You always know when you’re nearing a Mexican village anytime during the morning; there is that unmistakable smell of wood smoke intermingled with that of tortillas cooking on the comal, and the rhythmic patting of the hands as the masa is fashioned into tortillas. I am told it takes thirty three pats.
The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
One of my fondest of all memories was living for a few months in France and waking each day to the beckoning aromas of a local boulangerie. It was in the seventies where, in North America, bread no longer had the smell of a crispy crust and no longer came from little storefronts with giant fans over the door. In those days, bread came pre-sliced, wrapped in plastic, with the word Wonder on the side.
To me “the best thing since sliced bread” was unsliced bread, in the form of that baguette I would buy almost every morning and sometimes again in the evening from my oozing-in-charm local boulangerie. It may not have had “thiamine, niacin and riboflavin” like Wonder Bread but I’ve never really known what those words mean. And as far as “no more airholes” was concerned, I welcomed the occasional air pocket in my baguette.
About 30 years later, I started to spend time in Mexico and, though it took me quite a while to be converted from the style of bread that had first helped me earn the description pudgy (I think it was actually more the butter habit that I had trouble breaking), I immediately loved the fact that the bread of Mexico, the tortilla, was still produced by little neighborhood entrepreneurs.
Tortillas are seldom shaped by hand and cooked on a comal as in those villages that Diana Kennedy, the queen of Mexican cuisine, describes. Not in San Miguel de Allende, the 100,000 plus population, almost metropolitan town that I call my second home. But even when the tortillas are produced by these incredibly sophisticated pieces of clinging and clanging machinery, that remind me of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory episode, there is still something definitely small town about the tortillerias you’ll find within a few blocks of almost any San Miguel home.
I own virtually every book written about Mexican cuisine and virtually every one of those books talks about tortillerias nixtamalizing.
Now, despite this sounding like a word used to describe what a parent might do to a child that doesn’t understand the word no, it actually has to do with soaking corn kernels in a solution of lime and water to help remove the husks. It’s a process also known as slaking, a word that sounds like what a parent might want to do to that child if nixtamalizing doesn’t work.
Though I did find a photo of a tortelleria in Mexico City that still nixtalizes their own corn, I don’t know of any in San Miguel de Allende that does (please tell me if you do). In San Miguel, tortillerias buy corn flour in sacks and mix it in a huge hopper before it’s shaped, pressed, toasted and spat out on to the conveyor belt of a humming machine that, for some reason, almost always seems to be painted a turquoise blue.
I still remember my first visit to a tortilleria. It was also my first time outside of that other part of Mexico, that sun, sand and cervezas Mexico. My Spanish was just good enough to say to the tortera “diez, por favor”. It was greeted by a look of bewilderment. Perhaps Mexico wasn’t as metric as I thought. I tried “doce, por favor”. That brought even greater bewilderment.
I was flustered. I was unnerved. I was panicky. I had no idea what the tortera was saying to me. She held up a four inch tall pile and I thought she was asking “this much?” I held my fingers about two inches apart and said “demi”. She split the pile in half and said “medi kilo”. “Si”, I said, “not demi, medi kilo”.
The mainstay of the Mexican diet is sold by weight. Definitely an enlightenment and a new experience for me. I think those tortillas were five pesos a kilo. A couple of years later they were seven and then eight. And, in Mexico City, more than a million people marched in protest. Because in Mexico, tortillas have, for centuries, been at the heart of every Mexican meal, for the very rich and the very poor.
When Hernan Cortes, the guy who our public school history book writers thought was called Hernando Cortez, landed in Mexico, way back in 1519, he discovered that the basis of the Aztec diet was a flat, unleavened cornbread that, in the native Nahuatl language, was called tlaxcalli. The conquistadores decided to call it the tortilla or little cake probably because, like me, they couldn’t pronounce tlaxcalli.
