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Short Essays on Rural Mezcal Production – Part II – Recicado From the Mixteca Alta
It won’t win any races for being a quality spirit. And in fact the people of the region don’t even call it mezcal, but rather “recicado,” a Mixteco name, they say. But after a five-hour drive from the city of Oaxaca, deep in the Mixteca Alta, one encounters the agave distillery, which takes the prize for giving the true aficionado as true a glimpse as possible into the tools and materials of manufacture likely to be encountered by the Spanish. at the beginning of the Conquest: earthenware; tuba carriso (river cane); mud and stone still; pulverization using a tree stone and a wooden trough; fermentation in the skin of an animal; and of course the traditional baking in an oven in the ground.
Pueblo Viejo is a small village an hour’s drive from San Juan Mixtepec, along a dirt road with bad potholes. The quiet valley that leads to the settlement is known as Rio Azucena and for good reason … the Sánchez Cisneros family lives by a river, a prerequisite for recado production in this part of the state.
Nineteen-year-old Hilda Sánchez Cisneros lives with her sister, Natividad Sánchez, 47, and four of Natividad’s six children. The other two live and work in rural North Carolina. Fernando, Natividad’s husband, is away today, doing tequio (community service). Their 10-year-old son Esteban and 16-year-old daughter Dália are fully trilingual because they and their mother spent several years living in the US, and accordingly they had an opportunity to attend American public school. But here they are, eking out the humblest existence, producing recicados for sale on Fridays at San Juan Mixtepec’s weekly market.
The family also lives by growing pumpkins, corn and beans. It is clear that meat and poultry are not staples in their diet, not unusual for families in the state’s more rural communities.
The stream is an occasional feeder, supplying the family with small fish at certain times of the year. And then there are rabbits, squirrels, possums and foxes. “I know city people won’t eat small animals like squirrels and possums,” Natividad explains, “but we eat up here when we can get it, and it’s actually pretty good.” Esteban proudly adds that you can occasionally encounter coyotes and wolves, but more often higher up in the mountains.
Hilda and Natividad learned to distill from their parents and grandparents. However, during the early years, the plants used in production were wild varieties of agaves that had to be collected by climbing the hillsides. Then, a couple of years ago, Fernando went to Matatlan, the renowned mezcal capital of the world, and brought back a small number of agave espadin plants. Espadín continues to be the only type of maguey that is successfully cultivated throughout the state. So now the family is able to grow their agaves in this fertile but sparsely populated valley, part of which forms the land. But the level of knowledge of the family members regarding the scientific process and function seems to be lacking, or rather basic.
The appearance of the chiote (stem) is the first sign that the maguey is fully ripe. Allowing the stem to shoot up and produce baby plants should be the main means of agave espadina reproduction. But Fernando and the family harvest before the coyote climbs out of the heart of the plant. This hinders their ability to increase the number of fields under cultivation (the plant produces “hijos” or children through the root system, but this is a secondary means of reproduction and is not supported in commercial enterprises). Equally important is that harvesting the plant prematurely, by not cutting the kiota, cutting it off and then allowing the natural sugars a chance to accumulate at the base or “piña” of the plant, negatively affects the quality of the product. completed.
But as traditional mezcal production dictates, the piñas are roasted in a pit perhaps eight feet deep and six feet wide, atop firewood and river rock. Instead of using synthetic material to cover the “oven”, a layer of palm leaves covered with soil is used. However, the similarity between ordinary mezcal and recicado production stops there.
Instead of crushing the ripe agave using a mule or pony pulling a limestone wheel over it, around a circular enclosure, the cooked plant is pulverized by human power, using a wooden stone or hand-hewn wooden hammer to beat the ripe agave into a pulp. in a five-foot canoe-shaped wooden vessel. Four poles—thick, straight tree branches—support a large “bag” made of bull hide, about four feet from the ground. Covered in plastic, the mash is left out in the sun to ferment for four to five days.
Distillation takes place in an area protected by laminated metal roofs, located 20 meters from the house. The family uses four igloo-shaped pictures, lined up in a straight line. Created from stone and clay, each is virtually identical to the other. Starting from the bottom, the hole where the firewood is placed contains a tubular stone which holds a cylinder of clay in which the fermented juices and fibers are placed. Steam rises from it in a bottomless earthen vessel. The pot is covered with a bowl, or whatever is available for use.
Water from a halved and hollowed-out tree trunk is poured over the stalls and fills each of the four bowls through concave pieces of agave leaves leading from the four outlet holes to the channel above. As the steam rises and reaches the bowl, already cooled by the water, condensation occurs. The juice drips onto another piece of agave leaf, this one attached to the inside of the middle of the clay pot and bent into a small hole in the side of the pot. The liquid comes out of the container through the hole. A hollowed-out length of river reed, inserted firmly into the hole and pointing downwards ensures that the recicado slowly flows out of the pot and into an urn.
The primitive process reflects many of the steps and adheres to some principles required to produce mezcal in the most artisanal technique. But the main elements are missing, no doubt reflected in the quality of the soul:
1) as mentioned, the piña is not harvested at the optimal time;
2) fermentation is complete after only a third of the time usually required to adequately ferment espadín for mezcal production in the central valleys of Oaxaca, although exposure to the sun on a continuous basis helps, as does the sheltered semi-tropical environment of the lowland;
3) Recicado is distilled only once.
The result is an aqueous drink with a relatively low alcohol content, almost sour in taste. However, the local population buys it and drinks it, and pays about double the price it costs to buy traditional 40 – 46 percent alcohol by volume mezcal in the towns and villages around Oaxaca City. To be sure, I tried the recicado made by a competitor down the road, and found it to be slightly less uncomfortable.
On my return visit to Pueblo Viejo, I intend to bring back two or three liters of the village’s favorite mezcal for the Sánchez Cisneros family. The hope is that Fernando, Natividad and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with production, and likely begin distilling a more palatable spirit … and at least one shot. Then who knows, the family might even start marketing it as mezcal, letting recicado die a slow and perhaps even welcome death.
However, care must be taken not to spoil the basic tools and materials currently used in production. They hold a strong attraction for the enthusiast who wants to make the trip to Pueblo Viejo. But more importantly, the principles of distillation respected must remain for ancient times, to prove the proposition that the production of alcoholic beverages, beyond the simple fermentation of agave juices, was developed in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca before the Conquest, and independent of the science and technology of the Western World.
Alvin Starkman MA, LL.B
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