out to the palenque she was using.

In addition to Oaxaca’s own Mezcalista, Ana JB, and I there was Oliva, her brother, her uncle, and a cousin. Thankfully the drive to the palenque was only about 25 minutes and the road not so badly rutted. Located in a beautiful, narrow valley, the palenque was simple and, at this time, still inactive. There was one wood fermentation barrel, four clay distillation pots, and a chipper to crush the cooked maguey. I want to get back to the chipper question later, for now I have a clear appreciation for their utility given how labor intensive mezcal making is. Some people claim that doing all the shredding by hand or with the tahona creates a clear difference in flavor so I really want to set up a tasting to evaluate this question. There was also plenty of maguey in the surrounding fields. The palenque is apparently certified and I am sure that factored into the reason Oliva wanted to use space.

View inside palenque in Sola de Vega

View inside palenque in Sola de Vega

Clay pots in Sola de Vega

Clay pots in Sola de Vega

July is when people are usually planting corn so most mezcal production is on hiatus for these smaller guys. The palenque is owned by a great uncle who has been making mezcal his whole life. Oliva is learning from him and her grandfather. Her brother, who is younger, probably about 18 or 19, has been helping as well, providing the much needed muscle for this back breaking work. The two of them are without doubt, the most beautiful palenqueros I have ever met. Most of this was explained by Oliva’s uncle, who did most of the talking about the project. It is his hope to create a cooperative of female mezcal makers, a noble concept, which he was clearly passionate about.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of all of this. Was Oliva actually making mezcal, or was she reselling her great uncle’s mezcal? Was she a front for a great story or is this the beginning of what could be a great economic driver for women in the cooperative? And if it is a legitimate project, how many other female mezcal makers are actually out there to make up a cooperative? Then there were other questions – Oliva had studied psychology in school so why would she return home to make mezcal? As I spoke with her uncle, she was quiet and not engaged, and when I asked her why she wanted to do this she really couldn’t answer.

I ended up buying a couple of liters of espadin from her great uncle. A strong, what I call mezcal del campo, I paid 200 pesos to his wife before climbing back into the car to go to Oliva’s house near the center of town to taste her mezcal.

Maguey starts, Sola de Vega

Maguey starts, Sola de Vega

This was where everything changed and Oliva became completely engaged and animated- where she and her brother showed me the maguey starts they had going in the yard next to the house – a mix of tobala, tepestate, and sierra negra. We then sat down at the table, Oliva got glasses and began pouring – first cremas and then espadin and tobala. I am not a huge fan of the cremas, but I have to say, hers were pretty delicious and would make great cocktail mixers as well as playing key roles in the kitchen. I mentioned how they would be great reduced to syrups and poured over roasting meat or used on bread or tortillas with cheese. She immediately pulled out some queso and we began tasting the different combinations of the jamaica and tamarindo. And then there was the straight up mezcal which was quite tasty and showed skill and talent. Ironically, I would have bought the cremas, but she was down to very little until they started making mezcal again. We made do with the tobala, and I made her promise to get us the cremas as soon as possible.

Mole

Mole

We stopped for a quick meal before hitting the road home. We heard thunder in the distance and light rain danced on the tin roof as we chowed down on mole and tortillas and coffee. The sky was darkening as we climbed into the car and began the 2.5 hour journey home, chasing a storm the entire way back to Oaxaca.

Quick look: Calavera Restaurant and Agave Bar

I had the lucky opportunity to check out Calavera Restaurant in Oakland ahead of its official open. This is Chris Pastena’s latest creation after Chop Bar, Tribune Tavern and Lungomare. I’d heard about Calavera a while back and was especially excited by their plans to stock more than 80 mezcals. I mean, how could I not be excited?

Located on Broadway, in a restored Julia Morgan building, it is a large, open restaurant with simple yet beautiful design that shines through with the hanging lights (not Edison lights!). The orangish back wall has very lightly and subtly embossed skulls, and a gorgeous long bar with a wall of mezcal that resembles a library because of the wheeled ladder used to access all the protruding boxes which contain all that precious mezcal.

And what a collection of mezcals – this place is serious. Pastena knows his stuff and has put together quite a list with specific selections from Mezonte, In Situ, and 400 Rabbits, plus the full collections from Vago, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Alipus, Mezcalero and more. Mezcal is served in ceramic copitas crafted by Oaxacan artist Omar Hernandez. It is this attention to detail that really shows the loving care put into creating this restaurant. There’s also a great list of cocktails – I tried the Sandia, a watermelon base with mezcal, salt air (foam), a sprinkling of chile de arbol and a watermelon garnish. Perfect for the heat of the evening.

The Sandia cocktail at Calavera

The Sandia cocktail at Calavera

Then there is the food… Chef Christian Irabien, whose background includes Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (Jose Andrés’ restaurant in DC) has crafted a unique menu that salutes tradition and simultaneously turns it around. We were a four top of serious and adventurous eaters and therefore were not shy at ordering as much as we could. Everything was delicious, from the ceviches to the refried beans to the chile relleno and to the grilled huachinango (oh how I love huachinango and so rarely eat it outside of Mexico.)

Calavera is the latest addition to Oakland’s collection of upscale Mexican restaurants which makes it quite a place to eat out. Between this latest addition, Tamarindo, Nido, and Doña Tomas it’s far easier for those of us on the east side of the bay to stay local while indulging our love for all things Mexican. I am greatly looking forward to spending some time at the bar, sipping my way through that list.

