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Posts Tagged ‘mezcal’

It’s good to be back in Oaxaca — land of mezcal.  Even the walls sing its praises.

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And, they are not alone — so does National Geographic, with their article, A Mezcal Boom Spurs Creativity.

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Before a “suspendida” order is slapped on this stunning piece by the Lapiztola collective celebrating the human face of agave cultivation, here is another moving work of art for the people, seen on Tinoco y Palacio on the wall of Piedra Lumbre, near the Sanchez Pascuas mercado.  It tells a story…

P1140381The wisdom of cultivation handed down from generation to generation.

P1140382From the agave comes mezcal.

P1140382lgThere are 199 “recognized” species of agave.  How many can be used to make mezcal?  The Mezcal PhD explores the answer.  And, for an illustrated guide to many of the more popular varietals, click The Many Varieties of Mezcal.

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“What do you do all day?”  It’s a question I’ve been asked countless times since I began my retired life down Oaxaca way and I’m not alone.  Most expats here have heard those words — a query that hints at the notion that there couldn’t possibly enough to fill the day in a place where one isn’t fluent in the language, isn’t surrounded by family and old friends, and doesn’t have a job.  A large part of the answer is, doing most everything takes longer.  And that is not a bad thing!  Perhaps, a photo diary of this morning’s grocery shopping excursion might provide an illustration.

After morning coffee and breakfast, catching up on email and the news, washing dishes, showering and dressing, I grabbed a couple of shopping bags and headed out at 10 AM.  The initial plan had been to walk up to Niños Heroes (the Pan American highway) to photograph some new murals, cross the highway to the Organic Market, and then return home by way of Sánchez Pascuas mercado where I could get chicken, quesillo, and anything else that remained on my shopping list or struck my fancy.  However, for almost an hour, I’d been hearing Guelaguetza music coming from the Plaza de la Danza.  I decided a detour was in order and found kindergartners performing Oaxaca’s traditional folkloric dances, including this one  where couples take turns “dissing” each other in a rhythmic double-entendre laden dialogue.  It always gets laughs — wish I could understand the jokes!  Needless to say, I hung out watching the kids for awhile.

P1080705I finally tore myself away and resumed my original itinerary.  Some of the murals were east of the Pochimilco Organic Market so I decided to start at the end and work my way back — a route which took me up the Macedonio Alcalá where I saw a sidewalk vignette of hats and scarves lined up in front of Santo Domingo.  There was also a small marmota (cloth globe on a pole) laying on its side, so I’m guessing there was to be a calenda (parade) of some sort.

P1080715After stopping to take a few photos (how could I resist the juxtaposition with the Peña Nieto graffiti?) I found myself behind these vendors taking their merchandise up to Llano Park for its Friday market.

P1080717Deciding to speed up my slow progress on the errands I’d set forth for the morning, I passed the gals only to stop to watch Oaxaca’s version of the dog whisperer working with four Xoloitzcuintlis (Mexican Hairless Dogs).

P1080722 (1)Eventually continuing north, I arrived at Niños Heroes and the murals and street art I’d come to find and photograph.  They deserve their own blog post, so I will save those photos for another day.  However, I also ran across this wonderful wall!  P1080752Crossing the highway, I found the newly built and landscaped stairs (almost didn’t recognize them) leading up to Xochimilco and the Pochimilco Organic Market.  I wandered and lingered and tasted — including a few of these mezcals, as I’ve got a US trip coming up and a stepson who probably won’t speak to me if I don’t bring him a couple of bottles.

P1080755Popping some gum in my mouth (didn’t want my breath to smell like I’m a lush), I headed south on Tinoco y Palacios to catch a couple of new murals I’d had fleeting glimpses of when returning from last Sunday’s trip to Tlacolula.  This one had particularly caught my eye.

P1080788By the time I arrived at Sánchez Pascuas, it was after 12 noon.  I found my poultry guy, paid a visit to the cheese vendor, picked up some veggies from my favorite produce gal, and, on the way out, bought some homemade salsa verde.  Yummm…  As I descended the three stairs down to the sidewalk, I turned around to admire the beautiful color of the flamboyant and jacaranda trees and the tranquility of this setting in the middle of the state’s bustling capital city.

