My friend Bruce lives in Baja, California (Mexico). We are carrying on a correspondence about safety, Oaxaca sights and sounds, and life as gringos in Mexico. He recently sent me the article written below and asked me to comment on it. Here is what I wrote back to him: “Thank you for sending me the article about Santiago Matatlan and the Field Museum of Natural History excavations there in 2004. I began going to Teotitlan del Valle in 2005 and was not aware of the archeological program in Matatlan, although I have been to that village several times to see the ancient tradition of handmade mescal harvesting and fermentation. The church there is very beautiful. Teotitlan has a community museum and archeologists worked there in the 70’s and 80’s to excavate the base of the church to discover orginal Zapotec stone carvings. (American and European archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have been in the region for a long time.) There is a movement to create community museums throughout Oaxaca, since there is so much history there. ” The community museum in Teotitlan is operated and staffed by a committee of volunteers. Since this is a communitarium endeavor, the group decides what is exhibited and what related activities deserve investment. I imagine it is the same for Matatlan. I have been the the Field Museum in Chicago where there is an extensive permanent exhibit on the Zapotec civilization at Monte Alban. It is considered one of the finest examples of mesoamerican political organizational structure. The article below is well worth a read, an important review of how small villages in the Oaxaca valley depend upon tourism to bolster their agrarian economy. The difficulty for most villages in the Tlacolula valley is that people rarely venture into the villages, and only stop along the convenient highway shops where tour buses can easily enter and exit. This cuts off the majority of people from benefiting from the tourist dollar. And, this article was written pre-2006, when Oaxaca erupted in protest against a restrictive local government. I will see if Matatlan was able to complete its museum and generate tourist interest on my next visit. Saludos, Norma
****Now for the article:
Artifacts are a field of dreams for a remote Mexican village
Residents have the support of a Field Museum Team to put them on the beaten path for tourism cash by exhibiting 6th Century relics
By Hugh Dellios
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published October 3, 2004
SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Mexico – The ancestors on the hill left no written record. Until a team of Chicago archaeologists came, nobody really thought much about them. And, strangely, some of the urns they left behind showed supernatural figures with two left hands. Nevertheless, this small village hopes a connection with the 6th Century Zapotec community on the nearby hilltop will help preserve their 21st Century future, or at least keep some of the teenagers from leaving for Los Angeles.
With the help of a Field Museum team, a group of energetic young men is trying to set up a small community museum to exhibit the ancient Zapotec artifacts dug up by the archaeologists. The main objective is to honor and preserve the area’s history. But the group also wants to put the village back on the tourism map so more jobs are created and fewer young people are forced to look for a life elsewhere.
Known locally as “The World Capital of Mescal,” a tequila-like beverage, this village faces the same stagnant fate as other rural pueblos across Mexico and the situation could get worse when a new highway, diverting the few visitors the town gets now, is completed
The site’s promoters faced tough questioning last spring about the archaeologists’ permits and intentions. Although eventually approved, the approval process gave the Field Museum team a fascinating window into how decisions are made in a traditional Mexican village.
Monument to the future
“This museum is so people don’t forget us,” said Abel Lopez, a mescal factory owner working on the project. “It will be an attractive place for people to visit before they disappear down the road.”
Whereas Santiago Matatlán has an official population of 4,000 residents only about 2,500 people actually live in the village. The rest of them are working in the United States.
“Those who have been to the states start talking about Sunset Boulevard and Venice Beach, and the young people start getting antsy. They say, `I’ve got to see it!'” said Ambrosio Escobar, head of the museum committee, who once worked illegally on a fishing boat in Alaska.
For many years, the village survived by harvesting agave to make mescal, which was shipped to nearby Oaxaca or sold to visitors along the highway. But now others have stolen much of that market, and only about 10 small, horse-powered mescal factories remain.
Oaxaca, 45 minutes away by car, is rich with tourists. And guidebooks already promote a tourist circuit that passes near Santiago Matatlán, including the well-known Zapotec ruins at Mitla, the carpet-making village of Teotitlán, a giant, 2,000-year-old tree at Tule and sulfur springs at Hierve de Agua.
“The museum is for the people who don’t want to leave,” said Mario Santiago Nolasco, 24, one of the young men who call themselves the village’s “culture promoters.” “People are bombarded with so much from outside these days. This is to preserve what is ours.”
The archaeologists, led by Gary Feinman, chairman of the Field Museum’s anthropology department, have been excavating at El Palmillo hill since 1997. The team is researching the terraced homes of Zapotec commoners for clues to the structure and demise of the empire that dominated the Oaxaca Valley 1,300 to 1,500 years ago.
Among their finds are skeletons, pots and beads from a tomb, urns showing the Zapotec deity-like figure Cocijo and a hollowed-out rabbit bone that may have served as a beverage straw or snuff tube. All of it is stored in cardboard boxes at the village hall.
“I think the best pieces are display quality,” said Feinman who said the museum also could show the excavating techniques and the long history of agave use. “Even though it would be undoubtedly small, we can do something you don’t normally see in museums.”
Asked about the two left hands on depictions of Cocijo, Feinman said the answer to the mystery might not be so dramatic. “They just lost the mold for the right hand?” he said. “I could be wrong.”
Part of a national effort
The young men promoting the museum plan say their interest also stems from stories their grandparents told them about the hill and the ancient people who lived there. In one myth, the hill was a temple above a great emptiness where a giant snake lived.
The Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History seeks the establishment of local museums. It has supported Santiago Matatlán’s project, which would be among at least 15 similar programs in Oaxaca state.
Feinman and his wife, Linda Nicholas, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum, helped present the museum proposal at two town hall-like hearings last spring. They were met with suspicions about outsiders and a grilling over what they might be up to on the hill.
The “culture promoters” and community leaders helped lay those suspicions to rest. Ultimately, the project was approved by a show of hands among the several hundred in attendance. The promoters were given a 19-page permit, which some of those assembled “signed” with thumbprints.
“The former village leaders never told his people that [Feinman] was up there excavating. They didn’t know what he was doing,” Escobar said. “The community is totally in agreement now.” Still, the project hasn’t cleared its last hurdle. The museum committee was told it could use a municipal storehouse for the exhibition, but committee members say they will need about $10,000 to repair the leaky roof and the walls.
The village administrator was recently replaced; his successor is not as interested in the museum project. And yet to be known is the opinion of a new mayor who should be elected in December to fill a seat that has been empty because of a decade-long spat among the village’s principal families and factions.
“Matatlán has a lot of history,” said Gregorio Hernandez, 33, another promoter, “and we’re going to rescue it.”
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
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.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Food & Recipes, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Travel & Tourism
Tagged blogsherpa, distilled alcohol, El Cortijo, maguey, mescal, Mexico, mezcal, Oaxaca, SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Tequila