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Entries about customs

Mezcal, a fiery liquor

Cousin to Tequila

The silvery-blue agave fields in the Mexican state of Jalisco produce a drink that's as fiery and intense as the midday sun and volcanic rock there. Tequila is perhaps Mexico's best known drink... What I didn't know until a few days ago was that Tequila belongs to a much wider family, the Mezcal family. The raw material for all mezcales is the spiky agave or maguey plant, whose heart is cut out, steamed (Tequila) or baked in underground ovens heated by wood charcoal (mezcal), shredded and the juices left to ferment in vats or tanks for anything from a few months up to years.

Agave_fields.jpg
Blue agave fields (Photo: Mexico Desconocido)

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Bottle of tequila with the blue agave in the centre

Tequila is produced in Jalisco, in the area around its namesake town, using only blue agave and undergoes two distillation processes. You could say it is the more sophisticated, refined, well-known cousin of the rest of the Mezcal family, at least world-wide. Its lesser-known cousins, other mezcales, are produced all over Mexico, wherever the agave plant is found and have more smoky undertones. They can be made from a blend of one of the 100 or more types of cactus-like succulents and their claim to fame is the gusano or worm that is sometimes put in the bottom of the bottle, giving them a certain degree of notoriety. Actually, the worm isn't a worm, it's the larva of a moth that infests the plants and despite widely differing legends, is probably no more than a marketing gimmick.

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Bottles of Mezcales de Leyenda

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Label on Mezcal bottle

Although the Aztecs were already making a type of milky-white liquor from agave sap for sacred purposes 2000 years ago, it was the Spanish who brought their knowledge of distillation to Mexico and started producing mezcal. When their supplies of aguardiente dried up, they looked for a local substitute. Seeing that the Indians made a type of drink called pulque from agave plants, they cottoned on to the idea and the mezcal industry began to expand rapidly. So did public drunkenness after the Conquest.

I have to confess that I am not partial at all to Tequila or any other spirits for that matter. Give me a cool, lime-kissed Corona beer or a glass of full-bodied Spanish wine and I'm more than happy. Living on this side of the world, I have even begun to discover Argentinian and Mexican wines. But liquors continue to fall into the "medicinal" category for me, with their adverse effects clearly predominating over their so-called curative, digestive properties. So what was I doing the other evening at a Mezcal Tasting Event? Taking photos for the Charity Coalition which organised this fund-raising event. All the proceeds went to helping charities here.

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Charity Coalition's mezcal tasting event at the Marriott Hotel in Polanco

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Bottles of mezcal with "worm salt" (sal con gusano de maguey)

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Pouring out the mezcal

Luckily for me, the organisers decided that too many tipples with a high alcoholic content might not be the safest way to send guests home so they also invited four chefs to join us and provide some botanas, or appetizers. Each chef was given one of the varieties of Mezcales de Leyenda originating from Oaxaca or Guerrero or Guanajuato, and were challenged to do a spot of matchmaking, to find a suitable culinary partner to complement this strong liquor. Orange and lime slices and sal de gusano de maguey (worm salt) also accompanied the tasting. This was my first taste of this speciality, a powdery mixture of toasted larva, chillies and salt, all ground up together, which is either used to rim the small glass or ingested just before drinking the mezcal.

IMG_0064.jpg
Chef from the Marriott Hotel

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Canapés by the Marriott, with an accent on smoked salmon and cured meats

IMG_0121.jpg
The chefs at work preparing their appetizers

IMG_0079-1.jpg
Chef from the D.O. Restaurant

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A touch of quince rolled up in cheese

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Pato confitado... duck

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A sardine-based appetizer

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Orange and lime slices and sal de gusano de maguey

I took the photos and managed to try a mouthful of two of the mezcales, along with the rigorous use of sal de gusano and lime slices. The expert told us to fabricate some saliva and store it at the front of our mouths, take a sip of mezcal and "chew" the two together a bit before passing the mixture on to the tongue. This would stop the taste buds from recoiling in shock but I have to admit mine balked and were sent reeling by the ensuing tsunami of liquor and saliva. Never mind, the botanas were exquisite and I learnt a few things too!

Posted by margaretm 10:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico tequila customs mezcal Comments (2)

Mezcal, a fiery liquor

Cousin to Tequila

The silvery-blue agave fields in the Mexican state of Jalisco produce a drink that's as fiery and intense as the midday sun and volcanic rock there. Tequila is perhaps Mexico's best known drink... What I didn't know until a few days ago was that Tequila belongs to a much wider family, the Mezcal family. The raw material for all mezcales is the spiky agave or maguey plant, whose heart is cut out, steamed (Tequila) or baked in underground ovens heated by wood charcoal (mezcal), shredded and the juices left to ferment in vats or tanks for anything from a few months up to years.

