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Harvesting Espadin Agave for Mezcal in My Front Yard: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Mezcaleros Hilario and Emmanuel loading agave espadin piñas

Only in Oaxaca do you wake up to find a guy cutting down agave cactus for mezcal in your front yard, Kalisa Wells told me yesterday morning.  Kalisa is house-sitting for me in Teotitlan del Valle while I’m sojourning in Durham, North Carolina.

First, cut off the sharp, spiny leaves

Kalisa is really there to puppy sit until Luz and Sombra come of age, ready to adopt out. It should be soon. Then, she’ll be taking care of Mamacita and Tia until I get back.

Kalisa Wells took all these photos! Thank you!

There has been espadin agave on the land where I live among the maize fields ever since I can remember. When I first arrived, twelve years ago, these were tiny immature plants. Omar, youngest Chavez Santiago family son, tells me these agave were planted seventeen years ago! Now, some are sending up reproductive shoots, topped with baby agaves. Bees swarm and give up agave honey. After a few months, the mother plant dies. Topples over. The dead stalk can be used for fire wood or home construction.

Farmers want to harvest the agave when it is ripe and before it sends up the stalk, when the sugar energy is concentrated in the piña, perfect for making mezcal.

When Teotitlan del Valle mezcalero Hilario and his son Emmanuel showed up to cut and dig out the piña, Kalisa took photos and a video to send to me. She keeps me informed about life around the casita. Don Federico supervised. It’s his land, his agave, and this is his cash crop.

Niss Gubaa Dau mezcal brand, Teotitlan del Valle

Seems Kalisa has been buying local mezcal from them for a while. They make the distilled brew in their patio, behind the molina (mill) across from the church and market.

Almost ready to dig out. See the video for how they do it.

They are working hard on all the agave, writes Kalisa. I hear the sound of primitive and very effective tools. I hear the Zapotec language and the smell of fresh cut agave drifting into the casita. 

Teotitlan del Valle mezcal brand contact information

Demand for artisanal mezcal has skyrocketed around the world. There are now more than 300 brands. There is worry and big buzz about whether there will be enough agave to satisfy the demand. Every food and beverage writer weighs in on this as they come to Oaxaca to sample the offerings.

What’s left — only the remains of leaves and a piña to be loaded.

Small operations, like those of Hilario and Emmanuel, are still producing home grown, home distilled mezcal for local consumption just as they have been doing for hundreds of years. Fiestas in Teotitlan del Valle are fueled by mezcal. It is de rigueur to bring a bottle as a host gift.

(Here in North Carolina, we call this beverage, moonshine, made the same way in a shiny, copper still.)

Some mezcal facts and tips:

I see by the photos that the landscape of my front yard has changed, denuded of espadin. The agave in my front yard and along the fence line is no more. Last year, I planted rows of immature espadin plants in anticipation that someday Don Federico might harvest these treasures.

Before the cutting, my garden decor.

I’ve expanded my cactus garden to include tobala, tepeztate and cuixe.  It will take them many more years to mature and offer me unlimited high desert beauty. They may certainly outlast my lifetime!

The tipsy glass of liquid gold — Pineapple Lime Mezcalita

 

 

Humble Apron Elevates to Fashion Statement and Identity in Oaxaca, Mexico

Here in the Tlacolula Valley, and most villages surrounding the city of Oaxaca, the apron is more than a utilitarian article of clothing used to protect the wearer’s garment from getting soiled. It is a statement of identity, style, and social class.

Tlacolula market scene with aprons as personal and village identity.

Tlacolula market scene with women’s aprons as personal and village identity.

Walk around the Tlacolula Market on Sunday, or any day for that matter, and you will see women, old and young, covered in aprons. You can identify their villages by apron style.

For example, women from San Miguel del Valle wear a bib apron with an attached gathered skirt that has a heavily embroidered hem. The aprons worn by women from San Marcos Tlapazola are cotton with pleated skirts often trimmed in commercial lace or bric-a-brac.

