The People's Food
Wine, beer and spirits in Yucatán
THE IMAGE OF THE GUN-SLINGING, TEQUILA-SWIGGING MEXICAN spilling out of the cantina and onto a dusty street – romanticized by the Mexican film industry and later by Hollywood – has little to do with the drinking habits of Mexicans, much less of Yucatecans. Still, spirits do play an important role in the culture of Yucatán and have done so for millennia. As did peoples in in most ancient cultures, the Maya produced fermented beverages that they used to contact the spirit world, for sacrifice and occasionally just to get plain silly. With the arrival of Europeans to the New World, the possibilities for inebriation expanded while others evolved as new mestizo drinks were created from native recipes.
Balché and xtabentún
Some say that no Yucatecan meal is complete without a glass of cold xtabentún to finish it off. For my part, I would like to try the ceremonial liqueur and holy moonshine balché, but its production is so rare that you have to know someone who knows someone who secretly makes it in the monte – preferably a Maya shaman. While popular sources define these two liqueurs as distinct, in fact scholarly studies would indicate a strong historical kinship – rather like twins separated at birth.
The ancient tradition of using toxic honey as a psychotropic is documented in various Western sources, such as the 6-8th century BC Homeric Hymn to Hermes in which bee priestesses who live on Mount Parnassos could prophesy only after consuming meli chloron, a toxic green honey. Not surprisingly, a honey that might engender visions would be created by bees that gather nectar from toxic or psychogenic plants, such as certain species of the Solanaceae family, as one example.
Among the Maya, honey from xtabentún – a vining morning glory (Turbina corymbosa) native to the region – produced by the local stingless melipona bee is rich in psychotropic ergoline alkaloids. In addition to being used as a shamanic inebriant, xtabentún honey was used medicinally, particularly for treating gynecological complaints. Xtabentún honey was frequently fermented to produce a mead, or “honey wine.” Recent scholarship indicates that it was xtabentún mead that formed the basis of balché.
The shamanic liqueur balché is a blend of honey and water, to which the bark of the leguminous balché tree (Lonchocarpus violaceus) is added during the fermentation process. L. violaceus is itself psychoactive due to its content of rotenone, and when combined with xtabentún’s ergoline alkaloids the effect must have been transcendental indeed!
Balché was used ceremonially, to prepare individuals for certain religious rites and indeed to bestow god-like powers on the drinker. Trances induced by the drink (and perhaps by belief in its powers) supposedly provide those who imbibe with a glimpse into a sacred, invisible world. Balché is still used by the Maya in Yucatán as an offering in planting ceremonies and to ward off pesky aluxes (trickster spirits) who might try to damage field crops.
Several things have occurred in modern times that inhibit the production of xtabentún honey and balché. First, the stingless melipona bee that produced the xtabentún honey has been virtually supplanted by Africanized bees for honey production throughout Yucatán, Next, ancient beekeeping practices changed from managing natural hives in hollow logs to maintaining conventional panel colonies, meaning that bee nectar gathering patterns changed. The final blow has been environmental degradation, which has resulted in reduced growth of both the xtabentún morning glory vine and the balché tree.
Nonetheless, in the 1930s – suffering from losses in revenue due to the collapse of the henequén or sisal industry – owners of Hacienda Vista Alegre east of Mérida decided to devote their infrastructure to the production of a new version of the ancient mead, which they named Xtabentún in honor of its history. Indeed the liqueur is still made from fermented honey – now non-toxic and a blossom blend. White rum is added to increase the alcohol content, and anise gives a pronounced flavor and bows to the historic taste of the Spanish colonists for anise liqueurs. (There is only folkloric evidence that it was in fact the Spanish who first added anise to xtabentún mead.)
Xtabentún – the flower – even factors in local Maya legends.
Pulque, mezcal and tequila
When the Spanish conquistadores first arrived in the central highlands of Mexico, they observed the indigenous peoples concocting a beverage that dates to at least 1000 AD – pulque. Similar to balché among the Maya, pulque was employed as a ritual intoxicant for Aztec priests to facilitate their visions of the spirit world; to ease the pain of sacrificial victims; and as a medicinal drink. Pulque was also served as a celebratory beverage to honor the feats of the brave, and was even considered to be a suitable substitute for blood in certain propitiatory rites.
Like its descendents mezcal and tequila, pulque is derived from certain varieties of the agave plant. But unlike these other more recent concoctions, ancient pulque was fermented rather than distilled. Only when the Spanish brought the alambique or alembic (from the Arabic al-inbiq – a distillation device invented by the Moors in the 10th century which functions by heating a liquid to produce steam, then collecting the condensation as it passes through a cooled chamber) were distilled liquors produced in the New World.
