An Education In Mezcal

mezcal

I inhale. The scent is earthy, smoky. I take a sip, rolling the liquid around my tongue, exploring its flavors. Per instruction, I gurgle. My mouth explodes, the alcohol transforming into a liquid fireball that burns the insides of my cheeks. It takes a few minutes before the sensation expires.

There is a saying: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”

For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, textiles and colonial architecture. Legend has it that a form of the tequila-like liquor existed prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but mezcal as we know it was first distilled by the conquistadors in the 17th century. It is a generic name for spirits distilled from the agave plant, or maguey as it is traditionally called, of which there are 11 types. The state of Oaxaca is the traditional home of mezcal, and the countryside is littered with small family distilleries.

But not all mezcal is created equal. There is a difference between artisanal mezcal and the touristy stuff sold in bodegas across the city. I learned the difference at the Mezcaloteca, a tasting library run by a group dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal production.

It turns out, pure artisanal mezcal isn’t brown – it’s clear. And those larvae at the bottom of the bottle? Pure marketing, intended to bait unassuming tourists with the promise of a G-rated “Fear Factor” experience. (“I can’t believe you actually ate the worm!” your friends back home will gape.)

No, the best artisanal mezcal is crystal clear and worm free. David, our bartender-cum-teacher, filled us in on some other ways to tell the difference.

  • Look for the words “100% agave,” which signifies that the liquor is pure and not mixed with cheaper additives.
  • Make sure that the stated alcohol content is 45% or greater.
  • Check the label for the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
  • Shake the bottle and see if bubbles arise – they should, unless it is a mezcal with more than 55% alcohol content, in which case the bubbles only arise when you stir it.
  • Do not buy mezcal that is reposado or anejado in barrels – the wood destroys the distinct flavors and aromas of the mezcal.
  • Rub a drop of mezcal between your fingers to evaporate it – the scent should be of cooked agave.

Now for tasting the mezcal.

  • Mezcal is traditionally consumed from a gourd or wide-mouthed cup.
  • Pour the drink from one cup to another to see the bubbles rise.
  • Inhale the mezcal. Try to find the aroma that you smelled when you rubbed the mezcal between your fingers. Then inhale with your mouth closed and try to discern other smells. You’ll notice that there is a difference.
  • Sip the mezcal and rinse your mouth for 10 seconds without swallowing. Exhale through your nose. Feel the flavors on your palate.
  • Take another sip, rinse your mouth for 10 seconds, then swallow and feel the burn.

According to David, these flavors are the essence of mezcal.

The Mezcaloteca is located at Reforma 506 in central Oaxaca. Tastings are available by appointment only, though you may be able to piggyback onto another group’s tasting if you swing by at the right time. Prices vary, but a basic four-pour tasting cost us 150 pesos (about US$12). Call +52-01-951-5140082 or email mezcaloteca@gmail.com for reservations.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

In Oaxaca, A Place For Friends

oaxaca

Sundays in Oaxaca are quiet. The stores are closed; the streets empty.

There is buzz around the churches, as families mill in and out dressed in their Sunday best. Near the Zocalo, children play with oversized balloons, pushing them high into the sky.

But otherwise, the city is silent.

On a recent Sunday, I decided to embrace the calm and seek a quiet resting place where I could sit with a healthy meal, an iced coffee and the words of Carlos Fuentes. The spots I had in mind were closed, so I wandered the streets until I caught sight of an entryway leading into a courtyard shaded in bougainvillea. “Yoga, vegetarian food,” the chalkboard sign read. I had found my place.

I entered and asked for a table. The kind-eyed host explained to me that here, they do things differently, that this is a place for friends. She asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a table, and she gestured toward my new seatmate: an elderly gringo in khakis and a Panama hat.Inwardly, I groaned. The last thing I wanted was forced conversation with a senior citizen. I wanted to feel Mexico, not be reminded of home.

Outwardly, I smiled and sat down.

De donde es?” he asked.

De los Estados Unidos,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re American,” he laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Uh-huh. I pulled out my book and set it on the table.

