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Posts tagged ‘mezcal’

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.

A “wild” tasting

I had a chance to check out the Maestros del Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca. It was completely focused on wild agaves (silvestres) and included a collection of live plants. There were some pretty amazing mezcals from small producers – from varieties we do not see, or rarely see, in the US. I had a Sierra Negra that blew my socks off, a Chato from the Siera Sur, and a truly sublime wild Espadin from the Sola de Vega region. None of these are CRM (COMERCAM) certified, and unless the producers work with someone who has money and is looking to develop a brand, it is unlikely most of them will be certified. There was also the chance to try maguey tortillas which had a lovely sweet flavor to them.

A little bit of a surprise was how many more women were present on the producer side, which is really exciting to see as this is a tough barrier to crack – more on this later as it is a focus of my trip here to Oaxaca.

I had a wedding to go to later in the day so I was trying to be as moderate in tasting as I could be – pretty damn near impossible when presented with so many different varieties of magueys and flavors. At some point someone will need to figure out the pricing issue – small bottles were selling for 50-100 pesos, larger bottles for 150-250 pesos. For rare silvestres, that just doesn’t seem like enough and certainly doesn’t include the hours of labor of the palenqueros.

It was a great kick off for the mezcal adventures to come over the next couple of weeks.

Maguey tortillas

Maguey tortillas

Sample - wild agave

Sample – wild agave

Sample - wild agave

Sample – wild agave

Days and Nights in Tijuana

[This is a truly lost piece. I wrote it in July of 2013 after an incredible trip to Tijuana and just sort of forgot about it until Max dug it out of our drafts folder on the blog. Yes, it has literally been sitting here in the blog for more than a year waiting for a few nips and tucks and we forgot about it. We can, and will, blame everything that has happened in the interim for the delay but it’s still a good piece and still fairly relevant. The figures and scenes described are more important today which only tells you that the Mexican culinary scene can still grow a ton. – Susan]

I have been wanting to go to Tijuana since hearing about the burgeoning food scene in 2012. Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA has been writing about it for the past couple of years and that piqued my interest. But recently there has been a steady drum beat of stories from friends and ferment in the media what with the recent New Yorker profile of chef Javier Plascencia (New Yorker subscribers only), and sundry other reporters descending on the iconic border town. Earlier this year the opportunity for a trip presented itself and I was off. With my imagination running wild of all I had ever heard (tacky, drunk college kids, dirty, horrible violence) saw (Touch of Evil) and read (Tijuana by Federico Campbell), I was excited, fascinated, and completely ready for anything.

So to Tijuana via the train from LA to San Diego and then the trolley to San Ysidro and a quick walk across the bridge to Mexico with my friend John who I talked into going with me. It is so easy going south, as if the border didn’t exist and is just some polite, diplomatic fiction that barely applies to Americans. Despite the rain, the cold and all those reservations about personal safety it turned out to be a fantastic trip.

Little did we know it was a holiday weekend, with Monday being the official observance of the first president of Mexico’s birthday. I surprised the hotel clerk when he mentioned this to us, and I said, oh, Benito Juarez Day. Only from my years in Oaxaca did I know this (he was born there and was the first and only fully indigenous president of Mexico.) This meant a lot of things were closed and the city was quite quiet. The city seems calm these days: That’s a far cry from just a few years ago when it was consumed by rampant violence that still hasn’t quite disappeared. Clearly the dark times suppressed the traditional and vivacious outdoors life of the place but it’s just as clearly coming back to life. Friends, locals, and blogs had provided a pretty comprehensive list of places to try which was a dramatic testament to just how far the place had come in a very short time.

We walked the infamous Avenida Revolucion – the main drag, party street, tacky souvenir lined boulevard. We needed food first and stopped at a taco stand recommended by Alonso at the hotel – Tacos el Gordo. We dove into Al Pastor, Suadero (a thinly sliced piece of beef cut from the brisket) and Carne Asada tacos. Without doubt, that Al Pastor was the best I have ever had – the meat so distinctive in flavor. When I pressed the guy about what the spices were, and we asked if it was Chinese 5 spice, he smiled and told me that there were actually 10 spices – and he was not budging. Bellies full, we continued onward. It was Sunday so things were quiet, and it was the day after St. Patty’s day, so it was really quiet on the Avenida. It is not a charming boulevard, and anyone who associates those classic images of colonial architecture and tree-lined zocolos with Tijuana will be sorely disappointed. But I found charm in its grittiness and striking street art. The fact is that it is not a precious town and never will be.

It reminds me a lot of Detroit, a city burdened by economic meltdown and a horrible reputation. Both cities see food as a way to rebuild – in Detroit you see it in the urban Ag movement, the growing number of food crafters, and emphasis on local food. And of course in the art. In Tijuana you see it in the growing number of restaurants and emphasis on local ingredients which encompass all the traditional Mexican food wares but also novelties like local wine and new culinary techniques. I want to believe that you can change a city through food, that it can be the blueprint on how to drive economic development.

After a few hours of strolling, we went in search of a late afternoon drink and ended up at Caesars Hotel. Yes, the same Caesars where the salad was invented, Bogey dined, and one of the original reasons for Tijuana’s fame. It is a beautiful place, with wood beamed ceilings and a very 1950’s supper club feel. The Plascencia family did an amazing job restoring the place to its full glory. We sat at the bar and absorbed the atmosphere, listening to the amazing jazz selection playing over the speaker. Eventually we were hungry again and ordered the salad, a crab stuffed pepper with an avocado butter sauce. Before we knew it, three hours had passed and we headed back to the hotel and had a nightcap before crashing.

