The grain that drives Mexican culture and cuisine isn't wheat, it is corn. We were at lunch with a partner team in Guadalajara this week and, while discussing what was on the menu, I asked the group - 5 - 6 young professionals, what made corn tortillas special. What resulted was a wave of discussion about taste, texture, freshness regional specificity.
It is estimated that about 60% of the world's produces originated in the Americas - potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, cocoa to name a few - and of course corn (A fascinating table of these items is included in this article.)
Corn was cultivated from wild grasses about 10,000 years ago by the natives of Mesoamerica (The precursor people ot the Mayans, Olmecs, Aztecs, Zapotecs, among others). In the early '90s, there were more than 30 varieties of corn grown in Mexico - it is likely that this dropped considerably with the flood of U.S. grown corn that now feeds the country.
On our walk from the casita to el cafe Tal every morning for our cup of cafe latte (As good as Blue Bottle) - about one mile - we see 4 - 5 torteriallas, their machines squeaking away while the tortilla maker loads a hopper with masa (Corn dough) and unload baked tortillas at the other end. 50 Kg bags of corn flour stacked up on palettes, containers of fresh salsa and sometimes beans for sale by the weigh scale. Mexicans need their tortillas fresh and buy them throughout the day, for about $0.25 a pound. Corn, along with rice and beans, constitutes a major part of poorer Mexican's diet.
Corn's reach extends into unusual corners of cuisine here: Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn(Corn Smut to American farmers) that is used like a mushroom with an earthy flavor. We had some in a dish of Queso Fundido last week at local restaurant and it was delcious.
Jennifer likes getting a cup of esquite: roasted corn with crema, cheese, chili, salt, lime and hot sauce served in a styrofoam cup by a street vendor. Great when the weather is cool here: Mexicano comfort food.
This has got me thinking about baking a corn based sourdough loaf for you. Reed Hamilton at Grass Valley Grains in the Sierra Foothils, from I have purchased organic hard red winter wheat, tells me he grinds a fair bit of maiz flour and polenta for Mexican restaurants. He put me in touch with Shana Marziaz at the Three Forks Brewery and Bakery in Nevada City who makes a polenta loaf from time to time. Some folks add toasted pumpkin seeds to the recipe and the dough is wet and difficult to manage (Sound familiar? : ) ).
Photos from our time in Mexico at my Instagram feed: @hugh.r.morgan.