I can’t believe the number of people I’ve met. The number of stories I’ve heard. About people coming to San Miguel de Allende for a week. Falling under the town’s magical spell. And buying a house before they leave.
Don Day has been coming to San Miguel de Allende for eleven winters. And for the first four winters, he thought a little about buying a home. But not a lot. Then came 2008. And Don Day quickly noticed that there were suddenly more real estate signs on walls than there were crucifixes. And Don Day never thought about buying a home in San Miguel ever again.
Though he’s never wanted to buy a home, for at least ten of those eleven years there has been something that Don Day has always wanted to buy in San Miguel de Allende. For ten years Don Day has been thirsting for pulque.
Pulque. Mexico’s favorite drink. Or at least it was until about 50 years ago. Then, as in virtually every country in the world, beer took over and became Mexico’s everyday alcoholic beverage. And as much as Don Day loves beer, Don Day has had beer. But Don Day had never had pulque.
Now she who knows everything, Senora Wikipedia tells Don Day that pulque still represents 10% of the alcoholic beverages consumed in Mexico. And most of it is consumed in the central highlands where Don Day lives when Don Day lives in Mexico. So why is it that Don Day has been offered hash, cocaine, magic mushrooms and peyote in San Miguel but never been offered one single ounce of pulque.
What Don Day needed was a knight in slightly tarnished armor. Someone to lead him slightly astray. Enter stage left Cactus Jack Jacobs who had learned there was a pulqueria somewhere off the road to Queretaro.
Jack had heard about it from Olma McLendon who only three weeks before had been the tour guide on Don Day’s very first Fritanga (you can find out what a Fritanga is at http://dondayinsma.com/2014/04/09/san-miguel-seniors-get-fried-on-their-first-ever-fritanga/ but first finish reading this post).
Pulqueria. What a nice word. I love how the Mexicans give specific places to drink their very own names. Choperia. Mezcaleria. Pulqueria.
Olma was hosting a fiesta out at the family ranch, a going away party for Otto the Alsatian (Otto’s a dog with a dyslexic hip and yes, it was that kind of going away party). Would she agree to a little diversion, a little side trip from the fiesta to the pulqueria? This was Olma. Of course she would.
Before I tell you about the first time pulque touched Don Day’s lips, I should use those lips to tell you about pulque. Pulque is an alcoholic beverage (yes, I realize you guessed that part) that is made from the sap of the maguey plant. Unlike tequila and mezcal which are also made from maguey, the drink is not distilled but, like beer, it is fermented. The maguey or agave plant is the one Don Day (and maybe you) used to call the century plant because it only flowered every hundred years (and like Don Day you might already know it really only takes about 15 years to send up one of those sky high flower shoots).
That’s about all I knew about making pulque until Don Day arrived at the pulqueria. First though, Olma presented us with a fine Mexican lunch, served at one of those outdoor tables that seat twenty, the kind of lunch that never seems to stop coming, course after course.
We practiced for our pulque tossing by toasting old Otto with a couple of glasses of red and we were off. Don Day, Jack, Olma and three of Olma’s friends. Where I was going I wasn’t exactly sure and how to get there again I’m not sure I’d ever want to remember. Particularly when I think about the morning after.
We were the only people at the pulqueria except for Urbino the pulque maker, his family, a couple of pigs and a turkey. It obviously wasn’t a thriving business but Don Day expected that.
There used to be 14 pulquerias in San Miguel according to Ernesto, the guy who makes boots sparkle in the jardin. In the last pulqueria that Don Day had heard of still existing, a place on Calle Jesus, the pulque was being served with papaya and mango. That might be more distateful to Don Day than a spritzer.
Urbino took off his sideways hat and disappeared into a ramshackle shed that he called the tinacal. Don Day wondered if a pulqueria was like a Legion and millinery was forbidden. Don Day also thought we’d find tables and chairs inside and thought we were supposed to follow Urbino in but he gave us the stop sign. Women, children and strangers were not allowed into a tinacal Urbino told us. Urbino soon emerged with a plastic jug with a handle on the side, the kind Don Day’s Mom made Kool Aid in during the fifties. This was definitely not the calabash serving gourd I’d read about in my Mexican history books. And where were the fancy green glass pulque mugs I’d seen under the dust of San Miguel’s antique shops. The ones with names like flower pot and little goat. Instead Urbino handed a styrofoam cup to me and beckoned me to take a drink. No glasses. Nobody else to go first. OK. Except when it comes to fancy women, Don Day has seldom been shy.
The pulque looked like milk, thin like skim milk, with a little foam on top, like a latte. A little hug of the cup narrowed the opening and made it somewhat easier to not have it end up on my chin and chest. The pulque didn’t have a lot of taste. It was a little sour but it was a nice sour like a grapefruit. The odor reminded me of bread dough. It was a little unpleasant but the visiting Spaniard who, back in the 16th Century wrote, “There are no dead dogs, nor a bomb, that can clear a path as well as the smell of pulque”, was obviously prone to exaggeration.
Don Day thought what’s the big deal. I pursed up my lower lip to show my shortage of enthusiasm and passed the cup to Jack. He let out an “Hijole”, did a nod of the head sideways and back to show his lack of excitement and passed the pulque to Olma. A quick sip and it was back to Don Day.
I took another mouthful and thought again. Pulque was obviously about feeling fine not about fine flavor and Don Day had done that before in Mexico. I’d drank Sotol in Chihuahua, Raicilla in Puerto Vallarta (and San Miguel de Allende), Charanda in Patzcuaro and Carnival in Tequesquiapan. And long before, when I was a teenager in Canada, I’d drunk some pretty strange things like Zing and Riki simply because they were the cheapest way to give me the courage to ask a girl to dance.
