Tag Archives: mezcal

Adentro: A Glimpse Inside Puebla, Mexico

The Franciscans created Puebla as the first true (ha, ha) Spanish city in Mexico, building it from the ground up, not on top of destroyed indigenous religious sites as they had a habit of doing.  The Paseo Viejo de San Francisco is a cobblestone walking promenade that connects the church named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi where Hernan Cortes worshipped with upscale shopping, restaurants and hotels.  This is a renovated historic area — the oldest part of the city where Puebla was founded. It’s the neighborhood I’m staying in on this visit.

Puebla112513 Puebla112513-4

I’m back in Puebla for an overnight before heading to Mexico City and then on to San Francisco for Thanksgiving with my family.  I’ve been here so many times in recent years that I can negotiate the avenues by foot and not get lost, returning to some of my favorite spots.  It was an all-day walkabout — eight hours total.

Puebla112513-9 Puebla112513-2

Today as I meander, I decide to take a different approach.  I look into courtyards where tall, heavy wood gates open slightly give me a glimpse of an interior life.  I peer into obscurely lit stores.  I see shadows and light, profiles and outlines of figures.  I look inside instead of at the stunning Talavera tile and wedding cake plaster facades that captivate visitors.

Puebla112513-7 Puebla112513-10

Still life hides behind high plaster walls through the cracks of gated doors, between the bars of gated churches at altars where no one worships, down alleyways where laundry dries, through windows into storage rooms.

Puebla112513-15 Puebla112513-8 Puebla112513-3 Puebla112513-13                            A shop clerk hangs against a door jam, take a drag on a cigarette.  Women establish themselves in business with a pile of masa dough and a garbage container filled with charcoal topped with a comal.   They will stuff tacos with cheese, chilis, bits of chicken for passersby to grab and eat as they walk on.

Puebla112513-11 Puebla112513-5 Puebla112513-16 Puebla112513-12

Before I leave Puebla, I treat myself to a lunch at what I undoubtedly believe is the best restaurant in the city, El Mural de los Poblanos.  Don’t miss it. Spectacular service and perfectly prepared food.

TMM sproutsalad 1470007_10201574503259167_1342721221_n

It was a mezcal kind of day for me: first a tamarind mezcal margarita, then a shot glass of Puebla origin mezcal (with worm salt and orange slices) compliments of the manager (that I managed to nurse throughout the 2-1/2 hour meal), a sunflower sprout salad, and shrimps sauteed in mezcal.  I finished with a small scoop of house made pumpkin ice cream and a raisin liqueur. Who’s hungry? Did anyone say bed time?

Mexican vanilla beans, mezcal and chocolate

What to do with a Mexican vanilla bean? Why not a Groucho Marx impersonation?  Even though I recommended adding it to a bowl of sugar for flavor.

RobinDebbieBecky-3

On Friday, we had a Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat mini-reunion at the Oak Leaf Restaurant in Pittsboro, NC.  Who? Robin, Debbie, Becky and me.  As soon as I presented my North Carolina friends — all professional women — with a gift of a Mexican vanilla bean, a maguey fiber facial scrub, and a package of tasty mango fruit leather, you can see what they did first. I’m not certain which one started it.  This speaks volumes about the fun we have in Oaxaca during the retreat each year!  And, there’s space for you.

RobinDebbieBecky-5

I also brought along a bottle of private label El Diablo y La Sandia madrecuixe sylvestre (wild) agave mezcal to open and share.  This is only available for sale at the B&B in Oaxaca. The restaurant was to charge us a corkage fee, but their first question was, Where did you buy this?  Oaxaca, I said, waiting for them to ask, How do you spell that?  Oh, she said, wait a minute.  Then the manager came over.  We are really sorry, we can’t serve you this bottle.  Though I’d love to taste it, she confessed.  It has to have been purchased in an ABC (Alcohol and Beverage Commission) Store for us to legally open and serve it here.  She was really, really apologetic, but we had another solution.

RobinDebbieBecky-7

After our delicious BLT lunch of a fried green tomato, goat cheese and bacon sandwich (minus the bacon for two vegetarians), we declined dessert at the Oak Leaf.  We had something else in mind and went next door to the Chatham Market Place.  This is our local organic grocery store and cafe.  Here we bought vegan chocolate cake dessert for each of us, and took four tumblers outside to the picnic table, where we easily broke the wax seal on the bottle, twisted off the cap and poured.

RobinDebbieBecky-4

I have to confess, chocolate and this herbal earthy mezcal go really well together. We did NOT drink the entire bottle!  Not even close.  Just a little sip.  But, most of us managed to finish the cake!

Mexico’s gifts to the world include the vanilla bean, mezcal and the word for chocolate.  Add to that mole, corn and colorfast cochineal.  Anything else you can think of?

Six Flight Mezcal Tasting with El Cortijo

The village of Santiago Matatlan bills itself at the mezcal capital of the world. The arch holding the banner welcoming you into town has a copper still on top of it.  I’m from North Carolina and in that part of the world the same type of still is used for moonshine.   There is no comparison.   Especially when going for a tasting with El Cortijo mezcales.

