The return of Mexico’s national nectar
No drink is more Mexican than pulque - not even tequila or mezcal. (Daniel Schechter/LPI)
To the crowd of young Mexicans carrying on behind the swinging doors of a pulque parlour one Saturday afternoon, participating in a cultural revival is perhaps the last thing on their minds. They are simply basking in the humble camaraderie of that uniquely Mexican institution, the pulquería. Frida Kahlo, an early post-modernist who embraced indigenous kitsch, would approve.
No drink is more Mexican than pulque, not even tequila or mescal. Pulque has been consumed by Mexicans since Aztec times and no fewer than four Aztec deities are devoted to the beverage. Though it is made from the same plant as tequila (the magical maguey), pulque is not distilled.
Sometimes called drool, Babylon, bear soup, vulture soup, white face, moustache broth, chalk and nectar of the gods, pulque is the sort of drink you have to learn to like, if only because you have never tasted anything like it before. In its natural state, the white, viscous liquid slides down your gullet with an earthy tang. Not a strong drink, it has an alcohol content similar to that of beer and some even say it has healthful properties. "Pulque is a step away from meat" on the nutritional scale, said Arturo Garrido, the kindly proprietor of Pulquería Las Duelistas as he dispenses a greenish version of the beverage into a couple of tall mugs.
Pulque is a private quaff, an old-fashioned one at that, and it remains largely unknown to the public palate. You will not find it in the nightclubs of Mexico City or even in cantinas. Of the 70 or so pulquerías that remain in Mexico City, most are extremely rustic places with bathroom-tile facades and institutional green interiors. Sporting sassy names like The National Nectar, Ancient Rome, The Hen of the Golden Eggs, Firing Line, The Worst Is Nothing and Men Without Fear, most of these dives are patronised by a handful of elderly men who tote their own containers to be filled. But in certain pulquerías that demographic is changing. Mexican youth have collectively rediscovered the virtues of pulque and the happy, scruffy vibe of the pulquerías.
One such rediscovery is Pulquería La Risa (Mesones 75). Housed in a tiny colonial structure on the south end of the city's historic core, La Risa retains its rustic, minimally hygienic ambience, with a urinal behind a greasy curtain. But it has been adopted by students who engage in intellectual pursuits like playing chess or reading history as they sip their pulque. Sitting on a shelf above the bar are barrel-shaped urns of the drink in an array of colours, like sweets in a candy shop. Old timers generally like their pulque straight up but to make the beverage somewhat more palatable, most pulquerías "cure" their pulque with various natural flavours, and the resulting milkshake-like concoctions are called "curados". The menu may include such flavours as tamarind, guava, walnut and strawberry, and from time to time, beet ("for the heart") and celery ("for diabetes") make an appearance.
Most popular with the pulque renegades is Las Duelistas (Aranda 30), near the San Juan market. Going for at least 90 years, it has undergone a startling makeover. Walls and ceiling are covered with psychedelic pre-Hispanic imagery: maguey plants, Aztec gods and goddesses, plumed serpents and skull racks. On any given afternoon, pierced, black-clad youth crowd around tables sharing mugs of pulque from pink and blue plastic buckets. A row of painted barrels, delivered earlier that day from Hidalgo, stand behind the marble counter, where a few older patrons sit, lifting mugs of pure pulque to their lips. The jukebox plays rock en español at a tolerable volume. The atmosphere is relaxed rather than aggressive.
"Many identify pulque with the climate of camaraderie of the pulquerías," said Alberto Felipe Ramírez Aldama, who belongs to a group of pulque enthusiasts devoted to finding and trying out pulquerías. "One is nourished there. You have your buddies, and your enemies too, but no one causes any trouble with a glass full of octli," he said, using a pre-Hispanic term for the drink. Ramírez Aldama's group, Colectivo El Tinacal, also organises tours of Mexico City's pulquerías, and visitors are welcome to join them. Information about upcoming pulque tours is posted on http://pulquenuestro.blogspot.com.
The pulque resurgence has spilled over to a few bars. Bósforo (Luis Moya 31, at Independencia), located a block south of the Alameda Central, is an earth-toned lounge that embraces mexicanismo. In addition to such iconic items as mescal -- another previously disdained drink that is regaining cachet -- and toasted grasshoppers, they keep an urn of pulque behind the counter. Revueltas, the tall, pony-tailed owner, makes a mean peanut curado. Having graduated from the grunge, pulque seems poised for broader acceptance.