Monthly Archives: January 2016

Agave Beverage of Choice? Aguamiel, Pulque and Mezcal

Here we are in Oaxaca, Mexico, center of the universe for the cultivation, production, distilling and bottling of agave nectar we call mezcal.  Mezcal is hot. A hot commodity, that is.

I stand corrected! Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent. Thanks to reader Andrew for bringing this to my attention. I’ve changed the post title.

A local friend told me his uncle sold his espadin agave field for 40,000 pesos when it reached maturity after seven years. It takes a long time to make $2,200 USD equivalent here, even at today’s exchange rate. But, that’s a lot of lana (money) and a farmer is happy to hold this crop for a while. The price of agave piña has risen exponentially, 15 times greater than it was seven years ago, according to Alvin Starkman, operator of Mezcal Educational Excursions.

For the last week, I’ve been drinking a cup of aguamiel in the morning. Zapotecs in the know say that aguamiel has curative, medicinal powers and aids in daily digestion. I’m a believer.

 

Aguamiel is the sap that comes from the heart of the agave when you cut the top off.  Honey water. That’s what they call it, and it tastes like it. After one day unrefrigerated, it begins to ferment and after a few days will become pulque. An acquired taste. After four days of fermentation, you are drinking pure bubbling alcohol that goes from clear to cloudy. Some flavor it with fruit or oatmeal to sweeten the taste.

Last week, I tasted tepache in the Tlacolula market. (Find the stand next to the row of ice cream vendors on the rug sellers street.) This is pulque with fermented fresh pineapple. A half a cup before lunch and I needed the arm of a friend to steady me. But, it sure was tasty. In the U.S. with the absence of pulque, some tepache recipes call for beer and pineapple!

 

Which brings me to mezcal, the epitome of distilled beverage in these parts.

 

I am not even close to being knowledgeable, but I now have about 14 bottles of locally produced mezcal in my collection. I added the last six — plastic bottles, mostly with the Coke label, filled at the source — during a day-long mezcal education tour with Alvin Starkman. (Plenty of tasting, too.) Nine family members and friends joined me. Those who flew away, left with officially bottled and sealed beverages, thanks to Alvin.

It takes an education and time to understand mezcal and one-day is just the beginning. So is a collection of 14 bottles. Hardly enough to matter to the serious collector.

On the trip with Alvin, I learned that I like tepeztate and clay distilled espadin. Clay gives the mezcal the flavor of loam and fire. I used to really like añejo and reposado, and these are very smooth. Now, however, what tickles my nose and throat are the nuances of the herbs and earthiness of the wild agaves.

 

Stick your nose in the glass. Inhale. Get that full smokey aroma from the roasted-over-wood agave heart (called piña or pineapple) into your lungs. Then sip. Just a little bit. Second sip, take a little more. You’ll see that what might have felt harsh to your throat at first is now subtle and delightful.

 

Each type of cactus will make a different type of mezcal. Maybe it’s an espadin distilled with a turkey breast (pechuga de pavo) hanging over the copper pot. Now, there’s a flavor worth trying. Is it fermented in oak, pine, a bull skin, plastic or stainless steel, and for how long? This impacts the flavor. Is it made from a tobala, Karwinskii or madrecuixe agave. Are fruits or poleo (wild mint) added for flavor? And what about that worm?

 

And what about the microclimates and soil types? Yes, the same agave will produce a different taste with a variation in soil temperature, altitude, and whether the field is shared with weeds or with squash and beans, and when it was last plowed.

 

Whether you live here or are visiting, mezcal is worth knowing about. It is an ancient artisanal craft on par with rug weaving, natural dyeing, clay making and more recently wood carving. Getting out to the palenques on country back roads is a unique experience.

 

Meeting the men and women who grow the agave and distill it is even more amazing. Many live very simple, humble lives and their production is small. They may not be certified but what they make can be every bit as delicious.

 

When you go to the source, you are able to buy, too, at a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle in the city. But, it’s not really about price, it’s about the adventure!

