"I am Mat and I love Agave. I'm in Mexico studying the complex Agave plant, which is the essential ingredient to Tequila & Mezcal. I'm bouncing around from distilleries to plantations, from the beautiful country-side to the roaring cities. I'm meeting remarkable people, traveling to incredible places and I'm drinking a ton of Tequila & Mezcal....life is good! I post a weekly blog here. Enjoy!"
The Lost Souls of Oaxaca –
Mexico City has been incredible. Being able to live in that amazing city for the past month, interacting and learning the culture with all of the beautiful people that make the city so special was unforgettable. I made some great connections with very talented bartenders who are working diligently to elevate the cocktail scene in el Distrito Federal.
Although they have a little ways to go, their dedication to the craft is inspiring. From the beautiful Craft Bar Limantour (http://limantour.tv/?643a6d68) headed by Ricardo Nava, to the incredible Restaurant Bar Romita (http://romitacomedor.com/) and their insanely talented barman David Mora (the Bar-ate Kid), to La Excentrica (http://www.laexcentrica.com/) with its simple and delicious cocktails created by Rodrigo Martinez Trejo….these are truly talented professionals, and it was an honor to be in their company.
I also experienced some extremely memorable moments with Eduardo and Julio, the boys at Siete Misterios, and I owe so much to mi hermano, Joseph Mortera who, along with his lady Lina, was kind enough to put me up for the past month. That being said, it was time to hit the trail and head to new adventures in Oaxaca!
Oaxaca: located in Southwestern Mexico, the name of this unique city stems from the Nahuatl word Huāxyacac. The word originates from the ancient dialect of the Aztec people and is pronounced (now keep in mind that I’m no linguist here) “wa she akak” which refers to the Guaje tree found around the capital city. Oaxaca is known for approximately sixteen different cultures and indigenous peoples, the most well known being the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. I’m just thrilled with this news considering that from this point on, depending upon which area I’m in, I can look forward to folks speaking any variant form of Spanish. Super! And just when I thought I was comfortable ordering food…
Of particular interest to me is that Oaxaca is notorious for its mezcal production due to the quality of agave that grows in this region of Mexico, and is home to the largest number of distilleries per capita. Some producers grow their agave on their estates, Espadín being the most common, as it attributes 85-90% of commercially available mezcal. Other agave is grown in the wild, or Silvestre. A prime example is the Tobalá agave, which many consider the “King of Mezcales.” It is diminutive in size compared to other agaves and, unfortunately, there is a lack of availability due to not being estate grown. It’s an absolutely beautiful pale green color with reddish brown spikes and has a unique floral essence which seemingly exudes a subtle perfume when sipped.
Being well versed in bus travel after several weeks, I hopped on the local autobus and was safely transported from Mexico City to Oaxaca, arriving on Sunday, June 2nd.
After getting my bearings straight, I headed to the apartment I’d be calling home for the next month. Not having much to unpack, I quickly settled in, and then headed out for the start of yet another adventure, beginning with a rather humorous blind-leading-the blind cab ride that yes, I’ll admit, ultimately involved my Mom speaking with the driver. I will say no more so don’t ask.
The goal of my outing that evening was to meet up with Jonathan Barbieri, a true historian, an expert on the culture and production of mezcal, the people of Mexico, and a killer artist. He is also the man behind a most wonderful artisanal Mezcal, “Pierde Almas”, in English, Lost Souls.
I’d arranged to meet Jonathan at the restaurant Pitiona (http://www.pitiona.com/english/) where we were joined by Katie, Shakenah, Dennis and Egor, 4 bartenders from Florida. Chef Jose Manuel Baños was kind enough to show us around his beautiful restaurant before we sat down for a truly sensational meal. Belly’s full, we retired for the night, agreeing to meet early the next day for what would turn out to be an experience of a lifetime in Chichicapa…a two hour drive south and separated from the valley of Oaxaca by mountains; elevation roughly 7,000 feet. Florida and New York will become very familiar with this terrain over the next two days.
After checking into our hotel we headed over to Palenque De Ñiza Tay, where Mezcal Pierde Almas (http://www.mezcalpierdealmas.com/) is produced. After meeting Maestro Mezcalero Alfonso Sánchez and his crew, we enjoyed a tour of the complex…a most grand facility surrounded by a truly stunning view of the beautiful mountain ranges and the more primitive, but equally marvelous buildings in the village.