6FlightMezcal-6 6FlightMezcal-11

After our Felted Fashion Workshop ended, Debbie, Leslie, Christine and I went off on an all-day excursion through the Tlacolula Valley.  After stopping at Yagul and Mitla, we headed to Matatlan where I had made an appointment in advance with Raul Mendez Zamora, fifth generation mezcal maker, to visit the family home.  No one lives there now.  It is used for labeling and packaging.  It is like visiting a 1950′s museum.   This is where Raul’s grandmother came up with the idea of a private label, the first in town.

6FlightMezcal-2 6FlightMezcal-5

Raul showed us the original labels, including one with a photo of Brigitte Bardot.  Next to this was an antique garafon, or blown glass jar, used to store the mezcal after it went through the aging process.

6FlightMezcal-3  6FlightMezcal

After a brief introduction into the family mezcal making history, we sat down at the dining room table.  Raul asked us if we had the wherewithal to taste five mezcals.  We said, aye, yayayaya, that’s a lot.  Three ought to do it, we replied! Ultimately, we ended up tasting six, including several of the new limited edition mezcals distilled from wild agave that tastes like herbs from the field.

6FlightMezcal-12  6FlightMezcal-16

 

Raul instructed us.  First smell the aroma.  Take a bit of the liquor on your tongue for a second then toss it back until your mouth gets used to it. Since we had our trusty taxi driver Abraham, as we moved up the flights from joven to añejo  to reposado to the wild agave and finally to the king, pechuga de pollo.  The tastes were becoming muy suave.  The flights started at 38% alcohol and went up to 54% alcohol.  We were sipping slowly. 

6FlightMezcal-15 6FlightMezcal-4

I can’t say we were borrachitas by the end of it all, but we sure did feel good when we got home to Teotitlan del Valle, only 10 miles away.

6FlightMezcal-8

During the tasting, we heard the sound of little girl voices from the street.  In came a family of basket sellers.  We had a great time playing with the children as we prepared to leave, new baskets in hand.

It takes nine years to grow the maguey fruit before it can be harvested.  The aging process can be as much as three years in oak barrels — or longer.

The bad news is that El Cortijo is not exported to the United States.  Nor do they sell at the Matatlan casa.  The good news is that the brothers Raul and Juan Carlos who now operate the business have opened Mezcaleria El Cortijo in the historic center of downtown Oaxaca city.  There you can taste and buy!  (Two bottles per person allowed into the U.S.)

Mezcaleria El Cortijo, Avenida Cinco de Mayo, between Abasolo and Murguia, across the street from the Quinta Real Hotel (formerly El Camino Real).  Tel: 951-514-3939.  They are open 6-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

 

Five Generations of Mezcal Making in Oaxaca

Santiago Matatlan is lined with neat rows of carefully tended agave.  They stipple the hilly, fertile fields.  The climate is hot and dry, perfect for growing the succulent.  Small, artesanal distilleries process the piña (the pineapple or root) of the agave into this stunning liquor.  Here, Juan Carlos Mendez Zamora and his brother Raul Mendez Zamora (below, left) are continuing the family tradition of producing fine mezcal that began in 1795 in this small Oaxacan village.

 

The El Cortijo brand captured my attention after my sister Barbara and I tasted their Pechuga de Pollo in Puebla last week.  It was so good! And, Matatlan is so close to where I live (about 20 minutes south of Teotitlan del Valle on the Pan-American Highway), that I asked my friend Pedro Montaño Lorenzo if he wanted to go with me in search of where it was made.

   

Juan Carlos (above, center) welcomed us into his grandparents’ hacienda and  introduced us to the staff of three people who were busy wiping and packing the precious mezcal-filled bottles.  He explained that there were no distinctive labels or brands when his grandparents created the El Cortijo label in 1951.  His grandmother, originally from Guadalajara, hand-painted the first ones herself and he showed us a bottle with the original label.  Then, he pulled out another one from the 1970′s with a Dance of the Feathers label, also hand-painted.  Both are works of art and this tradition continues today.

The family works with local artists, including Amador Montes, to create the labels for their three types of mezcal:  Joven–44% alcohol (young),  Añejo–40% alcohol (aged), and Pechuga de Pollo–49% alcohol (distilled with five fruits and the scent of chicken breast).

 

This is a small production, artesenal operation.  Only about 1,000 bottles of the Joven are produced each year, and about 300 bottles each of Añejo and Pechuga de Pollo are produced each year.

Making mezcal is an ancient, handmade process, brother Raul explains.  A mezcal palenque will produce about 5,000 liters of liquid a month whereas a tequila factory will produce about 60,000 liters a month.  Many consider tequila making to be more industrial. It takes a minimum of 33 days for the mezcal making process to be completed and 20 days for tequila.  It can take two or three years or more for an Añejo mezcal to age in the barrel.  An agave plant must mature for 10-12 years to produce a sweet piña good enough for a fine mezcal.