We woke up to hard rain the next day. It was exactly opposite of how I’d imagined Tijuana, cold and dreary just like a summer day in San Francisco’s Sunset. Thankfully we were meeting up with a guy we’d been introduced to – Arturo Rodriguez, owner of La Caja Galeria. Getting there was an adventure – requiring Arturo to relay directions to our cab driver (no real address) that included lots of turns and small streets until finally we arrived in front of a beautiful, street art covered warehouse space. It’s an amazing gallery that works solely with contemporary Mexican artists. They also do workshops and gastronomic events that pair an artist with a chef and a meal inspired by the art. It was great to while away the hours sipping mezcal (of course) and talking food and art, the changing the world, and the perceptions of Tijuana.

And then it was off to more food adventures, and of course getting lost as we tried to find the infamous Torta Wash Mobile, supposedly makers of the best tortas ever. We never found it but instead ended up grabbing a taxi driven by the amazing Amado, taco aficionado and taxi driver extraordinaire. He loved that we were there to eat and as we hit a couple of taco stands on our list (Tacos Salceados and Takesos y Papas) he talked about the food he loved. He gave a description of a traditional Sinaloan bean dish that made my mouth simultaneously water and my heart contract (beans, lard, chorizo and cheese all blended together.) Food is the great gateway to meeting people and learning about a place and culture and having experiences like driving around Tijuana for 2.5 hour trying tacos – all different from one another – with a taxi driver who wanted nothing more than to proudly share his city’s diverse taco stands.

The question really is, how many tacos can a person eat before they have had enough? My answer, there is no such thing as too many, especially given the seemingly endless variations on marinades for the Al Pastor, variety of salsas, and the different ways the accompanying onions and peppers are spiced and grilled. Plus, given enough hours rambling around in a taxi, you never know.

Eventually we had to walk and that meant saying goodbye to Amado. I have his card for anyone who wants a great driver in Tijuana, just email me. Finally, the rain stopped and the sun lit everything up. We ended up at the downtown market, looking at piles of cheeses and cheap ceramics. I let go of any comparisons to the markets in Oaxaca –it’s just unfair to use Oaxaca as a baseline. But yes, back to the cheeses, of which there are many – hard, soft, aged, goat, sheep. I was impressed by the breadth of selection and the distinctive flavors, some traditionally Mexican, others more like French and Italian cheeses. Tijuana is a melting pot, it is a border town after all, and the mix of cultures and culinary styles make it unique and impossible to pigeon hole with a specific style.

We heard tell of a mezcaleria and went in search, ending up on the fish market street with an overwhelming smell and occasional fish in the gutter or on the sidewalk. The seafood here is amazing, as it should be given its coastal location. We walked by a store that sold cans of spray-paint, catering specifically to the street artists. Stencil art and graffiti are huge in Mexico and have already jumped into the gallery world. We’ve even presented a pair of shows in LA and SF which featured a Oaxacan street stencil/graffiti collective called La Piztola. In the future I’d really like to explore how that work jumped into the realm of art and what sort of impact it will have on all the artists.

We did find the place – though it wasn’t a mezcaleria as it only featured one mezcal – El Tinieblo – a mezcal from Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico. We had it served chilled – both a blanco and a reposado – and tried it in a cocktail made of tamarindo paste and chamoy (a savory sauce made from pickled apricot, plum or mango.) I wanted to buy a bottle, but not at $65 USD. We strolled leisurely back to the hotel, made a quick change and then headed out to the “gastronomic district” an area lined by dozens of restaurants. Most were closed because of the holiday. That hurt bad because the closures included Javier Plascencia’s Mision 19 where we were dying to eat. Instead we went to Villa Savario, another restaurant owned by the Plascencia family. We dined on a local cheese plate, agua chile (a style of ceviche that uses chile in addition to lime to “cook” the seafood) of scallop and tuna, Caesar salad and tuna and shrimp. We paired it with a tempranillo from the Guadalupe Valley – an area in Western Baja that produces dozens of wines. It was decadent and way too much after our afternoon of taco indulgence.

This in no way kept us from rising the next morning, our last, to a brilliant blue sky and overwhelming desire to try ONE LAST TACO STAND – Mariscos Ruben. So, at 10:30 in the morning we sat ourselves down at the stand and ordered shrimp agua chile, made fresh before our eyes in a molcajete, and fish and shrimp tacos. The agua chile was to die for, and I embarrassed myself by practically drinking the juice after we’d eaten all of the shrimp. If I could have had a beer and made a michelada with that juice, I could have died happily on the spot, with no regrets. Fortunately for me, taco trucks in Mexico don’t sell beer.

In contrast to the quick walk into the country, it took more than an hour to cross back over. The crossing is being rebuilt, to streamline or perhaps to make the process more difficult. All I know is that I hate that goddamn wall (it is not a fence) and can’t wait for it to come down some day.

A primer on visiting Oaxaca

I’ve been getting a lot of requests recently about what to do when visiting Oaxaca. I love being able to share my experiences because I want people to love Oaxaca as much as I do. Please note that this is by no means a comprehensive list – I barely scratch the surface.

Food

I first went to Oaxaca in 2003 because I’d heard it was beautiful and that the food was amazing. It did not disappoint and I was completely blown away by the street and market food stalls.  Because I am an adventurous eater, and have no desire to suffer consequences from my food choices, I have developed a set of informal dietary rules when traveling in Mexico:

  • Plain yogurt with banana and honey in the morning.
  • Plenty of lime and chili through out the day.  They are common condiments, use them because they make things taste better and there’s some evidence that they may help stave off digestive distress.
  • At least one mezcal every night.
  • If it smells bad (as in rotten) don’t eat it.
  • If it has a peel on it, or is fruit on the street, squeeze lime over it.
  • If you can’t see a water source, don’t eat or drink it.
  • And of course, keep some Pepto Bismol on hand, or, charcoal tablets. It is more for psychological purposes than actual need.

