I’m reminded that at the beginning of the year, I declared it was to be one of learning and new experiences. And I’m reminded also that you should be careful of what you wish for, as just before we went to New York, an opportunity presented itself to overcome my long standing rivalry with my arch nemesis, tequila. My first reaction to the invitation alone was the now familiar reaction I have to tequila. Hmm, how can I describe it.. You know that uncontrolled salivation you get just before you’re about to be violently sick? Well – that’s what the mere thought of imbibing tequila generated in me. The primordial dark recesses of my instinctual brain shuddered at the thought of the stuff. But I am also reminded that before the tense Mexican standoff, once upon a time there was a love affair with tequila. But it was puppy love, all clumsy and rushed, and yes I was young and naive. The relationship didn’t end well and I was left reeling and running.
But, I’m a big girl now and I’m convinced that with a little mental coaxing, I can overcome this irrational aversion and learn to love tequila again. And like all phobia counselling sessions, the best therapy is not abstinence, but learning and interaction.
So it was with more than a little trepidation that the Co-pilot and I headed along to a tequila tasting and cooking event, billed as a “chef’s challenge”, organised by Bazar at The Argyle and Herradura Tequila. I told the Co-pilot that as he is a great fan of tequila and owns many an expensive bottle that I was merely accompanying him to the event, rather than admitting he was my chaperone. But I don’t think I was kidding anyone.
To break the ice we were served tequila cocktails on arrival. Industrious action behind the bar created colourful fruity and notably generous concoctions that were handed around to guests.
I started with the sweetly named Senorita made with Herradura Reposado Tequila, Disarrono Amaretto liqueur, cloudy apple juice and peach juice. Though it looked good, I anticipated the flavour of tequila to pack that dreaded familiar tasting wallop and… it didn’t happen. It just tasted bright, fruity, tasty – much like you’d expect from a brilliant cocktail. The Co-pilot always finds it difficult to pass up a margarita and opted for that to start – this time the tequila flavour was less disguised and more center stage but, for a non tequila drinker like me, I had to admit, pretty enjoyable. And like that, the ominous clouds lifted on my lesson, and I was able to let myself optimistically enjoy the event and open myself up to learning to appreciate tequila once more.
To begin the tequila appreciation journey, one must begin with basics, doing away with assumptions and learning exactly what constituted tequila. As you might have guessed by now, my experience with tequila is probably reflective of most people’s experience – it came largely in the form of shots. Come on, just you try and admit you haven’t had the tequila, lemon and salt combination. Those experiences were so unpalatable I never graduated to a higher zen plain where I could fathom a wine-tasting like scenario, sipping tequila and trying to discern flavours, aromas and more. But, that’s what good tequila is about. There aren’t shots, and please, put that lemon and salt away. Herradura’s crew talked us through the types of tequila, the making, the differentiation, the perceptions and myths.
Fancy yourself as a tequila connoisseur? Well, you might even find yourself learning a few facts! Did you know…
The Popular Myths:
- Tequila is not made using cactus juice
- Tequila is not designed for shots and getting drunk quickly (!)
- The specific liquor, shots and drinking most people wrongly associate with tequila is actually usually mezcal, a liquor made from non blue agave plants, with different production methods.
- “The worm” is actually the larvae of the moth that feeds on agave plants. It is not associated with tequila – it is thought to be just a gimmick associated with mezcal. Speculation is that it was originally either a marketing gimmick or added to show purity of the mezcal – high purity would preserve the worm, diluted mezcal would ruin preservation and result in a mushy worm.
So what is tequila and what is mezcal?
It’s a little complicated. Mezcal is an alcoholic spirit made using the juice of agave plants which are not a cacti as popularly perceived, but a plant belonging to the liliad family, one more closely related to aloe vera. Technically speaking then, tequila is a very specialised type of mezcal made using only the juice of the blue agave plant. There are over 130 types of agave found in Mexico alone, but only the blue agave, a plant that takes 7-10 years to mature, is used to make tequila. Like the rules surrounding the production of Champagne, there are similarly strict rules and regulations for tequila production and classification. Mezcal by contrast has a much less stringent production process and can be made using a large variety of agave plants, (just not blue agave). It is generally considered less “smooth” than tequila and only distilled once unlike tequila which is distilled twice (required by law).
Where does tequila hail from?
Most people already associate tequila with Mexico, and that is where tequila originated. As the legend goes, the Aztec peoples of what is modern day central Mexico found an agave plant that had been struck by lightning. They thought the liquid oozing from the cooked plant was a gift from the gods and starting drinking it. But it was the Spanish Conquistadors that critically introduced the process of distillation and converted that fermented agave juice to the predecessor of what is tequila today. In fact, Mexico has claimed an exclusive international right to “Tequila” and it can only be produced in a limited number of regions in Mexico.
How is tequila made?
Once the blue agave plant reaches maturity, it is harvested by shaving off all the leaves to reveal the “pina” (Spanish for pineapple), which looks like a cross between a pineapple and a green pine cone. The pina are roasted, shredded, washed and pressed to extract the agave juice or ‘aguamiel’. A mixture of the juice and water is fermented, distilled at least twice, diluted to bottling strength using purified water or aged in oak barrels to create the aged varieties of tequila.
