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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.

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.

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.

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.

10 buses, 2 trains, 100 tacos, 6 beds, 2 sofas, not nearly enough mezcal

It is a well-known fact, or should be, that I love tacos. That I am fascinated by the endless flavors and varieties, and that I never get bored by them. And let’s face-it, Los Angeles is taco paradise in the US of A.

Two and a half weeks in the southland, bookended by the Natural Products Expo and the Craftcation Conference with a side trip to Tijuana in between (see separate missive about that adventure.) It was going to be the most contiguous amount of time I had ever spent down there…

But before I dive into my SoCal adventures, a side note about my decision (based on simple economics) to not rent a car during my time in SoCal. Two and a half weeks going from Anaheim (ugh, food poisoning at the Natural Products Expo) to LA to Tijuana to Ventura. A combination of trains, buses, subway and taxis. And it is totally doable, especially if you have the luxury of a little time. And they are all so clean and run on a schedule and people are so helpful. Color me highly impressed, especially after the years of dealing with MUNI and all of its issues and squalor. And who doesn’t want to arrive/depart from the gorgeous art deco Union Station in downtown LA. Yeah, I like LA, and may in fact love it, something you don’t hear too many die-hard San Franciscans say.

But back to adventures… I am having to learn to be a gypsy these days as I spend more time traveling, crashing on sofas and pushing the limits of the generosity of friends. I am taking advantage of having the time these days to hit the road and try food, specifically Mexican food in all of its diverse glory – it’s great to see it finally getting its acclaim as a gastronomic force – both here and in Mexico.

The trip got off to a rough start with the whole food poisoning incident and my total lack of desire to eat for a few days. There is some irony involved with this given how much I eat street food in Mexico where I have never gotten sick. That could be due to my preventative regiment there – yogurt in the morning, lots of chile and lime during the day and of course a mezcal every night. Perhaps it is a protocol I should follow here.

I did finally revive and planned out two days of eating adventures, primarily in East LA with its assortment of markets, hole in the walls and dives. I scoured various magazines, Jonathon Gold articles, blogs and of-course friends down here to put together a list of places to try. It’s hard to do these kind of blitzkrieg like food tours – to train yourself to only take bites and leave food on the plate, especially when you have something that totally rocks your world. I am proud to report that I was not entirely successful in that effort and fear I might have put on 5 pounds during this trip.

So, let’s just get something straight right away. The food scene in LA is a world apart from San Francisco. It is a world of ethnic foods, mom and pop places interspersed with some truly spectacular high-end restaurants. While the locavore, food craft and urban homesteading scene is growing here, it is definitely in the minority, and that is fine. It allows for a different experience and different conversation. And I am truly blessed by the people I have met during my adventures down here and the perspective they bring to the table.

Taco sampler plate from Guisados

Goat barbacoa tacos from Antojitos Carmen

But to the blitzkrieg tour of a full day of eating with my friend Michaele. So here is the list – chilequiles, tacos arabe (think taco combined with a schwarma,) cemita de Milanese (specialty of Puebla with the pungent herb called papalo), quesadillas with huitlecoche (a corn fungus), pambazos (a sandwich stuffed with potatoes and chorizo), tacos of chicharrones, pibil, squash, mole, carnitas, shrimp, fish, carne asada, and Armando palmera (a blend of limon and Jamaica, the Mexican version of an Arnold palmer), a mindblowing salsa made from sesame, pumpkin and chile seeds, garlic salt and oil, fresh horchata. And that was just one day of running all around East LA and Eagle Rock, I couldn’t help but think, oh San Francisco, why does your Mexican food scene pale in comparison? The variety is endless, the flavors completely different from one place to another.

LA has been undergoing a profound transformation for the past 10 plus years. You see this in downtown LA, with the boom of artists lofts and restaurants in areas previously left to the homeless and light industrial businesses. You see it in Echo Park, Highland Park, East Hollywood, and East LA – especially Boyle Heights. Gentrification in all its good and bad forms underway. I hope this city does not follow in the path of SF, with a middle class pushed out, becoming a playground for the rich. Let them have the west side.