Pulque is produced by fermenting the fresh sap of the Agavacaea variety known as maguey. The result is a milky, slightly foamy and viscous brew that is still consumed today, although on a greatly limited scale. However, its popularity cannot compete with pulque’s close relatives: the distilled beverages mezcal and tequila.
Following the lead of the indigenous use of the agave, the Spaniards developed a production strategy that involved removing the spiky leaves of the plant and harvesting the large core – or piña – which was then roasted and pressed to extract the juices. This liquid was then distilled, and the distillate collected and placed in barrels, following traditional Spanish methods of wine and sherry aging.
The resulting liquor is known as mezcal, a generic term for any distilled agave juice. Its production was quickly banned by the Catholic church, but was bootlegged starting in the 1500s; only during the 1700s, with restricted permission from the Spanish Crown, was its legal production once more revived. In 1795, the Cuervo family was issued a license to produce mezcal from the blue agave, but only in the tequila region of Jalisco. It was not until the 1870s that the word "tequila" was employed to differentiate this brew from all other mezcal. And only in the 1950s did the Mexican government officially sanction five states to produce blue agave mezcal and label it “tequila”. Use of the name in any other region, for any other mezcal, is strictly prohibited.
Agave grows in the wild throughout Mexico. It was also cultivated extensively in the Yucatán peninsula by the Spaniards who learned from the Maya how to produce the valuable fiber – sisal or henequén – from its leaves. The particular species from which sisal is derived – Agave fourcroydes – became so important to the regional economy that thousands of acres of land were devoted to its production throughout the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th. The fiber was turned into rope, twine and other indispensable goods sold globally. With increasing competition and the invention of nylon in the 1930s, the sisal industry collapsed and many hacendados lost fortunes. Since that time, Yucatecan entrepreneurs have tried to find ways of reviving the old henequén economy. One effort involves devoting former sisal plantations to the cultivation of Agave azul to make up for deficits in production in the tequila region. Another recent attempt is to use the local Agave fourcroydes to produce a mezcal. Production of this distillate began in the early 2000s in the town of Izamál, just east of Mérida, and has continued with some interruption until this writing. The liquor was originally called “Sisal”, but a change in ownership also brought a name change. Now, the Casa Izamal produces an agave mezcal known simply as “Izamal”. Its acceptance has been slow due in part to marketing challenges (if it isn’t tequila, what is it?) and possibly simply because the taste for mezcal-type drinks has not traditionally been strong in Yucatán.
While the northern Europeans who settled the future United States and Canada brought with them a pronounced beer culture, the Spaniards brought to the New World a taste for wine. In the early years after the conquest, imported Spanish wines were all that were available. Later, other Spanish outposts such as those in California and several countries of South America began producing exportable wines. Most of Mexico’s arable land – except for certain regions in the center, the northwest and the Baja peninsula – was not suitable for the cultivation of wine grapes. Still, by 1554, the first vineyards appeared in Michoacán, tended in those early days primarily by monks.
As with mezcal, wine production was controlled, and the availability of criollo wines was limited. Even so, chroniclers of the time reported that the grapes of Mexico were so miserable, and wine production so inferior, that expensive imports were the only acceptable option.
Wine is still not broadly consumed in Yucatán. Descendents of Spaniards were known to enjoy Jeréz (sherry), and many Yucatecans remember their grandparents’ affection for both sherry and Muscat. Even some Yucatecan foods still include those wines, such as certain meat dishes and holiday breads.
The reason for the lack of a wine culture in Yucatán is perhaps related to the issue of storage. While it seems logical that the caves formed by cenotes (the karst limestone sinkholes that pepper the region) would feature all the characteristics necessary for adequate storage, such as a low and constant temperature and humidity, easy access is not always possible. Recent attempts by certain wine merchants to excavate cellars have met with great disappointment due to flooding, since invariably even shallow holes in the local limestone easily tap into natural underground water reservoirs. Modern refrigeration is beginning to transform the scene, but tastes are slow to change and the market for good wines is still limited in Yucatán. In an effort to educate the public and popularize consumption, the liquor store Covi has launched a wine club, even creating a chilled room in the back of their Paseo de Montejo shop for wine tastings. And the popular restaurant Trotter’s offers an excellent if small wine list featuring good labels from Chile, Argentina, Baja and occasionally California and Australia.
The history of rum is a long and heady one, intricately tied to the history of sugar cane, the slave trade, and the colonization of the New World.
Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) is a member of the grass family. Some sources indicate its origins in Polynesia; it eventually spread to southern India where it was cultivated at least 2000 years ago. The Persian emperor Darius invaded India in 510 B.C. where he observed a reed “which gives honey without bees” and which he carried with him back to Persia. As Arabs expanded their empire in the 7th century A.D. to include Persia, they eventually transported the cane westward into North Africa and Spain. Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493 brought the sweet grass to the Caribbean, where the advantageous climate ignited what was to become a highly lucrative industry. This was good news, indeed, for the European colonizers, since their hopes of finding the riches they were accustomed to trading in Asia had been thoroughly dashed.