Evaluating apron style, quality and price. Do I really need a black one, too?

Evaluating apron style, quality and price. Do I really need a black one, too?

Teotitlan del Valle women prefer gingham cotton aprons with scalloped bodices and hems, trimmed in machine embroidered flowers, plants, fruits and sometimes animal figures.

There are fancy aprons, more densely embroidered for Sunday wear and special fiestas, and simple ones for everyday to cook, wash clothing and tend to babies, grandchildren and guajolotes.

He likes to cook, too. Having fun in the Tlacolula market.

He likes to cook, too. Having fun in the Tlacolula market.

The apron is worn by grandmothers and granddaughters alike. It is a uniform that conveys personal identity, social status and wealth. The heavily embroidered apron cost much more,  as much as 350 pesos compared to the everyday 150 peso variety.

Rosario wears her apron with hand embroidered bodice

Rosario wears her apron with hand embroidered bodice

You would want to wear your fanciest apron to the market to bring the oohs and aahs from contemporaries who admire your choice of color and design. Market day, a daily occurrence in Teotitlan del Valle and a regional weekly event in Tlacolula, is the social center for towns and villages. It is the time when women greet and mingle with each other, some even sneaking off together for a morning mezcal.

Apron as fashion statement! Who needs a fancy dress?

Apron as fashion statement! Who needs a fancy dress?

When you get home, you change to the daily apron for working.

Aprons are handy because they have deep pockets. Perfect for holding the coins of commerce. They are also convenient because you don’t have to wear a bra.

There are about eight different apron vendors in the concrete building of the permanent Tlacolula market. One of my favorites is along the exterior aisle closer to the bread section. They are from San Pablo Villa de Mitla and the machine embroidered aprons are filled with fanciful images of birds, fruit and flowers.

Rocio, left, demonstrates how this apron looks. She is proud of their work.

Rocio, left, demonstrates how this apron looks. She is proud of their work.

  • Tejidos y Bordados Alondra, Rocio Lopez Mendez, Proprietor, Pipila 9, Mitla, Oaxaca, abel_971@hotmail.com, cel 951-203-8333

Every apron is different. You need to try on at least several to compare size and quality. Make certain there are no stains and that the embroidery around the neck and the pocket placement is even.

One for her, one for him!

One for her, one for him!

 

 

Magic and Miracles. SKYnet, New Friend in the Casita

Three plus years ago I moved into the Teotitlan del Valle casita when it was ready for occupancy after living with my host family. The question that nagged at me then and before was how would I get reliable Internet connection to write, publish photos, work and maintain a lifeline to family and friends in the U.S.A.

Honestly, it’s been a struggle. This is how we learn patiencia here in Mexico. It’s a great teacher.

Small but mighty "dish" pointing south from the edge of the rooftop terrace

Small but mighty “dish” pointing south from the edge of the rooftop terrace

The casita and environs are beautiful. Tranquil. I live out in the campo amid corn and agave fields. The village is slowly moving out this way. Across the dirt road, donkeys bray. In the corrals on adjacent plots of land, neighbors keep pigs and goats. They talk, screech, squeal, bump against the patchwork wood structure, jiggle the aluminum roof.

View from the campo with Teotitlan del Valle village in distance

View from the campo with Teotitlan del Valle village in distance

Building projects encroaching on the farmland are announced by the sound of hammers, drills and heavy earth-moving equipment.

In the cool of early morning, campesinos pick alfalfa. Brahmin cattle pull hand-hewn wood plows to prepare the fields for planting. The rainy season has started. Ojala.

There is no land line that comes this far out.  Telmex service is non-existent in these parts.  You need a landline to have traditional Internet service. Fiber optics? Hardly.

I’m lucky to have electricity and many of the comforts we take for granted like electrical outlets, lights, a washing machine (no dryer but the sun), running water that sometimes runs out when the water tank drains to empty, usually functioning flush toilets, a gas stove, refrigerator, ceiling fans.