In the second letter that Cortes wrote to the Spanish king, Charles V, he talked about tortillas:
“This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling…where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food…maize or Indian corn, in the grain and in the form of bread, preferred in the grain for its flavor to that of the other islands and terra-firma.”
Now at the beginning of this blog post, I said that, in San Miguel, you will seldom see anyone making tortillas by hand, but I didn’t say you will never see it.
Each week at the town’s Tuesday market and every day at the Ignacio Ramirez and San Juan de Dios markets, almost everything served will be with homemade tortillas. They may not even make their own masa (the Spanish word for dough) but you will see them doing the hand rolling into golf ball sized portions, a little hand clapping or slapping and sometimes doing the final flattening in primitive wooden presses before they’re placed on the griddle.
I’ve asked them why they make their own, knowing it would definitely be cheaper for the fondas or food stalls to buy them at a tortilleria and I always get the same answer: “Because they’re better”.
The only difference I sometimes see in the homemade versus those from the tortillerias is they’re a little thicker, a little rougher in texture. But everyone I ask at those markets swears that they taste much better.
If you’ve ever eaten at El Pato, the rustic little barbacoa joint on Calzada de la Estacion, you’ve probably seen the very vivacious and charming Pilar Ortiz squeezing, shaping and pressing the masa for the tortillas her husband Jose Luiz wraps around his succulent lamb. Pilar never misses an opportunity to ask, “Do you like my tortillas? They taste much better, don’t they?”
I give her a little three quarter tilt of the head and a close-mouthed smile. But do they really taste different? Do they really taste better? I wouldn’t say that they don’t but I also wouldn’t say that they do.
I’ve had yellow tortillas, white tortillas, blue tortillas, even purple tortillas, but never do I eat tortillas on their own, they’re always married to another taste. And that’s why, over time, I’ve chosen them over bread to accompany most Mexican meals.
Though nutrition and the removal of hunger are the prime reasons for eating any bread, there are other purposes. The leavened bread that I grew up with makes a superb sponge. There’s nothing like it for soaking up a rich soup or the juices from a hearty stew. It works beautifully to as the base and lid for a grilled cheese, a BLT or a tuna salad. And no, I wouldn’t think of anything else than bread to go with pasta and a red sauce or the grandkids’ peanut butter and jam.
But for almost everything Mexican, the food for which my love affair with continues to flourish, the tortilla is the champion. It can be a scoop to wedge up refried beans. It can be a plate to perch chorizo and cheese on. It can be a blanket to keep my rice, beans and chicken warm in. It can be crisped and made into a wedge to sop up my salsa. It can be baked into a bowl shape to serve salad in. And it can be a mop to swish over those last little drops left on my plate.
Have you ever wondered why Mexican families have more children than those in the United States or Canada? Well wonder no more. It’s tortillas. A study by the University of Geneva suggests that the corn tortilla may be a potent aphrodisiac. So I looked up some numbers. The average Canadian woman has 1.59 children. The average Mexican woman has 2.29 children. And even though I know that all Canadian and all Mexican women are above average, that average birthrate difference is enough proof of tortilla potency for a simple mind like mine.
So, if you’re still one of those people (like I used to be) that hopes that a basket of bread always appears on a restaurant table rather than that cloth covered mountain of steaming tortillas, maybe it’s time to open up your mind a little more (like I did). Tortillas are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. baking industry, with a 10% year over year increase. And I already have a front row seat on the bandwagon.
I think I finally know why it is said that a Mexican table without tortillas is an empty table. Ahhh, the so simple tortilla. Be it ever so humble, there’s a place in my home.
If you would like to taste test whether El Pato‘s tortillas are better than those from a tortilleria, they’re served every day but Tuesday with the restaurant’s lamb barbacoa and mixiote. You’ll find El Pato at 175B Calzado de la Estacion, on the north side, about 50 meters east of the Libramiento. They open at 8:00 am and close when the barbacoa’s all gone which is usually around 3:00 pm.