Essays on Rural Oaxaca Mezcal Production
II: Recicado from the Mixteca Alta
of mud, stone, river reed, and wood
wont win any contests for being a quality spirit. And
in fact residents of the region dont even call it mezcal,
but rather recicado, a Mixteco name, they say.
But after a five hour drive from the city of Oaxaca, deep
in the Mixteca Alta one encounters agave distillation which
does take the prize for giving the true aficionado as genuine
a glimpse as possible, into the means and materials of production
likely encountered by the Spanish at the beginning of the
Conquest: clay pots; carriso (river reed) tubing; mud and
stone still; pulverizing using a tree burl and wooden trough;
fermenting in an animal skin; and of course traditional baking
in an in-ground oven.
Pueblo Viejo is a tiny hamlet an hours drive from San
Juan Mixtepec, along a badly potholed dirt road. The tranquil
valley leading to the settlement is known as Rio Azucena,
and for good reason
the Sánchez Cisneros family
lives alongside a river, a pre-requisite for producing recicado
in this part of the state.
Nineteen year old Hilda Sánchez Cisneros lives with
her sister, Natividad Sánchez, 47, and four of Natividads
six children. The other two live and work in the countryside
in North Carolina. Fernando, Natividads husband, is
away this day, doing tequio (community service). Their 10
old son Esteban, and daughter Dália, 16, are fully
trilingual, because they and their mother spent several years
living in the US, and accordingly they had an opportunity
to attend American public school. But here they are, eking
out the most modest of existences, producing recicado for
Friday sale in the San Juan Mixtepec weekly marketplace.
The family also subsists by growing squash, corn and beans.
Its clear that meat and fowl are not staples in their
diet, not unusual for families in the most rural communities
in the state.
The stream is an occasional provider, supplying the family
with small fish at certain times of the year. And then there
is rabbit, squirrel, possum, and fox. I know that city
folk wont eat small animals like squirrel and possum,
Natividad explains, but we do up here, when we can get
it, and its actually quite good. Esteban proudly
adds that occasionally you can also come across coyote and
wolf, but more often than not its higher up in the mountains.
Hilda and Natividad learned to distill from their parents
and grandparents. However during the early years, the plants
used in production were wild varieties of agave that had to
be collected by climbing the hillsides. Then a couple of years
ago Fernando went to Matatlán, the acknowledged world
capital of mezcal, and brought back a number of baby agave
espadín plants. Espadín continues to be the
only type of maguey that is successfully cultivated throughout
the state. So now the family is able to grow its own agave
in this fertile yet sparsely populated valley, part of which
forms the homestead. But the degree of knowledge of family
members concerning scientific process and function, seems
to be lacking, or rather basic.
The appearance of the chiote (stalk) is the first sign that
the maguey has fully matured. Allowing the stalk to shoot
up and produce baby plants should be the primary means of
reproducing agave espadín. But Fernando and family
harvest before the chiote ascends from the heart of the plant.
This inhibits their ability to increase the number of fields
under cultivation (the plant does produce hijos
or children through the root system, but this is a secondary
means of reproducing and is not relied upon in commercial
enterprises). Equally important is that harvesting the plant
prematurely, by not awaiting the chiote, cutting it, and then
allowing the natural sugars an opportunity to gather in the
base or piña of the plant, adversely impacts
the quality of the finished product.
But just as traditional mezcal production dictates, the piñas
are baked in a pit perhaps eight feet deep and six feet across,
atop firewood and river rock. Rather than use synthetic material
to cover the oven, a layer of palm leaf topped
with earth is utilized. However the similarity between customary
mezcal production, and recicado, stops here.
Instead of crushing the baked agave using a mule or pony pulling
a limestone wheel over it, around a circular enclosure, the
cooked plant is pulverized by human power, using a tree burl
or hand hewn long wooden mallet to pound the baked agave into
a pulp in a five foot long canoe-shaped wooden receptacle.
Four posts --- thick, straight tree branches --- support a
large bag made out of bull hide, at about four
feet off the ground. Covered with plastic, the mash is left
out in the sun to ferment, for four to five days.
Distillation takes place in an area sheltered by laminated
metal roofing, located 20 yards from the home. The family
employs four igloo shaped stills, aligned in a straight row.
Fashioned from stone and mud, each is virtually identical
to the next. Beginning from the bottom, the opening where
firewood is placed contains a tubular stone which supports
a clay cylinder into which the fermented juices and fiber
are placed. Vapor rises from it into a bottomless clay pot.
The pot is covered with a bowl, or whatever else is available
Water from a halved and hollowed out tree trunk runs above
the stills, and fills each of the four bowls through concave
pieces of agave leaf leading from four exit holes in the canal
above. As the vapor rises and reaches the bowl, by now cooled
by the water, condensation takes place. Liquid drips onto
another piece of agave leaf, this one affixed to the inside
middle of the clay pot, and angled down to a small hole in
the side of the container. The liquid exits the vessel through
the hole. A hollowed length of river reed, tightly inserted
into the hole and pointing downward ensures that the recicado
flows slowly out of the pot and into an urn.
The primitive process does mirror many of the steps and adheres
to some of the principles required to produce mezcal in the
more artisanal technique. But key elements are lacking, no
doubt reflected in the quality of the spirit:
1) as noted, the piña is not harvested at the optimum
2) fermentation is complete after only a third of the time
usually required to adequately ferment espadín for
mezcal production in Oaxacas central valleys, although
exposure to the sun on a continual basis assists, as does
the sheltered lowland semi-tropical environment;
3) recicado is distilled only once.
The result is a relatively low alcohol content watery beverage,
almost sour to the taste. Yet the local populace buys it and
drinks it, and pays about double the price it costs to acquire
traditional 40 46 percent alcohol by volume mezcal
in the towns and villages surrounding the city of Oaxaca.
To be sure, I did try the recicado produced by a competitor
up the road, and found it to be only marginally less displeasing.
On my return visit to Pueblo Viejo, I intend to bring two
or three liters of my favorite village mezcals for the Sánchez
Cisneros family to sample. The hope is that Fernando, Natividad
and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with
production, and conceivably begin to distill a spirit more
acceptable to the palate
and with at least a bit of
a kick. Then who knows, the family may even begin to market
it as mezcal, leaving recicado to die a slow, and perhaps
even welcomed death.
However care should be taken to not disrupt the basic means
and materials currently used in production. They hold a strong
attraction for the enthusiast willing to make the trek to
Pueblo Viejo. But more importantly, the principles of distillation
adhered to must remain for time immemorial, to bear witness
to the proposition that the manufacture of spirits, beyond
the mere fermentation of the juices of the agave, developed
in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca prior to the Conquest,
and independent of the science and technology of the Western
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