“I’ve bought from almost everybody in this area” laughs Humberto between gulps, “and I’ve gotten sick lots of times.”
I eye him warily from my side of the pick-up truck.
It’s nine in the morning. His white, manicured mustache has been painted magenta by the prickly pear pulque he is drinking from a plastic cup.
I am suddenly nervous about the prospect of hunting down this backwoods beverage in the hills of central Mexico with a self-proclaimed pulque fanatic.
Dona Beatriz, he assures me, has the cleanest, best operation in the area near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Her skills are the culmination of an entire family history of growing maguey cactus and producing this frothy, fermented alcoholic drink that, according to my good friend and guide for the day, will fill you up faster than it will get you drunk.
Humberto always calls ahead and when we arrive at her house she is already preparing the quesadillas that have become her other claim to fame. Maize morado, indigenous corn, gives the tortillas their deep blue color and each is filled with melted Oaxaca-style cheese, corn, squash blossoms, onion, tomato, and epazote, topped with a roasted red salsa. She brings us each a liter size mug of white, creamy pulque to wash them down. The pulque has the tangy scent of rising bread and depending on how much or how little aguamiel she adds the moment before she serves it, can be strong and sour, or sweet and mellow, all calculated to her customers tastes. The quesadillas melt in our mouths, the pulque goes down smooth.
Behind Dona Beatriz’s tiny house in the community of La Lagunilla, is an acre and a half size field of maguey plants. These monster cacti are almost double the size of their caretaker as she ambles among them, bucket in hand three times a day collecting lightly sweet aguamiel, the thin honey-flavored sap of the cactus, that after a few days of fermentation will become pulque. The field was originally planted by her mother-in-law, abandoned for a time, and brought back to life by Beatriz and her husband.
Each maguey plant is ready to use at around 7 years old. When it’s time, Dona Beatriz and her son Ivan cut a hole in the center of the enormous cactus, place a bucket inside and scrap the interior to begin the production of aguamiel. Every day she collects the liquid and scrapes the inside of the center-most leaves, pulling away a substance resembling wax or paper pulp from the heart of the maguey. This daily ritual ensures that the maguey will continue producing, usually up to three months, before its juice is exhausted and the plant dies. The fresh aguamiel is then strained and added to the already fermenting pulque, keeping its taste and acidity balanced. She sells the pulque at 10 pesos a liter, about 80 cents and the aguamiel, because it is more valuable and a key ingredient in her production, at 15 pesos a liter, about 1.30. Aguamiel is said to have medicinal properties and has been used as an antibacterial, a stomach remedy and even as a sugar substitute for diabetics. Dona Beatriz is convinced that it healed a lingering throat infection she had several years ago that she could find no cure for and Humberto swears that all the pulque drinking he does is definitely improving his health.
Besides selling pulque Beatriz sells her maguey plants. Maguey cactus produce suckers or adventitious shoots, which sprout baby magueys near the original parent plant. These cacti are often mistakenly called century plants when they actually live closer to 30 years and flower only at the end of their lifetime. They are truly majestic. A maguey nursery sits in the furthest reaches of Beatriz’s property, bordered by her milpa, a section of land used to grow corn, bean, and squash. The young magueys (at about 4 foot tall) won’t be ready for several more years to turn out aguamiel, and they are Dona Beatriz’s future investment as she struggles to make an income from pulque production. Once upon a time she sold pulque in town, but nowadays her market is limited to those who wander off the Unbeaten path that leads to her tiny rural community of La Lagunilla outside of San Miguel de Allende in the dead center of Mexico. On her shaded patio besides the church she serves up incredibly simple and delicious Mexican fare: quesadillas, gorditas, barbacoa and she “always has a little pulque on reserve, because you never know who might show up looking for some…”
Lydia Carey lives in central Mexico and works as the editor and translator of This: Viaje y Estilo. She is co-owner of verbamate.com, a translating and editing company. In her spare time she roams the country with Ercilia, Mona and Chicken (two of them dogs, one human) looking for a good story or a really cold beer.