Today's group excursion was a trip to Ocotlán, a village about an hour south of Oaxaca. The main point of interest was a mezcal distillery, but first we started off with breakfast in the market.
Although there were food stands with seating, this vendor drew me in with all the neatly portioned bags - reminded me a lot of how food is sold in Africa. Ended up getting some spaghetti and potato croquettes.
Walking around yielded many sensory delights - all the more delightful because of how (relatively) clean it was. The majority of insects I saw were bees buzzing around the bread. And oh the bounty of bread.
After breakfast we picked up Graciela, whose family owns the Real Minero mezcal distillery. She took us to the fields to explain all about the different varieties of agave (maguey) and its growing cycle. Although mezcal and tequila are both derived from the agave plant, the varieties are different. Tequila, being more regulated, is produced only from blue agave, and the plants are harvested after a set number of years. Mezcal on the other hand, can be produced from many varieties, although 90% of it is done with the espadín variety shown below, which incidentally looks like blue agave. The plants are harvested right as they're becoming sexually mature (starting to send a stem up from the middle). As Graciela explained, the plants mature at different rates, just like human beings ;)
Then we drove to the actual distillery, where Graciela explained the process after harvesting (which is after the 10+ years the plant has been growing). At harvest the round center of the root (called piña) is dug up and set aside. Then once a week there's a roasting in this giant pit. In the pit are large stones and earth and fire, and all the piñas are piled on and covered with a tarp (so they can roast by steam). They're roasted for three days straight and then left to cool for two days.
Then they're transferred and left to sit and develop mold. Then the piñas are ridden of the moldy parts and hacked into pieces. The pieces are fed into this chipper machine, which spits it out as pulp. (In the old days people would have to mash it by hand).
The pulp, or tepache, is transferred into a fermenting vat. Water is put into the vats for the mixture to ferment. We got to sense the fermentation by sound (bubbling), smell (rotten apples) and touch (radiating heat). The workers taste it also.
After fermentation comes distillation. Over a wood fire sits a large clay pot, full of pulp. Above that is another clay jar, which is bottomless. In that jar is inserted a wooden collecting spoon, which is connected to a bamboo tube that leads out of the jar. On top of that sits a copper bowl, to which cold water is constantly running. This is known as the Fillipino distillation method, due to the use of clay pots. (Apparently there's also the Arab method, with all copper equipment, and another method using a hollow tree trunk.)
So what happens is that as the pulp it heated, it releases alcoholic steam, which rises and hits the cold copper bowl. The steam condenses and drips down to the spoon, then out the tube and into the collecting jug.
The first distillation is undrinkable due to the high concentration of methanol (poisonous). That liquid has to be distilled again so ethanol is left. Mezcal from this region is always distilled twice (in other regions possibly more times). We got to taste liquid from the second distillation - both the strong stuff that comes out first (punta), then the blended final product (punta + cola, mellower).
After the tour, we were treated to a multi-course lunch involving the best, most softest tortillas I have ever eaten. At this size, they're known as tlayudas (tortillas being smaller). I tried my hand at making one but the large size meant that I failed to put it on the comal completely flat. Of course, the ladies at the comal not only have no trouble laying the tlayudas completely flat, they can also make the tlayudas without the help of the tortilla press. Baller.
After lunch was the mezcal tasting! First one was a blend from three different agaves. Second was from the single espadín agave. The third was the special mezcal pechuga - so named because it's distilled a third time with a chicken breast! (But along with heirloom apples, pineapples, plantain, apricot, raisin, almond, rice, cinnamon and orange peel.) All of them were quite strong and I could only manage a sip.
For more pictures of the day, see here.
A couple of us have fallen ill with stomach issues unrelated to mezcal, so I found myself playing nurse this evening. Jennie and I took a trip to the pharmacy to buy Mexican pedialyte (suero) for our sick roommates and while walking past Sainto Domingo church we were jolted by sudden fireworks exploding into the sky. And then there was a pyre set ablaze in the church square, which read FELICIDADES DALY. At first we thought it was a wedding but from the looks of it, a quinceañera. Crazy! They even had a stretch hummer! Must be balling.
The trip started out rather begrudgingly, but with the fireworks my attitude did a complete 180. I'm ecstatic that life and travel can still manage to be so unexpected.