Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Viva Tequila

Tequila, the birthplace of Mexico’s national drink, is located only 38 miles from Guadalajara.

Upon leaving the city, the land became dry and golden, dotted with squat trees and occasional mountains. Our entry into agave land became clear with the first rows of the blue green plant. They grew in rows in the valley, surrounded by low mountains and extinct volcanoes.

We stopped at a roadside stand, where Tres Mujeres (3 Women) tequila was sold. We were able to walk through the fields, touching the sharp thorns on the spindly leaves. We learned how the plants are planted as babies, cut off from the mother plants and sowed elsewhere. They mature for seven to ten years. Then all the spindly leaves are cut of with a coa and the heart of the plant (called a head or pina, pineapple) is dug up. This weighs between 35 and 150 kilos.

The owners gave us pieces of fiber, what’s left after the juices and sugars are pressed out, to try. It was stringy and looked like beef jerky, but tasted like yam. We also sampled the tequila, made from 100% agave. It was very smooth and while it had the typical afterburn of straight tequila, it was good.

From there we continued on to the town of Tequila, population 35,000. On the way, we passed several distilleries, small and larger. We were going to visit the factory that produces Jose Cuervo tequila, called La Rojena. It is said to be the first tequila distillery and is the most touristed in the area.

There we learned more about the tequila production process and got to see it in action. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed. It was really cool. The giant heads rolled out of trucks and onto the ground, where they were loaded into ovens. Steam hissed out from the oven doors and the smell of agave hearts steaming in hot ovens was overpowering. The building, an original from 1795, had the spirit of colonialism, with the arches and columns at the unloading area, the maize color and the wrought-iron lanterns. We saw the fiber being loaded into a truck like so much hay, on its way to be used for furniture, paper, animal feed and fertilizer. We saw the white oak barrels the tequila ages it, stacked up to the ceiling. And we were allowed to sample each stage of the process – the fiber, the mosto juice, tequila after distilling, white tequila, aged tequila, and at the end, a Jose Cuervo margarita (though with very minimal alcohol content).

I learned about the different types of tequila. And during a visit to the Tequila Museum, also in town, I learned about the cultural relevance of tequila in local life.

We topped off the day with a mariachi concert in a central square, under the backdrop of the illuminated 17th century cathedral. It was great to see so many people out in the center of town on a Wednesday evening – families, couples, friends, al having a nice time.

Then we went to check out a restaurant we’d passed earlier that day, La Chata (Av. Ramon Corona No 126; near Juarez; Tel: 3613-1315 and 3613-0588 and Av. Terranova No. 405; Fracc. Providencia; Tel: 3641-3489) While passing by, I noticed the line of patrons that extended out to the street, and the eight short women, dressed in white, who molded and pressed fresh tortillas, fried meat, and scooped beans, rice and guacamole onto plates. We also stood in line, behind a single woman who like us, was attracted to the hubbub. The people in line appeared upper middle class, well dressed, confident, professional.

The line moved quickly, despite the small size of the restaurant, and we had a table within 30 minutes. The servers and bussers, all men, shook off yellow tablecloths, lay down new ones, took orders and brought food efficiently prepared by the upper middle aged women in white within a matter of minutes. I copied the people around me and ordered a white fruit drink, the water from aquachata (I can’t figure out what this is, if anyone knows, please fill me in). The meal was greasy, but tasty. Most fun of all was the atmosphere, watching how an operation could be so fast-paced, so efficient, and generate such enthusiasm.

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