What types and categories of tequila exist?
There are two main types of tequila – mixto or 100% blue agave determined by the amount of agave juice used and the period of aging. Mixto is typically 51% blue agave and the remainder is usually corn or cane sugar. Within these types there are 5 categories of tequila:
- Blanco (white) or Plata (silver): un-aged and bottled or aged less than 2 months in oak barrels
- Joven (young) or Gold: in-aged ‘blanco’ tequila blended with rested or aged tequilas. These often have a caramel colouring, sugar-based syrup or oak extract added to resemble aged tequila
- Reposado (rested): aged between 2 months and 1 year in oak barrels of any size
- Añejo (aged): aged between 1 year to 3 years in small oak barrels no larger than 600L
- Extra Añejo (extra aged): aged a minimum of 3 years in small oak barrels no larger than 600L
So – does that clear things up for you? It certainly did for me, so I’d wrongly blamed tequila for my ailments when the true villain was actually mezcal. Damn you mezcal! Damn you.
With the basic tequila foundations laid, it was time for the tasting. Before us were three categories of Herradura tequila – Plata (or Blanco), Reposado and Añejo. These Herradura specimens are highly decorated tequilas which is great – because I reasoned that if I couldn’t appreciate these lauded specimens, there was probably no hope for an affair between me and tequila.
The Blanco (or Plata) tasting notes:
“The Herradura Blanco is the only white tequila aged for 45 days. It has a colour of light straw; aroma of classic cooked agave with hints of vanilla, fruits and anise; the taste i s clean and sweet with slight oak; and the finish is warm, slightly sweet and persistent in flavour”
My thoughts? By golly, perhaps all the tequila education had lulled me in a false sense of security that this spirit, no longer the perpetrator of my pains was somehow as friendly and tame as a warm bear hug on a winter’s day. It wasn’t. I thought the flavour, though admittedly smoother than the mezcal I was more familiar with, still tasted harsh to my palette and singed my nostril hairs clean off. The Co-pilot merely rolled his eyes and dubbed me Miss Hyperbole.
The Reposado tasting notes:
“The Herradura Reposado is aged for 11 months in white oak barrels. The colour is intense golden and almost copper; the aroma is one of cinnamon, vanilla, wood and spice; the taste is mild with a hint of almond, with a medium bouquet and soft agave; and the finish was of a medium persistence in flavour”
My thoughts? The “rested” translation of “Reposado” is an appropriate one. The flavour was much milder, smoother and more enjoyable than the Plata. The aromas were warmer as well and though not described, I thought it smelt like caramel.
The Añejo tasting notes:
“The Herradura Añejo doubles the norm by aging for 25 months in white oak barrels. The colour is dark copper with a big body; the aroma is one of intense wood, vanilla, nuts, oak, spice and classic agave; the taste is of agave, oak and black pepper spice; and the finish is smooth, spicy with a medium persistence in flavour”
And my thoughts? My palette wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate many differences in aroma and flavour between Reposado and Añejo, but I thought it was smoother (almost like the quality of soft water) and the flavour was a little peaty.
The tasting complete, I was surprised to find that the Reposado was my favourite of the three – a choice shared by many attending the class. It was surprising as I, like most females, generally prefer light spirits and shy away from dark spirits. But there you go, open your mind up and all sorts of unexpected things happen!
Feeling suitably acquainted with our tequilas, we were then briefed on the main event – cooking with tequila. We were split into groups and each group allocated a station and a different recipe to prepare and cook under the guidance of the Bazar chefs. By pure chance, the group that the Co-pilot and I were grouped with contained an ex colleague I’d worked with briefly!
Recipes for burritos, meatballs and scallops were allocated to other groups. The group doing ceviche probably thought they’d scored an easy recipe until one of the Bazar Chefs produced an enormous whole kingfish and proceeded to show us all how to fillet it properly. Then once the fish had been quickly and deftly filleted, another whole fish was handed over to the lucky team to fillet.
In comparison, we were tasked with making the chorizo garlic tequila prawns, which if it weren’t for the mountain of raw prawns to peel and devein, was a really easy recipe to execute.
Chorizo Garlic Tequila Prawns
Ingredients (serves 2):
- 120g deveined prawns
- 160g chorizo, sliced
- 10g garlic, finely diced
- 40g red onion
- 10mL lemon juice
- 20mL tequila (we used Herradura Añejo Tequila)
- 20g flat leaf parsley
- 20mL olive oil
- 4g salt
- 4g pepper
- Add oil to a hot pan and carefully pan fry the chorizo until it starts to caramelise. Turn over and add the prawns.
- When the chorizo is done, turn the prawns
- Add garlic and red onion, season, gently toss for a few seconds, then add the lemon juice, tequila and parsley.
- Cook for 1 minute, toss once more and serve.
