Seven years ago Emma Woodward got on a flight to Mexico. Alone in the melting pot that is Mexico City, she discovered aguas frescas—ice cold, fruity soft drinks sold by street vendors across the country.
Returning to the UK five months later, Woodward was amazed to find that not a single Mexican restaurant offered the traditional handmade beverage. All she got was cheap tequila and table salt.
Armed with a blender and drinks recipes scribbled on napkins and bus tickets, Woodward began her mission to bring aguas frescas to Britain and banish the lukewarm Corona stereotype of Mexican drinking for good.
Woodward's first taste of agua fresca came at a market in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Feeling thirsty and ignoring her travel companions' warnings about the risks of food poisoning, she chose a brightly coloured drink from one of the vendors' igloo-shaped containers.
"Everyone was like, Are you mad? Drinking a drink off the street, you're going to get sick,'" she remembers.
Woodward went for a Flor de Jamaica. Made with dried hibiscus flowers, it's probably the most famous agua fresca, and one she describes as a cross between "Ribena and cranberry," full of berry flavour without being too sweet. Needless to say, she wasn't sick.
Flor de Jamaica is now one of the aguas frescas Woodward sells from her Sheffield-based drinks stall Chinampas, which also travels to London, Manchester, and Nottingham. Being water-based, aguas frescas can be a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks. They're made with fresh fruit, grains, and the occasional splash of agave syrup or honey. That's it.
"I just thought it was insane that there were all these incredible drinks and flavours," says Woodward. "Nowhere had them."
Having found only limited resources online, she returned to Mexico to ask street vendors for recipes.
"As soon as I saw a new flavour or I found a really incredible variation of a drink, I would basically hound the poor lady that made it and get her to hand out some tips," she explains.
Although some were perplexed when they heard the drinks would be sold in England ("They don't understand why we would have one of their everyday drinks"), people were happy to give her the recipes. One place, Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, had a particularly strong impact on Woodward.
"There is this one lady who makes this incredible horchata," she says. "I don't know where she comes from, she just appears on the street with a big container. As soon as I see her I'm like, That's the horchata!"
Horchata is an agua fresca traditionally made with rice, almond, and cinnamon but Woodward couldn't figure out what made this one so special. Not wanting to push the shy old lady too much, she decided to ask for a new ingredient every day.
"I'd be like, Does it have almonds in it? And she'd be like, No. Does it have this in? No. Does it have that in it? Yes. Ah, right. We're getting somewhere," explains Woodward. "Eventually one day, she had written [the recipe] down for me!"
Woodward makes a variety of agua fresca, including a coconut horchata, a sweet and sour Tamarindo, and of course, Flor de Jamaica with hibiscus. Other drink ingredients include chia seeds, pecans, cucumber, and cantaloupe melon.
While some believe aguas frescas have Arabic origins and found their way over to Mexico via the Spanish, others date the drink back to the Aztecs. Legend has it that in order to stay hydrated while tending to the floating island farms that surrounded their temples, the Aztecs would mix fallen fruit with lake water, creating aguas frescas.
"The floating gardens were called chinampas, which is where I got my name from," adds Woodward.
Today the trend in Mexico seems to be less about fallen fruit and more about moving towards cordial as a base for other drinks. On the whole, Woodward says people are becoming more Americanised, with chilangos, the cool kids from the city, choosing Coca Cola over aguas frescas.
Chinampas however, make all their drinks from scratch. Apart from the odd seasonal English flavour (rhubarb is a firm summer favourite) and a smaller amount of sweetener, Woodward has kept the original Mexican recipes and ways of serving the drinks. This means that they come in plastic bags with straws.
"For them [Mexicans], it's a cheap and effective way to take a drink away. Often in remote areas, bins are few and far between too so when the drink is finished, it can just be screwed up and kept in a pocket until they find a bin," she explains. "I thought it was a bit of a no-brainer to do the same in the UK as the bags can also be recycled just like plastic cups but there is much less volume of waste."
While Woodward has plans to build a mobile margarita cart, she hopes to keep her aguas frescas close to their traditional—and non-alcoholic—recipes.
"Everyone has been bugging me for alcohol," she says. "[But] if people want it then people want it. One of my drinks, my coconut one, makes an incredible piña colada. Just blend it up with some pineapple and rum, it's unbelievable."
What is perhaps more unbelievable is the fact that aguas frescas have taken so long to reach the UK. Perhaps this will be the summer that British drinkers finally swap the table salt and dry limes for real Mexican hydration.
All photos by Charlotte Heather-Cray.