A means of marketing mezcal, and accepted practice, has traditionally been to suggest pairing a quality añejo (aged at least a year) with fine chocolate which contains 70% or more cacao. But a recent maridaje
in downtown Oaxaca aimed to push the envelope to limits barely explored, or rather enjoyed. Management of the retail outlet and tasting room of Mezcal El Cortijo teamed up with the chocolatier owners of a local truffle manufacturer known as Xhuladii.
Only weeks after the state of Oaxaca hit a new low in its attempt to lure spirits aficionados to the world of mezcal’s complexity and plethora of flavor and aroma nuances, residents of and visitors to the state capital were treated to a sampling of four premium El Cortijo mezcals matched with an equal number of chocolate
truffles, each filled with a renowned local delicacy, and in one case a traditional Mexican aromatic herb.
The evening began with a reposado con gusano at 38% alcohol by volume, paired with a truffle filled with tiny chapulines (salted and spiced fried grasshoppers, a typical Oaxacan snack food and ingredient in more complex dishes). The hint of barrel essence and honey from aging, and of course the subtle flavor change created by the gusano (popularly referred to as a worm, but actually a larva) matched exquisitely with
the combination of savory crunchiness on the chocolate’s inside, with its smooth, sweet exterior.
Next our hosts upped the ante with a madrecuishe at 46%, minutes earlier our palates having been primed for a higher alcohol content. Madrecuishe is a variety of Agave karwinskii, noted for its complexity. This one was grown in the Miahuatlán district of Oaxaca, celebrated for its rolling hills and climate conducive to the growth of this agave species. While the chicatana filling of the truffle accompaniment was a tad too watery, the unique taste of this seasonal insect, overly liquefied or not, provided perhaps the most exotic
of tastes one can ever hope to encounter in Oaxaca. The casing was comprised of three different chocolates. The consensus of the 15 or so attendees was that this pairing was the weakest of the lot, though no one could deny the quality of the spirit and truffle individually.
The third mezcal entry was another from Miahuatlán, an herbal arroqueño of the Agave americana var. oaxacensis sub-species. At 49%, it was paired with a truffle laden with a local herb known as hierba de borracho, or poleo, normally lauded for its medicinal properties. The hint of fragrant floral of the mezcal worked extremely well with and more than adequately toned down the strong notes of the leafy poleo’s spearmint / citrus character.
Our final pairing featured a mezcal made from an agave popularly known as a pulquero, in this case a variety of Agave salmiana, one of several species used to produce the fermented beverage pulque. The 46.3% spirit was matched with a semi-sweet truffle filled with coffee brewed from locally grown
beans. The mezcal tasted stronger in alcohol content than its stated percentage, potentially coming close to
overshadowing any specific flavor (though touted to be perfumado). It required a robust accompaniment. And so both the truffle’s chocolate and its coffee filling served the spirit well by softening its strength and allowing its perfume to emerge.
Those of us with substantial collections of different mezcals should take the time and effort to seek out equally diverse types of chocolate, including of course a selection of truffles. Experiment alone, with a partner, or better yet within the context of a gathering of like-minded friends. This all makes for yet another means to an end – the appreciation of the world’s most complex and variable spirit, Mexico’s own mezcal.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal for two decades. He assists visitors to Oaxaca to source and sample mezcals from different part of the state, for their edification and personal pleasure and for business interests. Alvin operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera, and http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com.
In 2011, Oaxaca’s annual mezcal fair was a world-class event, well planned, well executed, and praised for its organization and the diversity of mezcal and agave related exhibits. Accordingly, the following year the suits decided to reconstitute the festival as an international event, upgrading it from its national status in previous years.
With the 2011 edition by all accounts the festival’s crowning glory, it appeared that the spirit-fest was heading in the right direction, perhaps indeed warranting a more haughty title. It is indeed ironic, then, and unfortunate, that in 2013, the 16th international Feria del Mezcal was marred with factional infighting, vendors who shouldn’t have been permitted to exhibit and sell in the first place, at least one federal agency snooping around for regulatory violators, and an inordinate number of booths flogging non-mezcal known as cremas.
The history of the annual fair and the hope for both its future and that of mezcal in general have been examined elsewhere, within the context of a summary article about the 2011 Oaxaca spirit
festival. At that time it was anticipated that improvements in subsequent fests would reflect not only
mezcal’s rising star, but a greater sophistication in the palate of its enthusiasts. So what happened?
The silver lining in 2013 was that indeed there was a somewhat greater representation from distillers with more than espadín, tobalá, reposado and añejo (that is, from some of the new kids on the block promoting
different mezcals); there were daily informative lectures; and due to the efforts of Matatlán resident Israel Pérez and his team there was a mockup of a functioning traditional distillery (though the organizers cut his budget by close to 50% which inevitably adversely impacted the spectacle).
