Although the town of Santiago Matatlán, about an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca, is better known for its mezcal (in fact it promotes itself as the World Capital of Mezcal) and for being one of the earliest colonial settlements in the state, it’s pulque which has a much longer history than the distilled spirit, in Oaxaca and indeed throughout Mexico. Best evidence suggests that imbibing the milky colored pulque for ritualistic social and religious ceremonies has been a tradition of the Zapotecs of Oaxaca and other indigenous groups dating to as early as the 3rd century AD.
Thirty-nine year old Juana Mateo lives with husband Andrés (46) and two of their three children, Beto (13) and Luz Clarita (6), in a spacious homestead on the outskirts of Matatlán. It’s accessed by a winding badly potholed dirt road which crosses a small creek. For the past eight months son Jorge (16) has been living with his girlfriend María de Jesús (17) at her parents’ home, at the other end of town, also well off from any paved roadways. Neither Jorge nor María de Jesús, and not even the barely teenaged Beto, attend school; not surprisingly Luz Clarita didn’t go to school this mid – January weekday, because of an apparent cough.
Jorge and María de Jesús can’t get married because the law states that men cannot marry until 18. There is no such rule regarding young girls. “We’re not ready to have children, and it costs a lot to make a big wedding, the tradition here,” Jorge explains. Juana pipes in, making sure the young couple are in earshot: “It’s better if they first mature a bit more, work, and accumulate money and use it to start a business and build their own home.”
María has a little dry goods store, while Jorge runs a tractor for his “father-in-law,” as he calls him (suegro). He also helps his parents with their business and works at a number of small mezcal operations when day-workers are needed in the production process.
The seven of us pile into the family pickup late in the afternoon, together with an American couple along for the experience (contact me for further information if interested in a similar experience while visiting Oaxaca). It’s about 5:45 p.m., when we arrive at the fields to harvest aguamiel. Juana’s brother, Isaac, is already there and has almost completely filled a five liter plastic container. Isaac lives in the center of town with his wife and their children, and Juana and Isaac’s ailing 79-year-old father, Aurelio Mateo Mendéz. Isaac had earlier ridden to the fields on his bicycle, wanting to ensure that all the honey water gets collected before dusk. We got a late start.
As we accompany the family into the fields to the pulqueros yet to be “tapped,” Juana recalls that she and Isaac learned all about agave and its derivatives from their father and grandfather, who learned from their abuelos y bisabuelos. But Isaac laments that it’s not like it used to be:
“I remember that years ago the pulqueros grew much bigger around and taller than they are now. We’ve been using the same fields for so long that the land just doesn’t have the nutrients in it like before. We fertilize at least once a year, using only abono de toro y chivo (composed feces from cows and goats). The problem is twofold: chemical fertilizer is very expensive, and besides we want a 100% natural fermented drink; and we don’t have enough abono to fertilize as often as we’d like to, as we should. This year we had a problem with ice during November and December; it affected those small espadín agave over there, but not the large pulqueros. Even though most of the espadín leaves are brown and dead, the plants will survive.”
On the land behind Juana’s house, back at the homestead, there are smaller plots with young agave, both espadín and pulquero. These plants must be watered regularly during the dry season. At between one and two years of growth, they’re transplanted, but only during the rainy season, into the regular fields out in the countryside. From then on they need not be watered – but they should be fertilized. While the espadín used in mezcal production (there are other “designer” varieties used to produce mezcal yielding different flavors) matures at 8 – 10 years of growth, the average time it takes until pulqueros can be harvested is 15 years.
Juana’s homestead includes smaller enclosures where the family raises chickens, ducks and goats, strictly for family consumption; they have a large field of mature nopal cactus as well, available for the family to pick paddle by paddle to make soups and salads, and other dishes which traditionally may call for nopal. These nopal appears very similar to the variety used for growing cochinilla – the tiny insect used to create natural dyes of red, pink, orange and purple – thick and fleshy, essentially without thorns (espinas).
We walk along mainly empty fields, already plowed and waiting to be planted with young agave once the rains begin. We pass by a roofed, three-sided hut made of dried river reed (carriso) and laminated metal, used to provide shade and shelter from inclement weather, and to keep a bit of clothing and tools of the trade. There’s a simple wooden bench inside, a few hooks for hanging things on the “walls,” and no more.
Continuing along, we reach three plants which Isaac has not yet harvested this afternoon. Juana is carrying a large clay pitcher. Little Luz Clarita is struggling with a big wicker basket containing a scraper (raspador)used for shaving out the plant’s well, a number of half gourds of different sizes (jícaras), and a plastic sieve.
Upon a pulquero reaching maturity, it is readied for the harvest; some of the bottom penques are removed to more easily facilitate access to the middle of the plant, its heart; and other leaves are bent over backwards with the needle-sharp point gingerly inserted into another penque to reduce the likelihood of the harvester or an assistant being stabbed. A simple prick which breaks the skin and draws even the smallest amount of blood, can result in swelling and pain which lasts two or three days.
