Nursery agaves in Real Mining, the District of Ocotlán, in the municipality of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca
The Mezcal of Oaxaca, tradition and culture
By Jose Ulises Sandoval @drsalsamx
Relegated for decades, the mezcal is now living a boom. It is increasingly common to find it in the letter of award-winning restaurants and in other less well-known. Regardless of the place also is more common to hear of mezcal as a drink that is representative of a long tradition that dates back to prehispanic times and that is firmly rooted in the concept of mexicanidad. Although we could start an endless discussion about clichés and symbols of mexican, this renewed approach to the mezcal as well as in many other things, offers opportunities and risks. On the side of opportunities the eye within and outside of Mexico turn around, to observe with curiosity this drink and implicitly what is behind you: history, geography, traditions and much more important, the producing families, because generally the mezcal is produced in scales very small and within rural communities that would be very good for a flow of resources and supports.
On the other hand, the risk, as has happened with other spirits, mezcal could be transformed completely under the influence of the commercial forces that are generated from a significant demand. The protection of biodiversity, sustainability, the definition of the border between tradition and the avant-garde, the advantages and disadvantages of the Appellation of Origin are issues to review in and around the mezcal. In this context, in recent years, more of a project has been started with foreign capital with high interest in the product, but only time will show, if the interest is passenger and other purely economic, or if it is a commitment to the families and communities in the long term.
Notwithstanding this reality, it is a fact palpable that the mezcal is a drink full of aromas, flavors, and textures that capture the senses. An aromatic complexity and remarkable available in a wide range of options thanks to the geographic area where it occurs, and differences in their process development. The mezcal is created from the diversity of species of agavaceae, a family of plants endemic to the American continent. Agavaceae, which include nine genera and nearly 330 different species. The Agave is the genre most representative and diverse with 200 species, of which 104 are endemic to the national territory.
Experts in the subject affirm that the word mezcal comes from the nahuátl: mexcalli, a term composed of a metl: maguey and ixcalli: cooked. Despite being made from agaves and similar processes the distillate takes different names depending on the region of the country: Bacanora, Raicilla, Sotol, Tonaya, and Tequila, among others.
There is a regulation that governs the Appellation of Origin, which dates from 1995, in which it has recently been included in the state of Michoacán and currently covers the products of the states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Durango, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas. The voices of producers and promoters of this drink question some aspects of the current standard. In addition to the geographical coverage of other points, for example the balance of sugars from the agave and those added during the process from other plant and its aspect of socio-cultural linked to the tradition of each region.
In a magnificent trip to Oaxaca with The Flavors of Mexico, we had the privilege of visiting the palenque, -the term with which they are called to the factories of mezcal– Real Mining of the hand of Graciela Angeles, master mezcalera and co-owner along with his family business located in the District of Ocotlán, in the municipality of Santa Catarina Minas where to take their products the name. Real Mining is a company of remarkable, purely a family that is going to survive the generational changes in where some have lost interest and overcoming the phenomenon of migration, where the hands of workers have left the region in search of better opportunities.
We visited the reserve and plant nursery with various species: tobalá (Agave seemanniana), cirial, barril, tobasiche (Agave karwinskii), arroqueño (Agave americana americana), and sprat (Agave angustifolia). A key part of the process is the maturation of the plant, which takes six to ten years to grow until they reach the appropriate age, to be cut, being long cycles that must be considered in the planning of the regions to avoid shortage and the prevalence of local species.
Oven-to-earth flower, Real Mining
We met also the areas where you perform the different steps of the process completely traditional. Once the maguey reaches maturity they are cut the leaves separating the heart of the agave, the jima, pineapple, or also called simply agave, are cooked in a huge oven to the surface of the ground through the combustion of wood that rises to high temperatures, a bed of stones on which are deposited the cones, covered by a layer of soil that is sprayed with water to generate steam and facilitate the cooking for a period of about five days. Subsequently are extracted from the plants and allowed to cool to perform the grinding.
Hand cut pineapple for grinding
Fragments of the pina of the maguey cooked
When we arrived at the palenque just saw how they broke up to hand the agaves are cooked, were piled in a wheelbarrow and take them to the device that would complete the grinding. The interesting thing was to test those chunks of cooked agave, fibrous, but with a large amount of juice filled with distinctive aromas of maguey and hints of smoke, a great regarding taste that can be correlated in the final product, an experience.
Once you grind the agave, the juice and the fiber obtained are deposited in large wooden casks where water is added and allowed to ferment naturally between ten and fifteen days depending on the conditions of the harvest. Once the master mezcalero determines that it has reached the complete fermentation of the “tub”, it starts the process of distillation.
Distillation of Mezcal Real Minero
In Real Mining, there are two distillations in clay pots which gives it taste characteristics unique. Many other producers opt for copper stills. In Oaxaca the first distillation is called “shishe” or “common” and in the second distillation is separated to three types of alcohols known as: tip, tail and the so-called “inguishe” which according to the producer, is a waste.
In this extraordinary journey, met and feasted on the delights of Mezcal Real Minero: sprat, mixing, magueyes, barrel, tripón, cuishe, tobalá, arroqueño and breast. Each one with organoleptic characteristics particular focus on the herbaceous notes, mentoladas and smoky with great body, warm and smooth on the palate. Among the most intense aromatically speaking we find the cuishe, tobalá, the breast and the arroqueño, one of the favorites of the group that, along with the delicacies of different regions of Oaxaca, prepared by chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca was an invitation to heaven gourmet.
“Pearl” of the final product
Near the Temple of Santo Domingo in the heart of the city of Oaxaca, we continue with our route mezcalera in a cupping and tasting session at the Mezcaloteca. Space dedicated to information, promotion and sale of mixtures, traditional of different regions of the country. In this space we met with products made from different species of agave and is of interest to know some of the conditions that they consider key to call a mezcal as a traditional: you must be prepared with maguey is one hundred per cent mature; the fermentation should be completely natural without the addition of chemicals; must contain a minimum alcohol of forty-five degrees Gay-Lussac –although it is common to find products of higher – ranking is performed according to the tradition of the place of origin of the product with fidelity to taste historic to the region that it belongs to; have a social and economic dimension to the region that belongs to whose characteristic sign is the use of the beverage as part of their festivals, rituals and gastronomy; they are of limited production, unique and unrepeatable, and with a clear identification of the master mezcalero, and the community to which he belongs.
Of aromatic qualities and taste, undisputed, drink a centuries-old tradition, and today, a favorite expression of the extensive mexican gastronomy, mezcal has managed to be placed among the most renowned restaurants in the country and in cities abroad. It will show with the passage of time, if only it was a fad or in the best of cases, a reason to recognize and support the communities that produce them to ensure their prevalence in the long term.
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