Monday, September 10, 2012

Por Todo Mal Mezcal

It has been a while, and I will not try to fill in the gap, except to say that life has been busy with three new grandkids (two in California and one in Chicago), involvement in local things like the neighborhood group and the indigenous ladies in Huimilpan, my art, and lots of friends, fiestas and cultural activities.

This past weekend C and I visited San Luis Potosi (SLP) for the first time since 2006 when we decided we would not like to live there as it was too run down, with nothing much to see, and security seemed to be an issue. While I still do not think we would want to live there, we may have been a little to hasty about the general conditions and the lack to interesting things to see and do there.

A month ago a friend, James, from Atlanta who started the Dekalb County Historic Preservation Commission in the 1990s came for a visit, and together with his wife Carol I went to the Mexico ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites of UNESCO) conference in Toluca.  James was also attending the international meeting of ICOMOS’ legal commitee. 

At the conference, a friend from San Luis Potosi, Miguel, who is an expert on the manufacturing of mezcal, announced that he was heading up a month long celebration and educational program on mezcal. Mezcal is a distilled alcohol from one of the many agave varieties (known locally as maguey) of which there are about 150 in Mexico. Tequila is the best known variety of mezcal based on better public relations, more modern distillation methods, and the predominant use of the blue agave, giving it a distinctive flavor.  Most people associate the name mezcal with the agave alcohol from Oaxaca which has a strong smoky flavor, although the largest manufacturers of mezcal are probably in the SLP, Guerrero, Puebla, Hidalgo areas.

The basic method of mezcal manufacture consists of collecting the piña (“pineapples”) of the maguey plant (sometimes called century plant in the US southwest), by cutting off the large pointed leaves revealing the core of the plant which contains the agua de miel (“honey water”).  Traditionally, these piñas are then roasted and crushed under stone rollers to extract the juice. The juice is then allowed to ferment for several days, and once it has fermented it is filtered (more or less) and distilled in a traditional alambique  (alembic or large copper kettle with a constricted top and a tube leading off of it to extract the alcohol).  More modern methods have been introduced since the early 20th century, including better filters, modern crushing or pulverizing machines, and modern distillers, although these have been used more for the tequila variety, and mezcal has tended to be more traditional.

Miguel’s program consists of a series of Friday evening academic colloquia on the history, culture and manufacture of mezcal and a Saturday tour (7AM-9PM) of the mezcal regions of SLP, including visits to agave fields, as well as to traditional and modern manufacturing plants.

This weekend we joined the tour.  The Friday evening colloquium was on distillation patents in the late 19th-early 20th century, historic distillation methods from Europe and Asia that were brought together in colonial Mexico, and other topics, plus talks by two manufacturers of mezcal illustrating the differences between traditional and more modern methods of mezcal manufacture. The following day we visited the plants of these two speakers.

One of the more curious aspects of the tour was that we were accompanied all day by a four piece band playing ranchero music.  Wherever we went they followed in a pickup and began playing, whether it was in the middle of a maguey field, in a plant, at a hacienda. It was a little surreal, like the Mexican movie Herod’s Law and other recent Mexican movies.  There was always this ranchero background music to everything. Of course there was always a lot of mezcal being passed around to fill up the little Mexican clay cups we all had hanging around our necks. After a while, it became a little hard to tell the real from the surreal.

Ranchero band in the maguey field

Ranchero band at Laguna Seca Plant, note the little mezcal cups around their necks.

Ranchero band at Zaragoza de Solis Plant

The first plant we visited is owned and operated by the Zaragoza de Solis ejido (communally owned indigenous town) a 2.5 hour bus trip from SLP. The mezcal made here and at the second plant, nearby Laguna Seca, are from a local variety of maguey that grows wild rather than in neat rows like one sees around Querétaro, Jalisco and Puebla, and even in Oaxaca.  One therefore finds a mix of immature and mature plants in the landscape which makes collecting it a very labor intensive job.