Mezcal Factoids, thanks to Alvin Starkman:

  • No 2 batches of mezcal is the same
  • Mezcal improves with age
  • 95% of tequila is made from blue agave in Jalisco, Mexico
  • In the State of Oaxaca there are about 8 species of agave used to make mezcal
  • Each of these species has as many as 20 sub-species resulting in many flavor profiles from just the varietal of the plant
  • On the other hand, while tequila has different flavors resulting from different influences, only blue agave can be used to achieve them
  • While most tequila is made with 100% agave, it can be made with as little as 51% agave bsed sugars. Read the label carefully, especially the more popular commercial brands made in the most industrialized way.

 

  • True artesanal mezcal uses natural yeast in the environment
  • Gusano worm in a bottle of mezcal changes the flavor of the spirit significantly, while some stil use it as a marketing tool
  • Most artisanal agave grows without irrigation
  • The most accepted theory is that the Moors brought the distillation process to Spain, and the Spanish brought it to the New World where they found agave

 

A Few Mezcal Resources:

  • Mezcal Educational Tours
  • La Mezcaleria — a new favorite, where to taste/buy aguamiel, pulque and artisanal mezcal — on the Macedonio Alcala walking street in the first block beyond Santo Domingo Church on the right
  • Las Mezcalistas — Susan Coss and Max Garrone, consultants and aficionados, talk about all things mezcal on their blog

 

 

Note: Most of these photos were taken on the trip with Alvin Starkman. Others were shot during an independent adventure I took with my son, sister and brother-in-law to San Juan del Rio the week before.

 

Travel Oaxaca’s Natural Dye Textiles + Weaving Trail: One-Day Study Tour

We introduce you to weavers of wool, cotton and silk who work with organic natural dyes. This one-day educational study tour gives you in-depth knowledge about the artisanal process for making hand-woven cloth using sustainable technologies. We visit home studios and workshops to meet some of Oaxaca’s outstanding weavers in this curated day trip. See the real indigo, cochineal and wild marigold dye process. Meet artisans who create beautiful rugs and clothing.

Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer.

You reserve for the dates you prefer. This  is designed as a private program. You are welcome to organize your own small group.  We will do our best to match your travel schedule with our availability.

Pricing is for a full day, starting at 9 a.m. Customized programs on request.  The rate is based on the time we pick you up and return you to your Oaxaca hotel. Please provide us with hotel/lodging address and phone number.

  • 1 or 2 people, $265 USD flat rate total, includes lunch, transport
  • 3 or more people, $125 USD per person, includes lunch, transport
  • For larger groups, please contact us for special pricing

Dyeing_Australian_Chicas_Eric-94

Oaxaca has many talented weavers working on different types of looms: the two-harness pedal loom, the flying shuttle loom and the back-strap loom. They create many different types of cloth from wool, cotton and silk – to use, wear and walk on.

Wool Coch Red Bobbins62K

The yarns or threads can be hand-woven and made into tapestry carpets or wall hangings. They might become lighter weight garments such as shawls, ponchos and scarves or fashion accessories and home goods like handbags, travel bags, blankets, throws and pillow covers.

Natural grey wool and dried cochineal bugs

Natural grey wool and dried cochineal bugs

Most weavers dye their material using pre-mixed commercial dyes. Some buy their yarns pre-dyed. This streamlines and simplifies the production process, making the finished piece less costly. Often, there are wide quality differences.

DyeWkshp_1-24

A growing number of weavers are going back to their indigenous roots and working in natural dyes. They use a time-consuming process to gather the dye materials, prepare them with tested recipes, dye the yarns and then weave them into cloth. These colors are vibrant and long-lasting. There is a premium for this type of hand work.

Dyeing and then weaving can take weeks and months, depending upon the finished size of the textile and type of weaving process used.

Preparing indigo for the dye pot -- first crush it to powder

Preparing indigo for the dye pot — first crush it to powder

For each visit, we will select artisans who live and work in small villages scattered in the countryside around Oaxaca where families have co-created together for generations to prepare the yarn and weave it.

indigo-dye-pot

Natural dyes we will investigate include plant materials like nuts, wild marigold, fruit (pomegranate, persimmon, zapote negro), wood bark and indigo.

