The Fields with a Pulque Producing Family in Oaxaca, Mexico
pulque in the fields with American tourists
and her husband Andrés can always be found selling
pulque in the Sunday market at Tlacolula and in the Friday
market at Ocotlán, both popular destinations for locals
and tourists alike in Oaxaca. Often theyre accompanied
by one of their children. Juana cant recall precisely
for how many generations her family has been going out to
the fields twice a day and harvesting aguamiel (honey
water) from the pulquero agave, then allowing it to naturally
ferment and magically become pulque; but one thing for sure
is that her ancestors have been producing pulque in Matalán,
Oaxaca, since the 19th century, if not earlier.
Although the town of Santiago Matatlán, about an hours
drive from the city of Oaxaca, is better known for its mezcal
(in fact it promotes itself as the World Capital of Mezcal)
and for being one of the earliest colonial settlements in
the state, its pulque which has a much longer history
than the distilled spirit, in Oaxaca and indeed throughout
Mexico. Best evidence suggests that imbibing the milky colored
pulque for ritualistic social and religious ceremonies has
been a tradition of the Zapotecs of Oaxaca and other indigenous
groups dating to as early as the 3rd century AD.
Thirty-nine year old Juana Mateo lives with husband Andrés
(46) and two of their three children, Beto (13) and Luz Clarita
(6), in a spacious homestead on the outskirts of Matatlán.
Its accessed by a winding badly potholed dirt road which
crosses a small creek. For the past eight months son Jorge
(16) has been living with his girlfriend María de Jesús
(17) at her parents home, at the other end of town,
also well off from any paved roadways. Neither Jorge nor María
de Jesús, and not even the barely teenaged Beto, attend
school; not surprisingly Luz Clarita didnt go to school
this mid January weekday, because of an apparent cough.
Jorge and María de Jesús cant get married
because the law states that men cannot marry until 18. There
is no such rule regarding young girls. Were not
ready to have children, and it costs a lot to make a big wedding,
the tradition here, Jorge explains. Juana pipes in,
making sure the young couple are in earshot: Its
better if they first mature a bit more, work, and accumulate
money and use it to start a business and build their own home.
María has a little dry goods store, while Jorge runs
a tractor for his father-in-law, as he calls him
(suegro). He also helps his parents with their business
and works at a number of small mezcal operations when day-workers
are needed in the production process.
The seven of us pile into the family pickup late in the afternoon,
together with an American couple along for the experience
(contact me for further information if interested in a similar
experience while visiting Oaxaca). Its about 5:45 p.m.,
when we arrive at the fields to harvest aguamiel. Juanas
brother, Isaac, is already there and has almost completely
filled a five liter plastic container. Isaac lives in the
center of town with his wife and their children, and Juana
and Isaacs ailing 79-year-old father, Aurelio Mateo
Mendéz. Isaac had earlier ridden to the fields on his
bicycle, wanting to ensure that all the honey water gets collected
before dusk. We got a late start.
As we accompany the family into the fields to the pulqueros
yet to be tapped, Juana recalls that she and Isaac
learned all about agave and its derivatives from their father
and grandfather, who learned from their abuelos
y bisabuelos. But Isaac laments that its not like
it used to be:
I remember that years ago the pulqueros grew much bigger
around and taller than they are now. Weve been using
the same fields for so long that the land just doesnt
have the nutrients in it like before. We fertilize at least
once a year, using only abono de toro y chivo (composed
feces from cows and goats). The problem is twofold: chemical
fertilizer is very expensive, and besides we want a 100% natural
fermented drink; and we dont have enough abono
to fertilize as often as wed like to, as we should.
This year we had a problem with ice during November and December;
it affected those small espadín agave over there, but
not the large pulqueros. Even though most of the espadín
leaves are brown and dead, the plants will survive.
the land behind Juanas house, back at the homestead,
there are smaller plots with young agave, both espadín
and pulquero. These plants must be watered regularly
during the dry season. At between one and two years of growth,
theyre transplanted, but only during the rainy season,
into the regular fields out in the countryside. From then
on they need not be watered but they should be fertilized.
While the espadín used in mezcal production
(there are other designer varieties used to produce
mezcal yielding different flavors) matures at 8
10 years of growth, the average time it takes until pulqueros
can be harvested is 15 years.
Juanas homestead includes smaller enclosures where the
family raises chickens, ducks and goats, strictly for family
consumption; they have a large field of mature nopal
cactus as well, available for the family to pick paddle by
paddle to make soups and salads, and other dishes which traditionally
may call for nopal. These nopal appears very
similar to the variety used for growing cochinilla
the tiny insect used to create natural dyes of red,
pink, orange and purple thick and fleshy, essentially
without thorns (espinas).
We walk along mainly empty fields, already plowed and waiting
to be planted with young agave once the rains begin.
We pass by a roofed, three-sided hut made of dried river reed
(carriso) and laminated metal, used to provide shade
and shelter from inclement weather, and to keep a bit of clothing
and tools of the trade. Theres a simple wooden bench
inside, a few hooks for hanging things on the walls,
and no more.
Continuing along, we reach three plants which Isaac has not
yet harvested this afternoon. Juana is carrying a large clay
pitcher. Little Luz Clarita is struggling with a big wicker
basket containing a scraper (raspador) used for shaving
out the plants well, a number of half gourds of different
sizes (jícaras), and a plastic sieve.
