|Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto - Home of Zignum Mezcal|
We landed in Oaxaca, battled traffic through the brightly hued streets, and finally made it to our hotel, Camino Real, a former convent of Santa Catalina, built in 1576. We were whisked off to the main dining event of the evening, which was held in what was the church adjacent to the convent. A feast was already in place - enormous clay vessels full of beautifully prepared rice, vegetables, tortillas, and 3 different kinds of molé. Be still, my heart. There was a yellow molé with beef, a red molé with pork, and the traditional black molé with chicken. (Apology for the lack of photo here - molé rarely photographs well). Not surprising to you, dear reader, a Mezcal Margarita swiftly arrived into my hand, and one of my favorites - spicy, sweet, and smoky!
On the stage were dancers in traditional dress whirling about, and a band played in one can only imagine used to be the altar. The dancers came out in many different styles of costume - each from the different regions of Oaxaca - covered in elaborate embroidery, intricate knits, colorful patterns, and shimmering ribbon.
After dinner we went over to a neighborhood watering hole - Los Amantes Mezcalería - where bartender/mezcal guru León poured tastes of his favorite Mezcals from massive, glowing glass vessels. A guitar player sang in the middle of the small tasting room (working for a tipple, I'm sure), and I let my eyes devour every inch of the walls as I sipped on my Lemon Tea infused Mezcal - smoky yet sweet with the essence of citrus. The walls of the tiny room are covered in Mezcal artifacts, traditional masks, paintings, and odd sculptures, the shelves painted a minty green reminiscent of Deyrolle in Paris. What a gem. Praise the gods who made Mezcal there is a tasting room by the same owners here in nyc!
|Los Amantes Mezcalería|
Then for a night time stroll around the zócalo, which was full of people out celebrating on a Friday evening. Street vendors were out tempting the air with the smells of delicious late night treats, and the young and restless were off to their next destination of the evening.
|Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán Surrounded by Agave|
|The Way to This Girl's Heart|
The morning I woke refreshed, and practically ran down for breakfast. I had heard rumblings the night before that the breakfast in the hotel was incredible - and let me tell you - it was. Sweet corn tamales, molé tamales with sweet prunes wrapped in banana leaves, fresh pastries, fruit, cooked up sausages, beef, and eggs with spinach, salty Oaxacan cheese, and a full selection of fresh juices from guava, to pineapple, to cilantro.
|Breakfast of Champions|
The site is impressive - a city of residential and civic structures built for games, ceremony, and science. The central "plaza" of Monte Albán is built like a stadium for large ceremonies, with areas for smaller ceremonies within the complex. There were places for worship, an observatory to keep track of the calendar by tracking the alignment of the sun, ball courts, and ceremonial tombs. The site is lush with grass, and overlooks the fertile valley surrounding it. There is a serene calm to the place, but one can still imagine it filled with people, watching elaborate performances, heated games, or just going about their daily lives.
But we came here for Mezcal, no? Yes!
A quick primer on Mezcal. Mezcal is distilled from the maguey plant, a type of Agave plant. There are over 200 different species of maguey all of which used to make the spirit. Mezcal's more famous relative, Tequila, is made from blue agave and must be made in the state of Jalisco and a few other limited regions, by tequila law. Oaxaca, is famous for Mezcal, tequila's strong, smoky, badass older brother, which for the most part is made today exactly the same was it was made 200 years ago.
Myth has it that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, which cooked the center, and released the agave juice. This "elixir of the gods" was reserved for priests and holy men. Then, the Spaniards arrived, bringing distillation technology with them. They were looking for something stronger than pulque (an indigenous alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant), and Mezcal was born.
First to the Traditional Palenque:
As we drove into Matatlan, Oaxaca, "Capital Mundial del Mezcal", the first thing I noticed were all of the Palenques with their massive stone wheels used to mash the agave plants that lined the road as we started getting closer to our destination. They were literally next door to one another - each shop making its own type - with tasting rooms and their specialty aguadiente (firewater) for sale! The excitement! If only there had been time to visit all of them!
|Mashing the Smoked Agave|
|Distilling, and More Palenques Across the Street|
|120 Proof Mezcal|
Traditional production methods inherently make Mezcal small batch, and thus, the quantity is highly limited. It continues to be a handcrafted spirit by nature, and the plants themselves take seven years to mature. In recent years, there has been a more international interest in mezcal, and appropriately so, production techniques are changing to keep up with the demand. Facing much controversy is Zignum, which uses modern industrial methods to make its mezcal, and instead of smoking the piñas, the mezcal is barrel aged at the end of the process. The result is a milder, smoother version of the husky traditionally prepared mezcal, and yet is quite tasty. I prefer the joven to the reposado - for I enjoy the clean spicy, almost sharp, smoky flavors.
|Barrels and Impressive Fermentation Equipment at Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto|
|Slightly Obsessed with this Awesome Label|
|Muddled Passion Fruit with 2 oz Zignum Reposado, Agave Nectar, Ice, Chapulin and Salt Rim|
Lunch was pretty amazing - a spread of local flavors, and most ubiquitous of all were the citrusy, crunchy, chapulines (grasshoppers) a local delicacy. Those little guys were in everything - the nuts, the tacos, the cocktail rims, the dessert! It was quite a feast, squash blossoms stuffed with corn and cheese, Tongue Memelitas, filet of fish with capers and tomato marmalade with rosemary and honey, shrimp, a beef filet with mojo de chapulín (garlic grasshopper sauce), and chocolate rolls stuffed with Oaxacan chocolate mousse and guanábana, topped, with grasshoppers.
|Totopos con Chapulines y Guacamole & Camarones con Yempura de Pitiona|
|Filete de Pescado al Limón con Alcaparras, y Mermelada de Tomate con Romero y Miel|
|Rollitos de Chocolate Rellenos de Mousse de Guanábana y Chocolate Oaxaqueño|
|12 Months of Aged Deliciousness|
|Corazón with Milagros|
|Hand Painted Animals|
|Colorful Tin Corazóns|
Time for Dinner you say?
Off to Pitiona, a wonderful restaurant run by chef José Manuel Baños in the Historical Center of Oaxaca City. We started off with a delightful sage cocktail with Zignum joven, and a plate of appetizers that featured Lengua, Totopos, a razor thin carrot taco stuffed with briney vegetables, a handsome filet of fish served with Chichilo-Mole, and Pork with Salsa de Chicatanas. For those of you who aren't privy, Chicatanas are flying ants that are harvested for 2 weeks a year, and because their harvest requires timing, patience, and skill, they are very expensive - 400 pesos per kilo. Although this dish was not my favorite dish of the evening, it was such an honor to taste this Oaxacan delicacy.
|Puerco con Salsa de Chicatanas|
|Café Central - Late Night Hot Spot|
Although we were off to the airport pretty early in the morning - I did get a taste of that legendary Oaxacan Hot Chocolate for breakfast - creamy, spicy, and nutty. If only I could start every morning with such a delicacy...
I can't wait to return to Oaxaca again - I would love to have spent more time in the city, getting to know the people, the back alleys, and tasting more mezcal. Mezcal the spirit, like Oaxaca, is a bit wild - born from different cultures, creative, colorful, spicy, and that smoke - oh that smoke - how you will crave it once you've tasted it.
Want More? Go!
Restaurante Pitiona Cocina de Autor
Allende 108, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico
01 (951) 51 40690 y 51 447
Mezcalería Los Amantes
Allende #107, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico
Miércoles a Sábado
Macedonio Alcala No. 403-4,
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico
Hidalgo 302, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico
Camino Real Oaxaca
Calle 5 de Mayo 300, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca 68000, Mexico