Next, a well is dug into the heart of the plant, optimally before the stock (chiote) appears. Aguamiel is taken from the orifice before dusk, and again early morning. Aguamiel is very sweet as long as it’s extracted at a time of year when there is no rainwater which manages to seep into the well. Juana confirms that business dictates harvesting year round, but that it’s more difficult and time consuming during rainy season, and the aguamiel is inevitably of a lesser quality and requires more work in order to produce pulque of an acceptable standard.
Today’s aguamiel is the sweetest, clearest and most flavorful honey water I’ve ever tasted. It’s the middle of the dry season. Juana has brought along five-day fermented pulque is case we want to compare, or prepare a mixture of pulque and aguamiel for a moderately fermented beverage. I like my pulque strong; and with aguamiel as honey-rich as I’m sampling, I’m in heaven drinking each, separately, without “adulteration.” In due course a little pulque will be added to the aguamiel, a starter to the fermentation.
“The doctors confirm that pulque is very healthy for you, especially if consumed every day, first thing in the morning,” Isaac states convincingly. “It’s good for the blood,” he assures. In response to my query he continues: “Yes, better than mezcal, because it’s 100% natural, coming directly from the plant, not like mezcal where the agave is first baked, then mashed, then fermented, and finally further processed through distillation. Pulque is pure. You remove the honey water, and it ferments, plain and simple.”
At the conclusion of each harvest the well is scraped out a bit more using the concave metal raspador. With each scraping the well becomes deeper, able to produce more aguamiel. For the first couple of weeks of the harvest you can get only up to about a liter twice daily, and thereafter the plant yields up to five liters of aguamiel, in the morning, and then again late afternoon. Of course there comes a point in time when the yield begins to lessen, towards the end of the plant’s productive life.
After removing the aguamiel with a jícara, then straining it through the plastic sieve into another half gourd, it’s poured into the pitcher. We all smile as we taste the fruits of their labor, remarking about the quality of the harvest. Then, before moving on to the next plant, Andrés covers the well with a folded agave leaf on top of which he places a broken piece of concrete, to hopefully keep insects and rodents from gaining access to the honey water as it seeps into the well over the course of the subsequent 12 – 15 hours.
At the next plant, before scooping out the aguamiel Isaac has to remove pieces of old cotton shirts from the top of the well: “It doesn’t matter if you use penque with a rock, or whatever kind of material is available, as long as no little creatures can get into the well and drink or contaminate the aguamiel.”
The sun begins to set, with tones of red, pink and orange stratus cloud hovering over and between the distant mountain tops. We walk by pulqueros which have seen better days; that is, plants which have already been fully harvested. All of their penques have been cut off and lay strewn about nearby. “That’s it, there’s nothing else you can do with the plant, except chop it up and use it as mulch or compost, or let it dry and use it as firewood, the same as with the penques on the ground,” I state with confidence, subsequently recalling that the penques are often used in the highly ritualized process of making barbacoa, preparing sheep and goat in an in-ground oven.
“Well, you’re right about the use of the discarded penques, but not entirely when it comes to the piña [or pineapple, the base of the plant as it appears once all the penques have been removed],” informs Isaac. “As long as the piña is still green, you can use it to make mezcal.”
When pressed in the course of ensuring discussion, they all admit that using this already-spent part of the pulquero agave, while capable of producing mezcal the process requires much more effort and yields much less mezcal per kilo of plant. The resulting mezcal is of a lesser quality than if starting from scratch with mature and untouched agave espadín, unless you go through the effort of distilling a third and perhaps fourth time. It makes sense that there would be some nutrients remaining in the pulquero, after it’s no longer capable of yielding enough honey water to make it worthwhile to continue the harvest. Amongst families which struggle to eke out a working class existence, it’s often worth the effort.
As darkness approaches I help Isaac lift his bicycle into the back of the pickup so he doesn’t have to ride home at night. Luz Clarita cuddles up beside me in the back, along with Jorge, María de Jesus and Isaac. The rest are in the cab. I ask Isaac how many families in Matatlán are still producing pulque. He answers, “about five; it’s not like it used to be. With the land and fertilizer issues I’ve told you about, and a reduced interest in drinking pulque, who knows if anyone in town will be producing it in 50 years.” We drop off Isaac at his front gate where he’s met by one of his sons. Then we return to Juana and Andres’ home.
The following Sunday, I see Juana and Andrés at one small stand in the Tlacolula market, and Jorge and María de Jesus at another, in a different part of the market. Each is selling pulque, mezcal, and tepache, a much sweeter fermented drink made with pulque, pineapple and sugar cane derivative called panela, known as piloncillo in other parts of Mexico. All three are produced by Juana and Andrés and family, just like Juana’s grandparents and their grandparents have been doing for generations. In the case of pulque, for how much longer, one must lament, is hard to say.
Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of Oaxaca. He and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com). Alvin writes, consults to documentary production companies filming in Oaxaca, and assists tourists to the region wanting to visit the sights in Oaxaca’s central valley ( including embarking on more unusual adventures such as taking visitors on an aguamiel harvest). He also, together with Chef Pilar Cabrera, organizes culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).