Thursday, June 23, 2011

In the Valleys

The labels dot the map, strewn across otherwise blank white patches, a clutter of Saints' names and Zapotec words marking the existence of the small villages tucked into the Oaxacan hillsides. Sometimes, a faint trace winds off the thick yellow line of the highway and leads to the pueblo, other times there is nothing. Defiant thick green spines of agave spring from the russet loam of the sierra; this is the land of maguey. And of mezcal.

The palenques, as household distilleries are known locally, hide behind cinderblock homes and split-wood fences. Their presence is announced only by the sharp sweet smell of fermenting maguey mingling with the pungent smoke curling from smoldering fires. The work of the palenqueros is solitary and difficult, cultivating patches of agaves, cutting and hauling mature plants to roast in open earthen pits, grinding, fermenting and distilling the cooked piñas. Their mezcal is intimately tied to the place, its flavors shaped by the soil and water and hands of the palenquero.

In the campo it is not, in many regards, a refined drink. Stored in large plastic containers in side rooms, and dispensed via rubber tube into empty soda bottles or five liter jugs, there are no pretensions. Even the rituals of mezcal suffer alteration. The traditional bamboo tube or carrizo used to test for quality can be replaced by a copper pipe, the dried half-gourd jícara replaced by a cheap bowl. Yet there is a distinct pride here, in the knowledge that eso es lo bueno, that this is indeed "the good mezcal."

Back in Oaxaca City, this liquor is packaged in elegant glass bottles, meticulously labeled by region, producer, and type of maguey. Mezcal has been commercialized, artisanalized, and by recognizing the quality of what is, fundamentally, a product of the pueblo this process ineluctably changes it, complicates it, defines it.

Don Leonardo Sanchez, Yegachin, Miahuatlan district

Don Jose Garcia, Yogana, Ejutla district

Don Nabor Hernandez Reyes, San Baltazar Guelavila, Matatlan district

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