Though it was definitely not love at first taste, Don Day was curious. The kind of curiosity I have about every thing you can eat and drink. I wanted to know more about making pulque and realized I knew little or nothing. It was time I did some reading about its history.
Pulque dates back at least a thousand years in Mexico, perhaps two thousand. The rest of the history I read was mostly myths and legends but Don Day loves a good story. Especially a drinking story.
One concerns the tlacuache, the Mexican opossum with the ears like a bat and the nose like Don Day’s that you sometimes spot in San Miguel. The tlachuache, by using his human-like hands to dig into the maguey and extract the naturally fermenting juice, became Mexico’s first drunk. The tlacuache was thought to set the course of rivers. Most of them are straight but, occasionally, they follow the tlacuache’s meandering path from pulqueria to pulqueria.
Another story tells of Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey, who discovered the elixir and from her breasts she fed pulque to her 400 rabbit children. Ometotchli, her number two rabbit was considered the god of pulque (no, Don Day was unable to figure out why the number one rabbit didn’t get to wear the crown). The other rabbits supposedly represent the various degrees of drunkenness which must have looked a little like the corner of Hidalgo and Mesones at 3:00 am on a Sunday morning when the little girl bunnies in the big girl shoes exit from The Mint and El Callejon.
The story of how pulque was made, I left to Urbino. He offered to not only tell us but take us back into his maguey plantation and show us how the liquid was extracted.
He took with him a primitive metal instrument that was obviously handmade, rinsed out the plastic jug which we had somehow managed to empty and placed a sieve on top of the jug. As we Fred Astaired our way through the sharp spikes of the maguey plants, Urbino told us that it took about twelve years for his plants to send up a stalk.
Right before the stalk appears, the center starts to swell as it creates the sugar required to feed the flowers and produce the seed. Urbino then chops the stalk off at the base, leaving a basin about 12 inches wide and deep where the aguamiel or honey water forms. The plant keeps producing the sap for up to six months.
When we arrived at one of the biggest agave plants, Urbino reached in and pulled back leaves that had been tucked over the opening. There was a gasp from Olma as at least 100 little flying insects were released into the air. Don Day thought to himself nobody told those Mexican mites that beer has replaced pulque.
Urbino scraped inside the hole releasing more juices and then placed his primitive metal instrument (he told me it didn’t have a name) down deep inside. The other end he held to his mouth and, with one big suck, he raised the juice into the vessel, placed the primitive metal instrument (do I ever wish it had a name) over the sieve and plastic jug and about 100 ml splashed into the bottom.
It was Jack’s turn to go first this time. His raised his eyes to show he was a little more positive than with the first batch. I detected a little difference but not a lot. It was a little less sour, a bit sweet, but it still wasn’t anything that had Don Day jumping up and down.
We asked Urbino how often he “milks” the magueys. He told us two, sometimes three times a day and that he can get five litres of aguamiel from a single plant in one day.
I asked Urbino if this liquid straight from the plant, the plain honey water, had a kick as well. Urbino was somewhat obscure, as he was with all questions about alchoholic content, but suggested that if the aguamiel is left in the plant for a while it can have some potency. But not as much as after it’s been in a barrel for a week Urbino told us.
And how much oomph does pulque have after it’s been in the barrel? Like I said, there was a lot of “mas o menos” when Urbino was questioned. So Don Day went back to Senora Wikipedia and some of her amigas. One source told me pulque was around 4 to 6%, about the same as a beer. Another told me it was about the same as wine, around 13 to 15%. Now when Don Day drinks beer he can have six bottles and still think he’s pretty nimble on his feet. When he has wine though, one bottle can easily trip him up. So was Don Day willing to go back to the jug in order to provide his readers with a conclusive answer. Sorry, not this time.
When I checked what the alcohol content of pulque was, Don Day found out something else. Someone has done a scientific analysis of pulque and found out that it contains thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. And to think that the power of advertising had convinced Don Day he had to eat Sugar Frosted Flakes to enjoy the benefits of these essential nutrients.
Cactus Jack and I found our way back (somehow) to the road to Queretaro which becomes the road to San Miguel if you drive the opposite way but before we left we received some advice. Be careful we were told. Be very, very careful.
“Pulque is like sourdough bread”, said Olma. “It just keeps on working and working.”
“It keeps fermenting in your stomach”, said Urbino. “It just doesn’t want to stop producing alcohol.”
“You drink and go hmmmmmm, which is where you’re at now”, continued Olma. “Then a couple of hours later you’re whohooing.”
I’m not sure that I hooted like an owl that night but what Don Day really needs to tell you about is the next morning.
I’d read a warning from the Rodale Institute: “Pulque should only be bought at reputable pulquerías, as contamination can be a problem if not made and stored properly. Many a case of the skitters has been caused by poorly made pulque.
The skitters? Is that what they call going out and buying a house the next morning. When you had absolutely no intention of even thinking about buying one. Yes, that’s what happened to Don Day the day after pulque.
Now Urbino was very proud of his pulque farm as simple as it was. But Urbino has a dream. Urbino would like to open a real pulqueria in the middle of San Miguel. And Don Day has a plan to perhaps make it happen.
The housing market has been like a punctured tire for years in San Miguel de Allende. But what if all of the real estate agents in town invested 1000 pesos in Urbino’s pulqueria? Urbino would then have enough start-up money to hang a shingle. And every tourist with a thirst for the mysterious elixir, the legendary pulque, would enter Urbino’s pulqueria. And the next day, just like Don Day, they’d, of course, all purchase a new home. And, just like Don Day, they’d probably vow to never ever drink pulque again.