Upon a pulquero reaching maturity, it is readied for
the harvest; some of the bottom leaves (hojas or pencas)
are removed to more easily facilitate access to the middle
of the plant, its heart; and other leaves are bent over backwards
with the needle-sharp point gingerly inserted into another
leaf to reduce the likelihood of the harvester or an assistant
being stabbed. A simple prick which breaks the skin and draws
even the smallest amount of blood, can result in swelling
and pain which lasts two or three days.
Next, a well is dug into the heart of the plant, optimally
before the stock (chiote) appears. Aguamiel
is taken from the orifice before dusk, and again early morning.
Aguamiel is very sweet as long as its extracted
at a time of year when there is no rainwater which manages
to seep into the well. Juana confirms that business dictates
harvesting year round, but that its more difficult and
time consuming during rainy season, and the aguamiel
is inevitably of a lesser quality and requires more work in
order to produce pulque of an acceptable standard.
Todays aguamiel is the sweetest, clearest and
most flavorful honey water Ive ever tasted. Its
the middle of the dry season. Juana has brought along five-day
fermented pulque in case we want to compare, or prepare
a mixture of pulque and aguamiel for a moderately
fermented beverage. I like my pulque strong; and with
aguamiel as honey-rich as Im sampling, Im
in heaven drinking each, separately, without adulteration.
In due course a little pulque will be added to the
aguamiel, a starter to the fermentation.
The doctors confirm that pulque is very healthy
for you, especially if consumed every day, first thing in
the morning, Isaac states convincingly. Its
good for the blood, he assures. In response to my query
he continues: Yes, better than mezcal, because
its 100% natural, coming directly from the plant, not
like mezcal where the agave is first baked,
then mashed, then fermented, and finally further processed
through distillation. Pulque is pure. You remove the
honey water, and it ferments, plain and simple.
At the conclusion of each harvest the well is scraped out
a bit more using the concave metal raspador. With each
scraping the well becomes deeper, able to produce more aguamiel.
For the first couple of weeks of the harvest you can get only
up to about a liter twice daily, and thereafter the plant
yields up to five liters of aguamiel, in the morning,
and then again late afternoon. Of course there comes a point
in time when the yield begins to lessen, towards the end of
the plants productive life.
After removing the aguamiel with a jícara,
then straining it through the plastic sieve into another half
gourd, its poured into the pitcher. We all smile as
we taste the fruits of their labor, remarking about the quality
of the harvest. Then, before moving on to the next plant,
Andrés covers the well with a folded agave leaf
on top of which he places a broken piece of concrete, to hopefully
keep insects and rodents from gaining access to the honey
water as it seeps into the well over the course of the subsequent
12 15 hours.
At the next plant, before scooping out the aguamiel
Isaac has to remove pieces of old cotton shirts from the top
of the well: It doesnt matter if you use penca
with a rock, or whatever kind of material is available, as
long as no little creatures can get into the well and drink
or contaminate the aguamiel.
The sun begins to set, with tones of red, pink and orange
stratus cloud hovering over and between the distant mountain
tops. We walk by pulqueros which have seen better days;
that is, plants which have already been fully harvested. All
of their leaves have been cut off and lay strewn about nearby.
Thats it, theres nothing else you can do
with the plant, except chop it up and use it as mulch or compost,
or let it dry and use it as firewood, the same as with the
pencas on the ground, I state with confidence,
subsequently recalling that the leaves are often used in the
highly ritualized process of making barbacoa, preparing
sheep and goat in an in-ground oven.
Well, youre right about the use of the discarded
penques, but not entirely when it comes to the piña
[or pineapple, the base of the plant as it appears once all
the penques have been removed], informs Isaac.
As long as the piña is still green, you
can use it to make mezcal.
When pressed in the course of ensuring discussion, they all
admit that using this already-spent part of the pulquero
agave, while capable of producing mezcal the process
requires much more effort and yields much less mezcal
per kilo of plant. The resulting mezcal is of a lesser
quality than if starting from scratch with mature and untouched
agave espadín, unless you go through the effort
of distilling a third and perhaps fourth time. It makes sense
that there would be some nutrients remaining in the pulquero,
after its no longer capable of yielding enough honey
water to make it worthwhile to continue the harvest. Amongst
families which struggle to eke out a working class existence,
its often worth the effort.
As darkness approaches I help Isaac lift his bicycle into
the back of the pickup so he doesnt have to ride home
at night. Luz Clarita cuddles up beside me in the back, along
with Jorge, María de Jesus and Isaac. The rest are
in the cab. I ask Isaac how many families in Matatlán
are still producing pulque. He answers, about
five; its not like it used to be. With the land and
fertilizer issues Ive told you about, and a reduced
interest in drinking pulque, who knows if anyone in
town will be producing it in 50 years. We drop off Isaac
at his front gate where hes met by one of his sons.
Then we return to Juana and Andres home.
The following Sunday, I see Juana and Andrés at one
small stand in the Tlacolula market, and Jorge and María
de Jesus at another, in a different part of the market. Each
is selling pulque, mezcal, and tepache,
a much sweeter fermented drink made with pulque, pineapple
and sugar cane derivative called panela, known as piloncillo
in other parts of Mexico. All three are produced by Juana
and Andrés and family, just like Juanas grandparents
and their grandparents have been doing for generations. In
the case of pulque, for how much longer, one must lament,
is hard to say.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of Oaxaca. He and his
wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
). Alvin writes, consults to documentary production companies
filming in Oaxaca, and assists tourists to the region wanting
to visit the sights in Oaxacas central valley (including
embarking on more unusual adventures such as taking visitors
on an aguamiel harvest). Together with Chef Pilar Cabrera,
he also organizes culinary tours of Oaxaca
MAIN PAGE | CONTACT
US | LINKS | HOME