Agave: Throw Nothing Away!
It’s no coincidence that for centuries the agave has been called the ‘plant of wonders’: the fibers in its leaves are used to make ropes, nets, baskets, clothes, mats, bags and everyday objects, the needles to make fishing hooks, and the juice of some varieties to prepare compresses against burns and poisons to dip hunting arrows in.
Plus the fact, of course, that the agave gives us delicious foods and drinks: pulque, mezcal, tequila and others still, all used in recipes that heighten the flavors of the traditional ingredients of Mesoamerican peoples.
‘To understand an ingredient, it’s important to smell it and see it in action,’ explained Ines. ‘Which is what we’ll be doing today to have a cultural perception of the agave and everything around it.’ We began our journey through the flavors of Mexico with pulque soup garnished with coriander, sweetcorn and mozzarella (in lieu of typical Mexican stretched curd queso). It may not sound odd to non-Mexicans, but the recipe was something of a bold experiment: ‘Pulque isn’t used in soups. I’m the first to try this sort of thing.’ Pulque, in fact, is an alcoholic beverage that is drunk with meals. It is made by cutting off the fleshy leaves of the agave, extracting the aguamiel, or sap, from the kernel, and fermenting it. Redolent of a very acidic Lambic-style beer, it is only 6° or 7° proof but contains lots of vitamins and lactobacilli.
We were treated to every possible take on the agave. The main course was served wrapped in mixiote, derived from the agave leaf. Resembling a thin sheet of plastic, it is very resistant in difficult conditions and serves to protect the plant. Opening the bundle we were surprised to find that it contained rabbit and mushrooms in adobo sauce—onion, tomato, garlic and three different types of chili pepper, a Mexican classic that comes in more than 200 varieties—all steamed together.
‘The agave has always been used in the kitchen, but has been so exploited that it is becoming increasingly rare. Nowadays we use baking paper instead of mixiote. We may be losing a piece of tradition, but it’s important to respect the plant in order to conserve it and protect biodiversity.’
With all this good food, we certainly weren’t left hungry. The meal was accompanied throughout by mezcal, which is different from normal tequila. ‘Tequila is a type of mezcal that can only be produced in five Mexican states with agave azul, one of the 200 varieties of the plant,’ explained Ines. The mezcal we drank was 55° proof (‘To classify as mezcal, it has to be at least 45°. There’s no such thing as a mezcal light), so it was impossible to throw it back in one gulp. The secret is to drink it in small sips, washing it round the mouth between teeth and tongue, then swallowing it. The first sip literally numbs the palate but prepares it to enjoy the fruity, smoky notes that come with subsequent sips. The mezcal we drank was nothing like the commercial versions we find in Italian bars. If you want to avoid the hangovers that these commercial products induce, follow chef Ines’s advice. ‘First you have to get a sniff of the aroma by rubbing a drop on your wrist as if it were a perfume. If you can smell soil, smoke and honey, then it’s artisanal! Another system is to shake the bottle vigorously. If it froths up with lots of bubbles, the so-called cordon serrado, that’s a sign of good quality. And forget about the mezcal with the worm inside it: that’s just a marketing ploy!’
The meal ended with a miniature truffle made with Slow Food Presidium Chontalpa cacao with a Veracruz coffee bean at the center—a pleasure for the palate!