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Making tequila in Mexico with Patrón and Neil Perry

We asked Neil Perry to head to the highlands of Mexico, home of the world’s best tequila, to search for ideas to make the Gourmet Traveller 50th birthday party one to remember.

Neil Perry in the Patrón agave field

Neil Perry shows surprising facility with a coa. It’s a farm implement that could be the love-child of a machete and a shovel, four feet of handle topped with a disc-shaped blade you could shave with. Perry is hefting one partly to get a feel for how agave plants are prepared in the fields, their first step on the way to becoming tequila, but mostly for the amusement of the jimadors, the farmhands who do this heavy work day in, day out. You take your laughs where you can get them in the agave fields, and the chance to see a gringo cut off his own foot with a piece of sharpened steel could definitely enliven an afternoon.

But, at 59, Perry swings the blade with ease. He’s decked out in his standard civvies of black jeans, black T-shirt and white leather Jack Purcell Converse sneakers. His face is relatively unlined, his hair greying but still worn long in the ponytail that has survived fashion to become something of a signature look. He chops away at the agave, picking up the rhythm – it’s like trimming a really, really big artichoke, he quips – and steps away, extremities intact, to a round of applause from the amused field workers.

As a chef, Perry has always been known for the breadth of his references. It was a copy of Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe’s Great Chefs of France that opened his eyes to the possibilities of fine dining as a young man, while his interest in the food of Asia has spawned multiple books and restaurants. The fierier food cultures of China are front and centre at Spice Temple in Sydney and Melbourne, and Asia looms large on the menu of Eleven Bridge, the flagship Sydney fine-diner that used to be called Rockpool. Italy is the focus at Rosetta in Melbourne, his daughter Josephine has previouly run a bistro called Missy French, while harissa, sumac and romesco allude to Spain, North Africa and the Middle East around the edges of the steakhouse cartes at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, and in the menus Perry’s team writes for Qantas.

But Mexican food has not been a big part of the picture. Not until now, at any rate. Perry is in Atotonilco el Alto, staying as a guest of Patrón, here to learn about Mexican culture, Mexican food and tequila. Mexican street food, it turns out, is something for which Perry has a secret passion, so the prospect of hitting a few cantinas, sipping a few reposados, and poking around kitchens and street stalls has him excited. He intends to deliver his findings to a crowd of chefs, influencers and subscribers gathering at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney in October to celebrate Gourmet Traveller’s 50th anniversary.

But first there’s agave to be harvested.

The agave is not, in fact, a cactus, but a member of the asparagus family. This information doesn’t make its spiky leaves any easier to deal with, however. Making tequila is a tough business. The plant needs to be about seven years old before it’s ready to be dug up. The jimadors cut away the leaves to reveal its heart. This is called the piña; the pattern left from the trimming makes it (broadly) resemble a pineapple, albeit a pineapple that weighs an average of 35 kilos.

Once they’re trimmed, the piñas are loaded on the truck, and driven to the distillery. The roads they travel are lined with sheep, and pass paddocks of cattle, and the stone-walled fields of corn and potatoes that the eight families who grow blue agave for Patrón plant in rotation with their key cash crop.

The thing that has kept Perry ahead of the curve, the rare chef to stay on the cutting edge of Australian dining for decades at a time, is his unflagging interest in the nuts and bolts of his business. Every aspect of it, from the napkins and the staff rosters to the wine and the coffee and the beer and the kind of wood burned on the grill. And the thing that really, really turns him on is produce. He has nuanced and well-considered opinions on exactly how many days a piece of grain-fed beef should be aged over how many days you’d age the same steak cut from a beast that has been raised on pasture. His eyes light up when he talks about wild-caught fish, and you really don’t want to get him started talking prawns. He’s a devil for the details.

Now he’s immersing himself in the processes that distinguish the great tequila from the good.

The theme that develops over the days as Perry makes his way from the agave fields and around the distillery is this: any time a choice has had to be made between doing things the quicker or cheaper way and doing them the right way, Patrón’s distillers have made the more difficult choice. It’s not the easy way to make a buck, but it’s an approach that’s consistent with how Perry likes to run his own businesses.

