The Maguey - a sacred Mexican food stapleThe maguey is a sacred food, which alongside corn, is deeply rooted into Mexican history. It’s a plant that has survived from generation to generation, and has been food and life for Mexican people.
Maguey was called agave (Greek) in 1753 by the European scientist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus); the term means “admirable”.
The maguey lives in a semi-arid environment with minimal rainfall. It takes from eight to twelve years for the plant to mature. A plant’s average lifespan is around 10 years. It is a common misconception that agaves are cacti. They are not related to cacti. Neither are they closely related to Aloe whose leaves are similar in appearance.
The “agave” genus has two subgeni: Littaea and Agave. The first one has a slender shape. It is used like ornament or decoration plants, but they also contains smilagenin, which is the staple for steroids elaboration. The second subgenus, Agave, is used to produce alcoholic beverages.
Most of the maguey or agave species trace their origins about 10, 000,000 years. It is the oldest of American plants coming from Mexico that men use for several things. Some scientists say that its use as a food staple predates that of corn (maze).
There are more than 200 agave species. Regardless the specie or variety, however, they all usually have a spreading rosette (about 4 m/13 ft wide) of gray-green leaves up to 2 m (6.6 ft) long, each with a spiny fringe and a heavy spike at the tip that can pierce to the bone.
Each rosette is monocarpic, so it grows slowly to flower only once. During flowering, a tall stem or “mast” grows from the center of the leaf rosette, bearing a large number of shortly tubular flowers. It reaches up to 8 m (26 ft) in height. In this respect, its growth reflects a pre-Hispanic philosophy: “In order to give life, it’s necessary to sacrifice yourself.” After the development of the fruit or “flowering”, the original plant dies. Suckers or adventitious shoots, however, frequently sprout from the base of the stem, and become new plants. Hence, the plant’s common name, “century plant,” which derives from one flowering.
Maguey can survive droughts. It can retain water in their cladodes for years. This is where the “aguamiel” it’s obtained (form the water inside the cladodes). This liquid is used to produce “pulque” (a milk-colored and viscous alcoholic beverage that has been fermented.)
The Maguey – more than a simple plant … but a sacred symbol
The Maguey plant is legendary for Mexican people because it is part of their history. In the “Códicde Mendocino” (Mendocino Code), the mythic Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s founder, is represented as a maguey (metl) on the back. This is the reason that leads many to relate the name “Mexico” with the maguey (combining “metl” maguey, and “xichtli” or center or navel, and the suffix “co” for place, which translates as “in the center of the maguey.”) It’s important to note, however, that this is not the most accepted definition for the origin of the word “Mexico.”
The word “maguey” as we know it today, is a Taíno word from the Caribbean. As we have already noted, the Náhuatl word for the maguey plant is “metl”. There were many “metl” varieties that Mexicans knew; one of them was “teómetl” (divine maguey) from “téotl” god. This wasn’t by any chance an accident. In every maguey’s crop and processing stage or step (for the extraction of “augamiel” and “pulque”), a ceremony was celebrated with sacrifices and different spells, all of them devoted mostly to “Mayahuel”, maguey and pulque’s goddess.
The Maguey – a plant of many forms and uses
Most people are shocked when they discover the maguey uses, since (much like the corn plant) nothing of this plant is wasted. Some of the uses of the maguey plant are: beverages such as 1) wine, pulque, mezcal, tequila or aguamiel, 2) like cloths and threads, 3) scrumptious dishes from the maguey flower, and 4) their spikes as sewing needles or used for ceremonial, sacrificial rituals. There are other multiple uses as well. The maguey’s chuff (the tequila or mezcal industry maguey residue) was used for adobe. Even its stem was used like joist for house structures. The plant’s cladodes where used as roofs. They were also roasted and hot applied on a sick person’s belly. They are good pain-killers; they dissolve kidney stones and drain the urinary tract. Also, the roasted cladodes’ juice was given to the sick twice a day to reduce aching. The plant’s cladodes’ web- like fiber is used to cover and quicken the healing and scaring process.
But the most popular maguey products are the alcoholic beverages like pulque, mezcal or tequila. The natural sap, when extracted, has a sweet flavor, and it is known by the name of “aguamiel”. When the aguamiel is fermented, a new product is made and it is called “pulque”. The distilled liquid derived from agaves is known as mezcal or tequila.
The Maguey Agave and Tequila
There are different species that are used to produce pulque or mezcal, but there is only one for tequila – the Agave Azul Tequilana Weber. It has only one designated origin, and is manufactured exclusively in Tequila, Jalisco (hence the name “Tequila”).
There are three ways in which the maguey can be found: wild, cultivated or semi-cultivated.
You can find wild agave in places like -Durango, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Guerrero and Oaxaca. The cultivated and semi-cultivated zones are Zacatecas, Guerrero, Durango, Oaxaca and Jalisco.
The agaves that are used for mezcal, pulque or tequila production are the result of thousands of years of human interaction with the environment. The Mexican maguey production regions reflect the tradition, local flavor and the family knowledge that has been inherited from generation to generation over thousands years. The native magueys from each region, combined with the ancestral techniques that are still current in these beverages production, represent a cultural and biological heritage unique and invaluable to Mexico and the world.