A Treatise on Slow Food and Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico: Plotting a True Course?

Agave espadín used to make most mezcal in Oaxaca

Isaac Jiménez, Patriarch of Mezcal del Amigo in Matatlán

Donkey draging limestone wheel, crushing baked agave; Slow Food exemplified

While Slow Food International has forged links with Los Danzantes, a combined restaurant and mezcal producer in the capital of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, one must wonder if the alliance will be enough to abate Oaxaca’s swing toward fast food, and more importantly for present purposes, fast drink. Indeed, in the colonial city of Oaxaca there are two McDonalds, two Burger Kings, three Domino’s, a Pizza Hut and both sushi and tacos on wheels. And it appears that mezcal production is heading away from the Slow Food mission, and in the direction of big business, Mezcal del Maguey brand arguably excepted.

Andres Amato, a representative of Slow Food International in Italy, is worried about the development of Slow Food activities in Mexico in general, even in the face of the 2007 International Slow Food Congress held in Puebla. His concern was recently expressed within the context of responding to an inquiry about Slow Food, Oaxaca and mezcal.


Slow Food as Defined and Envisioned by Slow Food International


Founded in 1989, the Slow Food movement is a global, grassroots organization with 100,000 members in 150 countries, within 1,300 chapters and 2,000 food communities who practice small-scale and sustainable production of quality foods. The organization was formed to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

Its mission is to promote good, clean (not harming the environment, animal welfare or our health) and fair food. Quoting the Slow Food website, fair means “accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers.”


Primer on Traditional, Sustainable, Organic Production of Mezcal in Oaxaca

Mezcal is the distilled by-product of the agave or maguey succulent. It’s synonymous with the state of Oaxaca, although mezcal is also produced in other Mexican states. Best evidence suggests that while fermenting was certainly practiced in pre-Hispanic times (i.e. pulque), distillation arrived with the Spanish and was implemented as early as 1578. However at least one study suggests that indigenous peoples were distilling before introduction by the Spanish, using clay pots and carriso (river reed) rather than the copper still. Those more rudimentary tools of the trade are still occasionally encountered today in the odd outlying mezcal facility, though whether their utility in making mezcal pre – dates colonization, or was based on indigenous ingenuity after copper stills arrived, is open to debate.

Into modern times, traditional rural mezcal production has essentially maintained the character of an environmentally friendly, organic and sustainable living industry. Most production facilities, known as palenques or fábricas de mezcal, remain owned and operated by families in villages in and near the central valleys of Oaxaca, including state districts such as Mixe, Mixteca, Tlacolula, Ejutla, Ixtlán, Miahuatlán, Ocotlán and Sola de Vega.

All but a very small percentage of handcrafted or artisanal mezcal production facilities use agave espadín, similar to the blue agave used to make tequila. Espadín grows large and is easily cultivated with little ongoing care, maturing at about 8 – 10 years. At that time a stock shoots up. This stage of growth is optimum for then using the plant to make mezcal. The stock is cut down, and the plant is allowed to remain in the fields, the nutritional elements continuing to gather in the plant’s base.

If the agave is to be used for reproduction, the stock is allowed to grow, and after a couple of months produces baby agave plants. The tiny plants are harvested and then planted in beds, where they are watered regularly for the first year or two of growth. Provided they are transplanted into permanent fields during rainy season, the agave require no further watering in order to reach maturity. Individual palenqueros have traditionally owned their fields of agave, or arrange with campesinos whose land is used to grow the plants to maturity.

To harvest the plant for mezcal production, the succulent leaves are removed, and the base of the plant, referred to as a piña because it then looks like a pineapple, is taken to the palenque. The discarded leaves are used as compost, or dried and utilized as a fuel for cooking foods or baking clay for making pottery. The stock is similarly used; it can also be utilized to make “log” cabins, capable of enduring decades if covered with cement.

Each fábrica de mezcal has at least one deep, round pit. Firewood, secured by scrounging the fields and forests, cut with permission of village elders, or purchased as seconds in the forestry industry, is placed in the pit and ignited; stones are placed atop. The firewood and rocks smoulder, and when the smoke has dissipated often a ritual prayer is recited during which time chiles and special bush branches are tossed on top. Then a layer of discarded fiber from distillation is placed over the rocks, followed by the piñas – whole, halved or quartered depending on size (each weighing roughly 100 – 400 pounds). Palm leaf mats were traditionally used to cover the piñas but now grain sacks are employed. Then earth is shovelled on top of all, forming a mound up to five feet above ground level – an airtight, in-ground oven. At times, and based on practices of particular palenqueros, logs are placed on top of the mound. During the rainy season tarps are usually used as protection.

After four or five days the baked piñas are removed. Once the rocks are taken out of the pit, charcoal is found at the bottom. It is either sold or used by the palenquero for cooking. Each baked piña is then chopped into small pieces with a machete, in a circular limestone area. A horse or donkey then drags a limestone wheel over the agave, rendering it a fibrous material.

In more “primitive” production today, the baked agave is mashed in a wooden trough using a tree burl with handle, or using a similarly formed wooden club. In pre-Hispanic times baked agave would likely have been rendered mash using this or a similar means rather than with the aid of a beast of burden – for producing a fermented drink, or if indeed distillation existed.

The fiber is pitched into a large pine vat, where it ferments as a result of contact with yeasts from only the environment, and the addition of water. After anywhere from six days to about two weeks (sometimes more, depending on ambient temperature), the baked, crushed agave has fermented naturally to the optimum point as determined by the palenquero.

The copper still is comprised of two principal parts joined by copper tubing, each usually encased in a square receptacle made of clay brick, mud and cement, or any combination. One side consists of an oven fuelled by firewood which heats the large enclosed copper pot; the other is a copper serpentine immersed in a tank of water, with a spigot at the bottom. The copper tubing joins the pot to the serpentine.

The fermented crushed agave fiber and accumulated liquid is placed in the copper pot where it heats. Vapour rises, continues along the copper tubing, and upon reaching the serpentine, condenses. “Mezcal” drips out the spigot, at this stage not ready for consumption. The copper pot is cleaned out. The liquid is distilled a second time, reaching the optimum percentage alcohol as determined by the palenquero, sometimes adjusted with the addition of water.

The remaining water in the still, with no value for making mezcal, can be used for irrigation. The fiber which is removed from the still is used as compost, or when dried can be used as a fire starter, or to make adobe bricks (with the addition of clay and sand). Adobe bricks have better home insulation properties than traditional clay or concrete block.


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