“We’re a privately held company,” says Patrón’s global chief marketing officer, Lee Applbaum. “We do things that public companies don’t do.” It’s a very large operation, make no mistake – Patrón is a giant in the top end of the tequila market, shipping 2.2 million cases a year, and employing 1,700 workers in the region – but over and over the production has been increased by duplicating the processes rather than by streamlining and mechanising the craft out of them. “We could automate,” says Applbaum, “but then it wouldn’t be Patrón.” The tequila is still made to the same recipe its master distiller Francisco Alcaraz hit on in 1989, even though the hacienda now produces the equivalent of a dozen distilleries’ worth of spirit under one roof.

The agaves are selected and harvested by hand. They’re still roasted slowly – for upwards of 70 hours – in brick ovens rather than in the massive autoclaves used in the production of other tequilas that do 20 or 40 tonnes at a time, in a third of the time, making for more flavour and complexity. The roasted agave is then crushed, mostly with roller mills, though some is crushed with the slower and more traditional tahona volcanic millstones, some of that production bottled as Roca Patrón, a more agave-forward (and more costly) tequila. It’s fermented in open pine barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, and then again, with the distilling, the choice has been made to go with the slower copper pot still rather than the more efficient column still.

Pot stills, the thinking goes, produce a spirit with a richer flavour and texture. Doing things this way is also labour-intensive; from start to finish, 60 pairs of hands touch each bottle.

The aha! moment comes for Neil Perry when he tastes the agave still hot from the ovens, just before it’s crushed. The drawn-out roasting has brought out its sweetness, and the hunks of piña are sticky and soft- like slow-cooked quince, Perry says, or prune. As he talks and tastes and talks some more, it’s clear that the complexity of the flavour has caught his imagination, and nags at him. The wheels are turning and he’s already visualising how to translate it to the plate, to the glass, to share the experience.

Someone mentions that Patrón offers what it calls a barrel-select program. A lucky few friends of the distillery – typically bars, restaurants or retailers – are invited to taste single barrels and blend something unique for themselves. Perry is on it like a flash: he has to have a barrel for the party at Rockpool Bar & Grill.

Where ageing spirit in wood for extended periods of time is usually considered a desirable thing (if not a defining quality), keeping tequila in barrels is a tricky business. It can quickly pull too much flavour from the wood, and needs to be kept under close watch, making the process of ageing as much art as science. In a tasting with distiller Antonio Rodríguez, Perry tastes his way through tequilas from a range of barrels. Batch 193, for instance, a darker than usual reposado with a pronounced vanilla and white-pepper taste under the agave, has been ageing in used American oak since 20 October 2015. In the tequila from batch 197, on the other hand, which has been resting on Hungarian oak since 22 October, Perry finds more weight on the palate and a nose reminiscent of dried fruit and Christmas cake. An hour later, he’s settled on a blend and the calls have already gone to the barrel room: the Neil Perry barrel-select Patrón is under way, soon to make the voyage to Sydney to make its début at GT’s 50th birthday party.

Perry’s time in Jalisco, the state that’s home to tequila and considers itself the heartland of traditional Mexican culture, is spent chasing flavour. In the lush grounds of the Hacienda Patrón in the highlands, the hospitality is, in a word, substantial. The best mariachi band you’ll never see plays its heart out and drinks are shaken to their beat while platters of shrimp and mole tamales, of squash blossom and chipotle salsa, are brought out on the terrace. After dark in Guadalajara, meanwhile, Perry hits the streets in search of taco perfection. The Jalisco style tends to be served on smaller tortillas, loaded with beef tongue, cheek and lip, with chorizo and pork. In the morning he’s out again, tasting variations on the theme of the torta ahogada, a Guadalajaran specialty that sees a sandwich, packed with pork, say, or shrimp, “drowned” in chilli sauce. (The fact that it’s often served with a knife and fork in a bowl lined with plastic wrap should speak volumes about the delicacy of this particular dish.) Inspiration is never far from hand.

How might this all translate to a tequila-scented celebration back in Sydney? Perry says the connection for him is the centrality of flame in the kitchen at Rockpool Bar & Grill, bringing smoke and char into the equation alongside the tang and brightness of acid, “whether it’s marinating, grilling and shredding or finding another way”.

“I’m really interested in the way garlic and onions and tomatoes are often roasted or charred or blistered before going into a sauce or a braise, softening some characteristics, intensifying others, in a way that’s very different to how we’d work with those ingredients in French or Italian traditions.”

He thinks about this for a moment. “Tequila is particularly delicious with things that have a good char or smokiness to them,” he says. “I think this is going to be a good party.”

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