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Short Essays on Rural Mezcal Production – Part II – Recicado From the Mixteca Alta
It won’t win any contests for being a quality spirit. And in fact the residents of the region don’t even call mezcal, but rather “recicado”, a Mixteco name, they say. But after a five-hour journey from the city of Oaxaca, in the depths of the Mixteca Alta, he meets the agave distillation that carries the prize to give the true lover a look as real as possible, in the means and the production materials probably encountered by the Spanish. at the beginning of the Conquest: clay vessels; carriso (river reed) tubing; still mud and stone; spraying with a tree burl and a wooden trough; fermentation in animal skin; and of course traditional cooking in an oven on the ground.
Pueblo Viejo is a small town an hour’s drive from San Juan Mixtepec, along a dirt road. The quiet valley that leads to the settlement is known as Rio Azucena, and for good reason… the Sánchez Cisneros family lives next to a river, a prerequisite for producing recicado in this part of the state.
Nineteen-year-old Hilda Sánchez Cisneros lives with her sister, Natividad Sánchez, 47, and four of Natividad’s six children. The other two live and work in the countryside in North Carolina. Fernando, Natividad’s husband, is away today, doing tequio (community service). Their son Esteban, 10 years old, and daughter Dália, 16 years old, are completely trilingual, because they and their mother spent many years in the United States, and therefore had the opportunity to attend American public school . But here I am, coming out the most modest of existence, producing recicado for sale on Friday in the weekly market of San Juan Mixtepec.
The family also subsists by growing squash, corn and beans. It is clear that meat and poultry are not staples in their diet, not unusual for families in the most rural communities in the state.
The stream is an occasional provider, providing the family with small fish at certain times of the year. And then there’s rabbit, squirrel, opossum and fox. “I know that people in the city don’t eat small animals like squirrel and opossum,” explains Natividad, “but we do it here, when we can get it, and it’s actually pretty good.” Esteban proudly adds that occasionally you can also meet coyotes and wolves, but more often it is higher in the mountains.
Hilda and Natividad learned to distill from their parents and grandparents. However, during the first years, the plants used in the production were wild varieties of agave that had to be collected to climb the mountains. Then a couple of years ago, Fernando went to Matatlán, the recognized world capital of mezcal, and brought back a number of agave espadín plants. Espadín continues to be the only type of maguey that is successfully grown throughout the state. So now the family is able to grow their own agave in this fertile but sparsely populated valley, a part of which forms the house. But the degree of knowledge of the family members regarding the scientific process and the function, seems missing, or rather basic.
The appearance of the stalk (stalk) is the first sign that the maguey has fully matured. Allowing the ice to shoot and produce baby plants should be the primary means of reproducing the agave espadín. But Fernando is the harvest of the family before the chiote ascends from the heart of the plant. This inhibits its ability to increase the number of fields in cultivation (the plant produces “hijos” or children through the root system, but this is a secondary means of reproduction and is not trusted in commercial enterprises). Equally important is that the harvesting of the plant prematurely, in order not to wait for the chiote, cutting it, and then allowing the natural sugars the opportunity to gather in the base or “piña” of the plant, negatively impacts the quality of the product finished
But like the traditional production of mezcal, the piñatas are cooked in a pit maybe eight meters deep and six meters wide, over wood and river rock. Instead of using synthetic material to cover the “oven”, a layer of palm leaf on top with soil is used. However, the similarity between the usual mezcal production, and the recicado, stops there.
Instead of crushing the cooked agave with a mule or pony pulling a limestone wheel over it, around a circular enclosure, the cooked plant is pulverized by human power, using a tree burl or long-cut wooden mallet by hand to pound the cooked agave into a pulp. in a wooden canoe-shaped vessel five feet long. Four posts—thick, straight tree branches—support a large “bag” made of bull hide, about four feet from the ground. Covered with plastic, the mash is left in the sun to ferment, for four to five days.
The distillation is done in an area protected by laminated metal roofs, located 20 meters from the house. The family employs four igloo-shaped stills, lined up in a straight row. Made of stone and mud, each is virtually identical to the other. Starting from the bottom, the opening where the firewood is placed contains a tubular stone that supports a clay cylinder in which the fermented juices and fiber are placed. Steam rises from it into a bottomless clay pot. The pot is covered with a bowl, or any other is available for use.
Water from a split and hollowed-out tree trunk flows over the stills, and fills each of the four cups through concave pieces of agave leaf that lead from four exit holes into the channel above. When the steam rises and reaches the cup, now cooled by the water, condensation takes place. The liquid drips onto another piece of agave leaf, this one attached to the inner center of the clay pot, and tilted down to a small hole in the side of the container. The liquid comes out of the jar through the hole. A hollow length of river reed, firmly inserted into the hole and pointing down, ensures that the recicado flows slowly out of the pot and into an urn.
The primitive process mirrors many of the steps and adheres to certain principles necessary to produce mezcal in the most artisanal technique. But key elements are missing, undoubtedly reflected in the quality of the spirit:
1) as noted, the piña is not harvested at the optimal time;
2) the fermentation is complete after only a third of the time usually required to properly ferment the espadín for the production of mezcal in the central valleys of Oaxaca, although exposure to the sun on a continuous basis helps , such as the semi-tropical lowland sheltered environment;
3) the recicado is distilled only once.
The result is an aqueous drink relatively low in alcohol, almost acidic in taste. Still, the local population buys it and drinks it, and pays about double the price it costs to get traditional mezcal of 40 to 46 percent alcohol by volume in the towns and villages surrounding the city of Oaxaca. To be sure, I tried the recicado produced by a competitor on the road, and I found it only marginally less unpleasant.
On my return visit to Pueblo Viejo, I intend to bring two or three liters of my favorite country mezcals for the Sánchez Cisneros family to try. The hope is that Fernando, Natividad and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with the production, and conceptually begin to distill a spirit more acceptable to the palate… and with at least a little kick. So, who knows, the family may even begin to market as mezcal, leaving recicado to die a slow, and maybe even welcome death.
However, care must be taken not to disturb the basic means and materials currently used in production. They have a strong attraction for the enthusiastic willing to make the trek to Pueblo Viejo. But more importantly, the adhering principles of distillation must be from time immemorial, to be testimony to the proposition that the manufacture of spirits, beyond the mere fermentation of agave juices, developed in the Mixteca region Alta d’Oaxaca before the Conquest, and independent from the science and technology of the Western World.
Alvin Starkman MA, LL.B
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