Immature maguey with evidence of red worm infestation

Maguey field and me with my little mezcal cup

The wild maguey is also infested with little red worms which zero in on the honey-water in the piña.  These worms have become a delicacy worth thousands of pesos a pound in Mexico City restaurants. So the locals are trying to make money off both the worms, which destroy the maguey, and the mezcal which requires healthy maguey.  This conflict of interests prevents either product from really being harvested efficiently. And the whole system relies on very, very cheap labor.  One gets the impression that they should devote some fields to worm production and others to mezcal kept free of worms and more amenable to row crops. And it is clear that once workers begin being paid better the price of the worms and the mezcal will sky-rocket, or they will go out of business.

 Red worms infesting the piña of a maguey


Worms collected from a couple of maguey plants

She actually ate it raw, but normally you fry them first.

Curiously, the indigenous operation at Zaragoza de Solis is the most modern mezcal operation, perhaps in Mexico.  Rather than roasting the pineapples and crushing under stone rollers to extract the juice, they have a modern, stainless steel grinding/threshing machine that directly extracts the juice with no roasting. This means they can process several hundred kilos in a few minutes rather than wasting days roasting and crushing the piñas. The juice is pumped directly to a modern filter system that removes most of the impurities.  From there it is fermented, filtered again to get 99% of the impurities, and then run through two distillers. Finally, the finished mezcal is stored in a 4,000 liter stainless steel tank awaiting bottling. The plant produces about 500 liters a day of high quality mezcal with a rounder flavor than tequila, but not as strong a flavor as Oaxaca or traditional mezcal. The ejido has not been slow to market their product either. They have been marketing to the US and Europe, and a German group just offered to buy 500 liters a month at whatever cost the ejido decides is fair, which is considerably more than in Mexico.  The price of 3/4 liter at the plant was $100MN or about $7.50 US.  At the end of the plant tour, we were treated to a snack of guacamole and fried worm tacos, which C and I did not take advantage of, and of course, the mezcal was flowing into our little ceramic cups all backed up by increasingly loud ranchero music.  (They were provided with mezcal too.)

Modern distillery at Zaragoza de Solis

The village of Zaragoza de Solis

The second plant was 15 minutes up the road at Laguna Seca.  This is a large mezcal plant, much larger than the little mom and pop outfits in Oaxaca that you may be familiar with.  And it has been in operation in the same buildings for 400 years!  Inside the buildings one can see the progression of technology over the centuries, as they have simply added new equipment next to the old which is then abandoned but not demolished.  This is common in a lot of places and industries in Mexico, where one can often see the progress in technology in a single plant or building.  However, the basic method used has not changed too much since the 17th century.  They still roast the piñas although in large industrial sized furnaces, they still use stone rollers to crush the roasted piñas although they now import the stones from Chile and use a John Deere tractor instead of mules to pull the rollers, they still use a press like a cider press to filter the juice, large open vats to ferment the juice, and an alembic with a combination of copper and stainless steel to distill it.  This plant also uses the wild maguey variety of the region which gives the mezcal from this area a characteristic and pleasant flavor.  While the mezcal from Zaragoza de Solis is purer and made with more modern and efficient techniques, I preferred the taste of the Laguna Seca product, which is more flavorful than Zaragoza, but not heavy and smoky like Oaxaca.  Laguna Seca is one of the major mezcals in Mexico and for export.  A full liter cost only $85MN or about $6.50 US.

Alembic of copper with steel top at Laguna Seca, not much changed in 400  years

A more "modern" condenser at Laguna Seca

Stone roller and basin powered by a tractor

Older crusher/filter at Laguna Seca

After the plant tour we had a late, by US standards, lunch in the 400 year old plant with plenty more mezcal and even louder ranchero music to which half the folks and even I, on one song, sang along. As the sun began going down we boarded the bus and headed back to SLP, exhausted and just a little borracho.  It was an excellent day and very Mexican, because as usual we were the only gringos.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

France 2009

The following is the introduction to the photos I have posted to Flickr on our trip to France in June. For the pictures and comments on our trip click here

We made the grand tour to France in June to visit the family starting in Chatou (Yves and Mado), next to Paris (Erwan), then to Nantes (Marie-Francoise and Jean-Charles, and Yves and Marie-Bernadette, and Daniel and Chantal), then Aix-en-Provence (Michel and Simone), then Nice (Jacques and Michelle) and back up to Valence (Bernard and Evelyne) and Chatou with a side trip to Gif-sur-Yvette to visit old friends (Jeanne-Marie, Jeanne-Marie, and Daniel), and finally to Fountainebleau (Eric and Sophie) before taking the plane again at Orly. Christiane has a big family.

