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The thick, ridged leaves of the Mescal plant form a rosette pattern around a dense central stem. The blue-gray colored leaves are wide at the base and narrow at the tips. Mescal, like many other succulents, has spines along the margins of the leaves. Mescal takes 10 to 12 years to mature, and at maturity can reach up to 2 feet in height and 3 feet around. The leaves can grow up to five feet tall and up to ten inches wide at the base. Once Mescal has reached maturity, a central stalk grows rapidly up 20 to 30 feet and bursts at the top with a crown of small, yellow flowers. Sugars are concentrated in the core of the plant just before it flowers. Typically, Mescal is harvested just prior to it flowering, thus capturing the heart of the plant at its sweetest. If the central bud is removed, a sweet fluid collects in its absence; the liquid is called aguamiel (or honey water). If the central bud is left in place, the leaves of the plant are trimmed and the resulting “heart” has the appearance of a very large pineapple. Mescal hearts are roasted for long periods of time. The resulting husks produce a fibrous pulp with a sweet flavor reminiscent of sweet potatoes, with hints of molasses and pineapple.
Mescal is harvested in the winter and spring months.
Mescal is a variety of succulent, botanically known as Agave parryi or more commonly, as Parry’s agave. It was named after botanist and physician, Charles C. Parry. The perennial Mescal is in the same family as asparagus, Asparagaceae, though at one time it existed in its own family, Agavoideae (now a subgroup of the former). Mescal is considered a “century plant” because the high desert plant requires more than ten year and up to 35 years to fully mature. In Mexico, the Mescal plant is known as Maguey (pronounced ma-gay) and dates back to the Aztec empire. The word ‘Mescal’ truly refers to the roasted version of the plant, and comes from the Nuhuatl word for “cooked maguey.” Mescal shouldn't be confused with the variety known as "blue agave," which is in fact Agave americana.
Mescal contains calcium and trace minerals.
Mescal is most well-known for its sap, particularly the syrup and alcoholic beverage that is distilled from it. The liquid, known as aguamiel (honey water) is fermented to make an alcoholic beverage called pulque. The pulque is distilled to create mescal (or mezcal, as it is known in Mexico) or even further distilled to make tequila. Mescal leaves are removed, trimmed of their spines, and roasted. Raw Mescal is never eaten, it is POISONOUS. The leaves are fibrous and the resulting flavor is smoky and sweet, the juices can be extracted and the fibrous material discarded. Whole leaves or thinner layers of the leaves are wrapped around chunks of lamb or beef to make the traditional Mexican dish, barbacoa. Mescal leaves are used to flavor and tenderize the meat. The trunk of the Mescal plant, having been trimmed of its leaves, is roasted in a pit overnight or for a period of up to two days (in more traditional methods). Once roasted the pulp from the center of the Mescal heart can be scooped out and made into cakes. Roasted Mescal leaves can be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Mescal has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years. One tribe, dependent on Mescal as a food source, was the Mescalero Apache. They called the plant “Astaneh.” The Apache were the predominant tribe in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. They used the entire plant for a multitude of uses; one documentarian called it “the plant of a thousand uses.” Native people in central and north-central Mexico, called the plant Maguey and used the entire plant, often cultivating them on ancient plantations. Fibers from within the large leaves were used for a variety of things. By removing the thorn at the very tip of one of the leaves, fibers attached to the thorn became a rudimentary needle and thread. Fibers of the Maguey leaves were extracted and spun to make thread that was then used to make strong ropes. To extract the fibers, the thick leaves were pounded on rocks and the pulp forced out by scraping downward along the leaf with a flattened rock. The spun thread was used to make clothing, and the extracted pulp was made into soap. Pieces of the meaty leaf can be peeled away in sheets, exposing more layers beneath; these thin pieces were used as parchment for writing. The material was similar to papyrus and was among the first type of “paper” used by the ancient Mexicans.
Mescal is native to a large area of southern Arizona and a small portion of southern New Mexico in the United States and from North to Central Mexico. It grows best at higher elevations and is relatively drought and cold hardy. Mescal, or Maguey, was used by the Aztecs and Zapotecs in southern Mexico in the state known today as Oaxaca. Remains of roasted Mescal dating back to 6500 B.C. were found in caves in the area of Tehuacan in the former Aztec empire. Codices found from the 8th century A.D. also mention the use of Mescal. Many varieties of agave exist, though only a few are used for consumption. In 1849, botanist Charles C. Parry was appointed to the Mexican Boundary Survey, and in subsequent years explored regions that had never been visited by botanists and perhaps haven’t been since. The agave species named for Dr. Parry has four recognized subspecies, one of which was the agave used by the Mescalero Apache. Roasted Mescal leaves can often be found at Mexican markets and some farmer’s markets.