August 25, 2016 – Roads & Kingdoms
In the hills along the border between Oaxaca and Puebla states in southern Mexico, there’s a village called San Juan Yolotepec, it’s name most often abbreviated—I kid you not—to Yolo.
Yolo has been around long enough to go through three different names (so much for only living once). The most recent, San Juan, was bestowed by the Spanish. Yolotepec came from the Aztecs, who invaded these hills back in the 13th century. Before that, the indigenous Mixtec tribes called it Ñoo Iton. Both of the earlier names mean the same thing, Village on a Hilltop, which is an apt description.
Looking north from Yolo’s silent perch on a scrubby hilltop, you can, on a clear day, see the twin volcanoes that form Mexico City’s southern boundary. Look to the west and you’ll see the cone of the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain in the neighboring state of Veracruz, hazily silhouetted against the sky. When cyclones come through the Gulf of Mexico 120 miles away, tropical winds blow clear across town, and when Schubert’s Ave Maria plays from the chartreuse churchtower down in the neighboring village, as it does, inexplicably, every afternoon, it bounces like sunlight off the dust-beige walls of Yolo’s tumbledown houses.
One of those houses holds a general provision shop that doubles as a bar, which is where I spent a significant amount of my time in Yolo (I was, I should say now, on assignment for a Dutch food journal called Sabor and drinking with sources is an essential tool of the food writer’s trade). The shop is run, appropriately enough, by an old man called Dionisio. Burlap bags of rice and dry beans and chiles line the counter, household items dangle from the ceiling, and a fridge in the corner holds dozens of bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola (made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup) and Victoria beer. Behind the counter, Dionisio keeps big jugs of two homemade liquors: anis (anise) and amargo (bitter).
Dionisio and his wife have made anis and amargo for the last 20 years. They purchase gallons of aguardiente—pure cane liquor, distilled in a town called Chilapa a few hours away—and infuse it with fennel seeds or, in the case of amargo, a plant called yerba maestra, a relative of wormword. The anis tastes more or less as you’d expect, while the amargo more than lives up to its name (Campari, by comparison, is as approachable as a glass of orange juice). The pale green of chamomile tea, Dionisio’s amargo is herbaceous and floral on the nose and spectacularly bitter, finishing with the mentholated burn of a Fernet untempered by the syrupy chocolate and coffee notes characteristic of Italian amari. It tastes like a poison and its own antidote, at once dangerous and therapeutic.
For the men who still work the fields in Yolo—the precious few who haven’t left in search of better work or higher wages—amargo is a constant companion. They drink it to fortify themselves against the afternoon sun and as a refreshment when they come back in from the corn fields. Out there among the agaves and spiny shrubs, they share their bottles around (a funny way to stay hydrated) and pour sips onto the parched earth as a gift to the spirits who live in the hills. Those spirits have a taste for the stuff, too.
One afternoon, Dionisio told me the story of a man called Benito Castro who, years ago, had taken his goats out to pasture near the Cerro del Tigre, or Hill of the Tiger, on Yolo’s northern edge. As he passed the chapel of San Isidro, two beautiful women, elegantly dressed and blonde, appeared out of nowhere. As Castro passed, they asked if he could spare them a cigarette. Unnerved, he ignored their request and continued walking, but they followed. Eventually they changed their tune and asked if he could at least spare them a drink. ‘Poor women,’ he thought, ‘they only want a drink’ (“He was already a bit tipsy,” Dionisio admitted). He realized then that he’d forgotten to bring his bottle of amargo, so he turned back and went to the shop to buy some. When he got back to the chapel, the women were gone. He never saw them again. “You have to carry a drink when you go to the fields,” Dionisio said, “enough to leave some for the spirits.”
I finished a cup of amargo, maybe my third. I was already a little drunk, but Dionisio took my glass and offered another. The others in the shop smiled and raised their glasses. One more for the spirits, I thought. When in Yolo.