“Where in the States are you from?”

“New York.”

“Oh, I lived in New York. In Manhattan?”

“Yes, the East Village.”

He laughed. “I used to live right near you, on 4th between B and C. But this was a long time ago, in the 1960s.”

Now he had my attention. You had to be a certain kind of person to live in the East Village in the 1960s.

“Do you know Allen Ginsberg? The poet?”

I nodded. I only idolized him.

“He was my neighbor.”

From there, the conversation flowed: from his life as an art student in the ’60s, to my writing ambitions in the ’10s, to his sons, my sister, his newly remodeled home, my newly redecorated apartment. Mitch was a man in transition, having just retired after decades of working as a museum exhibit designer for the federal government. I too was in transition, on the cusp of returning to graduate school and charting a new career path. He had come to Oaxaca to draw; I had come to write.

I didn’t expect Mitch and I to have much in common, but we did. I was reminded of a basic travel lesson: the necessity of being open to new people and new experiences.

Throughout our nearly three-hour conversation, the host, whose name I discovered was Rosaura, kept us fed and refreshed with a three-course vegetarian meal: crunchy jicama salad, hearty chickpea soup and a yogurt-oatmeal dessert, complemented by hibiscus tea. At the end, she only asked for $35 pesos (about US$3) to cover the cost of the ingredients. Every Sunday, Rosaura hosts this special gathering in the courtyard of the Comala restaurant on Calle Allende in downtown Oaxaca. The morning starts with a yoga session, followed by a meal. All are welcome – so long as they are open to new friends.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

A Travel Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico

Go #OnTheRoad With @GadlingTravel On Instagram

The Gadling crew is one of the most diverse groups of travelers on the web. But different as we are, we’re united in our thirst for adventure and our hunger for the open road. You read about our adventures here. Now, we’d like to invite you to travel with us in real-time – on Instagram at @GadlingTravel.

Each month, a member of our team will take over the @GadlingTravel Instagram feed for one week and post images from his or her travels with the hashtag #ontheroad. This week, I’m posting photos from my current trip to sunny Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s one of the most artistic and culturally vibrant places on the planet; I’m excited to be your eyes and ears while here.

We’re also excited to open up Instagram as a platform for submitting original mobile photos into the running for Gadling’s Photo of the Day. Just mention @GadlingTravel AND use hashtag #gadling in your image post, and we’ll consider it along with photos submitted in our Gadling Pool on Flickr.

Questions? Comments? We’re also hanging out on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and now even Google+. See you there![Photo Credit: Jessica Marati on @GadlingTravel]

Why Mexico Isn’t Central America, And Other Things I Learned From Writing A Book About Cheese

cheeseExactly one year ago, I was embroiled in final edits on my first book, “Cheese for Dummies.” It’s a 408-page, comprehensive primer on all things cheese, including an extensive geography section.

I was reviewing the “America’s” chapter, when I saw that my editor had taken the liberty of relocating Mexico from North America, and lumped it with Central America. Baffled, I spent the next hour researching, then polled my Gadling teammates; we are, after all, a well-traveled bunch. The consensus, of which I was already certain from years spent backpacking throughout Latin America: my editor was wrong, wrong, wrong.

It was at the urging of my Gadling colleagues, with whom I engaged in a lengthy discussion about the topic at hand, that I decided to write this article. They thought it raised some interesting arguments about geopolitics and cultural differences within a given region, and found it fascinating that cheese was the conduit. As Heather Poole put it, “Maybe you thought your book was about cheese, when really it’s about the people who eat cheese.”

Before my editor would concede, I had to present a compelling argument as to why there’s no way in hell Mexico is part of Central America. That’s like saying all Latin American countries are the same. Yes, there’s a common language in most instances, but the dialectical differences, indigenous languages and slang are vastly different.

Colonization may also play a commonality in most Latin countries, but the indigenous cultures and various immigrants differ, which can be seen in language, art, folklore and cuisine. There are also extreme variations in geography (known as terroir, in food or wine parlance) and climate, often within the same country.