Shades of cochineal -- a full range of color

Shades of cochineal — a full range of color

Another important dye source is cochineal, which is the parasite that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. The Spanish kept the cochineal secret well hidden for over 400 years, calling it grana cochineal or grain, so that English and Italian competitors could not detect its source.

Cochineal dye bath -- the most vibrant red of the natural world

Cochineal dye bath — the most vibrant red of the natural world

During this one-day outing, we will visit four weavers, see complete natural demonstrations of yarns and threads, learn about over-dyeing to get a full rainbow of colors, and savor the beautiful results that master weavers create.

We may not always visit the same weavers on each tour, based on their availability. At each home studio you will see some of the steps that go into the completed process. By the end of the day, you will have gained a fuller understanding of the difference between natural and commercial dyed cloth as well as the various weaving techniques. This will help you become a more educated collector, able to discern nuances in fiber and dye quality.

Ikat wool rebozo colored with pomegranate and cochineal

Ikat wool rebozo colored with zapote negro (black persimmon) and cochineal

More than this, you will learn about the local culture, the family enterprise of weaving, how weavers source their materials, the dedication to keeping this ancient practice alive. You will see how using natural dyes is a small-batch, organic and environmentally sustainable process. And, you will try your hand in the dye pot and at the loom, too, if you like.

Squeezing fresh lime juice for the acid dye bath -- turns cochineal bright orange

Squeezing fresh lime juice for the acid dye bath — turns cochineal bright orange

During this complete one-day study tour you will:

  • Meet master weavers and their families in their home workshop/studio
  • See the raw materials used for coloring wool, cotton and silk
  • Watch the weaving process and try your hand (and feet) at the fixed frame 2-harness pedal loom and flying shuttle loom — if you wish
  • Discuss the origin of cochineal, its impact on world trade and its many uses today
  • Learn how to tell the difference between dyed fibers – are they natural or chemical?
  • Observe processes for dyeing with indigo, cochineal, wild marigold and other organic materials
  • Understand quality differences and what makes a superior product
  • Discover the meaning of the various designs, some taken from ancient codices
  • Have an opportunity to shop, if you choose, at the source
  • Order a customized size, if you prefer

You are under no obligation to buy.

Zapote negro fruit in a dye bath waiting for wool

Zapote negro fruit in a dye bath waiting for wool

This is an educational study tour to give you more in-depth knowledge about the weaving and natural dye process. We offer a stipend to the weavers who take part to compensate them for their knowledge, time and materials. This is included in your tour fee.

Weavers do not pay commissions on any purchases made and 100% of any sales go directly to them.

Also consider these educational options:

About Norma Schafer, your study tour leader

Norma Schafer has organized educational programs and workshops in Oaxaca since 2006 through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. She is an educator, not a tour guide, and is recognized for her knowledge about textiles and natural dyes.

Nina wears a quechquemitl woven with cochineal dyed cotton

Nina wears a quechquemitl woven with cochineal dyed cotton

Norma is living in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, since she retired from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011. Before that, she made frequent visits each year beginning in 2005. Norma has access to off-the-tourist-path small production family workshops where the “manufacturing” process is vertical and hand-made.

  • Earned the B.A. in history from California State University at Northridge
  • Holds the M.S. in business administration from the University of Notre Dame
  • 30-year career in higher education administration and program development
  • Created/produced international award-winning programs at Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Recognized by the International University Continuing Education Association for outstanding educational program development
  • Founder/creator of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC arts workshops/study tours in 2006
  • Contributor to Textile Fiestas of Mexico, with chapters about Teotitlan del Valle and Tenancingo de Degollado
  • Founder/author of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator blog in 2007
  • Learned to weave and use natural dyes as a graduate student in San Francisco too many years ago to count!
  • Has an extensive personal collection naturally dyed textiles
  • Consultant to textile designers, wholesalers and retailers who want to include sustainable, organic textiles in their body of work and inventory
  • International textile conference advisor to Weaving a Real Peace (WARP) organization
  • Consultant on tourism/economic development, State of Guanajuato, Mexico Office of Tourism
  • Embedded in the cultural and social history of Oaxaca’s Zapotec village life

