Last night I drank one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted in the scabbiest bar I’ve ever been in.
I’m in Xochimilco, Nahuatl for ‘place where flowers grow’, a gritty working-class suburb south of Mexico City, remnants of floating gardens surrounding the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
It’s known for its gaudy floral gondolas- long flat boats which are punted up and down the canals in a carnivalesque atmosphere and also for ‘pulquerias’, places to drink the ancient alcoholic sap from the native maguey plant.
For the sake of research, my host Macarena, and I go to an oddly simultaneously famous and clandestine pulqueria. Behind a nondescript wooden door, I go with the recommended lemon pie flavour and step inside. It’s like a bombed-out garage. Dirt floor. Shredded tarps hang over gaps in the walls. I wonder how bad it is behind the tarps if the scabby tarps beautify it. Its definitely more spit then sawdust. There’s about eight old men, a group of young goths and a couple of young women playing with a cat, sitting on simple wooden benches against the walls. In the middle are a couple of crates with a bit of cardboard on top. A grubby unframed copy of the classic pub picture of dogs playing pool is sellotaped to a pole behind the goths. There’s space next to them. I’d like to take a picture but it doesn’t feel appropriate.
These people look happy, it’s about 6%.
Macarena has a beer. She doesn’t drink milk. It’s a texture thing, she says.
They bring over a terracotta half litre mug for me. The liquid inside is white, viscous, spunky. It’s easy to see why it hasn’t caught on. I try not to think too much and take a big gulp and its sweet first then tart and it tastes just like lemon meringue pie. The slight foaminess of the texture adds to it with this flavour, its actually fantastic. For a while. It starts to get gacky but I manage the whole half a litre because it is so delicious. I’m intrigued, I want to know more about pulque, and try it again, although not tonight.
Also known as agave wine, pulque has been drunk in Mexico for over 1000 years and has almost mythological origins. It is made from the nutritious fermented sap of the incredibly useful native maguey or century plant, which has to reach maturity, taking about 12 years after which the plant dies. The larger specimens are getting increasingly harder to find as the big, thick older leaves are also used to make barbecue firepits.
Pulque can’t travel far, it spoils moving around too much, it ferments quickly and sours quickly too. Originally a ritual drink, for the priests and their sacrificial victims, its’ production was also heavily ritualized and sexual abstinence was advised in case it made it too sour.
Elderly and pregnant women were eventually also allowed to enjoy its vitamin-enriched and filling properties, but other than that, it was for nobles only.
After the conquest, like a lot of things, it lost its sacred character and both Spanish and indigenous started to drink it. Although lucrative for tax purposes but a cause of sexual crimes and violence, pulque lost favour and was seen as male, rough and rustic.
The non-fermented sap is known as ‘aguamiel’, honey water. Still incredibly nutritious, it’s not as thick as pulque, that happens with the fermentation process which can take place inside the plant itself. One story on Wiki says opossum discovered pulque – with it’s human-like hands it was able to dig in, get the naturally fermenting juice and become the first pissed idiot.
I am delightedly told the myth about starting the fermentation off with a ‘muneca’ – an old hessian wrapped straw doll filled with all sorts of substances, camel spit, dog or even human shit. ‘Oh no!’, my stomach gurgles.
Nonetheless, the next evening, I was happy to give pulque another try and willing to let Macarena lead the way. She suggested that we went to the notorious ‘Temple of Diana’, one of only about a hundred pulquerias left in the whole of Mexico, it has been an institution for over 50 years.
We arrive animated, having to walk a couple of extra blocks as the cab gets diverted by a fabulous procession of elaborately dressed dancers, a full on Jesus parade with a huge band and a massive crowd carrying sculptures of saints with frilly outfits, on their shoulders.
As we step through the saloon style swing doors, it’s obvious this pulqueria has loads more class and the place is half full with a mixed crowd. It’s tiled floor to ceiling all the way round and colourful paper bunting is draped from each corner. There’s a ditch round the bar for the slops to go down and apparently where the blokes would piss too, back in the day. The toilet was a later addition from when the women were allowed to enter, but looking at the scabby plastic door in the corner, I dread to see the state of it.
A large screen tv high up in the corner blares the commentary of the latest Mexican wrestling.
Tables of four sit around on plastic chairs, a couple of cowboys amongst them, scooping glasses of pulque from a big blue bucket in the middle.
On the wall behind the counter is a large sign which describes around 40 flavours or ‘curados’. Some are vegan, some seasonal, between £1.25 and £2 for a half litre. One of the special flavours is oyster, the thought of the texture makes me physically shudder.
I head to the bar to chat to the barman about his specialities.
He says the most popular is the natural and then the oat, celery and tomato, which are all made in house. Avena -oat- ‘good for a man’s milk’ he grins, pumping his arm enthusiastically.
The thought of a savoury pulque isn’t appealing at the moment so I have the cherry one which is normally one of my favourite flavours. It tastes like a lassi but vegan. It’s delicious but I have to admit the lemon pie still reigns. Then I spot chocolate on the menu, my absolute favourite, so we decide to go out on a short gondola trip and come back for one of those later.
