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Posts tagged ‘travel’

Ranch to Table in Oaxaca with Chef José Luis Díaz

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here. This piece was originally published on 4/9/16. You can read the original here.  For those who don’t know, José Luis Diaz is an amazing chef who has come up with stunning combinations at pop ups and now, Chilhuacle Rojo, so definitely visit on your next trip to Oaxaca.

I met José Luis Diaz at his restaurant, Chilhuacle Rojo, in the Oaxaca centro. He has a deep voice, two chile pepper tattoos on his forearm, and uses yadadayadayada to finish out many of his sentences, but never— as I noticed during our breakfast tasting menu— when describing a dish.

Breakfast here was one of my best meals in Oaxaca. It was thoughtful with the pacing, our palates, and especially in the selection of ingredients. Read more

Oaxaca Day Trip: Etla Valley

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here. This piece was originally published on 4/3/16. You can read the original here.

IMG_0345The days of the week in Oaxaca are told by market days. Sunday is Tlacolula, Friday is Ocotlán, Thursday is Zaachila, and Wednesday is Etla. These are the days when there is tiangis, meaning people from the area come to surround the permanent market and sell anything from turkey eggs to cell phone cases. Usually you can find stuff to do afterwards in each town (artisans or murals to visit for instance). But usually there isn’t a textile mill turned arts center and a paper factory on top of the hill. Etla is 30 minutes from Oaxaca, and well worth the colectivo ride.
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A Night in Latuvi: Visiting Los Pueblos Mancomunados

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here. This piece was originally published on 4/1/16. You can read the original here.

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The morning in Latuvi smelled like fire and smoke, and purple shadows draped over the curves of the Sierra Norte as I looked out from the balcony. At night the trumpet-shaped brugmansia flower was so fragrant it wandered down the stairs towards the cabin. It would be more romantic if the roosters crowed in the morning, but they crowed all the time.
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Finding the perfect mezcal tour

A tahona in Miahuatlan. Photo by Max Garrone

A tahona in Miahuatlan. Photo by Max Garrone

We get asked all the time about how to go visit palenques in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you ask, the tourist infrastructure isn’t fully built out so tours and routes aren’t that obvious. There just isn’t a Silverado Trail there even if there are tons of distillers and plenty of roadside stands of somewhat dubious quality. But with the explosion of interest in mezcal over the past few years some great options have emerged. Here are a few of the most prominent.

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Where to Eat on the Oaxacan Coast: Puerto Escondido to San Agustinillo

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here.

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I’m pretty sure I learned the magic of eating garlic shrimp, down to the shells and heads, when I was six on our first family trip to Mexico, in Puerto Angel, which happens to be just a few towns down from where I stayed this trip. I’ve come full circle, because when stuck on what to order last week I remembered how difficult it is to fuck up garlic shrimp (camarones al ajo). It’s just butter, garlic, shrimp. I had it two days in a row.

After eating and drinking in Oaxaca city for five days, coming to the coast was a welcome relief from eating meat and cheese at almost every meal. But like in many beach towns across Mexico I didn’t find a lot of variety. Up and down the Oaxacan coast you’ll find restaurants catering to the western ex-pats and traveling flowy-pant wearers with hodgepodge menus of wraps and fried things, and a lot of tiny establishments offering much of the same staples: grilled fish and other simple seafood dishes or tlayudas (like Oaxacan pizzas).
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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

Out in the field with mezcal and tequila guide Clayton Szczech

Clayton Czczech in action on one of his tours. Is that a Steve Blake jersey?

Clayton Czczech in action on one of his tours. Is that a Steve Blake jersey?

Clayton Szczech has been guiding tours through the world of tequila since 2008 and expanded into mezcal tours in 2012. We’ve been talking a lot lately as he charts a course through many of the agave growing regions of Mexico. If you think Mezcalistas spends a lot of time on mezcal, Clayton is absolutely obsessed and spends almost all his time in the field talking to mezcaleros, growers, and tons of other people connected to the industry. As he told me: “I made the decision that this was going to be my profession,  and it really is. This is all I do.”

