Cocktails are all the rage these days. Cutting-edge bartenders are no longer content to simply pour liquor from a bottle or pull the lever on a tap– they’re chefs too, making their own syrups and bitters from scratch, reviving forgotten drinks from the happy hours of yesteryear and concocting new cocktails for a new century. There’s even a growing literature about cocktails. Some drinkers end up sick as a result of over-indulgence, but if you read much about cocktails maybe, like me, you’ll be surprised to learn that these stimulating mixtures of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters got their start as medicinal potions— the combined sugars, water, and liquors in the cocktail being the sweet vehicle by which the curative bitters were “delivered” to the patient. I happily drink fancy cocktails when they’re offered but they aren’t a big part of my life. I live too far from the big city hot spots to have much of a night life. And then I’ve got kids, a vegetable farm, and livestock to care for so I’m too tired to study mixology anyway. I’m content with beer. Given my circumstances, I think it’s funny that in my cow shed, on my farm at the end of a dirt road, I recently helped to prepare the most artisanal, authentic, and curative cocktails imaginable. I’ll get to the recipe in a minute, but first, a word about parenting.
As I was driving our kids to the school bus stop one morning recently, Lena, my thirteen year old daughter, suggested that I take her to Starbucks for a latte. I demurred. She then raised some concerns about my parenting skills. Luckily, I have a reservoir of self-esteem to draw on over the next few years.
“You remind me of something my mother once told me about the challenge of childrearing,” I said.
“Oh, great!” said Lena.
“My mom told me once that raising a kid is like carrying a newborn calf; every morning you get up and sling that calf over your shoulder, and then one day you realize you’re carrying a cow.”
“What is it with you and cows?” Lena asked. “It’s like some sort of obsession.”
Lena’s right. When I was in high school I raised beef steers for my FFA project. FFA stands for Future Farmers of America; it’s a vocational agriculture program. When I became a farmer I chose to raise vegetables, but several years ago, as an avocation, I got two Dexter cows. Then I got two more. Then I got a Dexter bull. Pretty soon I had little herd of Dexters and a freezer full of beef. Then, finally, a month ago, in service of my obsession, I bought a four year old Jersey cow named Jenny. When Lena found out how much I’d paid she said, “With that much money you could have bought some milk at the store AND the cell phone I’ve been asking for.”
Jerseys are a dairy breed. We milk Jenny the Jersey every morning, typically getting around 3.5 gallons, a half gallon of which is pure cream. The milk isn’t white– it is ivory colored, and sometimes you can see tiny droplets of pure fat floating in the pail. Jenny eats pumpkins and cull carrots every day, and when I make butter it comes out bright yellow from all the carotene in her diet. I enjoy having a cow, but watching Jenny eat makes my donkeys honking mad. I can’t help it. Milk cows are like race cars– if you don’t give them a lot of high quality fuel, they can’t perform well.
So anyway, early one recent, rainy, Sunday morning I gathered up my buckets and jars, put on my hat, and went out and got Jenny ready, filling her manger with hay and washing her tits off with warm soapy water. Washing the teats is important, not only for hygiene, but because the massaging motion and the warm water helps the milk cow relax and let down her milk. Music is said to help too. When I worked on the Straus Dairy in West Marin back in 1979, Antonio, the milker, said that classic musica Ranchera recordings of Vicente Fernández inspired the cows to give the most milk. Albert Straus, the dairy owner and boss, said that the cows found David Bromberg’s music to be more soothing. I don’t have an informed opinion about bovine musical tastes, but I do know that, by their nature, cows are very conservative. They find solace in routine. If we milk her at the same time every day, in the same place, feeding her the same kind of food and rewarding her with same bucket of grain, Jenny is happy. The music in my cow shed is the ping as the first stream of milk hits the bottom of the empty stainless steel pail and with my ear next to her belly I can hear Jenny’s belly rumble. The cow munches and snuffles as she plows through her alfalfa, there’s a contented burp or two, and pretty soon there’s steam rising out of the bucket of warm milk.
I was a gallon and a half into the milking when Manny showed up with his compadre, his “compa,” Octavio, from Uruapan, who I’d never met before. Octavio lives in San Jose now and works at the San Jose pulga making and selling the little carpets emblazoned with images of the Virgin Mary that go on the dashboards of custom vans and pick-up trucks. Octavio grew up on a ranch and likes the country life. But he’s a city dweller now so it’s been a long time since he was able to enjoy a real, authentic pajarete. We were introduced and Octavio produced a bottle of “vino.” (In rural Mexican parlance “vino” can be any sort of distilled alcoholic beverage, but it’s almost never actual wine.) It was pajarete time!
It was four years ago when I first heard about a roots Mexican “CSA” down in Moss Landing that specialized in pajaretes. “CSA” is an acronym that stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” or in this case “Cow-munity Supported Agriculture. CSA works like this: a “community” of consumers who want a traditional product, a product not generally available through the common retail outlets, or who just want to see a local, community farm survive, “support” that farm by paying for the farm’s produce in advance, so that the farmer has the up-front monies needed to keep production going. The “Cow-munity” supporters wanted fresh, unpasteurized, un-homogenized raw milk— REALLY FRESH MILK, REALLY RAW MILK— so that they could make their pajaretes just like they had done back home on the rancho in Mexico. These men would leave their homes early every Saturday and Sunday morning from the suburbs of Salinas, Marina, Watsonville or Seaside and drive to the rancho in Moss Landing that they supported to get the milk they’d paid for. This practice probably ran afoul of USDA and CDFA regulations, Health Department regulations, zoning regulations, the AMA, the California Dairy Council AND the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms but let’s forget about the bureaucrats for a minute. As any curandero can tell you, pajaretes are health food; they take the ache out of a hangover, assuage the stomach and nourish the body even as they brighten one’s outlook and mellow the mind.