After spending a relatively quiet evening at the Palenque, enjoying a nice home-cooked meal and sampling some fresh mezcal (including one so unique that I’m not at liberty to divulge more details just yet. Suffice to say, it is simply amazing!), we headed back to the hotel. Rest was on our minds, as our plans for the following morning involved heading into the mountains to assist with the “Pierde Almas Programa Anual de Reforestación de Agaves Silvestres 2013”. In other words, we’re heading to the mountains to plant Tobalá agave!
Sustainability is crucial for the survival of this industry and the livelihood of the people that make this bewitching elixir. The tequila industry learned this the hard way years ago and mezcal producers, for the most part, have learned from those mistakes. Unfortunately, too few producers are taking on this challenge and without further conservation efforts we may run into a shortage in a few years. You can imagine how special it was for me to be a part of this critical effort, fully aware that what I was about to engage in will have a direct impact on the culture that I love so much in years to come.
After having stopped at a local market for some simple provisions, we arrived at the mountain where we began the traverse by foot to our location; up and down hills and winding paths that were at times so narrow that we had a mere 10” spacing between the hill wall and cliff sides. At one point we had to “create” a bridge to cross a stream using rocks. I’ve never considered myself much of a hiker (although there was that time where I climbed the glaciers in New Zealand), but given the opportunity, I’d do this daily. It was magnificent.
Arriving at our destination we saw that the home crew from the Palenque was already there, machetes in hand, cutting the bottoms of the agave to expose fresh roots. With my newfound appreciation for large knives I boldly asked if I could give it a whirl, and, machete in MY skilled hands…I kill it! Oh, but not in the good “he’s killing it” sort of way. No, I literally kill it. Apparently, you’re not supposed to cut off all of the roots, dummy. One more shot (and patience from these lovely people) and I’m good to go.
And now the real work began. Loading all of the agave in baskets to take with us up the mountainside, and arming ourselves with shovels, pickaxes, machetes, giant baskets and provisions, we headed up to begin the actual planting.
It’s here that I uncharacteristically speak from the heart when I say that this was a most spiritual undertaking, where I witnessed first-hand a diverse band of dedicated men and women, young and old, persons of varying socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and traditions, all engaged in a journey to preserve that which they are passionate about. This was some extremely labor intensive work that I’m talking about. And yet not one single person bitched or complained or wanted to go down to rest. Driven. We were all driven in our common goal. Without exception, everyone was smiling and laughing, joking, reaching out to help one another. While one person would dig a hole, another would plant… switching turns the whole way. We ALL took turns hauling up those giant baskets and after all 1,000 (yes, one thousand) Tobalá were planted we gathered around, shared some well deserved mezcal and I had some time to reflect on just how amazing this experience was. What beautiful people, beautiful surroundings and beautiful culture existed in these mountains. I breathed in the magic and didn’t want it to end.
You can check out some more photos of the experience on facebook, MAD PROPS to Daniel Robles for these amazing shots: https://www.facebook.com/mezcalpierdealmas/media_set?set=a.502502586482239.1073741824.100001675068771&type=1
Once we made our way down the mountain it was time to head back to the Palenque to prepare the food we had gathered at the market earlier that day. Ribs, Carnitas, Tortillas, fresh Salsas, Chorizo, it was a feast, unlike any I’d ever experienced. 20 or more of us gathered around the tables and shared stories, jokes, talked mezcal and bonded over the days’ duties. This was the Family of Mezcal, and we were proud to belong. As the sun was setting, we were treated to another pleasure as the band, Reyna of San Lazaro, came to play for us almost as a reward for a day well spent. There was dancing, clapping, calling out requests for songs. Maestro Mezcalero Alfonso’s young daughter Luz even got in on the action and made friends with the gals from Florida. It was touching to watch as they took turns swinging her up and down and dancing with her into the late hours of the night….and I’m fairly certain they would have packed her up to take with them if they could.
In Oaxaca there is a saying “Para todo mal, mezcal; Para todo bien, también!” or: “For everything bad, mezcal; For all good, too!”
Pierde Almas has a saying as well: “Otra vez esta maldita felicidad” or: “Again, this damned happiness”…this damned happiness indeed.