If I could spend my days just perusing the markets in Oaxaca I would. They are chaotic and colorful and odiferous and gorgeous.

Abastos is the main market in the city of Oaxaca.  Go on Tuesdays since there is lots of local produce on the perimeter. In general, buy from the ladies on the floor or the ones without permanent stalls – this will be the most local, seasonal and fresh stuff. Abastos is huge and sprawling and totally overwhelming, and even more so on Saturday, the main market day. Eat at the market stalls – the food is good and it is a chance to try things you never would (like chapulines, the roasted grasshoppers.) Be aware of pick-pockets. It is in a semi crappy part of town so don’t go after dark.

Benito Juarez/20 de Noviembre is the downtown market. Any day is a good day there, and a visit to the carniceria is a must do experience. It’s smoky and the women behind the counters will vie for your attention.  Just pick one and go with it.  First, pick your meat: There is generally the local small chorizo sausages which are no where near as spicy as those found in a standard taqueria in the United Space, a spiced carne asada and a few other things.  Second, pick your sides.  You can choose from salsas, onions, peppers, avocado, radishes, cucumber and nopales to name just a few. Then you grab a table and wait for your food. Did I mention, it is a must do. This exists in every market so just DO IT.

Other favorite markets include the town of Tlacolula on Sunday (see this article for more info) and Ocotlan on Friday. These markets are very local and indigenous and you will have a chance to hear the melodic language of Zapotec.

I am going to go out on a limb and actually name a favorite tlayuda stand  – the equivalent of naming your favorite burrito place in San Francisco. It is located on the corner of Bustamante and Arteaga, just southeast of the Zocolo. La Señora sets up at about 6 every night and goes till midnight. Her lard is divine, her beans are transporting, the hot chocolate amazing and her Chile de Agua salsa is a flavor explosion.

Restaurants are everywhere in Oaxaca. All serve a comida corrida in the afternoon – usually 2-5pm. They are 3-4 courses and cost anywhere from 25-100 pesos depending on the restaurant.

Good restaurants on the higher end – La Biznaga (they also have a great mezcal selection – go for the house mezcals! Stay for the food), Los Danzantes (great for a drink cause it is really expensive, but really really beautiful), La Olla, El Origen and Zandunga (Isthmus style food – good and different.) These are in all the guidebooks. Biznaga is great for micheladas and appetizers. Other good places for comida include La Jicara, Maria Bonita, Gio, Comala. A really interesting place that focuses on heirloom varieties of maiz is Itanoni – it is in Colonia Reforma, a neighborhood just north of the centro. Fridays at El Llano park (also known as Benito Juarez) feature lots of good tacos, et all.

And for you coffee people that cannot live without your espressos and drips there is Lobo Azul. They roast in house with fantastic results. They also have pretty good breakfast stuff and awesome political poster art on the walls.

Night Life

Fun nightlife stuff – Cafe Central (Bar Central) has music, movies, art, dancing and a very mixed crowd. It is my top choice of a nightclub. FYI – Candela, the salsa club, is oft mentioned in the guide books and is total gringoland. Another place is El Olivo. They have a restaurant downstairs, and a bar/terrace upstairs.  Gozobi has a bar with a great roof terrace.  It is on the corner of Garcia Virgil and Allende.  I do not recommend eating there as the food is so-so and a little on the pricier side. The Zocolo is a great place to drink and watch the people go by. Any of the places are fine. Another good bigger bar is Txalaparta. My favorite dive bar is Cafe Mundial.

Mezcal

Now for mezcal. Casa de Mezcal can be fun, but know that they don’t have a big mezcal selection – in fact they only have four. If you want to do mezcal tastings here are three mezcalerias: Los Amantes, Mezcalateca, Cuish. They actually educate about mezcal in addition to doing the tastings. We have a list of the other mezcalerias here, with addresses and hours.  Just know that you’ll need a reservation at Mezcalateca and if you really get interested in the process ask to see if they will take you to the palenque, the place where they distill the mezcal.

Art

For you art people, here are my favorite museums – Museo de Textiles, Museo Alvaro Brava (photos), Cultural Center at Santo Domingo, CASA in San Agustin, and the stamp museum. There is so much good art to be had both inside museums and on the street.

Here are a couple of other links for info about the beaches of Oaxaca, art, and what to do if you only have 36 hours (the horror, the horror!) in Oaxaca. And feel free to email me if you have more questions.

Perfect Moments

I remember once hearing Spaulding Gray, the amazing monologist, talking about “the perfect moment.” It might have been from Swimming to Cambodia, or perhaps even during a live performance, I honestly can’t remember. But the idea of a perfect moment, when everything comes together to create a memory never to be forgotten, has stuck with me for years, and I hold those moments dear to my heart.

There’s that first time of climbing out of the clear, salty water at Emerald Isle in North Carolina. The dash up to the stairs to the walkway at the end of the deck; the turn of the handle and the sputter of warmish, brackish water jumping from the shower head, the sun setting, slight breeze, golden light. A moment clear as day. Another moment in Greece, on the isle of Lesvos, climbing the narrow and winding streets to the top of the hill, to the ruins. Again, a setting sun, but more than a breeze, enough to whip the waves of the steel blue Aegean Sea, to make the crest of the hill desolate, the Turkish shore across the straight seemed that much further. The smell of salt and baking lamb, me, catching my breath after the long climb up. I felt like I had conquered the world.