P1080815It was close to 1 PM when I unlocked the door to my apartment.  If I were in California, I would have jumped in the car, driven down to the local Friday organic market (with not a drop of mezcal in sight), browsed a bit, spent way too much money, climbed back in the car to finish shopping at Safeway, before returning to the house, probably by 11 AM.

Here in Oaxaca, I’d been gone almost three hours, walked close to fifty (often hilly) blocks, and seen some wonderful, creative, and life affirming sights.  And, that doesn’t even include the scattering of conversations with my neighbors and Luís and Luci, who work here.  Just another Friday.  Not a bad way to live one’s life!

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Sometimes a Sunday drive is just what the doctor ordered.  Though when in Oaxaca, one can’t assume the course will run smooth.

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After being blocked by bloqueos a couple of times last week, blogger buddy Chris and I were in the midst of congratulating ourselves when our leisurely drive south on Hwy. 190 came to a halt as we attempted to turn west at San Dionisio Ocotepec.  At least ten men and a few trucks were positioned across the turnoff.  Oh, no, not again… another protest?

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No, a bike race had closed the road.  Seeing our disappointment, we were directed to make a U-turn, backtrack a mile (or so), and turn onto the dirt road that skirted the hillside, in order to bypass the race.  It was easier said than done, but after a few fits and starts, gullies and rocky outcroppings, and inquiries of all manner of vehicles coming from the opposite direction, we eventually wound up back on the paved road — right where we wanted to be!

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We weren’t the only ones westward bound.  These guys, while not part of the race, were also enjoying a Sunday ride.  We passed them on our way to San Baltazar Chichicapam.

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And, why were we going to Chichicapam?  To fill up our 5 liter “gas” canisters with some of our favorite mezcal made from locally grown agave, of course!  Muy suave…

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Sunday or not, a campesino’s work is never done.  Cattle, burros, and herds of goats were a common sight as we continued our Sunday drive.  And, speaking of goats…  By the time we turned north at Ocotlán de Morelos, we were starving.  Lucky for us, Los Huamuches, our “go to” roadside restaurant between Santo Tomás Jalieza and San Martín Tilcajete, wasn’t far away.

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What can I say?  Mild temperatures, spectacular scenery, good company, and barbacoa muy sabrosa — the “doctor” was right!

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As a current article says, mezcal seems to have wormed (oh, that’s bad!) its way into the hearts, minds, and media of el norte.  And, all I can say is, it’s about time!  I’m not really much of a drinker; mostly just wine with dinner, the occasional beer on a hot day, and a mixed drink a couple of times a year.  However, I have to say, mezcal has been a pleasant surprise.  The smoky complexity is quite a treat, especially if one ventures beyond the mass-produced brands and into the artisanal varieties.

Here in Oaxaca, mezcal is offered to welcome visitors, served at celebrations of all kinds, plays a role in most traditional ceremonies, and audiences always enthusiastically join in when Lila Downs sings, Mezcalito.  Oaxaqueño families have been harvesting agaves and hand crafting mezcal for generations.  The following photos are from an afternoon spent at one such palenque in San Baltazar Chichicapa(m).

Agave piñas (hearts) are stripped of leaves & roots and placed in a large outdoor pit oven.

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They are covered with agave leaves, fiber, mats and dirt and cooked over red-hot rocks for three to four days.

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The roasted agave is crushed with a gigantic stone wheel pulled by a horse.

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The roasted and mashed agave is then placed in large wooded vats to ferment.

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The liquid is extracted and twice distilled.  Next it is either bottled, if it is to be sold as blanco (aka, joven), or placed in barrels to age.  Reposado is aged for less than a year and añejo is aged from one to twelve years.  Needless to say, I returned home with my 4 L plastic gas can (no, it had never been used for gas!) filled with reposado made by our host and master mezcalero, Faustino.

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As the old Oaxaqueño saying goes, “For everything bad, drink mezcal and for everything good, you also should!”

And, please note:  This is a drink to be savored not chugged!

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Thursday night was the kickoff event for the 5th annual El Saber Del Sabor (literally, the knowledge of flavor) Festival Gastronómico Oaxaca 2012.  Early in the day, the Plaza de la Danza had been tented and turned into a colorful banquet hall.

Interior of large tent decorated with multicolor tableclothes and papel picado on ceiling

A couple of the evening’s chefs arrived early and were cooling their heels, waiting to begin doing what they do best.  Hmmm… what’s with the bricks on top of the cantera?  (Stay tuned!)