These photos pretty much follow that itinerary.

The first week in Chatou we had sun for two days, the second week in Nantes we had two days of sun, and finally we had sun for two weeks in Provence, although there was a mistral held in our honor. Queretaro weather looked better and better.

I was able to walk out of the house in Chatou (when it wasn't raining) and in 10 minutes paint where Renoir and his Impressionist friends used to hangout. In Nantes, the Erdre is a block away, and I could paint river scenes within five minutes of the house, and in Ventabren, next to Aix, and in Nice, I could just paint from the bedroom window and catch the same light with the same greens that Cezanne did. Very nice.

Back in Queretaro, C has now implemented my new diet of no more French bread and Breton butter; aperitif time is now over, along with pate de foie gras time. Back to enchiladas and Marques del Valle, which I must say I did miss, but . . .

We had a great time and a lot of laughs and visits to places only locals know. An exceptional vacation and an exceptional family.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Odds and Ends

Yesterday, they shot some scenes for a telenovela (soap opera) in Plaza de Armas. Click here for some shots and description. Later they moved to the andador (pedestrian street) on 16 de septiembre, our old street; and shot some more. They may be here still. Kind of weird having someone film places you walk to every day.

We had been told there was a birthday party for Julien in our old apartment complex the other day, but it had been cancelled (we forgot to check our e-mail before going) so we visited Luc and Sylvia instead. They had recently returned from a trip to Guatemala where they hiked around Lake Peten and visited some really interesting towns and archaeological sites in the jungle and along the lake. Luc showed me an archaeological site that had been worked on by National Geographic last year. They left the site a mess, with units and tunnels into temples still open.

Pot hunters know where to find the good stuff, but leaving everything open and making it so easy for them is totally unprofessional. No wonder it is hard for US archaeologists to get permits in Mexico. I cannot blame the Mexicans or anyone else who wants to prevent such damaging behavior. Check here for some photos.

The rainy season has really gotten started. Mexico City and Guadalajara have had floods, and we have had a few days of rain. This means the ants are starting to come out. So I have had to spray the wood beams in the living room ceiling with an insecticide. We may have to get an exterminator to seal off the ceilings and gas them, which seems to be the only really effective way to get rid of ants, but it costs a fortune.

I visited Bob and Maria's patios yesterday, just before the rain started. They really have some nice plants, and they are all so healthy. It's almost as if they have not had the same broiling sun we get in our patios, though things should improve now that the rainy season has begun. We put in an Italian cypress (the tall thin ones) in the main patio, replacing the gardenia which is about dead. I hope the cypress grows above the roof, a vertical statement in an otherwise horizontal patio. The dark green against the ochre yellow walls really looks pretty cool.

May is visa renewal month for us so we went to immigration at the beginning of the month, and we are still dealing with the fallout a month and a half later. You may think you have run into bureaucracy, but they have taken it to a new level in Mexico. Here is a synopsis:

May 2, 2008
Took all necessary papers (originals and copies), passports, visas, bank balance, and a letter in Spanish soliciting visa renewal to Gobernación (the Department where Migración is located). Arrived in late morning, took a number, waited about an hour and a half to see someone. Other people kept jumping ahead of the line.

Were given forms and told to pay the fee and return after May 5 (Cinco de Mayo). That afternoon I went to our bank and paid the fees.