And then there is Oaxaca, where I have collected more than a few perfect moments over the years, each completely accidental. A hot car trip to San Dionisio – which I was disappointed to learn is named after Saint Dennis, and not in fact for Dionysius – not the usual impetus for perfect moments, but that is never the point: You can’t go in search of them. A hot morning, an ipod, my dear friend Ana and I talking men and music and mezcal, a visit to Don Pedro to retrieve a couple of bottles of mezcal (birthday presents for me and my mom) and then a meeting with Wahaka.

It’s hard to imagine how a friendship is forged between a 60 year-old palenquero from a small pueblo in Oaxaca and a foreign female from San Francisco, but it happened. I came bearing a gift of Old Potrero Rye from Anchor Distillery to show Don Pedro what’s happening in American distilling these days. He had framed the picture of the two of us taken during my last visit, and hung it on the wall of the Palenque filled with half naked calendar girls.

We talked mezcal, and pinches taxes (the common lament among small business owners everywhere) and then got around to sharing tales of our love lives, my current, his past. In truth, I relied heavily on Ana to translate, as Don Pedro’s Spanish is both gruff and mumbled. The heat was almost unbearable under the roof of the Palenque – the fire under the still at full strength, the noon sun above. A very drunk man stumbled in during our chat (three white plastic chairs in a circle on a dirt floor) his shirt completely open, a panza (belly) hanging over his belted pants. He appeared to have been driving, and seeing the difficulty he had just standing, well, those are the sad realities of drunk driving in Mexico.

Don Pedro had us try three mezcals he had made – a minero, a tobala and a pechuga. Here’s the reason why I love his mezcal – it is clean and forthright and simultaneously complicated. The first sip sets your mouth ablaze, and each after that becomes sweeter and mellower. It’s easy to understand how a bottle can disappear over a night’s meal or conversation. I listened to Ana get the third degree from Don Pedro – where are you from, are you married, have a boyfriend, want to have kids, who do you live with, will your parents get mad if I call you, and before long it was time to say goodbyes.

We drove to the center of San Dionisio, a cleaner more organized pueblo you could not imagine. We were meeting Francisco (Paco) Garcia of Wahaka Mezcal at the church before heading to the Palenque, which ended up being just a few blocks down from Don Pedro. I had met Paco the previous week at Los Amantes and was excited to visit the Palenque and hear the story, something so instrumental in understanding the flavor of a brand.

The Wahaka Palenque is surprisingly small given the output of 3500 liters a month. There is one pit oven, one mill, and three stills. It is a family operation, with Alberto (Beto) Morales, a fifth generation palenquero, overseeing everything. Wives, sisters, etc were labeling and packing boxes while we were there – a lot of it in preparation for the big April 30th party, celebrating the money raised in the US ($2,000) at a reception in Austin, Texas with Lila Downs for several schools in San Dionisio.

Beto talked about how he developed the Wahaka flavor profile – strong at front that finishes smooth and warm going down the throat. The challenge was to create a 40% (80 proof) mezcal that maintained the character and essence of a mezcal at a higher proof.  There is a world of difference between a 40% mezcal and a 45% mezcal when it comes to the complexity of flavor. Generally speaking, I prefer the stronger mezcals when I am drinking it straight. I think for cocktails, especially like the basil one I had at el Olivo one night, the Wahaka Ensemble is perfect.

Side note – Wahaka has an interesting outreach strategy in the US and are actively working with chefs (Rick Bayless and Jimmy Shaw to name a few.) I am biased, loving both food and mezcal, but I think this is a good way to get into the market.

We tried a bunch of different mezcals and I was surprised by how much I liked the reposado – aged for two years four months in barrel. I am not usually a reposado person.  I’m allergic to things aged in wood and have an overwhelming preference for the pure flavors of the blancos.  But this one was a well flavored, strong and had a lovely warm finish.  The madrecuixe, at 40%, had a long and spicy finish, the tobala at 47% had that wonderful full flavor explosion in the mouth and held its flavor for a while.  We also tried a 45% Ensemble that completely opened my nasal passages and was so utterly different from the 40% Ensemble that is was hard to believe they are the same mezcal mix (50% espadin, 25% tobala, 25% madrecuixe.)

After this little bit of lubrication, we walked down the road to see where much of the maguey is grown. It was a flat field on the flood plain of the river winding through. Plots of espadin were punctuated by those of corn and alfalfa. There were also random arroqueños (so much bigger than I could have imagined) and a few madrecuixe. It was a beautiful spot, though I cursed my shoe selection of sandals as my feet got coated by the loose dirt.

From there, Paco and Beto suggested we head to the office to talk a bit more. This meant climbing into the car provisioned with bottles of water, glasses and, of course, a bottle of mezcal. We drove further down the road toward Chichicapam and then turned up a dirt road, passing a school, and a field where Wahaka is cultivating madrecuixe. It is a project with the school so that the kids learn the planting process.  The madrecuixe are cultivated in an almost wild, haphazard, way while all the espadin are planted in neat rows.  This is all an experiment and time will tell if the project works, if the flavor changes, and if this test case is a blueprint for other wild maguey cultivation projects.

The road continued until we finally we arrived at the office, a gorgeous spot on the side of the hill, overlooking the valley below and the mountains on the other side. Trees line a natural cold spring pool, crystal clear with yellow and blue rocks sprinkled in and around the water. We walked over to a tree with a natural rock table and a circle of rocks around it – the office. The bottle of mezcal was put on the middle of the rock table and the conversation took a relaxed meandering path, from talking whiskey to the merits of large companies buying up the mezcal from small producers (money in these small guys pockets) to penetrating the US market to the importance or significance of the word artisanal, to nicknames for the various brands (an off the record conversation so it will not be repeated here) which had Ana and I in stitches. In fact we were in stitches most of the time as both Beto and Paco are extremely funny and have pretty much perfected the double entendre word play known as abur here in Mexico. And throughout the conversation, steers wondered in to drink from the spring pool, the sun moved lower, the air turned less warm (certainly cooler is not a word that can be used.) A perfect moment.