2 chefs sitting behind brick platform

By 9:30 PM the tables had filled and cooking was well underway.

Young man in chef's toque sauteeing bananas.

Casa Oaxaca chef and event host, Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo circulated, greeted old friends and fans, and was interviewed by a crush of press.  Cameras and microphones were omnipresent — good for publicity, bad for navigating the aisles en route to food!

Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo talking to a table filled with people.

To begin the evening and ready the palate, wines, beers, aguas, and (of course!) mezcals were offered.  We sampled a couple of mezcals from El Jolgorio and all I can say is, Wow!  (BTW, that’s a good, “Wow!”)

Bottles of El Jolgorio Mezcal on a table.

The festival seeks to promote and protect Oaxaca’s traditional cuisine and to inspire innovation.  For this evening’s event, we were invited to sample an incredible range of appetizers, side dishes, main courses, and desserts from 23 cooks, representing the 8 regions of Oaxaca.

A bowl of a stew surrounded by platters of limes, rice, cilantro, and onions.

I think I must have tasted at least 30 dishes — and this was late at night.  Needless to say, no breakfast for me the next morning.

Serving pans of food.

And, remember the bricks?   My favorite sight of the evening were the little piggies roasting on bamboo skewers over red and white-hot coals.  The tag line for the festival is, “tierra, fuego y cocina” (earth, fire, and kitchen).  Yes!!!

Roasting pigs on bamboo skewers over hot coals.

From the Plaza de la Danza, the festival moves to restaurants throughout the city, where 36 renowned chefs from all over Mexico have come to prepare innovative cuisine that pays homage to Oaxaqueño foodstuffs and traditions.

A big “thank you” to Henry and Rosa (Amate Books) for inviting me to share such a delightful and delicious evening!

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Besides mushrooms, tejate, tamales, and mole, there is cheese and mezcal… and last Monday I hopped in a colectivo bound for Etla; my destination was Reyes Etla (about 20 km. from the city) for the 2nd annual Queso y Quesillo Expo Feria.  Oaxaca is known all over Mexico for its cheese and, without a doubt, the best comes from the municipalities around Etla — and Oaxaca’s department of tourism is on a mission to promote its position globally.

Ball of cheese decorated with basil leaves and red bell pepper strips.

Vendors tempted with artistic displays and tastings of, among others, queso fresco, queso crema, and quesillo.  Yummm….  It is a dark day around Casita Colibrí when there isn’t a ball of quesillo in the refrigerator.

Display of cheeses with woman vendor behind counter

FYI:  Quesillo (aka:  Oaxacan string cheese) was first made in Reyes Etla in 1884 — supposedly by mistake!  According to one legend, a young girl from Reyes Etla disobeyed her mother and allowed the cheese curds to expand into a spongy mass.  She attempted to correct her mistake by pouring boiling water over the curds, then she kneaded it and pulled it into the first strip of what is now known as quesillo.

Woman vendor wearing mask behind display of quesillo
And, now, we turn to the 15th annual Feria Internacional del Mezcal…  After years of languishing in tequila’s shadow, being considered a “poor relation” — that is, if it was considered at all — mezcal’s profile has risen dramatically in the past several years.

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In August 2010, none other than Eric Asimov wrote about, Mezcal, Tequila’s Smoky, Spicy Cousin in the New York Times.  A year later, a NYT ‘s article advised, Move Over, Tequila, It’s Mescal’s Turn to Shine.  (You say mescal, I say mezcal.)

And, sheesh, I was flipping channels the other night and stumbled on Tim and Tim in Oaxaca, being instructed on the art of making mezcal by my landlord, on an episode of the TV program ROAM!  Then there is the No Reservations “Obsession” episode, where  Anthony Bourdain explores Ron Cooper’s obsession with mezcal.

Back to the feria, where over 40 vendors displayed their wares…

Bottles of mezcal lined up in two shelves of a display

poured generous tasting shots…

3 guys behind counter offering shots of mezcal

and sold their mezcals.

.Male vendor reaching for a bottle of mezcal

In addition, there was an exhibit showing the various types of maguey, from which mezcal is made…

Variety of agave plants with labels.

and the equipment used and processes they undergo to become this smoky and complex distilled spirit.

A mezcal still

As the old Oaxaqueño saying goes, “For everything bad, drink mezcal, and for everything good, you also should.”

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