Oaxaca (wah-ha-ka) de Juárez—the capital city of Oaxaca, one of the 31 states of Mexico, situated at its belly in the south—has its own ecosystem ...
Of clay pots, mezcal and cacao in Mexico
Carved wooden alebrijes. Photo: Sudha Madhavan
The writer explores the wonders of food, drink and handicrafts in Oaxaca
Oaxaca (wah-ha-ka) de Juárez—the capital city of Oaxaca, one of the 31 states of Mexico, situated at its belly in the south—has its own ecosystem while yet being quintessentially of a Mexican flavour.
Its culture and arts is the preserve of centuries, with the locals still creating magic with their hands—with clay, textiles, leather, wicker, wood, liquor and cacao.
As I wander around the streets of Oaxaca de Juárez, on the first day of the New Year, rubbing shoulders with the Oaxaqueñians, the mercados (markets) of Calle de 20 Noviembre (the street of 20 November) and Benito Juárez are spilling over with baskets of wicker and cane, ladles and churners, figurines and curios, exotic, crafted leather bags, moles and chocolates (cho-co-la-tay) and handicrafts from the surrounding pueblos (villages). Dios mio!
There is more handicraft in these rustic little outlets than you will find in all the emporia. The Mercado Artesanal, basically an exclusive market for the artisanal, is an outlet for all the crafts from the surrounding villages. It is brimming over with products of the three indigenous varieties of barro (clay/mud) unique to the region—barro negro (black), barro verde (painted a wonderful seaweed green) and barro rojo (red, the natural terracotta shade).
Then there are also alebrijes, the finely crafted folk art woodwork toys that are known the world over.
There is too much that teases the curiosity, and to get to the root of it all, I travel to the artisanal collectives from where the products are sourced—in the boroughs that fringe Oaxaca, beginning with the Santa Maria Atzompa.
The artisans here are famed for their barro verde products. Roughly hewn and enchanting, there are shelves upon shelves of pots, vases, mugs, jugs, coasters, animals and birds.
The barro negro of the borough of San Bartolo Coyotepec (of the Dona Rosa family—more on that later) is more about decorative articles for display, except for the cantaros (pots). These were used for storing and ageing mezcal, the potent local brew extracted from the maguey agave (a-gaa-way), a plant with a circular formation of thick, succulent, fleshy leaves, reminiscent of the aloe vera.
The Dona Rosa family has closely guarded the art of barro negro exclusively for several generations. Working with this variety of clay native to the region goes back several centuries and is known to have been used by the Zapotec and Mixtec tribes of the 12th to the 14th centuries, and perhaps even earlier.
In its original form, a dull grey colour, this clay has great sturdiness and durability. Non-corrosive and hard to break when fired, it was used to make cantaros to store mezcal, and also served as a musical instrument (somewhat similar to the ghatam used in south Indian musical concerts).
However, Dona Rosa, the matriarch of the family, discovered the art of polishing the semi-dry clay product with quartz and then firing it, which gave it a shiny, alluring black colour.
This resulted in the making of fashionably black decorative pieces of fine craft work and filigree (though more fragile) that have found a wide market across the world. Today, the Dona Rosa family continues with the good work.
You find figurines of village women in traditional attire, nymphs and mermaids, vases and pots, scenes of funeral and celebration and a delightful representation of Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead, one of the important Mexican festivals), all in black and of great finesse.
The barro rojo, the red clay pottery of the borough of San Marcos Tlapozula Tlacolula off Oaxaca, reminds me of the terracotta pottery made by the Irula tribes of the Nilgiris in India.
Here, articles are made of clay sourced from nearby fields, dried over the week, mixed with wet sand, shaped on turning wheels and fired in home-made furnaces using dry branches, corn husks (corn has been a staple food in Mexico for centuries) bamboo and twigs, in the open courtyards of homes.
These are used for both cooking and storing as they are free of lead, unlike the products of barro verde.
As in India, where its handicrafts dwell in its villages, Oaxaqueñian crafts thrive in the small pueblos that surround it and, much like their Indian counterparts, the artisans tend to undervalue their handiwork. The products are never overpriced as in certain European countries.
The most memorable pueblo of all, however, was the village of Teotitlan Del Valle in the Zapotec Valley of Teotitlan, situated to the east of the Valle Centrales region.
In search of ancients
Approximately 30km north from Oaxaca and off Highway 190, placed in the Tlacolula district, its indigenous craft dates back to the time of the ancient Zapotec civilization, at least 2,500 years ago.
Our first attempt to make the trip to Teotitlan Del Valle was futile—the taxi driver vociferously promised to take us there for 350 pesos (approximately Rs1,200), only to change his mind later and drop us off unceremoniously at a bus station.
With buses unlikely to take us to this off-the-beaten-track destination, we decide to postpone the trip by a day.
The day after, not ready to give up just yet, we follow various leads until we land up where the local village folks commute by collectivos, vans that carry multiple passengers, to the surrounding hamlets for business.
There we stand, bereft of the convenience of language, but with the magic mantra of Teotitlan Del Valle (which in the Zapotec language of Nahuatl means the valley of the Land of the Gods) on our lips. It doesn’t pay any dividends.
Not a soul is going that way and as the name goes, a collectivo has to collect customers. On the verge of giving up, we find a helpful soul who bargains with a driver in rapid Spanish to drop us off at our destination on his way further ahead.
And there we are finally, at Teotitlan Del Valle, having driven down a long serpentine route off the highway into the horizon where the village of artisans begins.
There are woollen tapestries and handicrafts, primarily carpets, with by-products such as bags and coasters alongside coats and ponchos.
