Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Agave Americana

Tequila is the national alcoholic drink of Mexico, famous worldwide for its unique taste and high alcohol content. It is made from the fermentation of the blue agave plant. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Mesoamerica, the ancient cultures had a similar drink that they called pulque. It's still made today, from the sap harvested from the A americana species of plant.

Agave americana is also called maguey, and also well known as the century plant due to how long it takes to flower; the nickname is a bit of a misnomer, as the plant certainly doesn't have a 100-year lifespan, but it does typically live an impressive 10 to 30 years before it flowers and dies. It originates from Mexico, but is currently cultivated all over the world, as it is a very popular ornamental plant. Over the years it has naturalized, able to grow wild in places as far away as India, Australia, South Africa, and parts of Europe.

This agave species has a spreading rosette of leaves that are greyish-green in color, which may grow up to 6 feet each in length. The entire rosette can have an impressive diameter of 13 feet or more across. When it starts to flower, the central stem will grow quite tall. The leaf of A americana is very fibrous, producing strands called 'pita' that are used in making rope, weaving mats, and embroidering leather. This fiber was a vital part of many pre-Columbian cultures in ancient Mesoamerica.

If the central stem is cut away before the flowering process begins, the sweet sap (commonly called honey water or agua miel) will drain into the center of the plant, and can be harvested each day. This sap is sometimes refined into agave nectar, which is a common substitute for sugar and honey. But it is also fermented into pulque, the alcoholic drink that preceded tequila. When the sap is distilled, it's called mezcal, which is commonly seen with a worm in the bottle.

Pulque is estimated to date back at least 1,000 years, and its origins are shrouded in myths. The Aztecs even had a goddess who was associated with maguey, whose name was Mayahuel. The Americana sap was thought to be her blood. Modern scientific analysis concluded that it was high in vitamins C, B-complex, D, and E, as well as containing lots of amino acids, iron, and phosphorus. These are all from the original agave plant, and the civilizations often claimed that the drink was 'one step removed from meat' in terms of its nutritional capabilities.

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