Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On the pulque trail

The pulque madonna of Sosnavar

Slowly emerging from her house, which is almost totally buried by dense vegetation, Doña María Ascensión at first seems like an apparition, a latter-day Virgin Mary coming out of a grotto to meet a supplicant. As she comes nearer, though, hers is not the ever-youthful face of a saint but a leathery one  crisscrossed by a myriad lines that tell of old age and a hard life. Saints and holy virgins don't wear tennis shoes either. It's impossible to guess her age and it would be very rude to ask.

Doña Ascensión does not promise visitors eternal salvation but the relief provided by her own homemade pulque, a milky liquor that she sells for about a dollar a quart. Drink enough of the stuff and your head will be heaven-bound far quicker than by saying a rosary. Pulque also benefits the body, she assures me, by "strengthening the blood" and staving off anemia. It's a boon to both your body and mind.

What put me on the trail of pulque was not the search for a quick buzz but another one of Stew's culinary experiments, this one a "Loin of Pork Pulque," from The Whole Chile Pepper Book, by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach. The recipe gave the option of substituting tequila but we opted for authenticity. Besides I'd heard of pulque but didn't know what it was. I'd be a small adventure.

The no-name pulquería
Stops at the supermarket and a couple of liquor stores yielded embarrassed grins and quizzical looks: We don't sell the stuff and why would you want to drink it anyway? A clerk at the MEGA supermarket suggested a pulquería near the Ramírez food market; maybe if I brought an empty bottle they would sell me some.

Pulquerías are cantinas devoted to the sale of the stuff and they tend to be rough-looking establishments sometimes with ominous names like "Sálvate si puedes," or very roughly translated, "Save yourself if you can."

The pulquería by the food market had the most ominous name of all--none. Its cafe-type doors are as ancient and battered as the rest of the building, and it doesn't open until late in the afternoon. It's truly a rough-looking joint out of a Western movie. But then pulque is not a highfalutin liqueur the president of Mexico would serve at a diplomatic reception. In fact today pulque is consumed mostly by poor people wanting to forget their miseries, particularly when it's doctored with additional alcohol.

A dark pool of aguamiel at the core of an agave.
Pulque is made from the core of large and mature blue agaves that are practically endemic in the area around our house, along with mesquites, huizaches, prickly pear cacti and other desert plants. Around Doña Ascensión's pulque factory most of the agaves, which are normally erect and proud, are now hacked off and its leaves pushed back to reveal the dark pools of aguamiel, or "honey water," in the middle, from which the pulque is made. She has been in the business for about 20 years, so she has sacrificed a lot of agaves along the way.

It's a process of fermentation, rather than distillation, of the aguamiel. Its origins go back into the fog of Mexico's ancient history, when it was considered a sacred drink sipped by the upper classesThere's no need for any expensive equipment but the finished product has a very short shelf life, maybe a week. That's why it is not sold in bottles or cans and sales of pulque plummeted when canned beer was introduced in the 20th century.

Doña Ascensión was not too forthcoming about her production methods, no matter how much I prodded her. From what I could tell, she fermented aguamiel by adding a certain amount of finished pulque. She proudly insisted she didn't add alcohol to her product. Given that it's basically a homemade hooch, the alcohol content of the stuff varies widely though in its original form it's about as inebriating as wine.

Despite her age and wrinkles, and nearly toothless smile, Doña Ascención projects some really tough vibes. Her eyes are small, her lips tight and with one hand on her hip she seems like the type who'd kick a rowdy customer in the balls just as easily as she'd sell him a jug of her product.

While we were talking a customer approached her across the low stone fence surrounding her house and handed her an empty mug, which she refilled inside and brought back in a very businesslike transaction, as if it were a Slurpy at a 7-Eleven, all for six pesos or about forty cents.

After all this research and talk about pulque, I can't precisely describe its flavor or punch because I don't drink alcohol. Duh. I dipped and licked my index finger in the two-liter bottle I bought from Doña Ascensión and what I tasted was a creamy liquid, the consistency of evaporated milk, with only a vague trace of alcohol.

That also made it impossible to know for sure how the small amount of pulque the recipe calls for--a quarter cup for a 4-pound pork loin--really affected the taste of the finished dish.

My guess is that it didn't make much of a difference. The recipe called for a combination of ancho, pasilla and chipotle chiles that gave the pork a really mellow, sweet taste that wasn't particularly firey. The chiles probably overwhelmed the pulque. It was delicious.

Doña Ascensión told me she was the only producer of pulque producer and that buyers came from several miles away, though I suspect her business is not strictly legal. The second time I visited she hesitated and said she didn't have any stuff to sell. It was only after some talking and having her picture taken--which she seemed to enjoy--that she relented.

"Let me go inside and see what I can find," she said.

3 comments:

  1. Delightful adventure! Thanks for sharing.

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  2. We are only in SMA through the end of July and are very keen to try Pulque. Please could you contact me and let me know how to find Dona Maria Ascension's pulqueria? I can be reached at Lorab@mac.com

    Thank you!

    Lora

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  3. LOL...hysterical post. I especially liked the "ominous names," and literally laughed out loud at Salvate si Puedes.

    Ever since F dragged me to some movie about the revolution in which pulque drinking played a minor role, I've been curious to try it.

    But he won't go near the kinds of places that serve it, so it's so far been an unfulfilled desire.

    As for social cachet, it would appear that pulque also ranks below mezcal, which apparently isn't considered a high-brow drink either. One day we happened to be in Polanco in a Superama, and tried to buy some mezcal, only to be informed that they didn't carry it.

    Meanwhile, here in the US, mezcal is an upcoming liquor with the trendy set.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we like mezcal, but can do without the worm.

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