Dairy wasn’t a part of traditional Mesoamerican culture. The Spanish conquistadors brought cows, sheep, and goats to the New World and introduced dairying and ranching to Mexico. Besides the Spanish influence, in more recent times, cheesemaking throughout Mexico, Central and South America is believed to have been inspired by immigrants from Italy, and Northern and Eastern Europe.cheeseWith regard to cheese, the majority of Latin America (which, for the purposes of this article, refers to Mexico, Central and South America) produces and eats cheese as a subsistence food in rural areas. Most families own a single cow, or sometimes goat, and rely upon the animal’s milk as an essential source of protein. Urbanites, regardless of social class, have access to the same crappy processed cheese we do here in the States; specialty cheese shops are a rarity in most of these countries, for various socioeconomic reasons.

Peru and Bolivia, which suffer from extreme poverty and are largely rural, primarily produce fresh, simple cheeses like queso fresco. These cheeses can be consumed quickly due to the lack of refrigeration, and provide an immediate source of nutrition and income. Venezuela and Brazil, with their largely tropical climates, also rely upon mostly fresh cheeses, some of them highly salted for preservation. Cheese production in Central America is also mostly about fresh cheese, the result of poverty and climate.

Argentina, a more industrialized nation, is one of the world’s leading producers of Parmesan, an aged cow’s milk cheese that approximates Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is due to Argentina’s large population of Italian immigrants. Aged cheese production is only feasible if there’s a facility to store it as it matures, and, usually, an additional source of immediate income – such as fresh cheese.

Ecuador (photo at right), which has a high proportion of Swiss immigrants, also produces a handful of aged, alpine-style cheeses, in addition to fresh cheeses (being on the equator, much of the country is tropical rainforest and not conducive to aging dairy products).
milking
Mexico is one of the few countries in the America’s that has a long, distinguished cheese history, and is one of the world’s largest consumers of cheese, despite a relative lack of diversity in styles and varieties. In recent decades, an artisan cheese movement has developed, and parts of Querétaro, Chiapas, Tabasco and Michoacán are major cheese-producing states. Oaxaca, Mexico’s culinary capital, is the producer of one of its most famous cheeses, Queso Oaxaca, a string cheese also known as quesillo. Cotija, from Central Mexico, is the country’s most renown cheese.

Any book on food, regardless of topic, is going to acknowledge differences due to the terroir and microclimates of a given region. Northern Italy, for example, produces rice and dairy in its lush pastures and fields, while drought- and poverty-stricken Southern Italy has a notable absence of cow’s milk, because sheep fare better on sparse vegetation. As in the North, pasta is also a staple, but it’s eggless.

Writing a book on cheese taught me far more than just how to argue with my editor about where Mexico is located. I learned more about world history, geography and politics in the year it took me to write my book than I did from 12 years of school and earning two degrees.

History has always been my poorest subject, and I’ve only ever been able to learn it by traveling. I was staggered by how much knowledge I’d gained just from writing about cheese.

I think two of the most visible examples of what cheese has taught me came shortly after I submitted my manuscript. I was watching “Jeopardy!” with a friend, and answered a question – that would previously have left me scratching my head – by screaming out (correctly), “What are Visigoths, Alex!” My friend stared at me, flabbergasted.

The other incident occurred during a discussion with some friends about why Spanish cheese doesn’t have a greater foothold in the U.S. (something that’s rapidly changing, by the way). I explained that it was the cumulative effect of the Spanish War, two World Wars, and Franco’s rule, which suppressed the country’s agricultural and commercial progress.

It’s not my intention to sound like an obnoxious smartypants. I’m just incredulous that something as simple (yet complex) as fermented milk made me a more educated, well-rounded person. I’ve always believed that travel is the best educator, but by writing a book on a seemingly limited topic, I’ve also learned that food is, indeed, more than just mere nourishment.

[Photo credits: cheese, Flickr user marimbalamesa; spray cheese, Flickr user xiaming; milking, Laurel Miller]

The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

bourbonThe holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]