The minute we got the itinerary for our trip to Mexico with the folks from Altos Tequila, we knew it was going to be memorable. Three days, from Arandas (North, in Jalisco) to Mexico City, with a bunch of fun stuff packed in between. We’d be hitting one of Mexico City’s largest and most historic markets, taking a hands-on cooking lesson and an ATV tour of the agave fields (which really turned out to be some of the most beautiful sweeping vistas we’ve ever seen), seeing a couple mariachi performances, and, of course, drinking tequila.
Since we never pass up the chance for some boozy travel, we packed immediately.
A Quick Tour of a Large Distillery
We hit the road at around one in the afternoon on Day 1, and rather than head straight to the hotel, we stopped for a quick tour of the Olmeca distillery and, naturally, a tasting of the juice. After a 6-ish hour flight, a distillery tour wasn’t the first thing we’d want to do, but Disteleria Colonial de Jalisco’s Master Distiller, Jesús Hernandez, made it a painless transition. He took us through the massive ovens that bake the agave piñas, the hearts of the agave. Naturally, with ovens that size, it was hot as hell, but the smell of charred yam and sweet potato helped mitigate the brutal climate.
Hernandez showed us how agave pulp is divided into unequal (Read: Secret) parts, one part being turned through a highly efficient roller mill, and one being mashed by an old school stone wheel. The goal of all this mashing is to squeeze all that delicious agave juice from the pulp, where it’s fermented, distilled, and turned into tequila. We moved on to the bottling facility, then the aging warehouse (which was packed to the gills with hundreds upon hundreds of barrels—mostly American White Oak—filled to the brim), and then capped it with the ceremonial “quality assurance test” of the finished product. After some healthy product assessment, we hopped back into the van and rolled.
An Old School Hacienda and a Crash Course in Mexican Street Photography
The hotel was located only a short ten minutes or so from the distillery, so after a quick romp through the streets of Arandas, we found ourselves, tired and sweating, in the lobby of the rustic and beautiful Hotel Hacienda Vieja. The lobby looked exactly as you’d expect an old hacienda to: A beautiful colored marble walk; ornate flower decorations; an aged wooden bar with golden accents, with wine and spirits glasses packed overhead.
Every member of the group was given their room key and politely warned not to stray too far, as there was only an hour or two until dinner. Most elected to catnap before supper, but a few of us stayed behind and decided to tour the city. Plans were made, hands were shaken, and hotel bar beers were ordered. We zipped up to the rooms, dropped our bags and, like eager gazelles, sprinted down to the lobby, where we met with our fellow travelers and hit the streets.
We’ve written about street photography before, but our set from Arandas is an excellent example of the kind of stuff we’re always yammering on about. We look back at these photos and feel the sun warming our skin, cascading down the walls of these brightly colored homes, businesses, and churches. We can smell the unburnt fuel out the exhausts of the two-stroke dirt bikes and old sputtering trucks meandering down the concrete slab. We look back and can see the smiles and faces of the people that make this town so genuine and charming. We hate the word “charming,” but there really is no other way to describe it.
First Night Out on the Town
Dinner that night was special, to say the least. Gourmet tacos from a world class Mexican chef (served via food truck, naturally), tequila cocktails, and a mariachi band. That was easily one of the best meals we’ve ever had, where the quality and characteristics of Mexican cuisine were on full display. But an unexpected highlight came later in the evening and is what showed us this wasn’t going to be your standard press trip.
We went out for drinks at one of the small town’s local dives, Happy Bar, and met up with some renowned bartenders competing in some crazy Altos-sponsored contest. At least, from what we recall (which isn’t much). The rogue bartenders brought life to the otherwise sleepy dive, whose walls were adorned with cute sayings, bizarre picture frames, hand-painted letter work, and various other quirky ornaments from plastic skeletons to tattered old street signs that read “Corona St.”
We ended day one with a Cuban on the balcony of our hotel. Not bad, eh?
Agave Filled Afternoon
Day 2 was equally eventful, and began in the lobby with a breakfast of coffee, toast, and copious sunscreen. Though we were warned that we should bring an outfit we wouldn’t mind getting dirty for Day 2, it wasn’t immediately revealed to us why. Well, as it happens, we we were going on a little tour of the Olmeca’s agave fields in the Los Altos region of Jalisco—by way of ATV. And we were reunited with our friend Jesús Hernandez—when he’s not a master distiller, he’s a hell of a tour guide.
To start, tequila country is absolutely breathtaking. Even with the sun at full bore during high noon and without a cloud in the sky, we were having a blast dipping and weaving over rocks, fishtailing through long straightaways of thick red-brown dust, and blasting down old cobble roads. Touring the countryside out in the fields, specked with hectare after hectare after hectare of striking blue agave, with rolling hills and flat land as far as the eye can see, all while the pistons in the motor underneath us clattered confidently in their thin cylinder walls. It was the kind of adventure we recommend every man experience at least once in his lifetime.