When not in the field he’s been attending NORMA meetings and is a general man about the the world of agave distillates. He and Erick Rodriguez are two of the key guides and activists in the world of agave distillates so pay close attention to what they’re saying!

Clayton and I chatted in person and via Facebook over the past three months, this interview is edited together from those conversations. He has tours coming up in Jalisco and Oaxaca this spring. You can always find out about his latest tours at Experience Mezcal  and Experience Tequila  but he has some gems coming up including a Mezcal Boot Camp that will take you up into the Sierra Norte to visit Tosba this April 23-25 and one around Oaxaca immediately afterwards.

How did you get into the guiding business?

I’ve been doing tequila tours, education, events and research as a business since December 2008. It’s called Experience Tequila. But I’ve been traveling intermittently in Mexico since 1995, lived in the state of Veracruz in 2005-2006, and have lived in Mexico City for the past couple of years. I speak fluent Spanish and navigate the culture well. I couldn’t do any of this without the knowledge and generosity of all the maestros – producers and otherwise, in both tequila and mezcal- who have shared with me over the years.

How did you get into mezcal?

Mezcal was always there, in some way, but I didn’t really start to think about it much until my first trip to Oaxaca in about 2010

Did you have a conversion moment from tequila to mezcal?

No, not really. It doesn’t make for a very good story, but to me all of this stuff is part and parcel of Mexican culture. I’ve been a wannabe Mexican since high school, and my real conversion moment was on that first backpacking trip in summer of 1995, right out of high school.

The tahona in action at 7 Leguas tequila

The tahona in action at 7 Leguas tequila

I’ve had something closer to a moment like you might be thinking of after Oaxaca – getting more into Guerrero in particular.

I started to realize how much there is out there in addition to the vastness of  Jalisco and Oaxaca, and how even this boom we’re experiencing in the US is only showing folks the tip of the iceberg in terms of the diversity in regions, flavors, traditions, etc.

You got into Mexico, tequila and mezcal through a love of the culture. How do you bring that out in your tours?

I like the term “specialist,” because it doesn’t presume expertise but it clearly states that I don’t do anything else. It’s a combination of luxury, privilege, and sacrifice that I can spend this kind of time out in the field, learning. So when I do a tasting or a tour, I try to bring a holistic approach – who made this, what are they like, what is special about the process, etc. Where does that fit in with what we think we know about history, etc.

What’s distinctive about what you do?

I call my trips “group tours for people who don’t do group tours.” While typical tour experiences are built around separation from locals and packaged as authenticity, I actually insert people (safely, of course) into places that they would never get to on their own.

It always feels very natural to me, but when other people see me do it, they remark that it very much seems methodically organized. I definitely know that I have a set of things I want to learn from maestros, and that it works a lot better if I approach it as an anthropologist – taking nothing for granted, asking very basic questions in an inductive way, truly listening to what they say and not trying to cram it into my frames of reference.

Moving tuba from the fermentation vats to the stills at the Lupián vinata in Las Abujas, Jalisco.  Photo courtesy of Joel Contreras.

Moving tuba from the fermentation vats to the stills at the Lupián vinata in Las Abujas, Jalisco.
Photo courtesy of Joel Contreras.

Tours are necessarily an artificial experience. But there’s a real positive to that too. It means that I can curate them and create an experience in four days that is way denser than what would just accidentally happen in the same period of time if one were just travelling without a guide.

I chose the word “Experience” for my business very deliberately. I think someone who doesn’t drink much, is reluctantly along with a partner, or even truly doesn’t like mezcal can have a really great experience on these tours, because I’m setting them up to take in culture, broadly speaking – people, relationships, places, food, religion, music and the deep folk knowledge behind mezcal. To come to an understanding that mezcal is a reflection of all these things, and it is reflected in them, like a prism.

