Exploring Mezcal & Mushrooms In The Land Of The Zapotec

Guest post by Christine Mackay from Crooked Trails

Eduardo’s eyes squinted as he gazed down the rows of agave, known locally as maguey. These green spikey plants were domestic varieties but he also showed us several wild varieties he is trying to cultivate as well. Eduardo, aka ‘the crazy one’, is an artisanal mezcal maker in the central valley just outside Oaxaca City. His farm and distillery are run by his family and a posse of local men bent on the hard work of making this ‘whisky of the south’ by hand.

Beyond learning how mezcal is made (which was fascinating) and tasting many types of mezcal (which was great), was the biggest discovery — the importance of this liquor’s role in the culture of the people of Oaxaca. Mezcal is at the center of festivals, weddings, quinceaneras and more. No celebration begins or ends without it.

As one of our guides said after her eyes were glassy from tastings, “What is life without mezcal?”

The state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is famous for its bright cultural dances, woven items and pottery, and, of course, the Day of the Dead. We, however, were on a Crooked Trails Oaxaca travel program to learn about mezcal and to hunt for mushrooms in the mountains with local Zapotecs.

 

Oaxaca travel, maguey for making mezcal

Eduardo cleaning out the maguey from the still. Photo by Christine Mackay.

Learning About Mezcal

Making mezcal takes time as the plants themselves take a decade to grow.  Once they are ready for harvest, the piña (the center of the plant, which looks like a pineapple) is separated from its long leaves. The piñas are roasted in an earth oven for up to 14 days, then they sit for several more, until a particular kind of small mushroom begins to grow, signaling its readiness for the next step.

The piñas are then chopped into pieces by a machete-wielding man and then passed into a pit in the floor where two men pound away at them with large mortars. This mashed maguey is then moved to large wooden holding tanks for fermentation. The fermented juice is transferred to copper pots for distilling over a fire. This lengthy process ensures mezcal’s place as an artisanal liquor will endure. Scaling up for a hungry American market is challenging.

Eduardo makes 11 different types of Silverstre Mezcal and we tried them all. Deciding what to take home was the most challenging part of our day.

Did you know #mezcal takes years to make? The plants themselves take 10 years to grow! #mexico Click To Tweet
mushrooms in oaxaca travel

A booty of shrooms. Photo by Christine Mackay.

Foraging For Mushrooms

I love mushrooms, but this was my first time joining a proper mushroom hunting group. On our first day in the Sierras, we met up with our local expert and medicine woman, Sonya Perez, and off we went into the pine forests with two large baskets and a local boy dressed as Batman. In less than two hours, we collected 134 different species of hongos (mushrooms). It felt like Easter egg hunting, with our team scouring the forest floor for fungi, periodically calling out, “I found one!”

The event ended in a beautiful meadow with rain coming down and 17 groups of hunters all laying out their mushrooms. Professional mycologists were there to categorize and count them. Our group took second place and got a nice basket of goodies as a prize.

Oaxaca travel traditional dance

A traditional dance in front of the Cathedral in Oaxaca.

A Celebration Of Mushrooms And Mezcal

The following day was the Mushroom Festival, a celebration of all things hongo. We tried empanadas, moles and quayludas — all made with mushrooms. There were talks on mushrooms and posters made by the local kids. That night there was dancing and more festivities.

The Mushroom Festival happens once a year in the Sierra Norte in mid-July. It is timed so that people can head to Oaxaca City directly afterwards to see the famous, an annual indigenous cultural event with over 24 groups of dancers from all over the state coming to the city to perform.

Directly after the dances, travelers can head to the Mezcal Festival where hundreds of distillers offer tastings of their wares. All three festivals can be done in a few days, making for a rich and affordable cultural adventure just south of the border.

Head to #Oaxaca in July to attend the Mushroom #Festival, Quelaguetza, and Mezcal Festival! Click To Tweet
Oaxaca travel mushroom foraging

The groups with their mushroom load. Photo by Christine Mackay.

Crooked Trails will be returning next July and every July afterwards to join in the fun. Learn how you can take part in this fun Oaxaca travel experience!

Have a Oaxaca travel cultural experience to add? Please share in the comments below! 

Further Exploration:

The Only Guide To Regional Empanadas You’ll Ever Need [Blog Inspiration]

Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments [Travel Safety]

How To Dine In Local Homes Around The World  [Go Local]

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Daniela Frendo is a travel writer and photographer from Malta. No matter how often she travels, she keeps breaking out in cold sweats at boarding gates. She is terrified of flying, but willing to try out stomach-churning delicacies wherever she goes. Her trips aren’t complete without doing a bit of trekking, experiencing local culture and getting a souvenir t-shirt.She has a degree in Communications and divides her time between teaching English and writing for different publications, including her own travel blog www.grumpycamel.com.

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