The Mezcaleria at La Guelaguetza

I did not drink nearly as much mezcal as I thought I would on this trip. Food poisoning has a funny way of making alcohol less enticing. But I thought about it a lot, of how jealous I am of the wider selection found in LA than in SF. I was led to a great liquor store in East LA called Ramirez Liquors. They probably sell about 150 different kinds of Tequila and are now carrying more mezcal. I think they had about 15 different kinds on the shelf (even more listed on the website!) Given my gypsy lifestyle here, I am only returning with two bottles, but they assured me they would ship to SF… My friend Bricia and I are making plans to storm the world of mezcal and hopefully in the next month or so will have news of our new venture that hopefully will up the mezcal game in SF. Her family runs the amazing Oaxacan restaurant (and mezcaleria) Guelaguetza.

Pork Pozole from Antojitos Carmen

And so back to food, and day 2 of the blitzkrieg, and the pozole I had on a cold rainy St. Patrick’s Day that was so rich and earthy – a pork based red chile pozole at Antojitos Carmen on Cesar Chavez in East LA. And later, the obligatory beer (or 2) at a bar in Burbank call Tony’s Darts Awaythat divided its list of draught beer by IPA and Not IPA – brilliant, and a nightcap of mezcal to send us to bed before the trip to Tijuana the following day. I won’t say much here about that (read my next post) except to say, really, go to Tijuana if you have the chance. It felt safe, the food was delicious and it was a fascinating experience.

So what could possibly top all of this? Have I mentioned I occasionally am blessed by St. Sarah, the patron saint of gypsies? Serendipitous meetings in my travels have resulted in some amazing things. I was blessed with whom I have met in my travels? I was invited to an amazing private dinner put together by two women I met the previous week featuring chef Javier Plascencia (of recent New Yorker profile.) It required me renting a car (one of those new Fiat 500’s – I am in love and if I ever buy a car, it might just be this one) and driving from Ventura back to LA in the middle of rush hour traffic – a 2.5-hour journey. I had to keep reminding myself that this was rounding out my experience with the place. It can’t be all perfect tacos and fortuitous encounters.

The dinner was a five-course meal of mezcal hamachi, a squid and octopus pesto, a marrow and blue corn taco, albondigas (meatballs), a coconut tamal and a Baja regional cheese plate. It was paired with wines from LA Cetto, a Baja vineyard. I would put that marrow taco in the top 5 of best food I have ever had.

Mezcal Hamachi

Marrow taco

And I got to meet and talk to John Sedlar, owner of two amazing Mexican restaurants in LA – Playa and Rivera. There was also my new best friend from Tijuana, Arturo Rodriguez, the owner of the amazing La Caja Galeriain Tijuana, and a collection of other food and art people. And of course there was Javier, so handsome (get in line ladies) and so very very interesting. I spent the entire time pinching myself to make sure it was not a dream, I really was in Mexican food heaven.

Back to cute Ventura, where my friend Michaele got the keys to City Hall for early morning set-up for the Craftcation Conference. 250 crafters from around the country converged to attend business and hands on workshops (sewing, cheesemaking, fermenting and pie making!) I had the best damn caramels ever from Helliemaes based in Denver. Owner Ellen Daehnick and I bonded over our shared love of crafted whiskeys and mezcals (picture each of us walking around the conference with bottles in our bags – she with whiskey, me with mezcal, offering people tastes.) Met local limoncello maker Ventura Limoncello and saw how their magic was made with Aida Mollenkamp, and then went on a late night taco run (Cuernavaca Tacos in Ventura) with taco experts Gustavo Arellano, Evan Kleiman and Aida. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to the weeks on the road.

So now I am back in SF, happily eating kale and kimchee for the next few weeks. I can’t wait to see what comes next.