We walk a few minutes down to the dock. Macarena knows a lot of the people in the area so she negotiates the price. She organized teams to do all the mosaics which decorate the neighbourhood. I remember the axolotl piece from a previous visit, it highlights the scarcely a thousand wild axolotls which still just about manage to exist there, despite development.
We clamber over the wedged gondolas to one which can be manoeuvred out by a young lad who looks about twelve. He has a long bamboo pole which he gently pushes against the shallows and we are off.
It’s leisurely at first, pleasant, drinking a beer and peacefully drifting past concrete houses on shore, yapping dogs following the boats progress to their boundaries.
Several sections of the canal system are lively. There are clumps of gondolas, all having competing parties. It’s 7pm on a Sunday night and clearly some people have been at it all day. Most people raise a glass and cheer as we punt and bump and shunt past each other in the narrow canals. Filled with drunken families, whole dynasties are sat on wooden chairs around tables heaving with booze and grub. There’s a constant soundclash from sound systems and boats loaded with varying sizes of mariachi bands in full costume.
There’s a lot of traffic at this time of night, narrow boats with braziers maintaining vats of corn cobs on a roiling boil. A woman has a tiny bar in a canoe – she’s mixing up spicy micheladas to a tinny radio while a man directs with two stubby oars. Rafts are tied up against the bank in wider areas, piled with souvenir mugs or glossy, sticky fruit, swarming with flies as a young girl idly flicks a manky rag.
It’s loud, hectic, and great fun. Once our time is up, the lad docks us back at the embarcadero, huddled amongst the other gondolas. We sit on the boat to finish our beer so we can take the bottle back. A small gang of teenage boys lark about a couple of gondolas over, constantly looking our way, elbowing each other and making a lot of fuss over smoking a spliff. Within minutes the lareyist one is leaning over the water, puking dramatically.
As dusk arrives the atmosphere gets slightly heavier, so we head back to the pulqueria – I’m looking forward to my chocolate pulque.
When it arrives, it’s pale, which is always a bad sign with chocolate. It’s tooth-achingly sweet and cloyingly thick with only a faint chocolateyness but there’s also a background sourness that doesn’t quite fit. I know instantly that I won’t be able to drink too much of it.
A heavyset goth guy pushes through the saloon doors and walks up to the counter. I watch the man behind it make his order- a dash of some lumpy orangey liquid, a big ladle of pulque then five heaped tablespoons of sugar, all whizzed up in a blender.
It puts me off immediately.
The goth is handed an oversized polystyrene cup full of the liquid and a thick plastic straw and he turns and wanders out, happily sucking away.
The shutters are rattling down by nine, its early doors apparently in the pulque business. As they are closing I get a few more samples. The celery is amazing, less tacky, a little bit spicy, reminiscent of a Bloody Mary. The tomato was sweet but insipid and despite my previous misgivings, I am definitely beginning to see pulques savoury potential and a slight preference to the over-sweetened ‘curados’.
Later that week, I’m visiting family in nearby Tlaxcala, pulque country, and they want me to try it there. Dotted all over the state are massive haciendas which have grown rich from the ‘pulque trains’ which were developed to deliver it straight into the city. Xochimilco was one of the sixteen boroughs of Mexico City which received it directly from here.
I climb in the back of Carlos and Marie’s car and we drive for half an hour up a dusty semi-desolate motorway and turn-off to Tlaxco, a nearby ‘magic town’ with an abundance of pulque heritage.
We have a wander around, they buy an ice-cream, we walk under the palisade of wooden arches which lines one side of the zocalo. The narrow and decrepit rooms that lead off this are filled with taco stalls, their traditional flat griddle pans sizzling with small piles of finely-diced meat.
At the end there’s a woman with a colourful apron under the arches. She has a stall facing into the square, a long table with three big buckets on it, the flavours of the day. Above her is a banner with an old black and white photo of the pulqueria from many years ago, it’s barely changed. Chatting away, she gladly fills a shot glass with a small sample of each. Strawberry, coconut and pineapple. They’re very sweet and quite thick. I doubt I can manage much of any of them. Even Carlos, my Mexican father, although he tries, he can’t finish his litre. The whole town looks, and feels, quiet – ‘nothing has been the same since the new road has been constructed’, she sighs.
We take a back road to look at a small stone church on the way home. It’s very atmospheric, bleak and deserted, straight out of a Western. A little further along the road there’s a couple of gateposts demarcating a track which leads off into the distance. One of the posts has a 5-litre white plastic bottle nailed to it with the word ‘pulque’ scrawled on it in thick red paint. Remembering the muneca, I shudder slightly, deciding I’ve had enough for the moment. Never having had either kids or dogs , I guess I have a relatively low point where my gag reflex starts to kick in and I’m finding it hard to even look at it now. It hasn’t helped that Carlos keeps describing it as ‘baboso’ -a quick google translate says ‘slimy’ and shows images of snails.
Currently, interest in artisanal drinks, food, products and experiences is gathering pace, it’s only a matter of time before pulques popularity sees a resurgence and global recognition beckons. I hear somewhere they are going to try to start selling it in cans so if they can do something about that challenging texture, this savoury, visceral, vitamin-rich sap could well be the new coconut water!