Though there were varying degrees of cooking and kitchen prowess throughout the different groups, everyone fell into a happy rhythm and before long and without much incident (apart from someone turning green at the sight of the whole fish), the dishes were completed, plated, inspected and served. Here are the impressive results:
It not only looked impressive, it tasted equally amazing. The tequila flavours were present but not overpowering and not out of place. The plump juicy scallops were just seared through and the tangy coriander and pineapple salsa so tropical and refreshing; similarly refreshing was the ceviche with clean, acidic flavours; the tequila marinated sirloin steak nicely done, still rare in the middle; the delicious flavour packed drunken meatballs were begging for bread to mop up the thick coating sauce and our chorizo garlic prawns though simple were tasty and satisfying. Each recipe had of course been chosen because the flavours and aromas lended well to a complementary slug of tequila – and importantly, it actually worked and wasn’t contrived. There might have been a most impressive dish declared – and if there was, I’m afraid I was too busy devouring the food to be paying attention.
As a point of plating comparison, when our dishes were served, so were a number of professionally created but otherwise identical dishes. I think our efforts stacked up pretty favourably next to the professional dishes!
To complete our feast, there was dessert – and in keeping with the theme, it obviously also contained tequila. A heaped pile of piping hot sugar dusted churros accompanied a brimming bowl of gloriously thick molten Spanish style chocolate. It was soft and heavenly, eagerly passed around, the heat of the molten hot lava chocolate studiously ignored and devoured as quickly as the hot chocolate allowed.
Thoroughly sated and rubbing our taut bellies, we were ready to throw in the towel and trundle home, but there was more tequila in store for us. But of course! The cooking experience was just to showcase what could be done with tequila in the kitchen, but more often than not, you’ll find tequila not in the pantry, but the bar. A tequila cocktail lesson was called and we watched their brand ambassador, Stuart Reeves, create a few cocktails and were reminded of how the different category types of tequila naturally lended themselves to different flavours and serving styles. For instance, the blanco or plato white tequila variety and not an añejo aged variety would be the ideal choice for making margaritas, whereas tequila connoisseur might prefer an añejo tequila served neat or on the rocks.
We were shown a chocolate tequila cocktail and a tequila hot toddy – a favourite winter drink of mine usually made with whiskey, a slice of lemon studded with cloves, brown sugar and hot water. This tequila version of the cocktail required lighting and flaming of the tequila, which apart from the visual show served to warm up the liquor and the aromas. Despite a cautious warning to wait for the cocktail to cool down a bit, we handed it around and an eager deep sniff of the cocktail confirmed that the tequila vapour was both hot and volatile, the warmth enhanced all the aromas and packed a powerful punch sending all the tasters reeling at its perceived potency.
Having been shown the basics we then turned to put the theory into practice with a cocktail making contest. Laid out before all the participants were a vast assembly of equipment and ingredients – from shakers, stirrers, strainers and muddlers to berries, chocolate, ice, syrups, juices, garnishes and of course, blanco, reposado and añejo tequila. There was no time to think, pairs were given mere minutes to discuss, create and present our unique tequila cocktail. With the pressure on the room erupted into a flurry of activity, with frantic shouted ideas and ingredients being thrown around by the fistful.
Credit where it’s due, I had nothing to do with the making of this cocktail. The Co-pilot concocted it on the fly and I merely did my best to thrust ingredients into his hands whilst hopping madly from one foot to another (useless, I know). He decided to create a coffee based tequila cocktail, using a healthy dose of brewed coffee, a few generous dashes of chocolate bitters, a slug of reposado tequila to complement the warm, nutty, bitter coffee and chocolate flavours and to enhance the spicy notes of the tequila, he topped up the cocktail with ginger beer. He garnished it with a strawberry and it was complete – he dubbed it the Speedy Gonzales.
My own tastebuds would have directed me to the lucious ripe berries and the blanco tequila, but that was evidently exactly what every other team was drawn to and created. Except the chocolate milk creation. That was just inspired.
The judges took their judging rather seriously with careful tasting and lengthy discussions after the sampling.
And we won! A cocktail shaker, glasses and a cufflink, money clip and business card holder set. Everything the home bar needs.
It was a long event – much longer and much more interactive than the few hours of cooking and mostly feasting we’d anticipated but we felt we’d well and truly taken an immersive crash course in tequila appreciation. Had I become a converted fan of tequila? Well, one session was hardly going to change years of misguided phobia and I’m not yet cradling a bottle of tequila and humming happily, but I felt I was well on the road to rehabilitation and appreciation. The fact that I’d consumed a few tequila cocktails that night, not to mention an impressive spread of tequila dishes – and delighted in them all was testament to that. The concerted tequila appreciation effort had been surprisingly, rather pleasantly enjoyable. You can view more official photos from the event on The Argyle events gallery here.
The Gourmet Forager attended The Argyle’s Bazar Cooking with Herradura Tequila Chef’s Challenge as a guest.
Bazar at The Argyle
18 Argyle Street, The Rocks, Sydney
Open daily 11am – late
Tel: +612 9247 5500
Note: Similar Cooking with Tequila events will run regularly at Bazar from October 2011 onwards – please email enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
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