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Short Essays on Rural Mezcal Production – Part II – Recicado From the Mixteca Alta
It won’t win any contests for being a quality spirit. And in fact the residents of the area don’t even call it mezcal, but instead “recicado,” a Mixteco name, they say. But after a five-hour drive from the city of Oaxaca, deep in the Mixteca Alta one comes across an agave distillery that gives the prize for giving the true lover the most authentic view possible, on the methods and materials of production that the Spanish might have. at the beginning of the Conchais: clay pots; tubing carriso (river reed); mud and stone still; pulverizing using a tree trunk and a wooden bath; fermentation in animal skin; and of course traditional baking in an indoor oven.
Pueblo Viejo is a small town an hour away from San Juan Mixtepec, on a dirt road with bad mud. The quiet valley that leads to the settlement is called Rio Azucena, and for good reason… the Sánchez Cisneros family lives next to a river, a prerequisite for recicado in this part of the state.
Hilda Sánchez Cisneros, who is nineteen, lives with her sister, Natividad Sánchez, 47, and four of Natividad’s six children. The other two live and work in the countryside in North Carolina. Fernando, Natividad’s husband, is gone today, doing tequio (community service). The 10-year-old son Esteban, and daughter Dália, 16, are completely trilingual, because they and their mother spent several years living in the US, so they had the opportunity to go to an American public school. But here they are, taking out the smallest of things, producing recicado to sell on Fridays in the weekly market of San Juan Mixtepec.
The family also survives by growing squash, corn and beans. It is clear that meat and poultry are not staples in their diet, which is not unusual for families in the most rural communities in the state.
The stream is an occasional provider, giving the family small fish at certain times of the year. And then there’s rabbit, squirrel, possum, and fox. “I know the villagers don’t eat small animals like squirrel and possum,” Natividad explains, “but we make it up here, when we get it, and it’s pretty good.” Esteban proudly says that you can sometimes come across a coyote and a wolf, but more often than not it’s higher up in the mountains.
Hilda and Natividad learned brewing from their parents and grandparents. But in the early years, the plants used in production were wild types of agave that had to be collected by climbing the mountains. Then a couple of years ago Fernando went to Matatlán, the recognized capital of the mezcal world, and brought back several baby agave espadín plants. Espadín remains the only variety of maguey that has been successfully cultivated throughout the state. So now the family is able to grow their own agave in this fertile but sparsely populated valley, part of which is their home. But it seems that the level of knowledge that family members have about the scientific process and practice is lacking, or rather basic.
The appearance of the chiote (stalk) is the first sign that the maguey is fully ripe. Allowing the stalk to burn up and produce baby plants should be the key to reproducing agave espadín. But Fernando and his family harvest before the chite emerges from the heart of the plant. This hinders their ability to increase the number of cultivated areas (the plant produces “hijos” or children through the root system, but it is a method this is secondary for reproduction and not trusted by commercial enterprises). It is equally important to harvest the plant too soon, by not waiting for the chite, cutting it, and then allowing the natural sugars to accumulate in the base or “pina” of the plant, adversely affecting the quality of the finished product.
But just as traditional mezcal production dictates, the piñas are baked in a pit perhaps eight feet deep and six feet across, atop firewood and river rock. Instead of using a synthetic material to cover the “oven”, a layer of ground palm leaf is used. But the similarity between the production of normal mezcal, and recicado, stops here.
Instead of crushing the baked agave using a mule or pony pulling a limestone wheel over it, in a circular motion, the cooked plant is plucked by human power, using a tree burl or a long wooden mallet scraped by hand to pound the baked agave to a pulp. in a five foot long wooden container shaped like a canoe. Four posts — thick, upright tree branches — support a large “bag” made of bull hide, about four feet off the ground. Covered with plastic, the mash is left out in the sun to ferment, for four to five days.
Brewing takes place in a sheltered area with a laminated metal roof, located 20 yards from the home. The family uses four igloo-shaped stalls, connected in a straight line. Made of stone and mud, each one is almost identical to the next. Starting from the bottom, there is a tubular stone in the opening where fuel is placed that supports a clay cylinder in which the juices and fiber are placed. Vapor rises from it into a bottomless earthen pot. The pot is covered with a bowl, or whatever else is available for use.
Water from a tree trunk cut in half and stretched runs over the stills, and fills each of the four bowls through hollow pieces of agave leaf leading from four holes in the canal above. As the smoke rises and reaches the bowl, now cooled by the water, condensation occurs. Liquid drips onto another piece of agave leaf, this one attached to the inside of the center of the clay pot, and bent down into a small hole in the side of the vessel. The liquid will exit the container through the hole. A weak length of river reed, inserted tightly into the hole and pointing down ensures that the recicado flows slowly out of the pot and into ship
The primitive process mirrors many of the steps and adheres to some of the principles required to produce mezcal in the more artisanal way. But there is a lack of key elements, undoubtedly reflected in the quality of the spirit:
1) as mentioned, the piña is not harvested at the best time;
2) fermentation is complete after only a third of the time usually required to ferment espadín enough for mezcal production in the central valleys of Oaxaca, although exposure to the sun always helps, as the sheltered environment is semi-tropical on the lowlands;
3) Recicado is drawn only once.
The result is a relatively watery drink with a low alcohol content, almost bitter to the taste. But the local population buys it and drinks it, and pays about double the price it costs to get a traditional 40 – 46 percent alcohol depending on the size of mezcal in the towns and villages around a city- great Oaxaca. To be sure, I tried the statement made by a competitor up the road, and found that it was only slightly more unpleasant.
When I return to Pueblo Viejo, I plan to bring two or three liters of my favorite town mezcals for the Sánchez Cisneros family to sample. The hope is that Fernando, Natividad and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with production, and perhaps begin to draw a spirit more suited to the palate… and with a little kick anyway. Then who knows, the family might even start marketing it as mezcal, leaving recicado to die a slow death, and maybe even welcome death.
But care should be taken not to disturb the basic methods and materials currently used in production. They are very attractive to those willing to make the trip to Pueblo Viejo. But more importantly, the distilling principles that have been adhered to for the memory of time, to give evidence to the proposition that the manufacture of spirits, beyond just the fermentation of the agave juice, was developed in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca before the date. Conquest, and independent of the science and technology of the Western World.
Alvin Starkman MA, LL.B
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