It’s good to have challenging conversations about the business of mezcal because huge issues hang in the balance; the pros and cons of large companies buying up mezcal throughout the valley from small producers for large batch production, cultivation of wild magueys, social responsibility of companies like Wahaka giving back to the community, capitalism in general, until it all came back to this truism from Paco – “a country without an alcohol is a country without an identity.”

I like these guys.

So like every other meeting with palenqueros, there was a test. The sun was settling lower, our bellies were rumbling, and we needed to think about heading home to Oaxaca. But first, the challenge: To cross the rocks in the water to get to the big rock, all while holding the bottle of mezcal. And thankfully I passed, though I would have happily fallen into that cool water.

We drove home with Paco, stopping once more in Tule to eat grilled meats and memelas at Elvira. The conversation became sillier, the jokes even more ribald (I didn’t understand half of them but could tell by the blush on Ana’s face that they were probably a little over the top.)  We promised to meet for drinks the following night, said quick goodbyes as we dropped Paco off, and then headed back to the house, blissfully tired and full.

Back to where it all began

The road to Teotitlan del Valle has changed a lot since I was first there in 2003. The pueblo sits off the main highway that heads south from Oaxaca toward the Istmo.  It’s only about 30 minutes from the city but my memory of the 2003 trip is that it took us much longer and it seemed like we were heading into the middle of nowhere.  Back then the road to the town was rutted and rough and, when we ended up going to taste the best mezcal our driver knew, the dirt road to the Del Maguey bodega seemed endless and long.

Not so today: Like so many excursions outside of Oaxaca there were wrong turns until finally we stopped and asked for directions from a very kind man in the centro of Teotitlan. Of course, you have to know that people will give you directions to a place even if they don’t know where it is – they just want to help. We finally arrived after more wrong turns and were greeted by the amazing team at Del Maguey, including Arturo and Francisco Martinez Martinez.

The operation has grown a lot since the last time I was there – the building that was once a small room now houses three rooms – an office, a storage area, and the bottling and waxing room (the tops of the Del Maguey bottles are dipped in a sealing wax, rather than the usual plastic wrap used by just about everyone else.) Given how successful Del Maguey has been in the US market, it is a surprisingly simple operation. And the road leading to the bodega, while still dirt and slightly rutted, is now dotted with buildings.

It is impossible to talk about artisanal mezcal in the US without mentioning Ron Cooper in the same sentence. His passion and perseverance in bringing his single village mezcals to the US has paved the way for everyone else, and certainly set the standard for quality. Del Maguey is one of the few brands in the market that is double organic certified, meaning that not only are the magueys that go into the process certified organic, but so is the mezcal making process itself. Given that the organic certification of the magueys often means certifying the entire community property of the pueblo where the maguey comes from, it is a huge task, and a huge point of pride for the brand. It also guarantees that the wild magueys known as silvestres growing in the zone are certified organic. For the actual mezcal making process, it means no air or chemicals or additives go into the process.

Del Maguey is distinct in many other ways, it’s part of the quirk  of the individuals that run these operations.  As another example, while some brands are re-planting silvestres, Del Maguey does not, and only harvests what grow wild on the pueblo properties, practicing responsible and sustainable techniques.  As Ron Cooper has said, “only God plants this.”

Francisco Martinez Martinez was full of information about Del Maguey’s process from field to bottle.  First, he reminded me that agave is a plant just like any other with seasons where the fruit is fully ripe and, since the process it truly artisanal, every step in mezcal production depends on a variety of factors.  During the rainy season (loosely June-August) it can be challenging. The colder weather impacts the mezcal making process – specifically related to attaining the desired alcohol level – the higher the grade, the harder it is to achieve it. The cold weather slows or stops natural airborne microbial fermentation. For Del Maguey and their mezcals, that means alcohol levels falling between 45-50%. Del Maguey and the Palenqueros they work with are  conscious about the flavors they strive for and lean toward a full bodied and bold flavor profile.  That’s not to say that they aren’t also wonderfully subtle in their flavors.

We also talked about some of the regional differences and challenges in growing maguey. The Valles Centrales (the pueblos surrounding Oaxaca on the valley floor) face challenges because of the cold mornings. While Del Maguey is headquartered in Teotitlan del Valle, the mezcal is not actually produced there, but instead comes from Santo Domingo Albarrados, San Juan del Rio, Chichicapam, and Santa Ana Taviche to name a few.  As Francisco said, “we make tapetes (truly beautiful hand crafted wool rugs) in Teo, not mezcal.”

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty of what we tasted…

We were very excited to taste one of their new products – their Santo Domingo Albarradas, aged for 60 days in barrels, enough to give it the flavor of a reposado, and a slight color change, but so very subtle. At 48%, it is quite the explosion of flavor in the mouth, and maintains its warmth as it slides down the back of the throat. I found it slightly less sweet than their non-aged Albarradas (which I think is a great dessert mezcal) and a little smoother.

As we were trying the mezcals, Don Francisco mentioned that several of the big mezcal companies are experimenting with making mezcal from the miel de agave – a less expensive and more industrial process, that gives the drink an essence of mezcal, but is very watered down. It also enables a factory to produce a lot more product – thousands of liters a month, vs the 2400 liters a year each of the palenques produce for Del Maguey. I also heard this from a few other people.  Chisme, “gossip,” about the industry is rampant here.