Screen shot. Five bar connection, first draft

Screen shot. Five bar connection, first draft

Some years ago, to solve the Internet access problem, I got a ZTE wide band device that connects to my computer USB port to pick up a radio signal through the Telcel cell tower. Most of the time, it took 30 minutes to download one or two small file jpg photos when it worked. Cost: exorbitant. Reliability: Questionable.

Last year, I brought my jailbroken iPhone 4s to Oaxaca and converted it to a local smart phone to get and receive emails. To write blogs, take care of life and upload photos I went to the city or to local restaurants with decent wifi service.

Now, no more. Welcome my new friend to the casita: SKYnet. This is a satellite telecommunications that provides internet service. No TV or cable. Only Internet. The system was installed this last Thursday night.  I’ve had uninterrupted connection even through two giant rain-thunder-lightening-wind storms. I’ve had a Skype call with my son (no pixellated image). And, it’s FAST.

The "dish really looks like a small square plate.

The “dish really looks like a small square plate. Whole deal: 24” high.

Installation cost: 2,800 pesos (about $150USD at the current exchange rate) for the fast service level. Monthly fee is 580 pesos or about $32 USD. For rural villages without access to communication, this is a blessing.

I’m thinking you might hear from me more, from here on.

Years ago, when I worked with the graduate master’s and doctoral engineering programs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Dr. Hermann Helgert, a electrical engineer and telecomm expert predicted that it would only be a matter of time before rural parts of the world would have interconnectivity.

If you go to the SKYnet Facebook page, you’ll see all the small, remote mountainous Oaxaca villages that have access now, too. Ojala!

People say that Internet access is a great social and economic leveler and will help improve literacy and education. What do you think?

 

Pedicures and Haircuts in Oaxaca: Essentials

This is not meant to be a frivolous post. When you are here in Oaxaca, Mexico, for more than a few days or weeks, you need to know a few essentials. Like where to take care of your feet when you pound the pavement for hours on end looking for that best quality, bargain priced huipil or quechquemitl. or the perfect ripe avocado, the restaurant with the best mole negro, and the market stalls that sell candied figs and oranges, and pecans for my Moroccan tagine, or the right size anchor and screw to hang a picture in the concrete wall. It’s a hard life!

Then, there is the hair. Men can easily walk into a barber and ask for the Number Two blade on the electric clippers. For women, it’s a little more complicated. Short hair might need a trim every three or four weeks.

Pedicure

Tomato and Candy Apple Red? Toes matter.

We might like a haircutter who uses several different types of scissors to get the best layering and then feathering, making sure that each tendril is exactly the same length on both sides of the face. The details matter.

So, we ask around, seek the advice of friends, try out a new spot that just opened or keep going back to the tried and true hairdresser who does an okay job, but we know how to find him/her. We go back because it’s also risky to try someone new. 

This week, Carol Knox and I splurged on our feet. We got the DeLuxe Spa Pedicure at Avenue Estilismo, a small, impeccably clean, nicely appointed hole-in-the-wall salon just opened by Mayra and Noemi, two delightful young women who met each other at beauty school. We had pounded so much pavement trailing Power Shopper Susan during the week, that we needed urgent care.

Now I’ve heard some people here complain that pedicures take too long. They want in and out in thirty minutes. They can’t imagine how anyone could take so long to soak and trim cuticles. Here in Oaxaca feet are lovingly cared for because toes show. Almost every woman wears open shoes or sandals. (Many of them are four inches high.) The super-deluxe pedicure with rose petals in a bubbling hot water bath, exfoliation, massage, and heat treatment (in addition to clipping, cleaning, trimming), takes at least an hour. (There are no high thrones here that include back massage along with water agitation, as far as I’ve discovered.) However, it’s still a great excuse to relax, take it slow, not think about texting or emailing. Close your eyes and feel that hot water bath relaxing your tired feet, melting away those callouses. Ah.

