Oaxaca is known for its cuisine. Apparently there was an article in the New Yorker recently that raved about a particular Oaxacan restaurant. For those gringos/gringas who have been coming to Oaxaca for many years, the article presented a terrible conflict. It is wonderful for the world to know about the wonders of Oaxaca, but for those who love it, Oaxaca is treated as a well-guarded secret, a secret that could be jeopardized by more tourists.
I struggle with the word “tourists”. The Canadians and Americans that I’ve met come here for 2 – 3 months every year. They study Spanish, they take cooking classes, they contribute respectfully to the life of the city. I am only here for two weeks, and my Spanish is abysmal, but I have been welcomed into the homes of the ex-pates and, through my mother, have been given the chance to see a bit deeper into the life of the city.
Last night I was initiated into the smoky world of Oaxaca’s best-known specialty – Mezcal. Mezcal is Oaxaca’s equivalent of Scotch, and serious mezcal drinkers treat it with reverence. Many come to Oaxaca just to tour the distilleries, of which there are 570 in Oaxaca state. It’s produced using the same methods that have been used for over 200 years. As with Scotch, the best distilleries are prized, and differences are compared, savoured and discussed.
Mezcal is made from the piña or heart of the maguey plant (a kind of agave). Oaxaca state has the perfect climate for growing maguey plants, and they are cultivated throughout the region. The plants are harvested when they are between 7 – 15 years old and weigh about 40 kilos. The central hearts are chopped out, roasted in a pit, mashed to a pulp and distilled in casks made from either barro (baked red clay), copper or aluminum.
Traditional mezcal has chicken or turkey breast put into the fermentation, but contemporary mezcal sometimes adds fruit or chocolate. In a rush to attract foreign consumers, mezcal producers are adding caramel syrup and a variety of sweet flavourings. For serious mezcal drinkers, true mezcal may be an acquired taste, but it is one worth acquiring without the trappings of commercialism.
Mezcal bottles will often include the larva from a moth that lives on the agave plant (“mezcal con gusano”), and there are many arguments about the correct way to imbibe the worm. The worm is said to add flavour. It definitely adds mystique and price to the marketing.
My mother’s friend Virginia is a lawyer from Kingston who lives in Mexico for four months of the year. She has a wonderful and spacious apartment that allows her to escape the Canadian winter, a climate that plagues her lungs. She loves traditional mezcal, and invited us over to a tasting to compare three types.
At Virginia’s I met Dwayne, Canadian from Vancouver who lives in Oaxaca for 5 months of the year. Virginia and Dwayne met many years ago in a Spanish class. The formal Spanish class has long since evaporated but they have continued to meet, swap Oaxacan confidences, and argue over mezcal.
Our tasting begins with Albarradas, the “house brand” of a local restaurant. Virginia pours the clear liquid into tiny red clay cups.
“You have to take the first sip into your mouth and hold it there as long as you can. You let it burn until you think ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then you swallow.” This, Virginia explains, will open up our taste buds.
I taste salt on my lips before I am aware of the smokey essence that fills my cranium. I hold and swish until it begins to hit my tear ducts, at which point I swallow. I make the mistake of breathing in through my mouth, and am enveloped in a haze of alcoholic fumes. Mezcal is between 45 – 55% proof. But I like the smoke. The mezcale stays in my mouth, on the tongue, for a short time. It is clean and a bit citrusy.
Our second mezcal is Virginia’s personal favourite, from Chichicapa. She confides that she took some in an empty Coke bottle to a “Live from the Met” broadcast recently. “How else could I get through 5 hours of Wagner?” She and a friend sipped surreptitiously out of the little clay cups at each intermission. It was only after the film, when they sat in the empty movie house having a final round, that they were discovered and told “no se permite.”
“But it sure helped me to enjoy the Wagner,” she said.
The Chichicapa is much smokier, deeper, earthier than the Albarradas. There is less salt, little citrus. Complex and satisfying, it lingers longer on the tongue. Dwayne says that is due to the “pechuga de pollo,” the chicken breast. Virginia, a vegetarian, disagrees but acknowledges that it tastes too good to care one way or another.
We finish our tasting with a tobalá mezcal from the Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca. (Tobalá is a smaller maguey plant. A palenquero is a mezcal maker.) It is as different from the Chichicapa as an 18-year single malt is to a blend. Adequate, with just a hint of sweetness, more complex than the Albarradas, it served mostly to show the brilliance of the Chichicapa.
Two million litres of mezcal are produced annually in Mexico. It’s believed to cure hypertension and diabetes, and that it is an aphrodisiac. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” – for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well.
I am happy to believe in its medicinal and restorative properties. I certainly feel on the road to being healed…