Gobernación would not accept our bank statements even though we have a joint account, because C’s name was not on the statements. So I finally got a letter from the bank saying that it is the bank’s policy to put only one name on account statements and checks. I was lucky that I have a premium account so I could speak to my “own” representative. As it was, it took nearly an hour.

May 6, 2008
Took all the papers, plus the receipts of payment to Gobernación at 8:30AM, half an hour before it opened. Waited about an hour. We turned in the letter from the bank on our joint account.

Were told that the fee receipts were wrong, and they could not be changed in Gobernación’s computers. The mistake was that the bank form required a Razon Social, and the Gobernación form showed Razon Social as “retiree”. The bank then made out a receipt for “Thomas Riley Wheaton, retiree”. Gobernacion would not accept the retiree part. So we had to pay again, hoping we would get reimbursed for the first mistaken payment later. BTW, they do not accept money at Gobernación since they do not trust their employees, thus the business about paying at the bank.

We went to a different bank and paid again, making sure they did not use retiree. We returned to Gobernación half an hour later and successfully turned in our paper work. We got an appointment for May 14 to visit them again to make sure all the paper work was correct and/or to pick up our visas.

May 14, 2008
We arrived at 8:30 and were the first ones there. At 9:00 we were informed that they had not had a chance to look over the paper work, and to come back the following week, or to call first.

May 21, 2008
I called and was informed that they still had not had time to look over our paper work and to call back on Friday.

May 23, 2008 (Friday)
Called and was informed that our visas were ready. Arrived at Gobernación at 9:45, and waited until about 11. The visas were indeed ready and after signing everything in sight, I got them. Then I asked about reimbursement for the first mistaken payment. It took about 5 minutes for the lady to give me a letter and the necessary paperwork. I was blown away at how quickly she handled it. She said we should then go to Hacienda on Calle Allende to get our money.

Around 1PM, C and I went to Hacienda, and were informed that we had to buy a form from a paper store, fill it out, make an appointment by phone with Hacienda.

I bought the form (which was mostly unintelligible acronyms), and called for an appointment, which was not until June 9!!!!

June 9, 2008
We went to Hacienda with the forms completed and all the paper work from Migración. More or less on time, we met with the person about our refund. He was confused at why we had two refunds, and why they were both in my name. Since I had paid, the receipts were in my name even though one of the visas was for Christiane. He was also confused at why we both had the same last name if C was my wife and not my sister. We finally got that all sorted out, and then he needed ID to make sure we were who we said we were. I gave him my Mexican driver’s license, but C did not have any Mexican ID (since I am the one being reimbursed it did not seem necessary for her to need ID). So we had to walk back home, make copies of our passports and visas. I even made copies of a utility bill to prove we lived at our house (sometimes required even if the bill is not in your name, go figure), and a copy of my driver’s license just in case. We returned to Hacienda and turned in the paperwork after an hour’s wait since we did not have an appointment. The guy took everything and told us to expect a check or voucher within 90 days!!! When pushed, he said that it could be longer than 90 days or maybe less. If we ever get a reimbursement check I will it announce here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

US News, the Mexican Report

People seem to think that because we are in Mexico we do not know what is going on in the states. During the recent, prolonged primary season, people would say that it must be nice to be in Mexico and not have to deal with the idiocies of the campaign, or since we are in Mexico we did not really understand what was going on.

Contrary to what you might have expected 20-30 years ago, I have never been so well informed about a campaign. We get CNN (based in Hong Kong and mostly about Asia), TV5 (French, with better world coverage than CNN and better Latin America coverage than BBC, which we no longer get), CBS evening news, and various Mexican channels. But except for primary nights, TV is not very enlightening, even in the US.

Mostly, we get our news via the Internet, and more importantly we have the time to read the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution for “local” news, Le Monde, Le Figaro and nearly every other paper in the world we want to. I have RSS leads to stories I follow, such as politics and the situation in Zimbabwe and Mexico. We read local and major Mexican newspapers nearly every day (no home delivery), and there is a Mexican English language paper supported by the NYT. We also have connections to all the NPR stations around the US, which I usually do not listen too since I used to listen to NPR in the car, and it is hard to get used to listening to it when I am doing other things. But we do have All Things Considered and Morning Edition if we want, plus I have RSS leads to their major stories.