Next up were a few silvestres, including two new ones – a Papalome, which is similar to a Tobala, that I loved (talk about a flavor bomb in the mouth – wow! So complex, so strong and piquant, that finishes with a warm glow in the upper body), and a Tepestate, that was refreshing, smooth and sweet with a lovely almost watermelon flavor at the end. We also tried the Arroqueño (49%) that was so elegant and again smooth despite its alcohol punch, and the Tobala which was surprisingly light on the tongue and very herbal and green in its finish. Don Francisco had us try his personal favorite, the San Luis del Rio, and one I have had before. It’s a multi-layered mezcal, perfectly combining a sweet/sour flavor that stays with you for a while.

We finished with the granddaddy of them all – the Pechuga, produced only in the fall when the fruits used in the distillation are ripe in the mountains. I have come around to Pechugas in the past couple of years.  Initially I was resistant to embracing them fully because they are pretty cost prohibitive, both in Oaxaca and in other markets because of the time and complexity in their production process. But, when done well, as with the Del Maguey, have a deeply rich and complex flavor which has completely won me over.  That said I still drink relatively little Pechuga simply because it’s so expensive.

A side note about certifying the Pechuga mezcal organic: It took Del Maguey three years of work with the government and stacks of legal paperwork to get their Pechuga officially recognized and certified organic.  Not only that, a team of veterinarians were dispatched to the pueblo to draw blood from the chickens (pechuga can be made with either chicken or turkey) to ensure they were healthy and organic.

Once again, we found ourselves deliciously high on the mezcals we tried, and terribly hungry (how many times do I have to learn the lesson, eat first, then taste mezcal.) We stopped in Santa Maria Tule, home of the famous tule tree, and ate ourselves silly with grilled chorizo, onions, pork chops, lamb barbacoa, sopa de guias (the tender greens of the squash plant) memelas and quesadillas. It was quite simply, a perfect day.

Oh, Biznaga

I can’t imagine a time I would ever come to Oaxaca and not go to La Biznaga. I remember a recurring dream I had last fall when I was here in Oaxaca in which I had returned to the U.S. without having gone. I woke up with tears streaming down my face.

So what is it about this place? The food is solid – the salads kick ass – they have Mexican micro brews, an unbelievable array of music (Lavay Smith in Oaxaca??) and a great selection of mezcal, both branded and house.  Occasionally they even have pulque.  Did I mention that it’s situated in an open roof courtyard so it’s the perfect place to wile away the time in conversation with friends?

The daily music

I stopped in to talk mezcal with Rodrigo Fuentes Moreno, one of the main guys at Biznaga. So, we’ll get this out of the way right off the bat, he’s not from Oaxaca (in fact, the restaurant was started by a couple of guys from Mexico City), and not only that, he’s from Guadalajara, the land of tequila. In so many ways he’s the perfect guy to talk mezcal with because until he came to Oaxaca, he’d never had it. He is, dare we say it, a sort of convert (of course, he still loves his good tequila.) having witnessed first hand the industrialization of the tequila industry, and the impact that had on flavor and small-scale producers.

I was curious to talk mezcal from the perspective of a restaurant/bar owner. How they decide what to carry, who their market is, how things are changing in the world of mezcal, etc. Biznaga has a big selection of mezcal: They carry about 13 branded mezcals and then several house mezcals. In fact, while we were talking, a delivery  came in from one of the local palenques – two, five liter containers. This is how the house mezcals come, either delivered, or picked up from the palenque, in these large containers.

The bar at La Biznaga in Oaxaca

The bar at La Biznaga in Oaxaca

And while they like having the various brands at the restaurant, they definitely prefer offering house mezcals. It’s a way to showcase the array of mezcal being produced by the small guys out in the pueblos. And of course there is simple economics – branded mezcal costs more, while the house mezcal, because of the direct relationship with the palenque, costs less.

Biznaga is also interested in carrying mezcal from other states (Durango, Zacatecas, Guerrero – all produce some pretty mean mezcals) but it is difficult and expensive. Shipping in and out of Oaxaca is not cheap. The best option is just to jump into the car and go find the stuff directly – which while cheaper, definitely takes more time.

In the end, it all comes down to flavor – finding an arroqueño from a small producer in Ejutla that was so good that he bought the whole production (about 200 liters). Learning the difference in flavors between the mezcals from Chichicapam, Santa Caterina Minas and Matatlan – pueblos only 5-20 miles apart yet with completely different tastes. Soil, water source, temperatures, and of course the palenquero and his style – all go into the variations of flavors.

The patio in La Biznaga in Oaxaca

The patio in La Biznaga in Oaxaca

I could have stayed all day, listening to the music, enjoying the cool of the patio and the mixed hum of Spanish, English, French buzzing around. But Rodrigo had to work and I had to meet a friend for coffee.

An afternoon with Ulises Torrentera

Ulises Torrentera

Ulises Torrentera at his mezcaleria Txalaparta in Oaxaca.

I was excited to learn that a little mezcaleria had opened inside of one of my favorite bars in Oaxaca – Txalaparta. The mezcaleria is only open during the day from 1 to 7pm but it’s an extraordinary addition to the world of mezcal because it is run by Ulises Torrentera, the writer and author of several books and essays about mezcal. He is also somewhat of a personal mezcal hero for me – his writing captures not only his incredible knowledge of mezcal, but also his extraordinary literary voice. He tells the stories of mezcal that so perfectly reflect the life, culture and love that is so much a part of the mezcal story.

So I was nervous to say the least, and it was hot, and I had a bit of a headache from the night before (beer/mezcal – never a good combination) and my Spanish was feeling pretty rough.