I’ve tried several places. So far, I think Avenue Estilismo is the best, although their selection of OPI colors could be more extensive. Nevertheless, the 250 pesos (about $19 USD) special deluxe is 100 pesos cheaper than where I had been going. Another option is to get the standard pedicure at 180 pesos that comes without the rose petals, water agitation, exfoliating cream and heat treatment. That’s about $13 USD.

Then, impulsively, I decided to get a haircut. Mayra did the cutting. Excellent. Perhaps one of the best haircuts ever. 100 pesos (about $7.00 USD).  I had been paying 70 pesos (about $4.50 USD) at Fashion, another small, woman owned shop on Fiallo near Arteaga recommended by Jo Ann. I liked it there. But Avenue Estilismo is more centrally located and easier to get to and a bit more plushy. I’m certain the young women owners would love your business!

Avenue Estilismo, Xicotenatl between Independencia and Hidalgo (Pino Suarez changes names and becomes Xicotenatl after Independencia). Tel: 514-2540 or Cell: 951-259-0242

Got your own recommendations? Add them here in the comments section!

Christmas in Oaxaca: Three Wise Men and Rosca de Reyes

It feels like springtime here in Oaxaca, although we are still celebrating Christmas.  Yesterday was downright warm, with temperatures rising to the low 80’s, though nights can be a chilly 45 or 50 degrees.  Christmas here is an elaborate and lengthy celebration, starting on December 12 to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe and officially ending with Dia de la Candelaria on February 2.   The Three Magi, or Wise Men, arrive on January 6, for Day of the Three Kings or Dia de los Tres Reyes.

Celebrated and tasty Rosca de Reyes

Celebrated and tasty Rosca de Reyes

You have probably figured out that food motivates me almost as much as textiles.  So, this morning I was off again to the wondrous, expansive Sunday tianguis — portable street market — in Tlacolula de Matamoros, ten minutes from where I live.  I wanted to see what was in store for food preparations.

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Front and center is Rosca de Reyes, a round or oval fruit-studded sweet bread, a traditional delight.  Most Oaxaca celebrations are home and family centric, with a children’s gift exchange and a spin the top gambling game with whole nuts.  When you go visiting, it is customary to bring a small gift for children and one of these bread loaves.

Tucked inside the loaves are one or several little plastic dolls that symbolize the baby Jesus.  Whomever gets one of these dolls embedded in their slice of Rosca is obliged to host a tamale party on Candlemas.  Corn and tamales, symbols of sustenance, are interwoven into this and other Mexican celebrations.

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Today in the Tlacolula market the bread section was piled high with pan de yema, a sweet egg bread, shaped in the round.   The vendors were doing a brisk business. This year, bakers added decoration of sliced, canned peaches to accompany the candied dates, prunes, pineapple bits and cherries.

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Live poultry, like guajolotes and chickens, are a big item, too.  Add to that roses ($1 USD a dozen), huge papaya (10 cents each), mangoes, melon, strawberries, watermelon, avocado (5 cents each USD), and any number of types of other fresh fruits and vegetables at everyday bargain prices. For those who forget to bring their shopping baskets or buy more than they planned, there are specialty vendors who sell these, too.

ThreeKingsDay-15 ThreeKingsDay-12            I like to arrive at the market by 10 a.m. to take a leisurely stroll through the streets.  Before noon, there are not a lot of people and there is no line at the bank ATM located on church side street.  Later, it’s packed and it’s like bumper cars with people.

Chicken meatballs in spicy broth at Comedor Mary

Chicken meatballs in spicy broth at Comedor Mary

Lunch is a special treat at Comedor Mary, located on the opposite side of the church on the street that borders the permanent market. Today’s special was albondigas con pollo — a picante broth with fresh ground and spiced chicken meatballs.  Amazingly delicious.

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This is the season to come to Oaxaca and stay a while.  It is a feast for all your senses.  And it is senseless to stay wrapped up in frigid northern weather if you don’t have to!  Feliz Año Nuevo.

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