Agave_fields.jpg
Blue agave fields (Photo: Mexico Desconocido)

IMG_8464.jpg
Bottle of tequila with the blue agave in the centre

Tequila is produced in Jalisco, in the area around its namesake town, using only blue agave and undergoes two distillation processes. You could say it is the more sophisticated, refined, well-known cousin of the rest of the Mezcal family, at least world-wide. Its lesser-known cousins, other mezcales, are produced all over Mexico, wherever the agave plant is found and have more smoky undertones. They can be made from a blend of one of the 100 or more types of cactus-like succulents and their claim to fame is the gusano or worm that is sometimes put in the bottom of the bottle, giving them a certain degree of notoriety. Actually, the worm isn't a worm, it's the larva of a moth that infests the plants and despite widely differing legends, is probably no more than a marketing gimmick.

IMG_0055.jpg
Bottles of Mezcales de Leyenda

IMG_0029.jpg
Label on Mezcal bottle

Although the Aztecs were already making a type of milky-white liquor from agave sap for sacred purposes 2000 years ago, it was the Spanish who brought their knowledge of distillation to Mexico and started producing mezcal. When their supplies of aguardiente dried up, they looked for a local substitute. Seeing that the Indians made a type of drink called pulque from agave plants, they cottoned on to the idea and the mezcal industry began to expand rapidly. So did public drunkenness after the Conquest.

I have to confess that I am not partial at all to Tequila or any other spirits for that matter. Give me a cool, lime-kissed Corona beer or a glass of full-bodied Spanish wine and I'm more than happy. Living on this side of the world, I have even begun to discover Argentinian and Mexican wines. But liquors continue to fall into the "medicinal" category for me, with their adverse effects clearly predominating over their so-called curative, digestive properties. So what was I doing the other evening at a Mezcal Tasting Event? Taking photos for the Charity Coalition which organised this fund-raising event. All the proceeds went to helping charities here.

IMG_0058.jpg
Charity Coalition's mezcal tasting event at the Marriott Hotel in Polanco

IMG_0023.jpg
Bottles of mezcal with "worm salt" (sal con gusano de maguey)

1IMG_0103.jpg
Pouring out the mezcal

Luckily for me, the organisers decided that too many tipples with a high alcoholic content might not be the safest way to send guests home so they also invited four chefs to join us and provide some botanas, or appetizers. Each chef was given one of the varieties of Mezcales de Leyenda originating from Oaxaca or Guerrero or Guanajuato, and were challenged to do a spot of matchmaking, to find a suitable culinary partner to complement this strong liquor. Orange and lime slices and sal de gusano de maguey (worm salt) also accompanied the tasting. This was my first taste of this speciality, a powdery mixture of toasted larva, chillies and salt, all ground up together, which is either used to rim the small glass or ingested just before drinking the mezcal.

IMG_0064.jpg
Chef from the Marriott Hotel

6IMG_0051.jpg
Canapés by the Marriott, with an accent on smoked salmon and cured meats

IMG_0121.jpg
The chefs at work preparing their appetizers

IMG_0079-1.jpg
Chef from the D.O. Restaurant

8IMG_0086.jpg
A touch of quince rolled up in cheese

7IMG_0135-1.jpg
Pato confitado... duck

IMG_0090_-.._Mezcal.jpg
A sardine-based appetizer

IMG_0040.jpg
Orange and lime slices and sal de gusano de maguey

I took the photos and managed to try a mouthful of two of the mezcales, along with the rigorous use of sal de gusano and lime slices. The expert told us to fabricate some saliva and store it at the front of our mouths, take a sip of mezcal and "chew" the two together a bit before passing the mixture on to the tongue. This would stop the taste buds from recoiling in shock but I have to admit mine balked and were sent reeling by the ensuing tsunami of liquor and saliva. Never mind, the botanas were exquisite and I learnt a few things too!

Posted by margaretm 10:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico tequila customs mezcal Comments (0)

Flying men

Los Voladores de Papantla

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Voladores about to perform their ritual

If you drive or walk along Paseo de la Reforma, with the Museo Nacional de Antropologia on your left, look up and you'll see a tall thin blue pole poking above the trees in Chapultepec Park. Depending on what time of day you're passing by, you may see some men sitting atop the small platform, dressed in brightly coloured costumes. These are not modern-day bungee jumpers. They are the Voladores de Papantla, ready to perform their spectacular flying dance.

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Volador on pole with the Torre Mayor in the background

What are they doing at the top of the 30m (100ft) pole with no safety net below? If you arrive at the beginning of their ceremony, you will witness an ancient ritual. Dressed in bright red and white costumes, with a crested head-dress and coloured streamers, the men first of all do a small dance at the bottom of the pole to prepare the ground. Then one by one, five men, four fliers (voladores) and a musician, climb to the top of the pole. At the top, on a small revolving platform, the voladores tie their ankles to ropes wound around the pole and then at the appropriate time, they plunge off and fall down head first, "flying" gracefully in circles. With their arms open wide, they glide down to the ground and finally return to the standing position. The fifth man remains at the top playing a hand-made wooden pipe and drum. The pipe represents a bird singing and the drum represents the voice of the gods.

