Smoke in the Valley

Smoke In The Valley: Reflections of a Mezcal Apprentice

A Three Part Series

By: Nicholas Priedite

– Chapter One –

A Sense of Place

As a cook and bartender, I am naturally attracted to smell and taste, sensations of the palate. You know, coffee brewing, onions sweating, chicken roasting, bread baking, steak searing, citrus being juiced, herbs being chopped, sensations that most of us cannot deny, pure culinary hedonism. Buen Provecho. As a craftsman, I am further inspired by authenticity and technique. Yes, I’m talking about the women who have been making tortillas for thirty years, the men who have been forging cast iron for three generations, the mothers who have passed down their cake recipe to their children, my grandmother’s hands, arthritic from a lifetime of gardening, the studious sushi apprentice obsessing over rice.

Tools of the trade

Over the past five years I have found myself hunting for new flavors, sights, smells, people, and art, in a journey to discover not only new tastes, but to better understand food and beverage; what it means to its specific culture, and more precisely, what that craft means to the individual. How crazy do you have to be to love something so much that you’ll continue to perform said task for the rest of your life? Is the goal of perfection such an unattainable accomplishment that eventually all you’re left with is a confused sense of purpose?

Despite my existential musings, the moral of this story, at least, is that there are people that crazy. I worked with people who love what they do because first and foremost, it is distinctly and meditatively theirs. More importantly, it serves others. Perfection is not the goal, rather, fulfillment is found in the process, the rewards received warmly through human connection. There is beauty in humility, and, I’ve found, this beauty often manifests itself in food and in beverage. This idea crystalized for me in Oaxaca, a place drenched in culture and craft.

Asunciona Mendez, San Luis del Rio

Mezcal and I- An Introduction

My first encounters with mezcal were brief, messy, misunderstood, and normally intoxicated. We had fun, mezcal and I, but I was definitely left feeling a bit confused. We’ve since reconnected.
In my time organizing the bar program at The Lark in Santa Barbara, I began to have a much more informed and albeit, sober, experience with mezcal, thanks in large part to Michael Gardner and Jennifer Oakley from Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal. At this point, I had done considerably more research on the category since my raucous introduction and felt comfortable discussing the spirit behind the bar. However, I still did not have a firm grasp of just how ethereal and austere it really was.

The Valley of San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca

One afternoon, Jennifer sat me down to taste me through Del Maguey’s various expressions. She began pouring and explained different varietals, terroir, tasting notes, and most importantly, producers. I became enamored by its complexity. I will never forget my first sip of Don Rogelio’s Wild Tepextate, its floral ripeness, earthbound, and lined with this certain fruit component, something I had never tasted before. As I’m mulling the aromas and flavors through my head, she says it, “Banana taffy.” I lost it! Bought two bottles for the back bar on the spot. Recommending a sip to discerning customers became like a handshake between those in the know.
Until this point, I had never experienced such complexity in a distilled spirit. There were so many different flavors running across my palate, delicate yet rugged, clean but with so much depth. Call it discovery, call it love, call it timing, either way, mezcal had found me. Isn’t it funny how a few drunk and confusing nights can turn into a lifelong love affair?

The Red Ant River- El Rio Hormiga Colorada

Craft

My relationship with Del Maguey Partner, Michael Gardner, really solidified my connection with mezcal. Although we met through business and the bar, we have become good friends. He is someone I value as a friend and mentor. Not to mention his genuine and overall good-hearted sharp wit. Love you hermano. I have to thank him for the conversations we have had and continue to have surrounding mezcal, because they have always pivoted into overarching concepts of life, our experience of it, and who we are to become within it. And it was during these conversations with him that he had begun to dig into the true focus of what mezcal meant to him; from Del Maguey’s origins to Mexico and its people.
I continued to express my interest in the spirit, not only from a flavor and sensory standpoint, but from an orientation of craft as well.
Being a cook whose focus is barbecue; simplicity and fire have become two indoctrinated principles of what I do. I have travelled the United States meeting different barbecue chefs, understanding their craft and culture so that I could gain a better understanding in an effort to refine my own culinary skills. I may have devoured my weight in brisket and pork ribs by now. I mean, you could very well throw my greasy keister on the grill.
After learning more from Michael about the producers and the physical process of making mezcal, derived from agave, fire, and water, I began to notice some fascinating parallels between mine and their craft. Welcome to the culinary twilight zone.
I was at a certain point in my life where I was hungry to adventure, to be lost, and to discover something that could not be explained, but had to be experienced. Something wild, primitive, complex, and very much misunderstood and undiscovered, was calling me 2,000 miles away. Michael knew it and he helped steer me there.

Oaxaca, Mexico

Espadin in San Luis del Rio

I landed in Oaxaca City at the beginning of Dia de los Muertos, October 2019. I had been to Oaxaca before, but this was a whole new ball game. Sights, sounds, smells, energy, everything was elevated, reawakened, and seemed revitalized. The irony being that this week of celebration surrounds death. The Western, or at least Anglo, perspective of death is grim; eat, sleep, shit, pay taxes, die, and ashes; a discounted urn if you’re lucky. But in Oaxaca, the departed are celebrated, not so much mourned, but continually lived with in spirit. I’m not saying I danced and partied with some ancestors, but if there was ever a time and place in this world to live with them, this is it. It was refreshing to see tears, joy, and celebration in the face of death; something I had learned to be so decaying and absolute. It was real, and resonated within me, especially during a time when I had just lost my grandfather. I also found myself in a few situations where I had moments of clarity, of being totally present, all while experiencing my own sort of personal ego death.

I had crossed the Mexican border, into the mountains, on a journey to better understand the enigmatic and wild spirit of mezcal, but had also encountered a critical turning point in my life, a molting, similar to that of the snake, shedding the old, wearing the new, refreshed. There we go with the existentialism again. But it was true.

I was very lucky to be hosted in Oaxaca City by Gabe Bonfanti, Del Maguey’s Head of Sustainability and Misty Kalkofen, Del Maguey’s Madrina. They let me crash with them at their home, took me to a number of mercados, fiestas, panaderias, restaurantes, tiendas, and natural landmarks. They even helped set up an altar for my grandfather, a very common tradition during Dia de los Muertos, set with marigolds, bread, fruit, candles, and mezcal. I will never forget it. Even now, I can still feel him there, at that moment. I can’t thank Gabe and Misty enough for their hospitality; we shared some great experiences, and some great mezcal. Stigibeu!

Although my three years of studying Spanish in high school and seven years of filthy kitchen Spanish got me this far, my flaws were exposed deep in Mexico. Not quite as polished as I would have liked it to be. I fared well at markets and restaurants, but definitely was not ready to share a polite and concise conversation with any abuela, explaining why I didn’t have a wife yet. Aye, mijo.

Nonetheless, the plan was set. I was to spend four weeks in San Luis Del Rio, making artisanal mezcal and live with the family of Paciano Cruz Nolasco, an original Del Maguey producer for 25 years and the architect behind Vida Mezcal. I will be working with his son Marcos Cruz in his Palenque, which he had built himself. Formal language or not, I felt prepared. Everything was where it needed to be and I was ready to go. Vámonos muchachos!

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