The carpets are, of course, knock-outs, ranging from the tradicional (traditional) with figures of native Indian warriors and birds and geometric designs that one is familiar with, to the moderno (modern), of pescados (fish) or motifs based on the paintings of Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and Matisse.
I find the traditional designs more engrossing.
The wool is derived from local sheep; handloomed by local families, dyed (originally) with natural extracts of marigold, native moss, indigo, bark of the pecan, etc. But the one that is special to the region and the most favoured is dyed a deep pink with the colours derived from the cochineal, a local insect that breeds on the agave, feeding on the sap.
In India, the cochineal goes by the name of beer bahuti (velvet mite), found over many parts of central India, which I believe is a close cousin and hence equally unfortunate.
Speaking of the agave, the potent mezcal that Oaxaqueñians take great pride in and consider a holy drink is made from the various varities of the plant, which is present in plenty across the land, although the maguey agave is the favoured one.
It is made of the central core of the agave called the piná (after the surrounding leaves have been snipped off) cooked in pits, mashed and then fermented before being diluted with water.
For the Oaxaqueñians, mezcal is a healer, a picker-up and a friend in need—a drink for all occasions. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también”, goes the saying. “For all ill, mezcal, and for all good as well.”
According to George Vaillant, an outstanding authority on the early civilizations of Mexico, mezcal had its beginnings in the glorious era of the Toltecs of Teotihuacan, a civilization that flourished in central Mexico between the 10th and 12th centuries, preceding the Aztecs.
Their eighth ruler—a lady named Xochitl (sho-chitl)—popularized an intoxicating drink made from the fermented juice of the maguey then named the pulque (pó-ol-kay).
We are cautioned by an Oaxaqueña to begin by “kissing” the mezcal to enjoy the flavour and not attempting to “bottom-up” or else it could be a little unkind on the uninitiated.
So, we bring in the New Year on the streets of Oaxaca by doing exactly that.
We also learn from her an authentic source for this Mexican wonder brew and head there.
Searching for mezcal
It is past evening and a long walk down the neat lanes of Oaxaca lead us to the cosy little hole-in-the-wall outlet, Union-de-Palenqueros-de-Oaxaca, situated in Calle de Mariano Abasolo. It stocks the most authentic mezcals of varied vintages and flavours. It sources the liquor from the mezcaleros of Santiago Matitlán, the motherland of the maguey.
The woman who runs the shop is quiet, and charges reasonably. She stands surrounded by at least seven black-and-white puppies—a trio on the counter and a few around her legs—as we enter.
All around are large demijohns of mezcal, both the pure unmixed and the infused versions—which use apple, pineapple, spices such as the pericon and even worm larvae (the notorious Gusano de Mezcal).
There are the anejado and the reposado mezcal varieties, aged for anything between a few months and a year. The smokey flavour is a resultant of the pits in which the piná are cooked. Mezcal is, however, best when freshly brewed and the scent of the piná from the pits still lingers in the mouth.
Each of these undiluted (which are universal favourites) can be infused with apple, pineapple or pear to create fruity versions of the mezcal.
And then there is a variety in which pechuga (chicken) plays a critical role in the process of distillation, along with a variety of wild fruits and almonds, and is supposed to be the most exotic of the lot.
That rounds off the gamut of the mezcal.
No, wait, there is also the Creme de Maguey, the liqueur.
We request for the anejo aged for more than one year but less than three years) and the pericon (a flower belonging to the family of chamomile) and some of her Creme de Maguey; the lady briskly sucks the air out from a tube and siphons the liquor into bottles, labels and seals them. Pronto: No grand seal, no fancy branding and the liquor is acknowledgedly of the best quality.
We emerge out of the shop much wiser about the mighty mezcal and look upon it with renewed reverence.
End with chocolate
The Olmecs, dating back to 1500 BC or even a few centuries earlier, were perhaps the first to discover the value of the cacao tree. The drink prepared of the ground cacao beans, though, was favoured by the ancients, seen as so aphrodisiacal, energizing and curative that it was deified.
Sweetening agents came much later, with the advent of the Spanish, and initially the cacao drink was had as a rough-and-ready frothy beverage with abundant use of chillies and spices and served with malted corn.
I had dug out some valuable information on the famed brands of chocolate in this cacao land and therefore set out with a purpose.
They go by mighty names like Mayordomo and La Soledad; wandering yet in the treasure trove of Calle de 20 Noviembre, I come bang up against an outlet of the former.
It is buzzing with local clientele who are carrying away precious loads of some of the world’s finest freshly ground chocolate in the most nonchalant manner. The aroma of ground cacao is heady and we stand there a while, drinking it in.
No additives, no colours, no emulsifiers and no preservatives—this may sound like one of those heavily marketed new-age brands, but that is how it is. Cacao beans, cinnamon and almonds are put together with quantities of sugar through the grinder. Variants are available without almonds, without sugar, with vanilla and so on.
We watch goggle-eyed as fresh, untempered chocolate is readied for us, with cinnamon, almond and sugar, double ground and of the most delightful taste. We go also for boxes of the pure chocolate, the Clasico and the Nuez (walnut).
As we look up, there is a large picture on the wall of a native Indian warrior drinking reverently from a cacao shell, holding reassuringly onto cacao pod and seated under a, what else, cacao tree.
The whole experience has been enjoyably exhausting and we replenish ourselves with a large cacao milkshake the likes of which we had never tasted before.
Sudha Madhavan is a travel writer, freelance journalist and artist based in Bengaluru.
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