How do you even begin to capture an afternoon of meandering conversation? You can have a list of questions on you but sometimes you just end up going on more of a journey, letting the discussion flow how it will. Ulises was behind the bar with his partner, Sandra.

Tasting menu at the mezcaleria

Ulises’s menu lists a variety of mezcals and currently features a new brand that Ulises and Sandra have developed called Farolito. It is all small batch, artisanal (will get to that in a bit), and composed of magueys I have never had before. We started with the Chato de Suchiltepec – a full bodied, 47% bottle, that blew my socks off. The flavor exploded up front on my tongue and then melted down my throat carrying such complexity.

Mezcal Farolito

And this led to the question of how you describe the flavor and experience of mezcal? I have always been challenged by this and, to be honest, I have struggled with the perception of snobbery in the vocabulary of wine and tequila.

As Ulises put it: When the flavors change across mezcals of a specific maguey – when you can’t define the flavor profile of a Tobalá, for example, because even within a maguey the flavor is dependent on where it is from (interestingly, there is no word for terroir in Spanish), what altitude it’s grown at, the hand of the palenquero who made the mezcal and other intangibles. There are hundreds and hundreds of mezcals in Oaxaca and not one is like the other – how can you build a vocabulary for this? Creating a vocabulary may not be a completely Quixotic adventure, it’s just that no one has really done it yet.

And so we talked about how tasting mezcal can conjure a specific memory like a wedding, or remind you of the sun setting over the mountain or of a mole you tasted in a pueblo. That’s why the current trend of industrializing the process, to make the flavor consistent, is just so damn sad and an anathema to what mezcal is.

Next up on the taste – Cuesh from San Juan del Rio which again exploded in my mouth. It opened my nasal passage and brought the front of my face alive. And then it finished so smooth and reminded me of a drive I took with my grandfather one fall afternoon on a winding road through the hollows of western Maryland, and how the sun dappled through the leaf laden oak and maple trees.

Then I asked him what artisanal mezcal was to him and he came up with the clearest explanation I have yet heard. Artisanal mezcal is made by one palenquero at one Palenque utilizing the process of roast, crush, ferment and distill that has been used for more than 400 years. Traditional mezcal is made the artisanal way, but involves more than one Palenque and palenquero for the final product. Semi-industrial utilizes some aspect of traditional production, but then has modernized or mechanized part of the process. Industrial is well, completely industrial and does not use any traditional methods. I hope these are the guiding definitions going forward. For my own purposes, I fully embrace these descriptions and this is what I now mean when I use the words.

Another question came up regarding NOM-186’s impact in Mexico. Anyone who supports small-scale production and producers sees it as the death knell for the truly artisanal approach to mezcal and Ulises is no exception. There is a great deal of opposition to it here in Oaxaca, and in Mexico overal.   The discussion will be long and there will be no resolution anytime soon. In the interim there has been an explosion of brands of mezcals. This is driving huge changes in the market. In the past, people bought barrels directly from palenqueros.  Restaurants and bars have mezcals of the house, which are also bought in barrels directly from palenques.  The growth of brands started in 2000 when the official denomination for mezcal was born.

And again, this led to the talk about the wild magueys (silvestres) and the over harvesting and the demand – something that has been increasing for several years. A lot of it started during the tequila crisis in the early 2000’s when there was a shortage of blue agave and producers in Jalisco began buying espadin and wild magueys to create a Tequilera, a blended tequila, to help keep production going. And now with more brands, more awareness, more demand for the silvestres, there is a tragic and growing danger of eradicating many of these magueys to meet the market demand.

Wild maguey can be cultivated, and some people are doing exactly that here in Oaxaca. Espadin is the most widely used maguey in mezcal because it is so easy to grow, and can pretty much grow anywhere. Wild magueys often have their own environmental  preferences that vary by elevation and other factors.  They also take 12 or more years to mature making the cultivation process a pretty expensive initial investment. So there is a bit of a gap right now until the cultivated silvestres really start producing, and thus the threat of over harvest remains. I am curious to see how much cultivation alters the flavors, and what kind of cross breeding we’ll be seeing in the future.

The thing is, it is not just wild magueys that are a pending ecological problem – there is also the issue of deforestation. The increasing demand for wood for firing the distillation process is also having an impact. As Ulises pointed out, currently there is no association, or formal organization overseeing a reforestation or replanting project in Oaxaca. Hence there is interest in the gas fired distillation process, but a lingering question about how that changes a fundamental flavor component of mezcal (that roasted/smokey depth.)

Which of course meant tasting another mezcal – a Jabalí (another Silvestre variety) from Sola de Vega – a town on the highway to Puerto Escondido. This one was so green and fresh and reminded me of that long and windy road over the mountains, of going from the drier Oaxacan Valley to the very verdant and cool mountains that separate this area from the sea.

It is possible to fall in love with a beverage, to have it be a calling. This project by Ulises is certainly that and is a labor of love – to bring the immensely varying flavors of each maguey to people and tell the stories of the makers, to ensure the experience and culture of mezcal is not lost in the rush to market.

So how to reconcile this changing market for mezcal with support for the palenqueros and pueblos? How to make sure the market does not end up dominated by big brands like Zignum (owned by Coca Cola) and that the knowledge and know how of 500 years is not lost in a push for efficiency and continuity of flavor? How to protect the diversity of the magueys and protect the ecology in the face of increasing demand? And how to make sure that money and recognition do not stray too far from the system of palenques that exists? These are certainly the questions that should dominate the discussion of mezcal in the years to come.

A girl walks into a mezcaleria…

Leon Langle, the bartender at Los Amantes in Oaxaca.

Leon Langle, the bartender at Los Amantes in Oaxaca.