The earliest large-scale production of sugar cane was established by the Portuguese in Brazil, where it was first planted in the early 1500s. However, the Dutch and later the British and French sweet tooth eventually led to an industry dominated by those competing powers, and by 1630 the Dutch had seized major cane fields from the Portuguese. Eventually, the Dutch consolidated their production in the islands of the West Indies, dominion over which had been granted them via the powerful Dutch West Indies Company in 1621.
The production of sugar from sugar cane is highly labor intensive; the ever-escalating demand for this luxury item in Europe precipitated the use of slaves from West Africa in the sugar islands. Portugal was the leader in this development, but was soon followed by the Netherlands and England. By the 17th century, every European country with interests in Caribbean sugar production was pillaging Africa for its human energy. Records indicate that in the 18th century, over 4,000,000 slaves were purchased for use in the sugar colonies.
Yucatán was also involved in this sad history. Early land grants (encomiendas) from the Spanish crown to peninsular colonists often also included the rights to forced labor (mandamiento). This gave hacienda owners all the hands necessary for their most labor-intensive and lucrative crop: sugar cane. And later this exploitation spread offshore, as countless Maya were kidnapped and sold into slavery to work the sugar cane plantations in Cuba.
A happier offshoot of sugar production is rum: an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented molasses or sugar cane juice, both by-products of the production of sugar from sugar cane. Precursors to rum are ancient, with ancestry going back at least as far as the 14th century, when Marco Polo reported a “very good wine of sugar” that he enjoyed in Persia. As his description implies, those early drinks would have been just the fermented cane juice. It was not until the 17th century in the Caribbean that this ferment was first distilled into what became officially known as “rum”. Similar to other distillates, it is then aged in oak casks; shorter aging yields a lighter color, while longer aging turns the rum a deep caramel color and adds a unique flavor.
Apart from beer, rum is probably the most popular alcoholic beverage consumed by modern Yucatecans. This trend dates back at least two centuries, and is due in large measure to Yucatán’s regional trade relationships with the United States and the Caribbean, a fact that also illustrates the Yucatecan indifference toward tequila, which is viewed as a Mexican drink. While most rums are imported from the Caribbean, D’Aristi at the Hacienda Vista Alegre just outside of Mérida produces the excellent rum “Caribe”, which won third place at the International Rum Festival in San Francisco in 2003.
Rum drinks like the Cuba Libre, Piña Colada and Mojito not only summon images of their tropical birthplace, but also wistful tales of that “reed which gives honey without bees” and its potent place in the history of the Caribbean and Yucatán.
Side Bar: Kahlúa
Also made from distilled cane sugar, Kahlúa is further flavored with Mexican Arabica coffee beans. While the sweet, coffee-flavored liqueur hardly plays a role of any prominence in Yucatecan drinking culture, it does warrant at least a footnote in the history of the peninsula. According to the company’s Web site, a Yucatecan coffee liqueur recipe dating from 1936 was refined in 1962 by a Mérida chemist – Montalvo Lara – to become the Kahlúa that we know today.
Similar to the issue with wine, beer in Yucatán has traditionally met with significant storage and production problems in an environment of year-round hot weather. With the importation of cooling technology in the late 19th century, Yucatán was finally ready to establish its first brewery. On 7 April, 1899, in Mérida, José María Ponce & Co. founded the Gran Cervecería Yucateca, which produced the Cruz Roja, Estrella, Conejo and Mestiza brands. In 1900 the company simplified its name to Cervecería Yucateca and built a major plant that soon became an icon in the heart of the city, on Calle 70 at Calle 63, near Parque Santiago.
The premier offering of the Cervecería Yucateca was a Vienna amber style beer called León Negra, which continues in popularity to the present day. Later, the brewers released the lager-style Carta Clara, and finally in the 1960s the pilsner-style Montejo, named after the founder of Mérida and Yucatán’s first governor, Francisco de Montejo. All of the beers of the Cervecería Yucateca were marketed as being suited to the regional palate and cuisine, and they quickly became favorites of Yuctecans – from the northern cosmopolitan city of Mérida to the smallest pueblos in the south.
In 1979, the Mexican giant Cervecería Modelo acquired Cervecería Yucateca. In an attempt to reposition the local products as comparable in quality and flavor to generic national beers, market share dropped, and in 2002 Modelo closed the Mérida plant and moved production of Montejo and León Negro to central Mexico, where it continues to the present.
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