Bacanora – our local spirit

Agave plant in the plantation.

Agave plant in the plantation.

This last weekend an importer of bacanora was giving tastes at a Tucson festival. Bacanora is to Sonora as tequila is to Jalisco and mezcal is to Oaxaca.  Bacanora is the third, less-known sister of the triumvirate. Our sample was delicious and smokey with just enough fire to let you know you were drinking.  This is how bacanora is described in Tequila: a natural and cultural history by Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan:

“Bacanora: A bootleg mescal made from the northernmost populations of Agave angustifolia var. Pacifica in sonora and adjacent Chihuahua, sometimes mixed…with A. palmeri. Named for the small rancheria of Bacanora near the pueblo of Sahuaripa, Sonora, this mescal was recently legalized and commercialized, but the clandestine cottage industry product by this name remains the pride of Sonorans.”

Last summer, I visted a mezcal-making exhibit — the process is the same.  These days most manufacturing is done in fancy factories with steel vats and antiseptic conditions.  These pictures show how it is done in the small rancherias.

This is the same method used by Apaches over hundreds of years to prepare agave for food.

Harvested and trimmed agave hearts ready for the earth oven.

Harvested and trimmed agave hearts ready for the earth oven.

First a large quantity of wood is burned in the rock-lined earth oven. The agave hearts are then added, the whole pit is closed up and the agave is baked from one and one-half to three days.

Baked agave head

Baked agave head.

Baked agave head being disassembled.

Baked agave head being disassembled.

Once the agave heads are nicely baked and carmelized, they are cooled, unloaded and the leaves are separated.

The mill,or molino, that crushes the baked agave leaves.

The mill,or molino, that crushes the baked agave leaves. Usually powered by a mule or burro.

The leaves are loaded into the mill, usually of volcanic rock,  and a draft animal goes round and round crushing the baked leaves to a pulp. Next the crushed pulp is loaded into a vat for fermentation. It stays there 6 to 12 days depending on the temperature.

Fermentation vats for the agave pulp and juices.

Fermentation vats for the agave pulp and juices.

Close-up of the fermenting agave.

Close-up of the fermenting agave.

The next step is to distill the fermented liquid.  In our home process this is done in a simple oven-like still.

The oven turns the fermented juice into vapor.

The oven turns the fermented juice into vapor.

The copper tube collects the vapor where it cools and condenses into liquid again.

The copper tube collects the vapor where it cools and condenses into liquid.

The mezcal or bacanora drips into the jug.

The mezcal or bacanora drips into the jug.

One of the commerial bacanoras.

One of the commercial bacanoras.

Bacanora has now been legally sold since 1992. Old-timers still have nostalgia for the unmarked bottles obtained with a little stealth from a Mexican rancher friend.

Interested in more recipes for wild desert foods?  Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious mesquite recipes as well as recipes for 22 other easily recognized and gathered southwest plants.  For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.

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