  

The mezcal making process

After the agave piña is harvested, it is put into a fire pit filled with hot volcanic rock and then covered with earth where it cooks for four to five days.  The volcanic rock absorbs a lot of heat which oxidizes the rock to cook the maguey.  Only maguey espina is used for Matatlan mezcal.  After the cooking process, the piña goes to the molino.

  

A huge cantera stone is pulled by horse to mash the cooked plant.  Then, it goes into wood barrels to soak in well water  until it becomes very sweet and the color of caramel, about 10 or 12 days.  After six days, it gets visibly bubbly and starts to look like yeast.  The smell and aroma is important in the process.

  

After the fermentation, it goes into a wood fired copper pot called an olla.  During the final part of the process, the liquid from the olla drips out and then is put into the still that further cooks down the liquid and then cools it through a serpentine that is immersed in water.

  

The smell of the wood fire, chewing the sweet, just cooked maguey, the sound of the dripping water into the vat where the liquid is cooled, the taste of the raw, strong liquid as it comes through the pipe was a memorable experience.

Alcohol content of mezcal that is certified for sale can vary from 35 to 55%.  Home-brewed Oaxaca mezcal in Oaxaca will often have 75% alcohol content, and is illegal to sell.  Because mezcal is part of the ritual life of Oaxaca villages, it is widely available locally for personal use.  The El Cortijo brand is not sold through retail stores in Oaxaca, although it can be purchased by the cup at Casa Oaxaca and other fine restaurants in the city.  Because of its higher price, there is not a big local demand, and the family concentrates on exporting to Puebla, Queretero, Mexico City, France, Spain, Italy and Costa Rica.  They are working on getting certification to export to the United States, but this in development.

What distinguishes Pechuga de Pollo?

This type of mezcal goes through three distillations.  The chicken breast hangs above the distilling pot and the vapor is absorbed by the liquor as the chicken breast cooks.  The fruit is part of the distillation process.  The resulting liquor has a creamy texture because of the chicken.

Pedro and Raul surveying the crop

From July 23-30, 2012, El Cortijo will be represented at the Feria de Mezcal in Llano Park in Oaxaca.  The fair will showcase the mezcal producers of the region and this is a perfect time to do a mezcal tasting and compare for yourself what distinguishes one mezcal from the next.

And, in case you are wondering, I paid full price for the two bottles of Añejo that I bought!  Yum, it was good. (Below, me and Pedro sampling the mezcal.)

The house of El Cortijo, Independencia #29, Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, Tel. 951-516-0091.  The house numbers in Matatlan are not well-marked, so after a phone call we found the family hacienda and bottling facility located next to the green painted elementary school.  I suggest you call ahead to make an appointment since Juan Carlos and Raul split there time between Oaxaca city and Matatlan.

 

Above, family portraits: (left) Grandmother Julieta Torres, (right) parents of Juan Carlos and Raul.

King of Mezcals: El Cortijo’s Pechuga de Pollo

You be the judge!  Is Pechuga de Pollo (breast of the chicken) distilled by El Cortijo in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, the best of the best?  At 1,500 pesos (that’s $118 USD at today’s 12.65 exchange rate) for a 750 ml bottle in fine Mexican restaurants and far more in the U.S.A. (so I’m told by my in-the-know brother-in-law), this organic mezcal is a knock-your-socks-off fruity drink with a hint of poultry earthiness.  It packs a wallop at 38% alcohol content. This is a sipping drink, not a slug it back, down-it-in-one-gulp followed by a beer chaser beverage.

How do I know?  During our last evening in Puebla this week, before my return to Oaxaca and her return to Santa Cruz, California, Barbara and I went back to El Mural de los Poblanos where we love what Chef Lizett Galicia Solis does with seasonal and indigenous food (click on her name and see the makings of Pipian Verde).

After a satisfying and healthy sunflower sprouts salad mixed with walnuts, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, peeled green apples, garnished with avocado and dressed with a lime-olive oil vinaigrette;

after Mole de Olla, a beef shank stew simmered with carrots, onions, zucchini, green beans (vegetables so fresh and crunchy that they tasted just picked), epazote, and other mysterious local herbs;

after the Regalo de Quetzal, a crusty Mexican chocolate cake oozing creamy goodness accompanied by an intensely vanilla homemade ice cream that we shared, we took a deep sigh and finished off our one glass each of an Argentine malbec — a good, basic wine.  (The three-course meal with wine came to 450 pesos [$36USD] per person including tip.)

Across the restaurant, the Captain Enrique Garcia was setting up for a four-flight mezcal tasting.  When we asked him about what was on the tasting menu, he brought over two shot glasses filled with Pechuga de Pollo and gave us a sample.

Zowie!  I think I flew back to our lovely little Hotel Real Santander, which was around the block.  Barbara wanted to buy a bottle on the spot to take home to George and then thought better of it.

El Cortijo web site indicates the retail price for a bottle is 650 pesos.  Of course, that’s in Mexico.  If you can find it in your wine/liquor store, give your own mezcal tasting.  They only distill 300 bottles a year. (Another great reason to visit Oaxaca!)  Fortunately, Santiago Matatlan is 15 minutes from where I live so I had to buy two mezcal shot glasses at the last Talavera workshop I visited, just in case.