Sweet Sap of American Agave

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Sweet Sap of American Agave


It is estimated that about 300 species of agave exist, of which only 200 have been described botanically. The nag is a very common plant in the Andes. It is found along the inter-Andean corridor happily growing on the lands of Cangahua, which are sandy or infertile. The subtropical zone, the warmest being the cabuya favorite, avoids an initiative to give it an appellation of origin as ‘Andean Agave’. Comparative studies are needed between the American Agave of our Andes and that from Mexico because it is not entirely clear whether it is the same species. The inter-Andean corridor is considered to be the historic area of production, which is between 2000 and 3000 meters above sea level where the plant finds the best weather conditions and soil for growth. There is evidence of its ancient use in all provinces of the Andean region. Nag or chawuarmishky is a ‘rosette’ plant according to the botanical description, which reaches three meters in diameter. Its leaves are gray-blue, hard, fleshy, waxy, elongated with thorns on their edges and a bigger thorn on the tip. The leaves are distributed in a spiral around a short and woody trunk. Maturation is slow, taking up to 15 years. Upon reaching the breeding season a stem grows large and woody in the center of the plant and reaches ten meters high. In Quichua, it is known as chaguarquero. The Chawuarmishky is the sweet sap from the heart of the plant. ‘Chawar’ means extracting and in the common quichuismo, ‘Mishky’ means sweet. To extract chawarmishky, the plant must be between 12 and 15 years. It is a known fact that the plant is ready to be chahuado when its leaves start to bend and is about to grow chawarquero.Today the plants can be found scattered across the Andes, usually in marginal areas where no crops are grown. There are still nag walls and some plants in rural houses, but most of it grows in the wild. The plant can now be found in Europe and other regions of the old world where it only has ornamental values. ‘This huge plant with strange form and thorny profile, full of generous gifts, reached Mexico from the Andes a long time ago. It is not possible to determine when it was domesticated there and when its expansion in that land began. The reason for this ignorance is simple: not enough studies have been done on it because its importance has not been recognized by the white mestizo culture or by Western science. Today, even the indigenous world ignores more and more each day. ‘ During the Colonia, it was described by Spanish chroniclers like Gutierrez de Santa Clara (1544-1548) who told us excitedly, ‘all that nature could give the human race to survive and use was put in this plant, used to dress and wear, eat and drink, and eaten for the health of men … ‘(In Pardo, O. 2005). Similarly, Lopez de Atienza (1757) states: ‘…. the fiber used to make ropes, sandals, and clothing. Tsaur mishki, sweet juice, is drunk fresh or fermented as Warapu ‘(in: Salomon. F. 2011). According to tradition, on a dark night, without telling anyone a man should go to the nag and make a large hole between the fourth and fifth leaf. He must scrape the hole, add water, and leave it covered. After 8 days, the woman goes to the ground during the day, takes the water accumulated in the hole and scrape a little more inside. From that point on, a sweet liquid that is like a sweet juice constantly accumulates. The juice can be collected 2-3 times a day for about 40 days. During this period, the man should not get close to the plant. The lack of appreciation of this product dates back to the conquest, when everything indigenous was so despised. In addition, there is an unfair competition with the installed sugar mills in the country, which sought political alliances to suppress competing products of sweeteners. Certainly, the main cause is the change in food culture brought by European colonization, which stigmatized indigenous foods and followed by globalization. An example of these changes is the consumption of soft drinks and beer, which has replaced the consumption of traditional beverages such as chawarmishky and boorish. Currently it is a product unknown to most Ecuadorians.It is not being replanted, so the current trend towards the increase in consumption could accelerate the extinction of the plant. There are fewer and fewer people who know the culture and technology of extraction as well as the preparation process. The chawarmishky honey collection method is a task done only by older women. Young people no longer do so because of the lack of interest, time, and acculturation. It virtually disappeared from the market in recent decades, although in recent years it is recovering in certain areas. It should be noted that the important regions are: Cayambe area – Tabacundo (Pichincha Province) and Saquisilí (Cotopaxi Province), where a few independent producers and two associations are selling at fairs and roadside carts.

Image: © Marco Del Comune & Oliver Migliore

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