Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Agave by any other name

Mexico’s biggest claim to fame in the botanical world is the development of corn over the millennia from tiny teosintle seeds to plump ears suitable for sustaining large populations. But its most iconic plant is probably the agave.

Agaves are native to Mexico, Central America, and the southwestern desert of the United States. In English it is known as the century plant and in Spanish as maguey. However in both English and Spanish you can refer to it as agave – its genus name.

The most portrayed agave is the Blue Agave, appearing on most Tequila brand-labels sold around the world. The largest agave plants I’ve seen are on the grounds of southern Mexico City’s Dolores Olmedo Museum – just past the gift shop. The most extensive plantations I have seen are in the Yucatan Peninsula’s henequen fields. The fastest growing agave I’ve seen is in Big Bend National Park along the Texas border with Chihuahua and Coahuila – a species of agave whose flower stalk grows at the rate of a foot a day!

Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who arrived in New Spain in 1529, described agaves as looking like a giant artichoke and pointed out how rows of agave were used to anchor terraced farming fields. As with all the plants Sahagún wrote about he was especially interested in agaves’ medicinal properties. In the case of agave he also took special note of its use in rituals.

U.S. historian William H. Prescott published “The History of the Conquest of Mexico” in 1843. He too referred to the agave with admiration, writing “the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the tableland. Its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing and writing materials. Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!”

Twentieth-century Mexican historian Fernando Benítez described the maguey as a plant adapted to the Mexican desert: “Like a horse of the plant-world, it is capable of retaining a great quantity of water and making it through the worst of droughts. So as to not let go of a single drop it armors itself like medieval warriors with an impermeable shield and numerous thorns to keep its enemies at bay.”

Calling the agave a century plant is a bit of an exaggeration. The life span ranges from 5 to 70 years. A trait that is common to all the 200 species is that each plant only flowers once. Then the mother plant dies, leaving “children” to grow from its roots and seeds in the flower. The flowers are spectacular atop the stalk, which on the largest plants may be 8 to 10 meters (24 to 30 feet) high.

Today’s best-known agave products are tequila, made in Jalisco, and mezcal mainly produced in Oaxaca. Both of them are produced with a European distillation process. Before the conquest, Mesoamericans fermented the sap of the agave to produce pulque, a liquor with an alcoholic content similar to beer. It’s a tradition still maintained today. The fermentation never stops so you can’t bottle pulque. You need to buy it from a pulquería where the fermentation is monitored.

As farming in the U.S. mid-west boomed in the late 19th century, the meter-long (3 feet) fibers from a type of agave known as henequen was used to make twine to bale hay. The fiber was known in the United States as sisal – called that because it was shipped out of the Yucatecan port of Sisal.

Henequen haciendas in the Yucatan were a tremendous source of wealth. At the turn of the twentieth century the city of Merida had the distinction of having the world’s highest per-capita number of millionaires. Their palatial mansions still line Paseo de Montejo.

In the 1970’s the Echeverría administration set up Cordemex, a government-owned company as a guaranteed purchaser of henequen leaves from small farmers at defibering plants in Campeche and Yucatan. Successive governments did not follow suit and today only 15 of the defibering plants survive. A couple of them are on the road from Merida to Chichen Itza. They welcome visitors but their workday starts at 4 a.m. and is over at 11 a.m., so you need to get there early.

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