A debt of gratitude
As I mentioned last week, deliberate production of alcoholic beverages first took place in the Americas around 2000 BC. In North America, the Iroquois nation made an alcoholic beverage from the sap of the sugar maple, the Pueblo used maize (corn), and the Tohono O’odham (who still inhabit the Sonoran Desert) made a sacramental wine from the Saguaro cactus. There is more information, however, about alcohol beverages of the Pre-Columbian empires in Mexico, Central and South America.
Throughout history, production of alcoholic beverages rarely took place until an on-going production of foods was secured to sustain its citizens. Natives of Mexico, Central and South America domesticated cacao, beans, maize, squashes, chili peppers, tomatoes and potatoes (not to forget turkey and dog). But it was the Mayan, Aztec and Inca empires that provided a structure to organize collaboration and storage of these crops.
But how did they discover alcoholic beverages? Was it as simple as tasting stored fruit that had fermented in its container? (It has been suggested that windfall fruit was harvested and consumed for this reason by our Stone Age ancestors.) However it happened, we know:
- The Mayan made a honey wine, “balche”, from fermented tree bark mixed with local honey.
- The Aztecs created a chocolate beverage flavoured with chilies, vanilla and spices. (Although usually a special occasion beverage, it was reported, by Cortez, that Montezuma consumed in excess of 60 cups of chocolate daily. And chocolate remains a significant ingredient in Mexican cuisine in such dishes as Mole.)
- In Mexico, “pulque” is a milky white alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of the maguey that continues to be popular (although the preference of the younger set is towards beer). It could be described as the precursor of mescal and tequila, but without the punch.
- In the Andes, Inca women made “Chicha de jora”—a beer made by extracting the starches from germinated maize, boiling the malt, and fermenting it in large earthenware vessels for several days. (It also remains popular in regions in Peru and Bolivia.)
- Brazil has a similar beverage that is made with maize, but also with cassava and sometimes flavoured with fruit juice.
You may have never tried any of these beverages, but we do owe a debt of gratitude to the New World for the foods, fruits and vegetables that were introduced into the western diet. (What would Italian food be without the influence of the tomato, or a steak without the frites? And we anxiously await each year’s crop of sweet corn without considering its far-reaching impact on our society.)
THIS WEEK’S PICK
It’s rosé season: time to enjoy the warm spring evenings with a glass of the 2016 Sandbanks Rosé made from vidal and zweigelt grapes.
This is a pleasant back deck sipper, with inviting mandarin orange notes. Available at the tasting room located on the Loyalist Parkway west of Wellington.