I was lucky to read the newspaper and watch some CNN when we worked in the states. Now I have all day if I want to read up on something, and I probably spend too much time doing so.

I would say that I am better informed here than I ever was in the US, even about people’s individual stands and issues, as I read the letters to the editor of many papers and the occasional blog (although most of the blogs are worthless). I also discuss politics through e-mail with a bunch of folks from around the country who are not retired, but who seem to have an awful lot of time on their hands (you know who you are!). And lastly, there is a well-educated and well-informed group of retired Americans and Canadians in Querétaro who really do have the time to read and talk about the issues at one of various cafes around the city.

This is the 21st century, not the 1960s in Africa or the 1970s in Mexico. Folks overseas are not out of touch any more.

What really disappoints me is that Americans are so out of touch with the rest of the world, even if they also have the Internet. The NYT had an editorial on why the US should help Mexico in the drug war, and the response of presumably educated and well-informed NYT readers showed an incredible lack of understanding of the issue, of the US’s interest in the issue, or of the situation in Mexico. This seems to be especially true of people from states along the border who, because of being next to the border, think they know Mexico, but have a twisted idea of what Mexico is all about based on Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, etc., and maybe Lou Dobbs. Sort of like making conclusions about the US based on Detroit or Brownsville and Lou Dobbs.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Marcos y Molduras - Frames and Moldings

My art teacher told me about a place for inexpensive, but not cheap, frames. The prices are as low as the place on Ezq. Montes I found a few weeks back, but the place is a real frame shop (they do all the work there and have all the equipment and materials). Most frame shops here are very expensive. They also have a collection of paintings including water colors, some of which are very nice. After I talked to the lady (wife of the owner) about costs, I checked out the paintings; and ended up talking quite a bit with owner, Raúl Chavez, no relation.

It turns out the shop is mainly a place for the students from his school, and that is why things are less expensive. After I noted that I liked one of the watercolorists in his collection (turns out the guy died 3 months ago, so he is no longer teaching, or painting, for that matter), Raúl mentioned that he was at one time in Diego Rivera’s circle. I mentioned that Niels had a connection to that circle through Siquieros, so the guy took me a little more seriously. He currently has a Siquieros that belonged to a president, and the family is now selling off his stuff. I need to find out which president. Mexicans would never ask, but I can get away with it since I am a bold, brash gringo. I think it sold for $100,000 MN and had been part of a mural from the school the president attended.

He also just sold a possible Rembrandt which he had taken to the Rembrandt museum in Holland for authentication. C-14 showed it was the right age, it was from his workshop, but it is impossible to prove it was painted by him and not by a student. The museum has run into problems attributing paintings and is now very gun shy. I think that that one went for $1,000,000 MN, because now it is just an old picture, although it may be one of several "lost" Rembrandts, a self portrait!

He also showed me a Chucho Reyes and told me the story of the painter. In the late nineteenth century, Chucho’s (not El Roto) parents imported stuff from the orient and wrapped it in rice paper which they also bought from the orient. He used to paint on the paper, and then his parents would use the paper to wrap things and fill empty space in boxes. Most people threw the packing paper away, but some recognized it as real art. Later he became a fairly well known artist, travelled the world and exhibited in Mexico City where he had a uniquely decorated house. His rice paper paintings now start at $20,000 MN and look like they could have been done today. They are very modern. Google Chucho Reyes on the internet. And click on "Liga a la galeria" at to see some other pix.

It seems Raúl knows all the major collectors in the Queretaro area, and just calls one or two people when something special comes in, and it sells in a day or two. Paintings might be available for viewing while he is framing them, but not for long. I asked to be put on his e-mail list to be notified, but since things sell so fast, I may never get to see any of them.

If I could get him to sell my stuff I would have it made since he seems to be held in high regard by local artists and collectors. But the quality of the artists he represents is really a bit beyond me, at least for the next 15 to 20 years.