Tucson is gearing up to celebrate all things agave with the annual Agave Fest. It began Friday, August 28, at Mission Garden in Tucson with tastes of alcohol distilled from agave hearts. Bacanora is to Sonora as tequila is to Jalisco, mezcal is to Oaxaca and sotol is to Chihuahua. Bacanora and sotol are the lesser-known. This is how bacanora is described in Tequila: a natural and cultural history by Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan:
“Bacanora: A bootleg mescal made from the northernmost populations of Agave angustifolia var. Pacifica in sonora and adjacent Chihuahua, sometimes mixed…with A. palmeri. Named for the small rancheria of Bacanora near the pueblo of Sahuaripa, Sonora, this mescal was recently legalized and commercialized, but the clandestine cottage industry product by this name remains the pride of Sonorans.” Bacanora has now been legally sold since 1992, but old-timers still have nostalgia for the unmarked bottles obtained with a little stealth from a Mexican rancher friend.
Native Americans and Mexicans have for centuries used agave as a food source. The agaves are harvested shortly after they start to send up a bloom spike. All the sugars are concentrated then. If you cut the bloom spike when it is just coming out, it can be sliced and eaten raw and is reminiscent of jicama. However Jesus Garcia cautioned the audience that the raw sap from the agave heart is very caustic and any that ends up on your skin will cause an itchy welt. When the leaves are removed from the agave and the hearts baked, the result is a fibrous sweet pulp. The volunteers at Mission Garden have constructed a traditional earth oven and Jesus Garcia demonstrated how to prepare the harvested agave for roasting.
Several decades ago when I was doing the research for my first book American Indian Food and Lore (now American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest), I learned the lesson about the caustic agave sap the hard way as I spattered the raw pulp with every swing of the machete. While an earth oven gives baked agave a lovely smoky taste, you can also bake agave in a regular oven. I did this for the first time in about 20 years this week with a heart provided by Mission Garden. It was such a huge agave, that I had to quarter it to fit in my home oven.
Agave hearts that I have baked that are about the size of a large cauliflower have taken 10 hours at 350 degrees to become soft. These were larger and took about 17 hours until the leaves were soft enough to pull away from the core.
A few years ago, I visited a mezcal-making demonstration in Oaxaca. Once the agave heads are nicely baked and caramelized, they are cooled, unloaded and the leaves are separated. This crusher is the traditional way that the baked agave leaves are crushed to release the sweet pulp from the fibers. A draft animal goes round and round crushing the baked leaves to a pulp.
There are many more events coming up next week for Agave Fest: a dinner, a brunch, lectures, seminars. One I’m sure not to miss is the mezcal and chocolate pairing at Maynards at 7 p.m. May 4. You can read all about it at www.agaveheritagefestival.com or look on Facebook.
Interested in more recipes for wild desert foods? Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious mesquite recipes as well as recipes for 22 other easily recognized and gathered southwest plants. For at look at Native American uses for agave and other desert plants, see American Indian Cooking, Recipes from the Southwest. For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.