About a year ago, I posted a review of all the corn flours available in my area; I treated it as a lab experiment, including as much information about the products as I could find, but not much about the companies, to keep it basic and unbiased. Please check my post out (Corn Flour and Masa 101) for a detailed explanation on different types and names for corn flour, the process of nixtamalization (to soften dry corn, which also enhances flavour and nutritional value), and how to make corn tortillas at home. My conclusion was that from my batches, Bob’s Red Mill™ – organic, and ground from dried nixtamalized corn dough – was the best flour for corn tortillas, (photo below, left). I found that very encouraging as an option for making tortillas at home, especially since the leading Mexican brand, Maseca™, turned out to be very disappointing, as I noted in my post “… the flavour was nothing special, just like packaged tortillas.” (photo below, right):
I did not think much about it afterwards, but during my recent trip to Mexico, I learned the possible reason, and how much the tortilla market and masa (corn dough) supply have changed since I moved to Canada in the 1980s. In many urban areas in Mexico, the introduction of tortilla machines (invented in 1947) brought the convenience of producing a freshly made product at mass scale without sacrificing flavour or quality:
As a kid, it was mesmerizing to look at the whole process right before my eyes at the tortillería (tortilla shop): the masa was kneaded through a funnel at the top of the machine, then fed to a set of rollers (1), similar to a huge pasta machine, but fitted with round cutters (2). A metal mesh conveyor belt moved the discs along an oven (3), and the tortillas came fully cooked on the other side, at the end of the conveyor (4), where they would slide (5) into a pile in a round receptacle, and a diligent employee would collect them and dispatch them to the counter. Often times there would be a long line-up of customers, so the piles were sold literally “hot off the press.” People brought their own kitchen towels to wrap the hot tortillas (photo at the top of the post), and it was hard to resist the smell of grilled nixtamalized corn dough, so one or two tortillas would get eaten in the spot; many tortillerías even had salt shakers on their counters! Although these establishments would generally carry white or yellow corn tortillas, since there are at least 59 varieties of corn in Mexico, many small restaurants and people in rural areas continued to grind their masa and make their tortillas by hand using all sorts of regional corn, an extra treat for city dwellers when eating out or going to regional markets.
Fast-forward to the 1980s, when free trade negotiations and agreements brought the highly subsidized US corn into the picture*; corn prices dropped, and the Mexican government limited the subsidy and supply of Mexican corn, hurting Mexican farmers and forcing many tortillerías to use masa made from Maseca™ flour. Today, Maseca™ has become a giant operation, with ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), the world’s largest corn broker, owning over one fifth of their stock.
(*Subsidies to monoculture of hybrid and GMO corn are also a big issue for US farmers, as discussed in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, where author Michael Pollan devotes about the first quarter of the book to this topic, starting with the chapter entitled “How Corn Took Over America.”)
But how does that affect the flavour? Recently, the Organic Consumers Association reported that samples of Maseca™ corn flour tested positive for “concerning levels of glyphosate”, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup™ weed killer. Their findings also reported that as high as 94.15% of the Maseca™ flour samples tested, returned positive for genetically modified organisms (GMO). That’s a shocking figure, since GMO crops are not allowed to be grown commercially in Mexico, meaning that there was at least some foreign corn in most of that flour; this paints a very grim picture for Mexican corn in the tortilla industry, because seven out of ten tortillas sold in México are now made with Maseca™:
So now many of the products coming out of tortilla machines potentially pose a health issue due to glyphosate, from corn grown with high yields in mind, not quality, and hence resulting in tortillas that are mostly flavourless ghosts of those hard-to-resist discs of my childhood. This has also caused tortilla consumption to decrease, with many Mexican families getting on the bread wagon (ADM also dominates the wheat market, but that is a rant for another day). This is a turning point in Mexico’s history; will the government choose to restore the support to local corn farming, and promote the preservation of Mexico’s 59 varieties of corn? Will Mexicans fight back to defend the agronomic heritage of corn, and the cultural and gastronomic value of tortillas?
There are several grassroots movements in the country, advocating for the ban on mono-culture of corn and the promotion and support of heirloom crops and artisanal tortillas. Some brilliant examples, which came across as responses to the issues explained above during my visit to Mexico included:
Molino El Pujol (146-A Benjamín Hill St, Mexico City) – with their offerings of maíz negro (black corn):
And tacos and machine-made tortillas from Amarillo Mixteco (yellow corn, one covered with Hoja Santa leaf, photo left) and Rojo Zapoteco (red corn, photo right and at the top of the post):
Azul Condesa (68 Nuevo León St., Condesa, Mexico City) – where authentic specialties are served at reasonable prices with an assortment of handmade heirloom-corn tortillas:
And several places in Culiacan, such as Las Ilusiones, the roadside restaurant I reviewed in my last post, with roasted mutton, served with handmade regional white corn tortillas:
I would like to thank my brother in-law, as well as my friend José Luis, for their insightful comments on Mexican corn farming issues, and the Maseca™ tortilla market monopoly, which provided two important starting points for my post’s discussion.
Back in Canada, we spent the Easter weekend with my in-laws, in Toronto; they traditionally roast chunks of lamb, speared onto giant skewers, and the meat is slowly roasted over a rotating contraption designed by my father in-law, powered by a car battery and fueled with charcoal:
My husband and I returned home with a large portion of leftover lamb; it reminded me of the roasted mutton in Culiacan, and I saw the opportunity to use some of it to make tacos at home. I recently purchased a tortilla press (photo below, left); also armed with all the information from this and my Corn Flour and Masa 101 posts, and a bag of Bob’s Red Mill™ Masa Harina flour, I made a batch of masa that, as I had found before, was “ … very easy to press, and had the best appearance and aroma”, yielding tasty old-fashioned tortillas (photo below, right):
And I think I managed to recreate the delicious Culiacan style “eco-taco” experience once again (roasted mutton in Culiacan, left; leftover lamb in Canada with homemade tortillas, right):
The secret is out: Organic, non GMO, nixtamalized corn will make good masa, and in turn, healthy and flavourful tortillas.
While in Toronto, I also found dried kernels of a variety of blue corn, known as purple corn (Zea mays indurata):
I am trying to decide if I should cook them and try to make a small batch of nixtamalized tortillas, or if I should sow them and see if I could grow fresh purple corn on the cob to enjoy at the end of the summer … Any thoughts?