Making Tortillas, Cheese, Pine-Sap Salve and Learning about the Acequias at Las Huertas Land Grant

Story by Susan Olsen, July 2019; pictures by Susan Olsen and Venessa Chavez Gutierrez

Our young granddaughters are heirs of settlers of the Canon de Carnue Land Grant. We want them to know about their heritage, to love and to be proud of it. In July of this year we took our granddaughters to a wonderful event that was organized by Rebecca Correa Skartwed, of the San Antonio de Las Huertas Land Grant (east of Placitas) and Venessa Chavez Gutierrez of the UNM Land Grant Studies ‘Youth Vision’ Program.

We started by learning to roll out flour tortillas, and thanks to Sandy Escarcida’s instruction, we discovered big differences between the food eaten around the time of the founding dates of each of the Land Grants represented by those attending, as compared to the New Mexican food we are all familiar with (burritos, enchiladas, etc.).  The children loved rolling out tortillas, guided by Ora Correa (Rebecca’s mother) and Sandy, who then cooked them on the griddle in the outdoor kitchen.  Our reward was sampling freshly cooked, warm tortillas with butter and home-made apricot jam.  Delicious!

Pinon Pine Sap collection came next!  We went up into the hills to gather sap from pinon pine trees.  Guided by Kyle Skartwed and Michael Gonzales, we discovered trees with sap accumulation ready for harvest.  Whoa – we wore the wrong shoes (flip flops) and one of my granddaughters stepped on a small cactus, so we all had to stop and ‘operate’ on her.  Luckily one of the grandmothers on the tour had some excellent tweezers, so we were able to get the spines out from her foot.  Everyone helped comfort her, and she bounced right back!  We visited a number of trees to scrape sap, and appreciated Kyle and Michael holding the children up to where the children could scrape the sap into a bucket – messy and sticky and tricky as it was, sap gathering turned out to be one of the favorite activities of the children!

Kyle thoughtfully offered to take a family picture of us while we were up on the mountain, with a view northwest to the Mesa.  He took a picture I will always treasure, as it so rare to have a picture of me with my granddaughters, since I take all the pictures of our adventures.

Water management and conservation followed our sap collection experience!  After scraping and gathering the pinon pine sap, we walked downhill from the outdoor kitchen to the holding pond of the spring called Ojo del Oso (Spring of the Bear) and learned about water management from Rory Easeman, the Mayordomo of the Acequias of the San Antonio de Las Huertas Land Grant. 

How fascinating to witness & hear water from the Ojo del Oso emerge, and see it diverted to the holding pond and then to the acequia system.  Rory told us about the variations in water flow from year to year – last year there was very little water for the orchards and people who depend on the acequia system for their water…but this year (thanks to the snow pack) the water flow is 10 times the flow rate of last year, so now they have plenty of water and are thinking of ways to save the water for drier years. 

Holding pond for Ojo del Oso

Rory also told us about the changes that have occurred in the management of the Acequia system – in more recent years the holding ponds (dry in winter) would be cleared of the season’s growth with a tractor…earlier (before the invention of such mechanized techniques) the dried growth would be burned, and that would create a hardened crust at the bottom of the holding pond, which seems to help slow the rate of water from sinking into the ground under the pond.

Cheese making was our next adventure.  Rebecca had made preparations by adding the rennet (enzymes) to cow’s milk, and heating the mixture to the right temperature…when we joined her the mixture had solidified and was ready to be sliced & diced (one of the older girls did that), and then spooned into the cheesecloth-lined colander.  Some of the older members of the group recalled that the curdling of the milk had been accomplished by a plant, and another recalled that a small animal would be  killed and part of the stomach would be used to curdle the milk. 

The whey drained out of the cheese (accompanied to recitations of the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffett…”).  In order to drain more whey from the cheese, Rebecca  showed us how to make the mixture ‘dance’ by holding the four corners of the cheese cloth and rocking it back and forth.  Then she tied the corners together and hung the soon-to-be cheese from a stick and let the children take turns squeezing it – they LOVED this stage of cheese-making and were eager to take turns!  Squeezing the cheese was a very popular activity…what fun that turned out to be!

Lunch was yummy!  We ate the tortillas we made, wrapped around carnitas that Ora made from brisket, plus the cheese we made, pico de gallo and fresh-picked sour pie cherries from an orchard on the land grant.  We all sat around at the picnic tables and visited while we ate the delicious food – getting to know our hosts was a big part of the enjoyment.

Pinon Pine Sap Salve making was amazing – after lunch, Rebecca mixed the heated pine sap that her husband Kyle Skartwed had previously collected (that she had melted at home in a crockpot outdoors and then sieved to remove bits of bark) with almond oil & some beeswax, and 40 drops of lavender oil.

Venessa had brought about 40 little canisters with lids and one of the older girls poured the mixture into each of them, taking twice to go around.  Once the salve in the containers had cooled enough, we were able to choose our own delicious-smelling sample, and head for the car and home. 

What a beautiful setting for our experience – outdoors and in the shaded picnic area that was a perfect temperature and provided us with the feeling of being close to nature.  We will treasure the lovely family photo taken from up on the hill looking out to the north west, and we also have this happy group picture taken in the gazebo, built by Michael Gonzales (he is the friendly man on the far right of this picture).

Our wonderful group – from Las Huertas, Canon de Carnue, Chilili, Manzano & Tajique!

Our adventure lasted 4 hours – from 10am until after 2pm, and all the way home we talked about how much fun we had, how welcome we felt, and how much we learned! We met families and children from other Land Grants, and shared discoveries, skill building and experienced a wonderful feeling of community.  Experiences such as these are to be treasured.

View of the Cabezon, west as we departed the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant

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