What was left of dessert

What was left of dessert

Copita of In Situ arroqueño

Copita of In Situ arroqueño

Grilled huachinango

Grilled huachinango

Guacamole with a side of chapulines

Guacamole with a side of chapulines

 

 

 

 

When an espadin is not “just” an espadin

File under things that have been weighing on my mind. So many times I have heard the following words – oh, it’s just an espadin. With the heavy focus on silvestres, and the more exotic the better, espadins have somehow become sidelined, forgotten, and well just plain ole maligned. This maguey of course makes up the bulk of what is in the market – almost 85% – so to make it out to be the industry’s merlot, well is just ridiculous.

So, on my most recent trek down to Oaxaca, I made it a point to try as many espadins as I could, really to remind myself of how utterly different and complex they are and how immensely talented those palenqueros are to get so much flavor and differentiation out of one kind of maguey – showcasing their true mastery in making mezcal.

This is how I found myself one night doing a tasting of “just” espadins at Mezcaloteca. The oh so knowledgeable and charming Andrea Hagan and I talked about some of the different ones they had and then she put together a pretty bold selection: an espadilla (wild espadin) fermented in leather, distilled in clay and from the Mizteca region, an espadin from the state of Guerrero, an añejo from 1998 (in glass the whole time) and a regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan. I really like how Mezcaloteca runs their tastings, and how they pair your palette and interest to the mezcals they have on hand rather than the pre-selected flights so many of us are used to.

I tasted through these in the order listed and of course found huge variety in flavors and strength. And that regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan, well, in this tasting order where it was last, it frankly wasn’t very interesting. So I spent the next half hour or so changing up the tasting order to see how i could get the most flavor out of each espadin. And what I found was by putting the one from Miahuatlan first, pretty much guaranteed it had a better showing no matter what followed in whatever order. And what made the añejo stand out? When it was third up. The two other mezcals were so bold in their flavors it didn’t matter which was second or last.

So, the lesson here – order of tasting is everything to get the most out of the mezcals, and perhaps even greater – an espadin is never “just” an espadin.

PS – I bought the one from Guerrero (Sanzekan) as I am trying to expand beyond my Oaxacafile focus.

Death by Ruta del Mezcal

It was a whirlwind of a Oaxaca trip – not so much in time but in all that was done in two very short and long weeks.

The pretext for the trip was a wedding – my first Spanish teacher in Oaxaca marrying her Danish love, and former classmate of mine. Despite already being married for four years (in Denmark) the shindig in Oaxaca was huge, fun and no less of a celebration. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Marisol and her introductions to her friends all those years ago, I am not sure my path in Oaxaca would have led me where it did (to mezcal).

From those crazy and late-nights beginning to the trip, everything just steam rolled through till the last day. My last trip to Oaxaca, in December of 2014 after a two year absence, was more family vacation, so sneaking in nights to the newest restaurant, mezcaleria, bar, etc was challenging. This trip I was flying solo and made the most out of it – from trekking out to pueblos, to hitting the new spots, to eating whatever and whenever I could. And of course to do this in the middle of the gorgeous and insane Guelaguetza, well, the sleep when I’m dead mantra seemed close to becoming a reality.

So overview thoughts before I start diving into these over the next couple of weeks.

  1. There has always been that fine line of parallel city existence between Oaxaca and San Francisco -two joined souls. And never did this seem more clear with the unbelievable gentrification that has happened in Oaxaca over the past three years. The money poured into welcoming tourists is quite obvious (wow that new airport, the newly paved roads – though still laden with topes, the new andador on Garcia Virgil…) The new mezcalerias – I think there are now 8 or 9 now? The prevalence of high end restaurants, cafes and their specialty roasted coffee, a cerviceria – your basic food hipster paradise.  It is quite overwhelming and with an incredible exchange rate (15.5 pesos to the dollar) well, heavenly, for me, not so great for the average Oaxacans who have been dealing with increasing wage inequality and inflation. Which leads to…
  2. Mezcal is expensive in Oaxaca. The new rules and regulations of both CRM (Comercam) and the government body that oversees business registration have created an interesting market in the city where pretty much everything now sold in bars, restaurants, stores has to be branded. The newly regulated industry has opened some pretty big doors for the middlemen who seem to be the ones getting rich. Now getting a decent copita means paying 30 pesos at the least all the way up to 200 pesos for rare stuff. Again, this is not so much a problem if you are either wealthy or a foreigner, but as an average Oaxacan well suddenly your mezcal is pretty damn expensive, unless you have a connection.
  3. The looming (or not) agave crisis and sustainability issue of the industry. The price of agave has come down, more agave is being grown, but still, it is a fragile balance and the slightest thing could throw the whole thing out of whack (another agave shortage/pricing issue in Jalisco where they have been known to use the Oaxacan agave sugars for fermentation; blight; economic shifts of pay, inflation, etc.) And of course the fact that there is no overseeing body regulating the cultivation, re-planting of wild agave, etc despite everyone talking about this for years, and well, you have a kind of mishmash or desmadre of a situation brewing.
  4. The growing influence of the European market on mezcal. It’s an easier market to enter for the most part, it’s educated when it comes to complex spirits, and of course, so much easier for travel as Oaxacans don’t need to jump through the demanding US Visa hoops.
  5. The growing visibility of women in the industry. Always a part of it, but now coming out of the shadows a bit as people/brands/cooperatives recognize the great marketing opportunities and stories to be told. Also there is the increasing independence you see as women become more educated and are waiting to have children, or have more control over when they have children.
  6. And perhaps finally, the increasing lack of transparency you see in the industry – ironically at the same time of increasing CRM regulations. These regulations have allowed for a greater disconnect between the mezcalero and the end consumer, creating even more of a market where the drinker, and sometimes even the head of the brand, really has no idea where the mezcal comes from.

It was an amazing trip, as always, and no matter how many times I have been there, no matter how much time I have spent, each trip reveals something completely new – can we say mole amarillo with conejo?

Guelaguetza dancers

Guelaguetza dancers

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Feria del Mezcal

Feria del Mezcal

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica