Mezcal and Fair Trade
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.