SAN MIGUEL'S FIRST MAGUEY FESTIVAL
January 28, 2011
One of the many things San Miguel de Allende is known for is its many cultural festivals. I don’t know the exact number but residents here say there are about two official celebrations every month.
Taking place this past weekend in El Jardin Botanico (The Botanical Gardens, located a 50 pesos taxi ride from the centre of town,) San Miguel launched the Festival del Maguey (ma-GAY) in honour of the mighty Maguey cactus (also known as Agave).
The "kiss technique" of tasting.
In an article for Atencion – San Miguel’s weekly events newspaper - writer Marlene Parra quotes from a documented history by Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta: The Tree of wonder is el Maguey…the plant gives water and wine, oil and vinegar, and honey, clothes, thread and needle, and one hundred more things.”
Among the number of products that come from the wondrous cactus is “aguamiel” a juice that comes from the cactus leaves and dates back to the Aztecs. We learn that the nectar is harvested two or three times daily and one maguey can give a surprising five to 15 liters of juice daily for four months.
I tried the aguamiel harvested by the Rodriguez family of Guadalupe de Tambula Ranch. I was expecting something bitter but the opaque liquid – the colour and consistence of coconut milk - has a pleasantly sweet taste. And, chilled, it’s quite refreshing. Mexicans also drink the aguamiel for its nutritional and medicinal properties – it’s said to be useful in treating conditions such as arthritis, asthmas insomnia and osteoporosis.
Visitors who attend and buy these products are helping support local Mexican farmers.
Another product of the maguey cactus is the alcoholic beverage known as Mezcal. One of the festival’s exhibitors, the affable Segio Inurigarro, president of the association to preserve the culture, is a true “mezcalier.”
He tells me there are 200 varieties of the maguey plant with 150 indigenous to Mexico, 10 of which are used to make mescal and from those 10 just one is used to make tequila. “All tequilas are mescals,” he says, “but not all mescals are tequilas.”
He explains that the product differs from other alcoholic beverages by the way its natural sugar chain is broken down by the body. The sugar content in most alcoholic beverages is broken down by the liver but the breakdown of mescal begins as soon as it makes contact with saliva. The benefit, he says, is that it doesn’t stay in the system, so it won’t keep you awake all night and you won’t have a hangover in the morning.
I don’t normally drink mescal but since it’s part of the culture here, I figured a little tasting wouldn’t hurt. “Like drinking wine the five senses have to participate.” he says . It is always taken as an aperitif or digestive and best served in a flute or grappa glass to “open the nose.” Today, we’re tasting a couple of young (also called silver or white) mezcal as opposed to aged mascal which – again like wine – changes its colour, fragrance and taste with age.
Tasting with the Kiss Technique
Prior to tasting he says it is very important to clink glasses and wish each other “salud.” “’To your health,’" he says, “is one of the greatest wishes you can bestow on someone.”
And, the proper way to taste? Inurigarro says it was the Babylonians who invented the “kiss” technique." One puckers the lips, collects saliva at the front of the mouth, takes a sip, mixes the mezcal with saliva, swishes it around the mouth, lets it fall to the floor of the mouth and swallows. This, he says, is the best way to taste mescal for two reasons:
1. Gastronomic – to appreciate the taste and control the “fire” that will deaden the taste buds, and
2. Scientific – the enzyme of the saliva breaks down the poly molecular chain of sugar so it doesn’t stay in the system.
“It’s also a natural Viagra,” he says. Spoken like a true “mezcalier.”
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