Thread Caravan's Mezcal & Mole Workshop in Oaxaca
If you're looking for a unique travel experience, but also eager to learn something new along the way - you should look into the 'Thread Caravan'. This travel group offers art workshops around the world and recently hosted a trip to none other than - Oaxaca! [Gringo pronunciation: WaHACA]
They got in touch with local farmers and learned what it takes to turn agave plants into mezcal and even got their hands into cooking some traditional-style mole.
We spoke to the group's founder and facilitator Caitlin Ahern about what it was like day-to-day, plus the steps it takes to produce these Mexican treasures.
Make sure to check out details for their next trip to Oaxaca - April 9th to 13th.
What is a typical day like in the mezcal workshop?
As a whole, the workshop is divided into three full days - a day for going to pulenques to learn how to craft mezcal, a day for making mole and other traditional Mexican dishes, and then a day to do an assortment of activities specific to the area (like visiting natural infinity pools on the side of a cliff)
During our mezcal workshop, we visit various pulenques to see and participate in the full process of making mezcal. The day has a tentative schedule, but it's impossible to construct something concrete because the farmers are constantly at various stages in the process.
Luckily, we work with a knowledgable guide who has been in the business for over a decade and knows many farmers. This way, we're able to contact farmers and palenqueros a couple of days before our trip to see where they are in the process and choose specific farm visits.
What is a typical day be like in the mole workshop?
During our day making mole, we actually create a full meal including other local dishes. We venture to a local market with a renowned local chef where we select the necessary ingredients for the meal.
We then return to the chef's home where we work alongside her and her soux chefs to prepare mole and the other dishes. As her soux chefs add the finishing touches, our group does a mezcal tasting.
We wrap up by having a group meal together, sharing stories and enjoying the local flavors. This meal was by far the group favorite during our first trip, partially because it's so delicious and well-made, but also partly because a lot of personal love and labor goes into creating it.
Who are the people teaching you?
We work with a Canadian expat who is well-connected in the mezcal world, and connects us to various pulenqueros who teach us their skills. Then we work with chef Pilar Cabrera for the cooking day.
How did you learn about them?
Various friends of mine who traveled to Oaxaca and live in Oaxaca recommended them.
Mezcal & Mole Steps:
What are the 5 steps to making mezcal?
1. Growing and harvesting the agave - Towards the end of agave's life, a quiote stalk sprouts up as a method of reproduction. Farmers cut the quiote allowing all the nutrients that would be sent there to be sent solely into the center base of the agave plant - the piña. Next the leaves of the plant are removed and the piña is harvested.
2. Roast the piñas - The large piñas are roasted in various styles. This is one thing that contributes to mezcal's smokey flavor.
3. Grind the piñas - The piñas are ground up to a smaller pulp. Traditionally this is done using a mule and a larger stone wheel.
4. Fermentation - The pulp is put in large containers to ferment with natural yeasts. The type of container is another factor that can greatly impact the flavor.
5. Distillation - The fermented pulp and liquid is then distilled twice to yield the finished beverage. Again, this step can be done in various forms. One method is to put fruit in the distillation vat to enhance the flavor.
What was the most difficult part about making mezcal?
Probably chopping the agave leaves off the plant with the machete. Those leaves are surprisingly tough! One hack normally won't do it, so you've got to be accurate and hit the same spot a couple times to sever the leaf.
What was the most difficult part about making mole?
Being patient to eat it!! It's an intricate recipe, and if you're making it from scratch, there are many steps...but it's rewarding work!
What was your favorite part about making mezcal?
I really enjoyed roasting the piñas. This step is normally accomplished by putting the piñas in a large dug-out hole in the ground, then covering them with rocks and wood and dirt. It was rewarding to work alongside the locals and use a shovel.
"Shoveling" is one of my favorite workouts in general. You exercise, while also achieving some other goal - in this case making mezcal. Pretty great "win-win."
What was your favorite part about making mole?
Personally, I enjoyed the preparation and our visit to the market even more than the actual process of cooking the food. It was so interesting to see such intricate dishes created totally from scratch and local ingredients.
Sauce, something that some people just buy in a can at the grocery store, can have SO many ingredients. It was fascinating to see them all laid out.
What was an ingredient you used in mezcal that you found surprising?
During the initial production of mezcal, there are many ways to vary the process, but the ingredients remain pretty simple: agave. I think the most interesting ingredients are found when mezcal is aged after it's been distilled.
The most surprising ingredient was scorpions. Apparently scorpion-aged mezcal is used medicinally to cure coughs.
What was an ingredient you used in mole that you found surprising?
The most surprising ingredient we used wasn't actually for the mole, but for the mushroom quesadillas. The mushroom is actually a fungus called cuitlacoche that grows on corn and looks kind of like a large mutated corn kernel. Sounds strange, but it was so delicious with the quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) in the quesadillas.
What makes Oaxaca's mole different from others?
Likely, the methods and ingredients may be the same in other places. I think what separates Oaxaca the most is that it's where mole originated.
The same plant can be grown in different regions and have a totally different taste because of things like the soil it's growing in and how much rain it's receiving.
Since Oaxaca has a specific climate, and all of the ingredients for mole can be found in or around the state, the mole you eat there will have a unique flavor, and it will be true to the flavor of original mole.