Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
How are incarnations of recipes of mezcal de pechuga developed, regardless of whether or not the agave distillate is registered as certified? Many comedians and writers keep a pen and note pad on their night tables, enabling them to jot down ideas anytime during the night. They often awake at 3 am, don’t want to lose an idea which has just come into their subconscious, but want to keep snoozing for a few hours more. They’re afraid that if they keep sleeping the idea will vanish forever. Hence the brief middle-of-the-night-note-keeping tradition. In most cases recipes for mezcal de pechuga, by contrast, are simply passed on from generation to generation. And when a new concoction appears in the marketplace, it’s most likely the brainchild of a brand owner as opposed to a palenquero. I doubt if the latter awake in the madrugada to make notes.
After I developed my mezcal tasting wheel, despite it having 230+ different aromas and flavors noted, still occasionally a client on a mezcal tour with me would detect something not on the wheel. I would jot it down on a small scrap of paper at that very instant, then upon getting home put the note in a folder, ready for when it was time to publish a new edition. But the development of my two favorite mezcal de pechuga recipes to date, was different.
I often lead a mezcal lecture and tasting event when visiting former hometown Toronto. Several years ago the discussion topic was mezcal de pechuga. I brought along about a dozen bottles I had been sourcing from different palenques peppering the central valleys of Oaxaca. As the evening was coming to a close, there were six or seven attendees still there, thoroughly buzzed, and rambling. “How about doing one with maple syrup,” someone blurted out in gest. It was a Canadian crowd, so I suppose I was not all that surprised at the comment.
I wasn’t interested in spending a lot of money requesting a palenquero friend make me a batch, having no idea how it would turn out. So I began pondering about having a mere 20+ liters distilled in copper, as opposed to the more costly production in clay. I have a friend whose mezcal I virtually always covet, in part I surmise because of the water source; and of course there’s his top-notch skill set. I had sampled some of his turkey breast pechuga he had distilled for one of my export brand clients, and really liked it. It was poultry protein without any added fruits or herbs, but that subtle difference in flavor with just espadín and a large plump raw skinned turkey breast, was nevertheless remarkable.
What if I tweaked Maestro Rodolfo’s recipe just a bit, by having him add maple syrup? I bought a liter prior to returning home to Oaxaca, called my friend, and asked if he could make me a batch. Don Rodolfo knows how I like my mezcal, strong as in 60 – 63 percent ABV, with just a hint of whatever I ask him to add. I left it up to him to decide how much of the maple to add, at what point in the distillation, where and how. That first batch ended up being about 55 liters, of course too much for personal consumption, even for me. But I gave it out as samples for my mezcal touring clients, to my friends, and had it served and given out as gifts at my daughter’s wedding. I continue to have my buddy make it for me, just because I like it so much. However if others are not like minded and knocking at my door to acquire what I have on hand, whatever is in existence down the road will simply form part of the inheritance for my daughter.
The development of the lobster pechuga was different, but also based on a seed that was planted in my brain when fielding questions from a mezcal aficionado client out on one of my mezcal educational excursions. We had sampled about 18 different expressions including five pechugas made with poultry, at a palenque. I had been explaining how because of the mezcal boom various brand owners in an attempt to capture more of the retail market, had developed rather unique-sounding pechuga incarnations, make with meat of deer, iguana, rabbit, and the list goes on.
Later that same day, we were sitting down at a second distillery in Santa Catarina Minas (known for its clay pot distillation), chatting and sampling. The client was an East Coast commercial fisherman. He asked, “what about making a pechuga with fish?” My palenquera friend Maestra Rosario and I looked at each other, and in unison said something like “I don’t think so.”
I have a very strong fish allergy, which does not extend to shellfish. I turned to my friend, somewhat of an innovator in that not having been raised in a family of palenqueros she had become accustomed to trying to figure out on her own what would be good, and not-so: “But lobster, now that’s another kettle of fish; what do you think?” We looked at each other, smiled almost laughingly, and in unison said “let’s do it.” And so we did, but not without having to overcome hurdles.
Sourcing lobster inland in the state of Oaxaca? From where? Raw or cooked? Live or dead? The journey from sea to city? And what about the other ingredients and their amounts? And the base agave distillate to use? Now while I have registered lobster pechuga with the federal government affording us derechos reservados (all rights reserved), there certainly will be those who will try to copy. (All net proceeds inure to the benefit of the Maestra.) And even if I made full disclosure here and now, of everything, it would not be either the same, or in my respectful opinion, as good. Each distiller using traditional (ancestral or artesanal in the mezcal context) means of production and tools of the trade, has a style, a unique skill different from all the rest, and so what I developed with Maestra Rosario (and with Maestro Rodolfo) can never be duplicated. But still, let’s just say this particular mezcal de pechuga is indeed made with lobster and a selection of additional ingredients decided upon by my palenquera friend and I together, after discussion.
The first batch, very small since it was purely experimental, turned out well, with a bisque nose and finish, subtleness to the taste with just hints of the other ingredients and the base mezcal detectable. She sold out in a week, at a handsome price per bottle. How wonderful for her, and just as importantly for the mezcal aficionados who purchased it!
I work well with these two master distillers, one using copper and the other clay. I will continue my quest for developing different mezcal de pechuga recipes, with the resultant agave distillates hopefully continuing to respect the broader tradition. These were just two which I have tried, and loved. Not all have been winners (i.e. the lychee), but I’ll continue the journey. And now, I might just keep that pen and paper beside my night table. Anyone for pechuga con huevos y tocino, to help along the breakfast mezcal tradition?
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). Together with photographer Spike Mafford, Alvin is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances (Third Expanded Edition with Portraits). The publication is available at outlets in Oaxaca, or by emailing Alvin.