Originally appeared in the Cenizo Journal, available online or by subscription at cenizojournal.com
There is little so wonderfully refreshing as a salt-rimed margarita at the end of a hot desert day. Native to the Chihuahuan desert, the agave plant, sometimes called the century plant, is the mother of tequila and has been used in a multitude of ways for thousands of years. In Jalisco, Mexico, the agave is grown like a crop in row after row of large spiky plants. The waste material of the blue agave plant, the only one allowed to be used in the production of tequila, is re-used to create paper. One of the most recent uses for agave of interest to Cenizo Journal readers is as a source of green energy. Because of its astonishing growth (the flowering head of the plant grows up to a foot a day) the agave is being investigated for use as a bio fuel. Its use could help solve the food versus fuel debate regarding corn as a bio fuel. Because the fresh sap of the plant causes contact dermatitis (itching and swelling of the skin) and the heart of the agave is poisonous if eaten raw, boiling or roasting the plant is necessary before using it. Agave has been used in the Southwest for more than 4,000 years: the pointed ends of leaves were traditionally used as a sewing needle or leather awl. The fiber of the leaves is fashioned into rope much as the yucca plant is used. The cleaned fibers can be made into cloth. The heart of the plant, much like a giant artichoke, can be cut out, roasted and eaten. It has a rich, mild flavor. Cooking is essential! This is the point at which I ask, “who was the first person to figure out this bit?” The transformation from agave to tequila begins with its fermentation into a beer-like drink. The fermented liquid is then distilled into tequila. A boiled preparation of the juice or sap of the fine agave plant is antibacterial, antibiotic, fungicidal and antiviral. Many people have heard of or use the processed nectar of the agave plant as a sweetener; it is thought of as having a low glycemic index. In actuality, short of pure liquid fructose, processed agave syrup has the single highest amount of fructose possible. The low glycemic index is true of the unprocessed, raw nectar. So skip thinking that agave syrup or nectar is a great alternative to table sugar and learn the other ways that this fabulous plant can be and has been used. For example, in the evening when the sun is going down use your margarita to toast a wonderful gift from nature.