IMG_4423 Dolores with Shadows

Note: From time-to-time, we will invite other distinguished and knowledgeable natural dye experts to join us or to substitute for Norma to lead the study tour, based upon schedules and availability. If Norma is not available on the date(s) you request, we will give you the option to take the study tour with another qualified leader.

Pricing is for a 7-8 hour day. Customized programs on request.  The rate is based on the time we pick you up and return you to your Oaxaca hotel.

  • 1 or 2 people, $265 USD flat rate total, includes lunch, transport
  • 3 or more people, $125 USD per person, includes lunch, transport
  • For larger groups, please contact us for special pricing

Includes transportation from/to Oaxaca city to our meeting place in Teotitlan del Valle, lunch and honoraria to artisans. Please let us know if you need vegetarian options. We will pre-order a tasting menu that includes a fresh fruit drink (agua fresca). Alcoholic beverages are at your own expense.

Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer. We will do our best to accommodate your requests.

Silk worms dining on mulberry leaves, Oaxaca, Mexico Wool dyed w moss

Reservations and Cancellations

We require a non-refundable 50% deposit with PayPal (we will send an invoice) to reserve.The PayPal amount billed will be based on the number of people you reserve for. The 50% balance is due on the day of the tour in cash, either USD or MXN pesos (at the current exchange rate).

We will have made transportation arrangements and secured the dates/times with the weavers, plus paid them a stipend in advance for participating. We have learned, living in Mexico, that it is essential to keep commitments to sustain relationships. Thank you for understanding.

Folded pedal looms waiting for the next project

Folded pedal looms waiting for the next project

A Day of Clay: Visiting Santa Maria Atzompa with Innovando la Tradicion

In their own words, Innovando la Tradicion is a creative platform where artisans, designers and artists share skills, knowledge and stories to rethink and honor the ceramic traditions of Oaxaca.  The group helps potters and pottery communities in Oaxaca with support to develop their trade.

Francisco finishing the clay comal (griddle)

Francisca finishing the clay comal (griddle)

Before the new year, my sister and I joined a one-day excursion to Santa Maria Atzompa sponsored by Innovando la Tradicion and hosted by Gregorio Desgarennes Garzón who everyone calls Goyo. The idea was to spend time with a local family, part of the Innovando la Tradicion collective, and learn how they work with clay to make functional and decorative pieces.

 

This was not a shopping trip. It was a meaningful educational and cultural experience to go deeper into Oaxaca’s indigenous traditions. In Atzompa, craftsmen have worked in clay for centuries. They shaped religious articles, storage and cooking vessels for the Monte Alban ruling class, long before the Spanish conquest.

  

These same traditions continue today with some modification of the ancient technologies.  In addition to firing the wood kiln, there is also a modern propane oven for cooking clay at higher temperatures. Traditional shapes take form alongside innovative contemporary sculpture.

 

Our multi-national group spent the day with Francisca, her husband Guillermo and their three daughters Karina, Vianney and Maité. Clay has always been in my family, say the couple. We added our impressions: It is the material of possibility, the smell of the earth, it evokes chocolate, bread, eating, family and nature.

Guillermo took us into the yard first to demonstrate how the large clay chunks are broken up with a mallet made from a hardwood tree limb. He digs the clay himself from a pit not far from the village center. Some of us volunteered to give it a try and didn’t last too long.

 

After the clay is pulverized to a fine powder and put through a sieve, it is mixed with black clay that comes from the bottom of a nearby lake. This gives it strength and elasticity. It is Guillermo who does all the heavy prep work.

How do you know when it’s ready? someone in the group asks. We can tell by touching it, was the answer. There is no written recipe.

