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]

Expanding the Memory of the World: great books and other records

books, Chinese, bookWhen we think of UNESCO lists, we tend to think of UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. UNESCO has another list, however, and it just got a lot longer.

The Memory of the World program lists books, inscriptions, libraries, and other documentary heritage to protect them from “collective amnesia” and the ravages of time. Last week the program held its annual meeting and voted to add 45 new entries into the list.

The new additions include the Compendium of Materia Medica, pictured here, which is a Chinese pharmaceutical text written by Li Shizhen (1518-1593 AD). Other additions include the Mainz Psalter (1457), the first printed color book in Europe to be entirely produced with mechanical methods; pictures, text, and records of the Indian indentured laborers in Fiji, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago; and the Epigraphic Archives of Wat Pho in Thailand.

The list now includes 238 items. The entire list is here and a detailed looks at the new additions is here.

[Photo courtesy Li Shizhen]

Divorced Dads: Five travel tools and ideas to make visitation more fun

Divorced dads visitation ideasWhether you travel for visitation or not, there are many travel resources you can use to make your experience with your children more enjoyable. Over the past year as a divorced dad, this is something I’ve learned, and the revelations, if obvious to some, have been powerful for me, especially in winter, when outdoor options simply aren’t available. You don’t have to sit in the house and try in vain to entertain your kids. Instead, think like a visitor, and see what your community (local or not) has to offer.

For me, this was eye-opening. I travel to see my son, and I wasn’t fully aware of what was available in his town. With some help, I thought like a traveler and found some interesting options. Here are my top five:

1. Contact the visitors bureau: these organizations don’t just exist in big cities and tourist destinations. Cities and towns of all sizes have them, and their mission is to help you find things to do when visiting. You’ll find attractions you didn’t know existed – and that the locals may not know about. Stop by their websites, and if you don’t see something that catches your eye, fire off an email or make a phone call.
2. Check out local staples: the local library never occurred to me, but it’s now on my list for the next time I visit my son. There are book readings and other planned activities for children. They’re usually free, and will also help your kids get into the habit of appreciating reading!

3. Plan a tour: take a handful of everyday stops in your child’s hometown and fashion them into a fun local tour! Bring excitement to the mundane by planning an underlying theme that connects the familiar in a new or interesting way. Then, you can have a blast navigating this experience, showing your child the local world from a new perspective.

4. Watch the seasons: there are hayrides in the fall and snowy hills for sledding in the winter. Parks are great in the summer, and nothing beats throwing a Frisbee around after you’ve munched on a picnic lunch. Keep an eye on seasonal alternatives where you live and plan accordingly. Have a good idea for summer when the snow is knee-deep? Write it down! That tip will be useful before you know it.

5. Think like a kid on vacation: you’re used to seeing the roads you use for your daily commute and the same boring restaurants whose menus you memorized a long time ago. Shake your head, clear your eyes and take a different look at everything around you. Think back 30 or 40 years. What would you have seen when you were a kid? I remember seeing a tangled comforter as a rough landscape for toy soldiers – even though I now see it as a chore to be finished. We see things differently as adults, and it helps to toss that perspective aside.

[photo by Mike_fleming via Flickr]

My Valentine: 500 year-old letter is first Valentine’s Day card

Valentine, valentinePeople often think Valentine’s Day is a modern invention, a diabolical conspiracy of florists and greeting card companies to suck money out of poor chumps who should be able to show their love without spending a dime. Actually, sending Valentines is older than modern commercialism.

The BBC reports that the first use of “Valentine” in the English language was in a letter dated 1477 from Margery Brews to her suitor John Paston.

Opening her letter to John with “Me ryght welebeloued Voluntyne”, the 17 year-old Margery shows some old-school teen angst by asking why he hasn’t written her recently. John, who was 33, had asked for her hand in marriage but didn’t get the dowry he wanted. The relationship between Margery’s father and John deteriorated and it looked like the marriage would never happen until the pair’s mothers intervened and saved the day. Love triumphed, something that didn’t happen as much as it should have in the 15th century.

To hear the whole letter read in Middle English, check out this link. It’s amazing just how much you can figure out.

The love note comes from a collection called the Paston letters. More than a thousand letters from this wealthy family dating from 1422 to 1509 survive and give an amazing insight into the life of the gentry in the decades before Henry VIII. They’re housed in the British Library in London. Watch the video below for a quick tour courtesy of Rick Steves.

[Painting of Saint Valentine by Jacopo Bassano, 1575, courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Mystery hitchhiker becomes poster child for National Library of Wales

Have you seen this man?

This is Islwyn Roberts, who was photographed in 1958 by Welsh newspaper Y Cymro as he set off to hitchhike around the world. It was a different world back then–flying was only for the rich, and many countries were sealed off behind the Iron Curtain. Mr. Roberts would have seen traditions and cultures that have all but died out today.

It must have been an amazing journey. The only problem is, nobody seems to know what happened to him. There are no other reports of his trip, so it isn’t known if he achieved his dream or gave up before he even got to France, which according to his sign was his first destination.

The National Library of Wales wants to know. It’s launching an exhibition on October 16 called Small World–Travel in Wales and Beyond and it’s made Roberts the poster child in the hope that someone remembers his tale. The exhibition, which is located at the library in Aberystwyth and will last until 2 April 2011, will look at the history of travel from a Welsh perspective. Some of the treasures on display include maps, diaries, and old railway posters, including rare 16th century maps by Welsh explorer Humphrey Lhuyd.

I hope they find out more about Roberts. Just looking at this photo I know I’d like him. He’s got a quirky, determined air about him as he sets off into the unknown, nattily dressed in a jacket and tie, with the practical addition of a pair of sturdy boots. One of the biggest mysteries of this photo is–did this guy have any luggage?

[Photo courtesy The National Library of Wales]