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Preparing for the flight

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Climbing up the pole

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The four fliers jumping off

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Flying

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Swinging round in circles

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Amost reaching the ground

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Returning to the standing position

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At the end

The Voladores are Totonac Indians and the origin of this ritual dates back to pre-Hispanic times. According to legend, the gods said to man, "Dance, we will watch". So the Indians perform this spectacular dance to please the gods. The dance has a specific meaning. Each volador circles the pole 13 times before reaching the ground, multiplied by four, making a total of 52. This symbolises the 52-year cycles of the ancient calendar. The pole represents the vertical connection between the Earth, the heavens above, and the underworld below. The dance also symbolises the four cardinal points - the four corners of the platform, the four voladores and the musician turning to the east, south, west and north as he plays.

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Flying upside down

Although originally a spiritual ritual performed on special dates, the Dance is now performed in places all over Mexico for tourists too. In Mexico City, they regularly plunge off their pole which is hidden among the trees in front of the Anthropology Museum. Many people combine a visit to this excellent museum before or after watching these brave fliers.

It makes an interesting contrast to watch Totonac Indians repeating an ancient pre-Hispanic ritual, centuries old, with a backdrop of skyscrapers and even airplanes and the roar of the traffic just metres away. And yet somehow while watching them gracefully fly down, you forget totally about city life for a few moments.

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In flight

Posted by margaretm 05:27 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city indians customs ceremonies voladores Comments (0)

Why does it take so long to fill up with petrol?

Lessons in the art of patience

When you move to another country with a new culture, it's surprising how ordinary everyday activities suddenly require you to put aside your preconceived ideas (the expectation that they will be the same as back home) and get used to doing things a different way. Like filling your car with petrol in Mexico City. This ordinary task, relatively simple and quick back home, becomes a major day-trip and a lesson in the art of acquiring patience.

The first thing you notice here in DF is just how few petrol stations there are and just how many vehicles are clogging the streets. The second thing you observe, with that sinking feeling in your stomach, is how long the queues at the paterol pumps are. Now this is not entirely the consequence of the very disappointing "Petrol stations-to-vehicles" ratio. There's another reason too. Let me explain how it works.

Phase 1: Queuing. You need petrol so you find one of the scarce petrol stations and join the queue you think is the shortest, which inevitably turns out to be the wrong choice. The next step is to arm yourself with loads of patience and, if possible, a magazine or two to read while waiting for your turn. Tip: Make sure you never go with small children or dogs in the car. You constantly scrutinize the cars in front of you to see what on earth is happening and why your line isn't advancing at all.

Phase 2: Filling up. When your turn finally comes around, you drive up to the pump, wind down the window and without getting out of your carro, open the petrol cap from inside and ask for Premium, lleno (a full tank of Premium). Now at this point, if your Spanish isn't too good, you may be completely lost when the man mumbles something. You politely ask him to repeat it. He mumbles again. Actually, he's asking you to checar los ceros (check the 000s) on the pump. He's being honest. Because some corrupt characters have been tampering with the pumps and give you less than you asked for. Wow! You sigh with relief. Carlos, the pump attendant, sticks the nozzle into the tank and leaves it to fill up.

Phase 3: Checking levels. He then proceeds to check the air in the tyres and lifts up the bonnet to checar los niveles. He takes the dipstick out of the oil tank, cleans it meticulously with a cloth, dips it in again, and comes round with it to the open window to show you the scandously low level. You nod your head in resignation, "OK, top it up then". I've never quite understood why but it seems my car needs oil almost every time I fill up with petrol. Off he saunters to get a can of oil, takes off the cap, shows you that the seal is untouched and then proceeds to fill the thirsty tank up. Next he repeats this process with the battery. Los niveles son muy bajos.." "The level is very low..." but this time I wave him away. I'll do it next time.

Finally he comes out with a real winner. Necesita anti-congelante "What? Anti-freeze? Are you kidding? In this heat?" He seems to get my point and goes on to clean the front windscreen. Then it's time to remove the nozzle, replace it in the pump, and screw on the petrol cap. He peers triumphantly through the window, offering a mental calculation of how much it's all going to cost you.

Phase 4: Paying. "Ticket o factura?. Basically, he wants to know whether you need a receipt or not. Bear in mind you will have to produce all the details, and hand him your card or cash. This procedure will undoubtedly take another 10 minutes as he goes off to swipe your credit card and hand-write your receipt. If you pay in cash, it's highly unlikely that he has the correct change on him so you watch him chase around the forecourt, in search of someone who can help him out. You are embarrassed as the car is still parked idly at the pump and the steadily growing queue of cars behind is also blocking the road so no-one can move anywhere. Patience wears thin, horns begin to scream, and you're rolling your eyes. Finally, you cannot believe your good luck as he re-appears, hands you the receipt and card, or your change, and hovers by the car for a moment.

Phase 5: Tipping. Yes, you've got it - he's expecting a nice tip for all his hard work!

Final tip: Fill up early on Sunday morning!

Posted by margaretm 16:16 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city petrol customs patience Comments (0)

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