Otherwise, Parque Llano where the fete was held appeared more like a travelling circus.
The mezcal regulatory body, COMERCAM, nabbed violators of one of its mandates, that ensures all mezcal offered for sale to the public is certified. Enforcing the law in a general sense is fine and dandy, except that there are only about 250 certified distilleries in Oaxaca, with it’s been estimated over a thousand producers.
Many small, family owned and operated and uncertified distilleries enable aficionados to sample spirits of superb flavor and aroma nuances not normally made readily available to the novice unless he or she ventures into Oaxaca’s central valleys or further beyond, off the beaten track.
COMERCAM appears to have been interested in warring with its bread and butter, the large factories, at least two of which were issued citations for either serving samples out of uncertified bottles, or outright selling those same bottled mezcals. Is the purpose of the mezcal fair to celebrate, promote and sell all mezcals, or only those certified ones, and if the latter, why even bother when so many exporters of premium product avoid the fair like the plague?
Or has the fair taken a significant leap, now purely intended as a money-maker and nothing more?
Certainly that did not appear to be the case two years ago when works of art centering upon the themes of agave and/or mezcal were displayed, and some of the participating artists gave workshops. The visual sense came alive for those who passed by the exhibition of photographs, oils, lithographs and watercolors. This year, by contrast, a select number of artisans of Oaxacan crafts were permitted to sell their works inside the fair’s gates, despite the fact that their wares had nothing to do with anything except making money and showcasing commercial grade Oaxacan folk art. Oaxaca has festivals for the latter purpose. Even so, just outside the inner walled sanctum there were well over 100 booths selling similar products. So why permit this few to cheapen the fair? Is it not the feria internacional del mezcal?
If it is indeed an international mezcal fair, why were there so few producers from other states represented, and why were there so many cremas (sweet liquors made with or without cream, milk or another whitening agent) being offered for sale, which are not even considered mezcals despite the fact that most of them probably contain a small amount of fermented then distilled agave? Regarding the former, economics likely played a significant role in the under-representation of extra-Oaxaca distilleries.
One friend asked if I had been to the feria de cremas yet. I waited until the second to last day to attend, and then better understood the sarcastic nature of his question. Upon arrival, a member of the feria
staff told me that 60% of those who entered the fair were female (men and women entered through different gates, thereby enabling organizers to keep tabs). It has always been assumed that women more so than men are drawn towards cremas, and so from a sales and marketing perspective it perhaps makes sense to have an over-representation of cremas available for sampling and sale. However cremas are not mezcals, plain and simple. Some don’t even use the word mezcal in their branding. If COMERCAM is policing a mezcal fair, should it not ensure that only mezcals are being promoted? Of course not, since that is not its mandate. The organizers perhaps?
While as indicated above, there were in fact more vendors than in previous years selling mezcals made with other varieties of agave than espadín and tobalá, and the reposados and añejos were represented adequately. On the other hand, some of the crema vendors were selling cremas and a reposado, and nothing more, not even a blanco. And at least one vendor excitedly awaiting certification of a mezcal made with agave tepeztate could only clandestinely offer samples to those he knew and trusted, for fear of pouncing narcs.
The behind-the-scene politics of the Feria del Mezcal in Oaxaca is beyond my knowledge, I need not be privy to same, and perhaps best if it remains that way. However, it is suggested that an independent overseer is required, someone who is capable of negotiating with producers, regulators and interested third parties, with a view to coming up with a solution to issues which appear to be festering and now maiming the fair’s reputation. The ultimate goal should be to attract mezcal aficionados, both domestic and international, who do not have the time to spend days, if not weeks, seeking out and sampling quality mezcals, certified or not. If cremas are deemed to have their legitimate place in an international mezcal fair, then perhaps charge an additional 10 pesos for admission to a special Salón de las Cremas.
Surely artisans wishing entry can be convinced to develop a line of products relating to the subject matter of the fair. Such a display would surely enhance the festival’s reputation. Cheese, salsa and other purveyors of
foodstuffs should be interested in attracting business by holding daily open seminars with sampling and combining each of their products with a different preferred mezcal.
Otherwise, subsequent festivals will continue to be mezcal fairs in name only, and the cirque du mezcal will live on and leave in its wake what could have become a world class celebration of mezcal and agave.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal for two decades. He operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast with his wife (http://www.casamachaya.com), Oaxaca Culinary Tours with Chef Pilar Cabrera (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com), and helps visitors to Oaxaca to learn about mezcal, pulque and other Oaxacan beverages and foodstuffs.