My sister and I loved watching all this because our dad was a potter in Los Angeles and the entire process reminded us of our growing up years, watching dad knead the clay, then work it on the wheel into functional and whimsical objects of beauty.

 

Just as we did, the children here play with clay when they are young, forming simple shapes made with the coil or pinch pot method.

Each day, Guillermo prepares a batch of clay that Francisca will make into comals for sale to clients or at the local market. They make only enough for that day. Francisca is known for her fine clay comals. Her mold is a 12-year old comal that is the correct diameter and thickness. She will make about eight comals in a day. Each one, used for making tortillas or their variation, may last for about two months.

 

Her tools are trees and gourds. She uses her fingers to feel the thickness of the clay, testing it, determining if she needs to add more to the center for strength.

Her children know how to do this, too, now. But she dreams that her children will go to university and have a profession. Yet, she also wants them to make ceramics.

As Francisca pulls and shapes the clay, we watch mesmerized as she forms a beautifully round, perfect comal with lip that is desired by all who work with corn, another artisan craft.

The comals will sell for 55 to 70 pesos each. It takes about an hour to make a large one.  In the currency exchange rate of pesos to dollars, that’s about $3 to $4.50 each. At the rate of eight per day, the gross is $24 to $36 USD per day including labor and materials.

 

When the comal is finished, Guillermo carries it to the sun to dry. Francisca and Guillermo can fit about 36 comales into the adobe kiln, stacked vertically. The kiln is covered and fueled with wood. After about two hours the temperature reaches a low-fire 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire burns out and the clay contents cool, then are removed and prepared to transport to market.

After the demonstration, we took a lump of clay and began to form our own pieces. Some of us used a small wheel the size of a plate, balanced on a rock, to turn our work. Others shaped the clay using forefinger and thumb or rolling coils and stacking them. The pieces were primitive and imaginative. It was like being a child again! Totally freeform.

Then, the tables were made ready and Francisca served us a wonderful lunch of sopa de guias, tlayudas and horchata water that she prepared. The family joined us in celebrating the end of a very satisfying day.

A special thanks to Goyo for translating everything from Spanish to English and giving us great insights into the clay making process.

Contact Innovando la Tradicion at the little clay shop 1050 Grados, Rufino Tamayo 800, Oaxaca Centro, phone 951-132-6158 to find out when their next clay tour is scheduled. It’s a wonderful experience. Don’t miss it.

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshops

Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshops can be scheduled at your convenience whenever you plan to visit Oaxaca. Of course, this depends on instructor availability, too. Ideally, we would like at least two or more weeks of notice to schedule a workshop on the dates you choose.

Indigo Dye Bath 4

The one, two or three-day workshops are held in the historic center of Oaxaca city. The location is within a five minute taxi ride from the Zocalo or you can choose to walk 20-minutes to get there.  We send map and directions after you register.

All workshops include instruction, materials and recipes.

Penland Indigo Workshop

 The Complete 3-day Workshop (32 colors)

Day 1–Prep for the Process:  9:30 am to about 2:30 pm — This is a preparation day. You will prepare grey and white wool with a mordant, in order to achieve 30 different colors on Day 2 and Day 3! We will talk about natural dyes in Oaxaca, and make the extract of pericón (wild marigold) and pomegranate.

Day 2–Red, Yellow, Brown: 9:30 am to 2:30 pm — You dye with pomegranate and pericón (wild marigold), then prepare extracts of cochineal (acid and neutral), the insect that produces carminic acid to give an intense, colorfast red.

Day 3–Rainbows & Overdyes: 9:30 am to 2:30 pm — You will prepare an indigo vat, make a shibori scarf design, then dye with indigo to get various shades of blue. With an indigo over-dye, you will get a range of purples and greens to master the color variations.

Workshop fee is $375 USD per person. Group rates available.

The 2-day Workshop (11 colors)

Day 1: 9:30 am to about 2:30 pm — First you begin to understand the natural dye process by first applying a mordant to the white wool. This takes time, and we wait until the wool is sufficiently “cooked” so that you can prepare it to create 11 different colors. You will then dye with pericon (wild marigold) and pomegranate, and make an extract of cochineal (acid and neutral).