What do you notice most when you’re out in the field?

I’m sort of a word nerd so I pay attention to regional differences in vocabulary.

Can you give me an example?

Well to keep it very simple and because I don’t want to give too much away, what is the place where mezcal is made called?

In Oaxaca you’d call it a “palenque”

Folks have such a Oaxaca-centric take on mezcal, that people say “palenque” often without realizing how exclusively Oaxacan that is.

Right

In Michoacan and Jalisco a place where mezcal is made is a taverna or a vinata. In parts of Chihuahua and Sonora, they say vinatería. In Guerrero, it seems pretty universally to be “fábrica,” (“factory”) which is literally true and also pretty hilarious, to an outsider.

And I’m constantly recording this type of variation for parts of the process, qualities of mezcal, obviously different magueyes, but also their characteristics and how they are harvested.

How do people talk about making cuts? What do they call the fermented juice? What do they call the first distillate?

It’s nerdy as hell and one of the things I get most excited about.

So, my idea with tours is that they are meticulously curated in terms of maximizing quality exposure and immersion in a short period of time. But, of course, it’s Mexico and it’s mezcal – so the “wonderful shit happens” factor is also accounted for. There are always pleasant surprises and there’s a certain amount of openness to improvisation.

I can get people into the local nitty gritty, but I know where the hospitals are, I’m insured, I’ve stayed and eaten many times in all the hotels and eateries we use. here’s always a plan B and C.

Clayton Szczech admires what may be an amarillo agave in western Jalisco.

Clayton Szczech admires what may be an amarillo agave in western Jalisco.

My tours are extremely fun and educational, but they’re not particularly relaxing. We start early and we see a lot. Two full days are basically spent in the palenques and the fields

I change things up depending on production schedules. On the tour this April we’re definitely going to see the “tipo palenque” process typical of Matatlán, and the Minas clay-pot process.

We’ll do pulque one of the days – generally going out with the tlachiquero while he extracts aguamiel.

We do a curated tasting each night – one with Mezcaloteca, one at In Situ. They both have a lot to offer and I really like people to get the gamut of perspectives that are out there – from both producers and tasting / expert types

And there’s actually a bit of free time each evening so people can do their own thing in Oaxaca City.

And I HIGHLY recommend folks stay an extra day to tour Monte Albán.

You do an amazing amount of travel so I’m curious how much background research you do before a trip like the one you took through Sonora to taste Bacanora this fall?

Ok. So I did a six day trip, guided by a local guy who’s extremely connected. Sonora is huge and I wanted to see a couple different regions so there was a LOT of driving. I met one to two producers per day, came back with about eight different Bacanoras. It’s a very, very different culture than anything I know -mezcal or otherwise. The north of  Mexico is like a different country to me. The processes are quite similar to traditional and artisanal mezcal in other regions, but for example, all the mezcaleros are cattle ranchers. They wear spurs!

It was the time of year when they’re rounding up calves to be sold and shipped to Texas, so no one was actively producing. But I spent the better part of each day “conviviendo” – just hanging out while they do what they do – ranch work, making cheese and machaca, eating what they eat, and drinking a fair amount of bacanora.

They have maybe the severest maguey shortage in the country – I could be wrong, but it certainly seemed that way to me. This spring we’ll be doing fundraising to get a school bus for the schoolkids in Bacanora. They currently ride to school in police cars!

Is that related to the recent drought in Western states, over harvesting or something else?

Failure to reforest and a historic freeze a few years ago have the hills almost depopulated of maguey. I met with two producers who are raising seedlings on a mass scale, and it’s cool to see someone taking the initiative. One of these guys has gravity-fed irrigation coming from a spring that’s watering his recently planted seedlings. Of course, they have to keep the cattle away from the maguey for the first year or two, or they’ll eat it!

