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Short Essays on Rural Mezcal Production – Part II – Recicado From the Mixteca Alta
It won’t win any contests for quality feel. And in fact, residents of the region don’t even call it mezcal, but rather “Ricado,” a Mixteco name, they say. But five hours from Oaxaca City, deep in the Mixteca Alta, an ave confronts distillation that rewards the Spanish for providing as real a glimpse as possible of potential production tools and ingredients. At the beginning of conquest: pottery; carriso (river reed) tubing; mud and stone still; pulverizing using tree humus and wooden trough; Fermentation in animal skin; And of course traditional baking in in-ground ovens.
Pueblo Viejo is a small village about an hour’s drive from San Juan Mixtepec, along a rough dirt road. The quiet valley leading to the settlement is known as the Rio Azucena, and for good reason… the Sánchez Cisneros family lives along a river, a pre-requisite for making ricados in this part of the state.
Nineteen-year-old Hilda Sanchez Cisneros lives with her sister, 47-year-old Natividad Sanchez, and four of Natividad’s six children. The other two live and work in rural North Carolina. Fernando, Natividad’s husband, is away today, doing tequio (community service). Their 10-year-old son Esteban and daughter Dalia, 16, are fully trilingual, as they and their mother lived in the US for several years and accordingly had the opportunity to attend American public schools. But here they are, eking out the most ordinary existence, preparing resicados for sale Friday at the San Juan Mixtepec weekly market.
The family also makes a living by growing squash, corn and beans. It is clear that meat and poultry are not a staple of their diet, not unusual for families in the most rural communities of the state.
The stream is an intermittent provider, providing small fish to the family at certain times of the year. And then there’s the rabbit, the squirrel, the possum and the fox. “I know people in the city won’t eat small animals like squirrels and possums,” Natividad explains, “but when we get them, we do here and it’s really good.” Esteban proudly adds that occasionally you may encounter coyote and wolf, but most of the time it’s not much in the mountains.
Hilda and Natividad learned to filter from their parents and grandparents. However, in the early days, the plants used in production were wild varieties of agave that had to be collected by climbing the mountains. Then a few years ago Fernando went to Matatlan, the recognized world capital of mezcal, and brought back several baby agave aspadin plants. Aspadin is the only type of maguey that is successfully cultivated throughout the state. So now the family is able to grow their own agave in this fertile but sparsely populated valley, part of which forms the homestead. But family members’ knowledge of scientific process and work appears to be little or rather rudimentary.
The appearance of the chiote (stem) is the first sign that the maguey is fully mature. Allowing stems to sprout and produce baby plants should be the primary means of reproducing agave aspadin. But before Fernando and the family go up to Chiote from the heart of the harvest plant. This inhibits their ability to increase the number of fields under cultivation (the plant produces “hijos” or children through the root system, but this is a secondary means of reproduction and is not relied upon in commercial enterprises). Equally important is harvesting prematurely, rather than waiting for the chiote to ripen, harvesting and then giving the natural sugars a chance to integrate into the base or “pina” of the plant, adversely affecting the quality of the finished product.
But as traditional mezcal production dictates, pinas are roasted eight feet deep and six feet across, over firewood and river rocks. Instead of using synthetic material to cover the “oven”, a layer of palm leaves with earth is used. However the similarities between customary mezcal production and recicado stop here.
Instead of crushing the roasted agave by pulling a limestone wheel over it using a mule or pony, in a circular enclosure, the cooked plant is pounded into a pulp using human power, tree stumps, or long wooden mallets dug by hand. In a wooden vessel shaped like a five-foot long canoe. Four posts—thick, straight tree branches—support a large “bag” made of ox hide, about four feet from the ground. Covered with plastic, the mash is left in the sun to ferment for four to five days.
Distillation takes place in an area sheltered by a laminated metal roof 20 yards from the house. The family uses four igloo-shaped stills aligned in a straight line. Made of stone and mud, each is virtually identical to the next. Starting at the bottom, the opening into which the firewood is placed consists of a tube stone that supports a clay cylinder that holds the fermented juice and fiber. The vapor rises from it into a bottomless earthen vessel. The pot is covered with a bowl, or whatever else is available for use.
Water flows above the still from the partially hollowed tree trunk and fills each of the four bowls through the concave pieces of the leading leaf through four exit holes in the canal above. As the steam rises and reaches the bowl, after being cooled by water, condensation occurs. The liquid drips onto another piece of agave leaf, this one stuck to the center of the inside of the clay pot and angled down to a small hole in the side of the container. The fluid exits the vessel through the orifice. A hollow length of river reed, inserted tightly into the hole and pointing downwards, ensures that the resicado slowly flows out of the pot and into the urn.
The primitive process reflects many steps and follows some of the principles required to produce mezcal in more artisanal techniques. But there is a lack of key elements, no doubt reflected in the quality of the spirit:
1) As mentioned, Pina is not harvested at the optimal time;
2) in the central valleys of Oaxaca fermentation is complete after only about a third of the time required to sufficiently ferment aspadin for mezcal production, although constant exposure to the sun helps, as does the semi-tropical climate of the sheltered lowlands;
3) Resicado is distilled only once.
The result is a relatively low-alcohol watery drink that tastes almost sour. Locals still buy and drink it, and pay twice what it costs to get the traditional 40 – 46 percent alcohol by volume mezcal in the towns and villages around Oaxaca City. Sure enough, I tried a Recado made by a competitor down the street and found it to be far less offensive.
On my return visit to Pueblo Viejo, I intend to sample two or three liters of my favorite village mezcals for the Sanchez Cisneros family. Hopefully Fernando, Natividad, and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with the product and start making it feel more acceptable to the palate … and with at least a kick. Then who knows, the family might start marketing it as mezcal, dying Resicado slowly and maybe even welcoming death.
However, care should be taken not to disrupt the basic tools and materials currently used in production. They hold a strong attraction for enthusiasts willing to trek to Pueblo Viejo. But above all, the production of spirits, beyond the mere fermentation of agave juices, developed in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca, testifying to the assertion that the principles of distillation must have survived into time immemorial. victory, and independent of the science and technology of the Western world.
Alvin Starkman MA, LL.B
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