The personalities of chefs and mezcaleros in Oaxaca are such that organizing a cooperative culinary event, or mezcal tasting, at times can be rather difficult. Accordingly, by all accounts successfully combining the two should be next to impossible. But the 2012 inaugural Oaxaca Festival Mezcalaria Mezca-Gastronómico pulled it off in spades on two consecutive evenings.
The gastronome-agave events, convened July 21 & 28, and coined maridajes de comida y mezcal, centered upon pairing food prepared by a high ranking Oaxacan chef, with a selection of artisanal mezcales marketed by four different mezcalerías – theoretically competitors given that each is located within Oaxaca’s small centro histórico. But on these two evenings the level of cooperation was both remarkable and transparent.
Pairing Meal & Mezcal: Organizers & Players
Acclaimed executive chef of El Teatro Culinario, José Luis Díaz Robledo, combined creative forces with respected author, journalist, and co-owner of Mezcalería In Sítu, Ulises Torrentera, to bring to fruition the idea of pairing high end culinary creations with a collection of quality mezcales within a convivial ambiance. Each event was meticulously executed by Torrentera’s mezcalería partner, Sandra Ortiz Brena. The other representatives of all that is maguey were mezcal tasting room Mezcaloteca, and mezcalerias Los Amantes and Cuish.
Logistical Matters at Oaxaca’s 2012 Inaugural Mezca-gastronómica
Each of the two evenings unfolded in a spacious home in the quaint Jalatlaco neighborhood of downtown Oaxaca. Two cocktails created by mixologist Erick Rodriguez, each of course made with mezcal blanco (using a reposado or añejo, though not unheard of, would be tantamount to sacrilegious in the minds of most) together with queso requesón appetizers were offered to guests upon arrival. However getting a head start by imbibing pure mezcal from any of the four retail expendios de mezcal provided an option for the purist.
While I attended only the second evening, friends who attended both have confirmed that the mezcales served on each occasion were different, as were the meals. And although Chef José Luis introduced each plate on July 21, in both English and Spanish, he was somewhat of a phantom on the 28th, venturing out of the kitchen only sporadically. However if remaining by and large behind the scenes to create and to direct staff on this evening was a prerequisite for being able to serve a cena unsurpassed, then Chef José Luis opting to be the wizard behind the curtain while at the helm could not have been a wiser choice.
An Evening of Pairing Mezcal with the Gastronomic Greatness of Oaxaca
After an hour of breaking-the-ice over drinks and botanas (a round of requesón with essence of fresh fig, floating atop nopal cactus cured with sea salt, crowned with flower of wild cilantro), each aficionado of agave took a seat along lengthy benches in front of equally extensive tables. By this time the requisite pair of provocatively clad and properly poised Negra Modelo barely-age-of-majority chicas had arrived, and begun pouring pitchers of NM’s trademark dark brew. In Oaxaca, combining beer and mezcal is as traditional as American cheese and you-know-what.
Mezcalería Los Amantes’ té limón espadín-based mezcal was a subtly infused lemongrass spirit in the citrus genre. The 49% by volume mezcal was paired with pomegranate seeds resting on a bed of avocado purée, ceviche of seta with passion fruit coulis, a single fruit of cuajiniquil and wild greens salad.
The Mezcaloteca entry, also at 49%, consisted of a blend of agaves madrecuishe and bicuishe. It was paired with a shrimp mole topped with fresh queso, bean paste with chile and avocado leaf, roasted scallion and a thick totopo.
Mezcalería In Sítu elected to go with a 52% mezcal made with exclusively agave papalometl which had been fermented in sacks of steer hide. Dense and gamey to the nose, it was excellently paired with hamburger of skirt steak flavored with chile tabiche, topped with charred dandelion leaf, alongside a splash of mole amarillo accented with chile chilhuacle.
Finally, Mezcalería Cuish selected a mezcal made from madrecuishe from the Tlacolula growing region. It complemented crumbled brownie with ginger, alongside a sweetened pap of pitiona herb.
Highest Kudos Create Likelihood of More Maridajes de Comida y Mezcal, Better than the First
Many are the sayings in both Spanish and English which support the wisdom of not meddling with a successful recipe. But one can similarly find multi-lingual equivalents of “there’s always room for improvement.” Organizers indeed confirm that there will be more maridajes to come. It’s already been suggested that foodies and spirits aficionados will not have to wait until next year’s Guelaguetza season to partake. September dates near Independence Day celebrations, late October to coincide with Day of the Dead, and December around Christmastime festivities have each been bandied about.
The two inaugural dates drew a combined 138 attendees, which made for organizationally manageable, and more importantly warm and extremely enjoyable Oaxacan evenings. But planners can do more by building on their success: they should consider live music during the reception and between course commentaries; and placing smart, printed standards on the tables to fully identify the mezcales as well as the culinary creations with which they are being paired. The 400 peso ticket price for each of these two events was extremely reasonable, and therefore no one could reasonably begrudge paying an additional 50 – 60 pesos if it meant live entertainment and a clearer understanding of what in the course of the evening would be indulged in when, and why. And if selling more seats is a priority, then advertise the menu online. Doing so would only enhance sales.
Rating: 4 out of 5