Are they all estate production operations and are they bottling under their own brand or selling the juice to someone else?

There are still very few brands. It’s been legal for so little time. And, my impression was that there’s pretty strong local demand for the juice. I know there are several parties currently actively looking to bottle and commercialize bacanora for the US market.

Where else have you been lately and what are you planning for the future?

I just got back from a short trip to the raicilla region around Cabo Corrientes. That was really great and it’s incredible how such old-school methods thrive so close to a place like Puerto Vallarta.

I’ve been spending a lot of time as always in Jalisco and Oaxaca, and am working on mezcal and tequila tours for Tales of the Cocktail and a really exciting “Mezcal Boot Camp” in the spring. I’m slowly learning about sotol from a producer in Chihuahua. I need to start planning for my summer events season in the US.

I’m trying to keep up my normal schedule of tours and research schedule, catch up on reading of mostly reference and technical books and get years worth of notes in some semblance of order, because I’d like to write more. What I should be doing is looking for an assistant!

Any thoughts on the recent emergence of Raicilla from Jalisco and what that means for the world of tequila?

I think the quality and early success of La Venenosa is fantastic for raicilla. Esteban Morales has been working with those producers for years and it’s great to see how receptive people are to the spirits.

I don’t know how much raicilla will affect tequila, but mezcal as a whole, certified and otherwise, DO – and not, certainly has the industry’s attention. It will be more important than ever to educate consumers on who’s who, and seek out quality and just practices for producers – whether in mezcal, tequila, sotol or some as yet unknown Mexican spirit.

You’ve attended some of the key meetings about the new NORMA proposal. It sounds like it was really energizing. How did it go?

Well, the proposed changes are definitely a step forward, and almost everyone agrees on that, even if they have strong critiques. What’s been inspiring, especially at the last big meeting in Oaxaca City, is seeing so many producers from different regions making the sacrifices to come together and make their voices heard. They’re not intimidated and they’re representing their own interests, which sounds like no big deal to a North American. But in Mexico it’s a sea change. Mexico is waking up in important ways, I think, and mezcal, of course, is a reflection of that cultural change as well.

What are you hearing out in the field about the NORMA proposals?

Very little. People are too busy working! I think everyone is taking a “wait and see” attitude for now.

Are there any new trends in the mezcal world?

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. I’d like to think more producers are dealing directly with the consumer and getting a bigger piece of the pie, but I don’t know if that’s the case.

Sanzekan

The scene outside of Sanzekan.

Unfortunately it can’t be called a trend yet, but I think Sanzekan Timeni’s “Mezcal Solidarity Bond” program could be looked at as a model for lots of small producers and consumers who want to do the right thing. We all want great, artisanal and traditional mezcal to be sustainable and beneficial to the people who have kept it alive. The Solidarity Bonds are a way for us to invest in mezcal’s future. I hope more producers and regions can come up with ways like that for us consumers to invest in the future of mezcal.

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.

Journey to the Sierra Norte and Mezcal Tosba

One of the best things about going to palenques in Oaxaca is it usually means traveling to some of the most beautiful parts of the state. It also means traveling on some pretty rough roads, but more on that later.

I first met Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina in San Francisco at a mezcal tasting. He is one of the forces behind Mezcal Tosba, the other is his cousin Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez. They are from the small pueblo of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in the Sierra Norte, a gorgeous and mountainous region northeast of the city of Oaxaca, and also one of the poorer regions in the state. Primarily Zapotec, with Mixe pueblos mixed within, it is primarily alpine dotted by of tropical microclimates, not unlike what is found on the western side of the coastal mountains of Oaxaca.

