The Agave: a plant and its story
Part 2
by Jan Kolendo

 

The Uses of Agaves
1) Food source
There is good archeological evidence that man has used agave as food for at least 9000 years. Research work by Callen (1965) on mummified human faeces dated by carbon14 techniques showed that between 7000 B.C. and 1500 A.D. agave formed 25--60% of the studied excreta. One should add that these samples were obtained from cave sites and that they represent perhaps a rural as opposed to an urban diet.

There is evidence of the use of agaves from discovered specimens of chewed agave fibre, from artefacts made from agave fibre and also tools used in these processes. As man gained more and more experience in the utilisation of these plants he was able to select for his use species which had better yields in terms of fibre, food and drink. As he travelled more widely he took his favoured species with him and these were crossed with new varieties producing new and better specimens. He was then further able to refine the plants for his own uses and becoming gradually more sophisticated he was able to produce plants suited to his specific needs. In the words of Gentry (1982) " even though he had no concept of genetics, he quite innocently fostered an explosive evolution in agave diversification". Even today agave portions are widely on sale in Mexican markets.

The chief source of nourishment is carbohydrate and sugar in the body of the plant and in the bases of the leaves, excluding the green parts, the content and consequent palatability increasing with increased maturity. Recent analysis of agave juice reveals a pH of 5-6 with a calorific value of approx. 300 per 100mls. There is a fructose content of 90-93%, also glucose, other reduced sugars and a minute iron content. Young flowering stems and also the flowers are quite edible and are prepared for eating by roasting or by boiling. There is also good evidence of agaves frequently being eaten raw.

One of the main ways in which agaves were cooked was the so called pit baking. This appears to have been more widespread in the more northerly parts of Mexico and also in in the American southwest. There is not much supportive evidence for this communal method further south.Work by Achmann(1959), who obtained evidence from archeological reports and accounts written by colonial missionaries, suggests that edible agaves were a very important resource for the Indians of California, comprising 28% of their annual food consumption. This figure rose to 45% in springtime when other forms of vegetables were in short supply.

In comparison to territories further south the use of agave for the production of drink here appears to be minimal or non existant and it was primarily employed in the production of food.

Miguel del Barco, a Jesuit priest stationed at the Mission San Javier in the Sierra de la Giganta between 1738 and 1768,has written a lengthy account of the history of the region and describes in some detail the use of agaves by the natives. He clearly states that they knew well that the plants were useless once they had flowered and died and were able to recognise a plant about to flower in order to utilise it. They used special hardwood tools with beveled ends to cut both the trunks and the actual bodies (called mezcales) of plants, removing especially the upper parts of the body (called the head of the mezcal or cabeza), this being the most tender,thick and juicy portion and the best for eating. Having beheaded the mezcal they also removed the leaves. He went on to give an excellent account of pit baking , which has also been fully described by Castetter et al. (1938).

Pit baking tended to be a family or community orientated ritual. Tasks were separated into the gathering of wood and making the fire by the females ,whilst the males tended to concentrate on the actual harvesting of the plants and building of the pits. These were dug in the ground and lined with stones. When the baking was about to begin, the plant parts were placed in the pits often on a layer of leaves or grass. there was also a covering layer of similar material or earth in order to keep the heat in.

The cooking process took generally one or two days and then the plants were ready either to be eaten then or to be stored to be eaten cold later. The process often meant that the plants were cooked on the outside but still raw within. Agave leaves, as might be expected, are rich in fibre content and parts of the leaves were discarded post chewing , thus leaving archeologists with material to research on. It was also clear that not every type of agave was suitable for eating as some were quite unpalatable and some positively totally inedible so selection was made as time went on of the most suitable species.

In the Tehuacan area of Mexico agave flowers have been noted to to have been boiled and then scrambled with eggs. The Indians of Oaxaca use the outermost leaf layer to make a clingfilm type of covering to preserve and protect food, especially that taken by workers to their place of work in the local fields. In some parts leaves and flowering panicles are used as cattle feed.

Jan Kolendo has written, and maintain 'The Agave Pages', a major site about Agaves and about growing them in England

 

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