Friday, July 27, 2007

Waiter, There´s a Chicken in My Cocktail

On our return from the ruins at Mitla, we stopped at one of the many mezcal operations lining the road. Mezcal is similar to tequila but made from a different variety of agave or maguey plant. The agave looks like it could be a member of the cactus family, with long, spiky leaves of pale blue-green. But it is not.

The agave can live many years. At its core, when the leaves are stripped away, is a pina, or sweet fruit, so-called because it looks a bit like a pineapple. The agave flowers only once, then dies. For the purposes of mezcal, it is harvested at about seven years of age. The pinas are roasted in a pit until they are soft and sweet, then pressed in a large stone mill to remove the juice.

Typically, the juice is fermented in wooden barrels for several days. The fermented liquid is then distilled at least twice before being bottled or set aside in barrels to age. The simplest form of mezcal is the ¨blanco¨or clear liquor, aged not at all or up to two months. A middle grade, ¨reposada,¨ is aged six months to one year. The most expensive mezcal, as with tequila, is the ¨anejo,¨ or old, aged at least a year and often several years until it takes on some of the characteristics of brandy.

We stopped at what looked like a large mezcal factory and did not notice until we had already pulled into the parking lot that two large tourist buses had preceded us. The tourists were jammed against the tasting bar and purchasing bottles of cheap mezcal like crazy. We managed to get a good look at the pina crushing in progress. Also the fires were lit under the small stills and barrels of fermenting liquor were stacked against a wall.

For some reason, mezcal maintains an association with bawdy ceramics. Thus, we were confronted by displays of penises, breasts and vaginas in various ceramic guises. We left quickly.

Farther down the road, we stopped at a smaller mezcal stand that our friends Tom and Ninfa had visited before. Here we were able to taste the various mezcals at our leisure and chat with the owners. My wife prefers the light or ¨blanco¨ variety, as is her taste with tequila. My own preference, and Ninfa´s as well it turned out, is for something more rustic, rougher. The reposada, a light golden in color and more complex in flavor, was my choice. We purchased a bottle labeled ¨pechuga

The word ¨pechuga¨ normally refers to chicken breasts. But we didn´t pay any attention until we were back in Oxaca visiting the anthropological museum. There we wandered into a room demonstrating the mezcal process and one of the placards happened to mention that mezcal sometimes is made with chicken breast and is called ¨pechuga


After conducting further research, I can now confirm that my bottle of ¨pechuga¨ mezcal is, in fact, made with chicken breast. Somehow the breast is hung in the vapors during the third distallation, supposedly to balance the flavors of apples, plums and pineapples that are also added to this particular style of mezcal.

Tom and I have a good laugh over this, imagining the conversation that preceded the addition of chicken to the mezcal.

¨Honey, I love your mezcal. But it seems to be missing something, a je ne sais quoi. What do you suppose it might be?¨

¨Hmm. You know, I think you´re right. There does seem to be a certain flavor component missing. What if I added a little chicken to the hooch?¨

¨Ah, yes. At first I was thinking, maybe, roast beef. But you´re right. A little chicken is just the ticket for this mezcal

Last night we opened our bottle of ¨pechuga¨ for the first time. Needless to say, I was curious to detect the flavor of chicken in my cocktail. I can report that this is not KFC...

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