It would have been impossible to fit even one more bottle of mezcal in my suitcase. Each was strategically wrapped in dirty clothes and newspapers and plastic bags and carefully arranged to maximize luggage space. If only I had remembered to pack packing materials and an extra duffel bag. Hindsight can be such a bitch. But all in all, seven bottles of mezcal safely made it back across the border. Seven bottles that will be enjoyed neat and gone entirely too soon.
The crazy part was procuring each of those bottles. A Teachers’ Protest made it difficult to get out of downtown Oaxaca. Several roads, including the one to the airport, were blockaded and inaccessible. Traffic was backed up. The previous day’s rain made several roads questionable at best. It was a mess. But, after an hour of patience and in-vehicle mezcal samples from our guide for the day, we were on our way to the Oaxaca countryside to visit several small mezcal palenques. There were no tour buses. No tasting rooms. Only small family owned and operated distilleries with bottles to share, sample, and sell.
Most palenques were homemade setups. Several had chickens and turkeys romaing freely. A couple spoke native Zapotec rather than Spanish. One bred roosters for cock fights. But all were welcoming and happy to share mezcal. In the photo above, the mezcalero had just finished unburying roasted agave piñas from an underground pit where they had been cooking for three days. Right after this photo, he cut off a piece from a roasted piña for us to sample. It was fibrous and sweet and very similar to raw sugarcane.
The piñas were then transferred to be crushed and mashed by a large stone wheel that’s turned using a horse. From there, they’re shoveled into large open vats and left to naturally ferment.
Most mezcal is distilled two or three times. Above, the mezcalero collected the ‘head’ during the second distillation which is the high alcohol, intensely flavored portion that comes out first. I was handed a gourd to sample some straight from the spigot. WOW! I must have had a look of surprise because he laughed at me and asked if it was too strong. I shook my head and took another sip. The mezcal was still warm from the still and left a lingering, but pleasant, burn.
From there, we met the mezcalero’s wife at her home to sample several of their mezcals which were stored in large gasoline containers. After deciding on one to bring home, she packaged the mezcal in a one liter water bottle and we were on our way to the next palenque with a quick stopover at a local spot for mole negro and colorado.
It was genuinely a magical experience, one that I could talk about for days. Mezcal is just so damn good! And the families and passion behind it made the trip all that much more memorable.
But I suppose this is a cooking blog and I would be doing Oaxaca an injustice if I didn’t mention about how amazing the food was at every meal. It didn’t matter if we were at a small restaurant without electricity outside of the city or at a high-end restaurant serving elevated classics in the downtown area. I did not have a single bad meal in Oaxaca. Even the crickets were delicious. But the most memorable eats were from the markets. The 20 de Noviembre market was a maze of stalls made up of vibrant colors, lively people, fresh produce, every type of meat imaginable, teetering stacks of chiles, and baskets filled beyond the brim with mole.
The mole alone deserves its own post, but I somehow came back without a single mole photo. D’oh! I blame excitement, or hunger, or maybe a bit of both. Oaxaca is is known as the land of seven moles and, at last count, I tried four in Oaxaca and another six or seven in Mexico City and Puebla. Each was extraordinarily flavorful and unique. The two that stood out the most were Pipian Verde, a vibrant green mole made with pumpkin seeds and fresh chiles, and Mole Poblano, a rich and complex mole made with dried chiles and chocolate. So of course those were the two I had to try my hand at soon after returning home.
Pipian Verde is incredibly easy to make and pairs exceptionally well with chicken and salmon; my own recipe for it can be found here. Mole Poblano, on the other hand, is made from more than 30 ingredients and requires almost an entire day to prepare. Yikes. So when I started to write a recipe for mole poblano, I brainstormed ways to abbreviate the list of ingredients without compromising the complexity. The result? A mole poblano style chili with butternut squash.
Mole Poblano and Chili are a match made in heaven. Dried chiles, earthy spices, and roasted tomatoes add depth, while fresh chiles, cider vinegar, and butternut squash create balance. But the secret ingredient? Smoked Porter. There are no open flames or comals in my kitchen, which means finding other ways to incorporate the dry roasted and smokey flavors they would provide. A dark, smoked beer is the perfect solution as the malts used in the grain bill emulate those flavors.
*All three are dried varieties; if one is not available, substitute with one each of the other two.
Mexico Photos by Andrew Johnson.
Tags: adobo • black beans • butternut squash • chili • chipotle • cooking with beer • craft beer • mezcal • mole chili • mole poblano • oaxaca • puebla • recipe • roasted chiles • smoked porter • stew