Day 2: 9:30 am to 2:30 pm — You will prepare an indigo dye vat and then use the wool you dyed on Day 1 to make over dyes that will yield purples and greens.

Workshop fee is $250 per person. Group rates available.

The 1-Day Workshop: Cochineal Only

From 9:30 am to 2:30 pm you will start the mordant process, discuss natural dyes in Oaxaca, start the mordant process, and prepared extracts of cochineal as you change the pH of the dye vat to yield 12 different colors of red.

Workshop fee is $125 per person. No group rates for this workshop.

 

cropped-DyeWorkshopJan_Group-74.jpg

 

DyeWorkshopJan_Group-92

 

FeltDyeWorkshop-11

Notes:

  • Days must be taken in sequence. If there is a group of 4 or more people, we can offer a group price. Please contact me.
  • Lunch is on your own. You can bring a lunch or go out in the neighborhood.
  • Please bring your own drinks and snacks.
  • We give directions to the workshop upon registration.

About Your Instructor: The workshop instructor is a knowledgeable expert in the natural dye process and materials. She provides dyed yarns and thread to many of Oaxaca’s famous weavers and textile designers, and she works with textile designers worldwide to offer customized colors that are used in fashion and home goods.

DyeWorkshopJan_Group-11

Reservations and Refund Policy

If you make your reservation within 30-days of the scheduled workshop, 100% of the workshop fee is due and payable in advance. We will send you an invoice by PayPal. Cancellations made within 30-days of the workshop date are not refundable.

DyeWorkshopJan_Group-14 DyeWorkshopJan_Group-9

If you make a reservation anytime in the 11-months before the workshop start date, a 50% deposit is due and payable to secure the date. The balance is due 30-days before the workshop date. If you need to cancel, please notify us by email at least 30-days before the workshop start date to receive a 50% refund of your deposit. After that, refunds are not possible.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

DyeWorkshopJan_Group-83

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca Weaving Workshops: Dancing on the Loom

Schedule a 4-day tapestry weaving workshop with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator during your Oaxaca vacation. You do not need experience to take part.  The per person price is the same whether you take a private workshop or there is a group of up to four people. We welcome people who want to come and learn with a master weaver who has worked the craft for over 40 years.

Weaving-3

All levels are accepted — beginners with little or no experience, intermediate and advanced weavers.

The Oaxaca Weaving Workshops: Dancing on the Loom is held in the famous rug weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, which is about 40-minutes outside the city of Oaxaca in the Tlacolula Valley.

DSC_0101

Here is what we offer:

Weaving Workshop: Intensive beginner to intermediate level 4-day workshop is $585 USD per person.  This includes all wool and 5 hours of supervised instruction daily, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

DanaHaimWeave (62 of 67)

At the end of the workshop you will have completed a tapestry sampler about the size of a pillow cover or small wall-hanging, 18″ x 24″.  If you choose to bring and execute your own design, it should be simple enough to complete in this 4-day time frame.

DanaHaimWeave (39 of 67)

You will work with wool that is dyed with all natural materials, including indigo, cochineal, wild marigold, nuts and other plant materials. This is a sustainable process and you will see how natural dyes are prepared, too. If you wish, you may purchase naturally dyed yarns to take home with you.

Weaving

Note: The workshop fee does not include transportation, lodging or meals. We will refer you to local families who operate posadas and B&Bs out of their homes here in the village. You will make and pay for your own lodging arrangements, that cost from $25-45 USD per night. Meals are about $6 USD for breakfast and $10 USD for lunch/dinner.

2015AprWeaving-2 2015AprWeaving-3

Reservations and Cancellations

To reserve your weaving workshop for the dates you choose, please contact us.

We require a 50% deposit to secure your reservation. The balance is due 30 days before your workshop date. If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email at least 30 days before the workshop start date to receive a 50% refund of your deposit. After that, refunds are not possible.

2015AprWeaving