Elisandro and Edgar came to the United States, like many of their pueblo neighbors, in order make a better life for themselves and also to send precious dollars back to San Cristóbal Lachirioag, a lasting legacy of NAFTA, that decimated these small agrarian pueblos in many parts of Oaxaca (and of course all over Mexico.) While in the US, they spent time talking about what they could do to bring economic opportunity to their pueblo, and staunch the flow of young people north. The idea of Mezcal Tosba was born; magueys were planted on Edgar’s family milpa beginning in 1999. In 2006 Edgar returned to Oaxaca to learn how to make mezcal.

The Sierra Norte is not a region currently known for mezcal production. Palenques had existed, but with so many people leaving the land for better opportunities, many of them were abandoned and the tradition began dying out. Far more common in the region was aguariente (a distilled beverage made from sugar cane), coffee and pulque.

Visiting Tosba soon became a obsession for me – not only for the opportunity to meet Edgar and see the Palenque, but also to have an excuse to travel to the Sierra Norte, where I had never been. Arranging it was another story – back and forth with Elisandro, coordinating with Edgar during one of his weekly trips to Oaxaca (there is no cell phone service in most of the Sierra Norte) and finally a meeting at In Situ to coordinate the details, including a map of how to get there.

There would be four of us on the journey – me, my partner in mezcal crime Ana JB and In Situ owners Ulises Torrentera and Sandra Ortiz Brena. We rented a more or less sturdy car (why car rental agencies in Oaxaca insist on using white cars is beyond me) and left the city at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.

I took the first leg of driving, mostly to ensure I’d be driving the “best” roads. Our plan was to hit the market in Ayutla, a Mixe pueblo high in the mountains. We found a bustling commercial center where colectivo trucks unloaded people and their goods, and crisp in the clear, and quite cold, air. Luckily there was delicious coffee to be had and a filling breakfast of chilaquiles, enfrijolades and the best damn tortillas I have ever had (their rich corny flavor haunts my dreams to this day – think of the tortilla equivalent of the bread from Tartine.) We walked the market, taking in the sights and sounds of Mixe and Zapoteca being spoken. We bought green coffee beans, flor del maguey, chilies and carne; the last to cook later that day at the Palenque. And then we found the pulque and tasted the seemingly infinite varieties and flavors to be found. Side note – I would travel for pulque and could become as obsessed with it as I am with mezcal.

We piled back in the car, though not before a couple of palenqueros called out to Ulises – we were after all traveling with a mezcal rock star – who were anxious to have him try their mezcals. It was not quite 9:30am.

I let Sandra take over the driving, a good thing because from Ayutla on it was dirt road – washed out, rutted, impassable during the rainy season, cliff hugging, you name it. The views were stunning and a constant reminder of just how high we were and just how far a drop it was off the edge of the road. I will never ever ever again complain about the pinche suburban trip to and from the coast in Oaxaca.

We met Edgar in the center of San Cristóbal, and from there, drove to the palenque – another 25 minutes on a rutted road, down the mountain. We parked our car at the top of the entry to the palenque because, while our car would have made it down, it never would have made it back up – it seems only Nissan Sentras can make that trip.

The palenque is nestled in one of the tropical microclimates. It is completely self-sustaining, growing everything needed for mezcal production – maguey, wood, fruits and vegetables – you name it, it grows. Currently there is one roasting pit, with plans for another. There is a large adobe building that will eventually house the bottling and labeling facility. Currently mezcal is transported to Oaxaca where it is bottled. There is a large tin roof covering the crushing area, the three fermentation barrels and three stills. There is no electricity, though Edgar is making plans for either solar or river generated power.

We ate papayas and lemons as Edgar showed us the lay of the land. He is utterly engaging and wickedly smart. In addition to the savings of the two cousins, they also secured a loan from FAO PESA, a UN funded program that provides capital for projects like these. Tosba makes three mezcals – an espadin, a tobala and a pechuga. Water for the mezcal comes from the river that flows down the mountain to the valley.

It was impossible to imagine how they could bottle mezcal here, or more to the point, it was impossible to imagine how the bottles would get to and from the palenque if my rattled bones were any indication. But the idea is that bottling there will provide more jobs for the pueblo.