Octavio said his bottle was Charanda. Charanda is clear liquor made from cane sugar, common enough in Michoacan but hard to find around here. I looked at the bottle and read the label– 95% alcohol! Whatever Octavio chose to call it, the liquor was essentially Mexican white lightning.
“Híjole,” I said. “Relámpago blanco! You definitely don’t want to be smoking around this stuff– one stray spark and we all go up like Molotov cocktails.”
“Simón,” said Octavio. “Muy auténtico!”
Manny showed me what to do. The first step is to put a spoonful of sugar at the bottom of your cup. “Any kind of sugar will work,” he said, “but the best sugar is crumbled piloncillo.” Piloncillo is a crude, coarse, brown sugar made from unfiltered, boiled sugar cane juice, and it’s very common in the cane fields. “Es lo más natural!” Manny said. “Lo más puro!”
You dissolve and dilute the sugar with a few fingers of charanda. (Outside of the sugarcane growing regions, in areas where agave culture dominates, tequila is the preferred liquor.) How much “vino” to put in the mug is a matter of taste. I’m told that in Mexico when bartenders serve pajaretes they ask the teparochos , or “los winos,” if they want their drink prepared “media bloque, un bloque, o dos bloques?” A bloque is a city block. The question really is, does the patron want his pajarete so strong that he passes out and fall face flat after staggering down the street for a ½ block, a whole block, or two blocks. Country living being the clean, hardworking enterprise that it is, we decide on a mere finger of vino per glass.
Once the sugar has dissolved into the alcohol it’s time to add the milk. Of course you could just pour milk from a carton into the liquor but the idea is to milk the cow directly into the mug, squeezing the tit with enough gentle force so that the stream of warm, healing milk comes squirting out in a jet and forms a froth that makes your basic Starbuck’s barrista with his steam machine look like a citified loser. Then, when your cup is full, bottoms up!
Manny is on the wagon so Octavio and I raised our drinks and toasted the cow. “Salud! To Jenny!”
So how do pajaretes taste? They go down easy. The liquor Octavio brought was so pure of any ingredient besides alcohol that it had no distinguishing flavor, only an effect, so the taste of the pajarete was sugary sweet and milky smooth, like something a bad mother might give a colicky baby to shut it up and put it to sleep. “What’ll it be Junior? Media bloque?”
I stood back, sipped my pajarete and watched Manny finish milking the cow. I felt good. The white noise of the rain pattering down on the corrugated tin roof of the cow shed was comforting. The white lightning and fresh milk in my belly was warming. Jenny was content munching on her pumpkin. Octavio and Manny reminisced about old times in Michoacan. They informed me that milkers on Mexican dairies feel that it is a basic right to enjoy at least three pajaretes per shift. “Good Lord,” I thought.
They also told that pajaretes can be made with goat milk, sheep milk, cow milk, or donkey milk, and that of these four kinds of milk donkey milk is by far and away the most healing. It gave me an idea. Life in the country isn’t always idyllic. Sometimes my wife, Julia, comes home, opens the gate, sees the cat sunning herself in the driveway, and then sees the cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, children, and chickens wandering about in the corrals and fields beyond, with all the attendant mooing, bah-ing, bleating, braying, barking, complaining, and squawking, and it’s enough to make her wish she could turn the car around and drive off to her imaginary cute little Craftsman bungalow in Pacific Grove within walking distance of the library, the farmers’ market and the post office. But I’m different. In a world full of terrorism, conspiracy, and insurance forms to fill out I find reassurance in a yard full of critters. Mentally, I haven’t gotten much beyond Jehoshaphat from the Bible who measured his wealth in flocks. It’s that darned obsession again.
“What if I started a donkey dairy milking 50 jennies a day?” I asked myself. A marketing plan formed itself in my head. “It’s perfect! During the week I’ll sell the donkey milk to Hollywood celebrities of a certain age who want to bathe themselves back to youth in donkey milk a la Cleopatra, and on the weekends I’ll open the ranch up for pajaretes. I can nail a cardboard sign to every telephone pole between Watsón and Alum Rock: Amigos! Compas! Michoacanos! Pajaretes de burra en el Valle de Pajaro. Puros! Autenticos! Naturales! Que Vengan Todos Para Su Salud!
And then, maybe not. I do want to stay married. Besides, my teetotaling Grandma Anna– the grandma who kept this ranchito of mine in our family long enough for me to enjoy– she had a saying she was fond of repeating: “The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man.”
It might be fun for a morning to have a pajarete or two, but as far as the idea of opening my farm gates to the world and selling healthful drinks every Saturday and Sunday morning goes, like some sort of rural Mexican Jamba Juice, well, that must have been the liquor talking. The only cocktails around here will have to be hanging off the ass end of our roosters.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin