In the alitplano or high plains of Mexico, the barbacoa is a rich tradition of cooking a sheep in an underground pit wrapped in maguey leaves. It’s a complicated process, mired in history, and our True Master breaks it down.
Storyteller, co-founder, Soul Food Mexico
This fall (October 30-November 5th) we’ll be joining Ambien Mitchell and her team from Soul Food Mexico at Hacienda Santa Barbara in the highlands, during the most holy week of the year: Day of the Dead. Sign up here.
When I arrived at the Hacienda Santa Barbara, long before the watchtowers or chapel announced themselves in the distance, I first saw sheep.
It was a morning in November, misty and cool, and we trailed a man escorting his small flock of sheep to work. His name was Gabriel. He was from Chapultepec, the village down the hill, and worked various construction and restoration projects within the property. He could have left his sheep at home, but he brought them with him, to feast on the surrounding pasture.
He’d always been around sheep, even as a boy. Gabriel was raised by his grandparents and learned to care for sheep from his grandfather, who always kept a large flock. On special occasions and large meals, the family prepared barbacoa. Gabriel’s grandfather would slaughter one of the sheep, and his grandmother would clean the animal and prepare the barbacoa. The washed skin would be cured with salt and left to dry about one month in the sun, and then turned into a new rug for the family home. As a young boy, Gabriel learned to care for sheep and after school helped graze the sheep in the fields.
Over time, Gabriel and I became close. On days when we didn’t have too much work to do, he would invite me to his house in Chapultepec to share a meal with his family. His aunt, Gabriela, the town expert on barbacoa, shared with me the art form of cooking these delicacies, and I made careful notes for True.Ink about how to prepare this elaborate recipe and famous feast.
This is how you do it.
Step One. Find your sheep. Not any sheep will work for barbacoa. Here are a few guidelines to consider. You want a male sheep, about one year old. For the best flavor and texture, he should weigh between forty-five and fifty-kilograms. Ask the borreguero (sheep farmer) if he gives his sheep store-bought feed, or alimento, to fatten them. The most delicious sheep will be pasture-fed, eating only greens. Purchase your sheep alive.
Step Two. Find your team. Contract the right person to sacrifice the sheep and the right person to clean the animal and prepare the meat. Don’t try this at home! In Tlaxcala and in the towns around the Hacienda, a team typically consists of a man to slaughter and female to clean. This is almost always how barbacoa works. The man makes the sacrifice, and the woman cleans up. As Don Carlos, the night watchman of the hacienda, says: A man has the force and will to kill the animal, but a woman has the patience, knowledge, and skill to clean it properly and to prepare the meat.
Step Three. Invite your guests. A good 50-kg sheep feeds up to 70 people, so if you have any long lost cousins or old friends now is the time to give them a call and invite them!
Step Four. Manage your time. You will want the sheep sacrificed approximately 32-hours prior to your scheduled meal. This is enough time for the cleaning process, the cooling of the sheep, and the preparation of the meat.
Step Five. Dig a hole. If you already have a pozo, or in-ground brick or stone barbecue pit, you are in good shape. With a pozo, it’s easier to control the temperature and achieve more predictable results. If you do not have a pozo, you better start digging. Your hole should measure about one meter deep and about an arm’s length in circumference.)
Step Six. Light a fire. Begin heating your pozo around 12-hours before your scheduled meal to get the hole hot.
Step Seven. If preparing barbacoa blanca (see below), collect 7 maguey leaves from the giant maguey cactuses in your vicinity. Be sure to wear long sleeves when collecting the leaves (and avoid being itchy for days.)
Step Eight. If preparing barbacoa roja, collect mixiote, a kind of plant-based wax paper cultivated from maguey leaves. You will need one mixiote per dinner guest.
Step Nine. Get cooking. Four hours before your scheduled meal, finish any meat preparation and submerge the meat in your pozo for slow roasting.
A word on form.
A word on form. There are two styles of barbacoa preparation: blanca (white) and roja (red). Barbacoa blanca is traditionally prepared with the focus on the meat itself, without the addition of any chiles. The meat is slow-roasted inside the maguey leaves. As it roasts, the moisture turns to juices from cooked meat. The best way to take advantage of this juice is to place a large pot underneath the meat to collect the juice, and filled it with vegetables and garbanzo beans, creating a consommé within the fire. Typically, barbacoa blanca is served on a communal plate with plenty of tortillas, while each guest is simultaneously served a bowl of consommé. Usually, you will use a tortilla and the barbacoa meat to make a taco, adding onion, lime juice and cilantro to your taste, and eat these tacos simultaneously with the consommé.
Barbacoa roja is arguably the more traditional, at least in Tlaxcala. The meat is prepared with guajillo chile, leaves of the avocado tree, cumin, and wine (or beer), then slow-roasted inside individual mixiotes. It is traditional with the barbacoa roja to stuff one of the sheep’s intestines with the stomach of the animal, which forms a sausage-type shape, and this is cooked and served first as an appetizer. Each guest is then served barbacoa in mixiote with arroz rojo (rice prepared with tomato and garlic) and salsa verde, adding radish and avocado to their taste.
Both of these styles of barbacoa are completely unique to the altiplano or highlands of Mexico. It’s possible to attempt a similar style, but the flavor and flair added with the maguey cactus is impossible to duplicate. You have to come here for it.