It was a hot night and we’d just returned the rental car.  We planned on a little stroll, a little bite to eat – something relaxing. I stepped into Los Amantes while Alicia went to go grab a cup of coffee. I wanted to say hello to Leon Langle, the man behind the counter who knows his mezcal.

The space itself lends itself to easy conversation.  It’s a small, cozily lit shoebox of a space that’s  lined with antique glass jarras and benches.  Of course the entire space is defined by the bar with a rotating selection of mezcal depending on what’s available.   I never know what to expect:  One night it will be empty so Leon and I can conduct an extensive discussion on his wares.  The next evening it’s a colorful cacophony full of visitors from Mexico City and the odd celebrity sighting of Café Tacvba’s Ruben Albarran.  This night it seemed like an impromptu meeting of palenqueros and brand owners.

Los Amantes

Behind the bar at mezcaleria Los Amantes

There was Eric Hernandez, the palenquero behind Los Amantes and Ilegal, John Rexer, one of the owners of Ilegal, Francisco (mezcal and remembering last names can be a problem sometimes) from Wahaka Mezcal and Charles Collins from Real Matlatl. Eric had brought some pulque, a tart and refreshing drink that is less viscuous here in Oaxaca than the stuff I have tasted in Mexico City. I find it a nice accompaniment to mezcal – better than beer that can lead to a headache the following morning.

Leon poured me a madrecuixe/espadin mix, a pure madrecuixe and an arrenqueño.  NB: The “tastes” at Los Amantes are actually quite generous and are more like shots. Several conversations flowed including how much better my Spanish gets after a few mezcals, traditional dishes from Sinaloa (there was a chef from Sinaloa there,) what artisanal means and what is going on with the wild magueys.

The artisanal question is pretty big and there was no consensus on defining it. Is it when mezcal is made by one palenquero using the traditional process? Or is it based solely on the process so that brands can claim to be artisanal when they use mezcal from different palenques?  This is a question I ask all the time and it is fascinating that no one has the same answer. Unlike “organic” which is certified and therefore defined, artisanal is open to interpretation and, unfortunately, becoming highly misused (Round Table Pizza and their “artisanal” flat bread for example.)

As for the wild maguey question, it is a victim of its own demand at this point. Wild magueys often take 12 years to mature. Palenqueros like Enrique Jimenez (of Fidencio, Del Amigo and Mezcal Amores), Francisco of Wahaka, and many others control the land on which the wild magueys grow and are vested in harvesting only when they are ready. Other palenqueros who don’t have their own (either on their own land or communal property land – which is still very common in Oaxaca) or who don’t have agreements with communal property owners to harvest their own maguey, buy from harvesters who may be picking the magueys before they are ready. Given there is huge demand for the wild magueys, this is certainly an issue that needs to watched as there are huge ecological implications with the overharvesting that is happening. I love the wild maguey mezcals and the constant surprise of their flavor– one tobalá is different from another, the same with an arrenqueño, mexicano, tobaciche, etc. These are not every day mezcals.

Conversation then turned to music, which of course then lead to dancing. I wisely said my goodbyes and headed out to the brilliantly lit Santo Domingo before heading home.

The small world of mezcal, Oaxaca style

First of all, it’s great to be back in Oaxaca. There is the hot sun, warm evenings that lend themselves to long conversations into the middle of the night, over mezcal of course. The smell of fresh, hot tortillas, the bustle of the market, the setting sun over the mountains, and that golden glow that settles over the cobblestone streets.

Enjoying a selection of tobala, tobaciche and arrenqueño at La Biznaga

 

And then there is that whole small world thing, that just seems to get smaller and smaller each week. It all came about when a friend of a friend said to me – oh, my uncle has a palenque and you should meet him. Several flurried text messages later, it was set – we would meet the uncle in Matatlan, the first visit of three palenque visits that day. And so began the usual process of getting the rental car, buying empty bottles, fortifying our stomachs with memelitas and then heading out from the city.

 

Stones being fired for the roast

“We” this time encompassed three women (two foreign, one Oaxaqueña) a baby and the one man, the nephew of the palenquero. We arrived at the palenque and saw that a roast was just getting underway. The stones were being fired up – in this case about 7 hours of heating – and the maguey hearts were being split and readied to go into the pit. It was all very dramatic with the heat, the sound of metal slicing, the dark, pluming clouds.

We escaped into the cool of the palenque and met the uncle, Don Enrique Jimenez, a third FOURTH generation palenquero. He walked us around and showed us two rather extraordinary things – a still created to distill mezcal five times (usually it is double distilled) and a room that looked like something out of a horror movie in which the maguey is steam roasted, creating a “sin humo” (without smoke) mezcal. This is apparently an incredibly expensive and unique thing here and very much an experiment.

Palenquero Enrique Jimenez

The still for 5 distillations

The room for steaming the maguey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The conversation ran back and forth between the process, the flavors, the changing dynamics of the mezcal market, and the artisanal brands available in the United States. I mentioned recently tasting the Fidencio Madrecuixe and how much I loved the flavor. Don Enrique smiled hugely and then told me that he was the palenquero for that brand. This happy news was soon followed by some incredibly sad news. Only 300 bottles of that madrecuixe were produced – perfectly understandable and respectful as that is the way of artisanal mezcal production. The sad news: Apparently it is not a good year for the wild magueys thus far. They are too small, their flavor too lacking, the prices to high for any that are good. In short, at this time, there will be no more madrecuixe produced, so if you are one of the lucky ones to have a bottle, enjoy.

Some of Don Enrique Jimenez's brands

 

I am going to continue to look into this situation and will keep you posted. The mere thought of a year of wild maguey shortage is a heartbreak almost too much to bear.