It is stunningly beautiful at the palenque – it is surrounded by mountains and the play of light. So gorgeous and peaceful, we spent the afternoon talking mezcal and life. Edgar’s parents and sister arrived and we ate tlayudas and sopa de guias (a squash vine soup that is divine) and grilled meat and guacamole. And again I was struck by how delicious the tortillas were. I was even convinced to drink the water that came straight from the river (oh I put up a fight because it went against everything my traveler instinct told me.) It was delicious and I have to say, this is what makes the flavor of Mezcal Tosba so delicious – it really does taste like the water – fresh and slightly sweet.

After the meal, we set-off to hike to the waterfall and to see the maguey and the rest of the milpa. Edgar grabbed his rifle (jaguar country) and we set off. We walked the paths through the magueys that hugged the mountainside and eventually found ourselves walking under a canopy of trees as we neared the waterfall.  We stood in silence as we listened to the water moving over the rocks and looked upward as the fading light sprinkled through the leaves. We walked back through a grove of mango, looked over at the sugar cane, stared in wonder at the pineapple bushes and then finally returned to the palenque to watch the sunset across the valley. As it turned pitch black, we lit candles and stared at the stars as Edgar regaled us with tales of the jaguars, how he lost his eye while cutting maguey and hitting a stone (now all of his employees wear eye goggles) and other nights spent under the stars. We may also have engaged in ghost stories, but I will neither confirm nor deny that.

We finally decided it was time to head back to town – the trusty Sentra taking us back up to the car, which eventually took us back to town. We arrived in time for the posada celebration complete with Banda music and dancing and pan dulce. After, we went to Edgar’s parents, where we were spending the night. Somehow there was more food to be consumed, more mezcal to be had and more talking to be done. We tried the new espadin, which prompted an intense back and forth between Ulises and Edgar about why it tasted different than the last batch. Were the maguey from a different altitude – with the answer yes. It seemed impossible for me to believe that a 50-meter difference could change the flavor, but it did – though I only noticed after Ulises had said something. Oh to have his palette!

And then it was time for bed. It felt like the middle of the night but in fact it was only 10pm.

But sleep would elude us that night. We were awoken by the jarring sound of Banda music over the municipal loud speaker at about 4am. If you haven’t heard it before, think John Philip Sousa on crack. Oddly, it was followed by Strauss and kept going till about 6am when we finally gave up on getting any more sleep. Sadly, a local musician had passed away during the night, and this was his tribute.

We filled our mugs with coffee and headed up to the terrace to watch the sunrise. As the light came over the top of the mountain, the strains of Ave Maria wafted from the loudspeaker. We sat in silence as tears rolled down my cheek as I thought at that moment I was as close to my sister who had recently passed away as I could hope to be. It was majestic.

We then headed to Villa Alta for the Monday market, loaded up on baskets and chiles, dropped off Edgar and said our farewells, and then began the long trip back to Oaxaca.

Chilies at the Ayutla Market

Chilies at the Ayutla Market

Beans at the Ayutla market

Beans at the Ayutla market

fresh pulque, ayutla

fresh pulque, ayutla

pulque bottles

pulque bottles

Ayutla market

Ayutla market

The view in the Sierra Norte

The view in the Sierra Norte

Roasted maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Roasted maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Cutting maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Cutting maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Mezcal Tosba Palenque

Mezcal Tosba Palenque

Tlayudas

Tlayudas

Sopa de guias

Sopa de guias

Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez

Edgar Gonzalez-Rodriguez

The water source, Mezcal Tosba

The water source, Mezcal Tosba

Tree canopy, Mezcal Tosba

Tree canopy, Mezcal Tosba

Sunset at Mezcal Tosba

Sunset at Mezcal Tosba

Dancing in the square in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Dancing in the square in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Sunrise in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Sunrise in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

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.