After an elaborate catered lunch in the agave fields—complete with our mariachi heroes from the evening prior, who emerged from the agave like a lost battalion from a forgotten Mexican war—we were back in the van and on our way to the hotel, where we’d shower, check out, and hop on a plane to our next destination: Mexico City
Escuela de Cocina en la Ciudad de México
We began Day 3 with a trip to one of Mexico City’s largest and most storied markets, Mercado de Medellín. As history tells it, the market is famously known as the “immigrant’s market” because it’s one of the only places in Mexico City where you’ll find foods from outside the region. Each of the country’s regions have their own distinct food culture, so if you’re a recent transplant from somewhere else in Mexico, you can come here and still find the tastes of home.
Outside of that, the market is also one of the only places you’ll find other Latin-influenced foods from places like Cuba, Ecuador, and Colombia. We learned that from Jorge Fitz, renowned Mexican chef who gave us a thorough a tour of the market, expert as he was. We got to taste regional cheeses and meats, hot sauces, mole sauces (there are so many different types of mole sauces), sweets, and peppers. After some more meandering around the market, we followed Jorge back to his home/cooking-school/incredible-rooftop-lounge, and it was there our tutelage began.
First, let us say that here in the States, we pride ourselves on being Mexican food snobs. We’d eat the stuff every day if we could. But what Jorge and his partner Berto cooked up for us was some of the best food we’ve ever tasted. Using the ingredients we picked up from the market earlier in the day, we put together a meal fit for a Jaliscan king.
We rolled up our sleeves and got our hands dirty making salsa with the various chiles, from-scratch tamales with the local mole sauce, the best guac on Earth (a recipe we’re keeping to ourselves), and mango flambé, flamed with tequila, naturally. We’ve posted the recipe to our favorite dish, the tamales, below.
TAMALES OAXAQUEÑOS WITH MOLE NEGRO
1kg Tortilla “massa” (nixtamalized corn drough)
1 ½ Cup cold chicken broth
500g Shredded chicken (1/2 onion, allspice berries, bay leaves)
2 tbsp. Dry tequesquite (mineral leavening agent) or 2 tsp. Baking soda
300g Mole negro (or Oaxaca mole) paste
- In a pot, cream the lard until it “swells up” and becomes silky.
- Incorporate the corn masa and the lard, working it so it is homogenous.
- Grind the cooked rice in a mortar or Metate until it becomes a manageable paste.
- If needed, add chicken brother (spoonful by spoonful) until you have a very smooth and manageable dough that’s easy to lift from the pot.
- Put the chicken in a pot, cover it with cold water, and add half a small onion, 2 Mexican bay leaves, and 2-3 allspice berries.
- Let boil in high heat for approximately 30 minutes.
- Take out chicken and shred it when cold enough to handle.
- Let broth cool down. Save it.
In a medium saucepan, make the mole by slowly adding chicken broth to the mole paste on medium heat (or vegetable broth, or even water, if you prefer). Let the mix simmer until you can see the bottom of the pan when you move the spoon from side to side. Set aside and do not stir.
Cut banana leaves into 25×25 centimeter squares and then broil them in a pan for five minutes until they change color.
- Add water to the steamer and put it on high heat.
- Make a ball of dough a size that’s somewhere between a ping-pong and a tennis ball.
- Flatten it on one of the banana leave squares until it’s approximately ¼ inches thick.
- Add a generous spoonful of mole on the dough and sprinkle it with shredded chicken. (Note: The goal here is to make sure you’re not using too much mole, too little chicken, and too much dough. It’s a tricky ratio, but it comes with practice—you’ll be making more batches of this, anyway).
- This is the hard part. Fold the banana leaf down toward you, over the mound of masa, chicken, and mole, until it lines up with the edge of the bottom of the banana leaf. Then, pinch both edges together and fold it back over (so the bottom edge that was just flat on the table is now facing the ceiling, and is folded away from you). Again pinching the two sides of the banana leaf, make a tight fold, down half way through the end of the masa. Make another little baby fold to act as a closure, then turn it all around and take the two edges and fold them up and toward the center of the tamale.
(Note: If that sounds a little difficult to grasp via text, just remember that you need to fold them in a way where they won’t leak out over the other tamales when they’re being steamed later. Feel free to do it anyway that works).
- Place a layer of banana leaves at the bottom of a big steamer pot, place the tamales (flat) on top of the leaves, cover with more banana leaves, then cover those leaves with a towel to prevent steam from leaking. Close the steamer as tightly as possibl.
- Cook on high for 40 minutes.
After our expert cooking lesson, we traveled back to the hotel, rested for a bit, and went out for our final night in Mexico. A chance meeting with an alleged Mexican porn producer named Nacho, one stolen phone, and $450 dollars of Cuban cigars later, we were (drunk) on our 7 a.m. flight home from Mexico. Not bad for a quick go around the country!