The Creeping Influence of Corn-Tortilla Lovers

For Lily Ramirez-Foran, corn tortillas are to Mexico what potatoes are to Ireland.

When she moved here 16 years ago, she faced serious withdrawal. There was nowhere to get fresh, authentic corn tortillas, a difficult adjustment for the daughter of a tortilla baker.

There are the processed, wheat ones, but they’re a different species from fresh corn ones – like fresh bread from a bakery compared to bread from a supermarket, she says.

Nowadays, though, things have changed.

It’s possible to get fresh, authentic corn tortillas in Dublin.

Ramirez-Foran has ample supplies in her Picado Mexican Pantry on Richmond Street, and through regular classes in her in-store kitchen, she’s spreading the love, and trying to get people to understand why they’re so good.

But she’s not the only one. Phil Martin of Blanco Niño is providing traditionally-made corn tortillas to eateries around the city.

Authentic Tortillas

More than a decade ago, Ramirez-Foran got her family to send some tortillas to her here from Mexico. But that proved expensive and, because traditional corn tortillas don’t have any preservatives, they lost some of their goodness on the journey.

So she came up with other options.

First, she learned how to make her own at home with a mixture of water, Maseca corn flour and salt, and the assistance of a tortilla press. Now she shows her customers how to do it too.

“There’s no comparison,” she says. “Like anything homemade, it’s way better than from the factory.”

For those days when customers are stuck for time, she also sells vacuum-packed corn tortillas, which she gets in fortnightly from her aunt’s tortilla factory in Barcelona. They’re made following the method her grandfather used in Mexico.

They have no additives, so they go stale after a week or so. If they’re left exposed to the air, the edges will dry and crack within 20 minutes.

“I’m very proud it goes off,” she says. “It shows there’s no preservatives.”

She makes sure all her customers know to keep their tortillas in airtight packaging, and not to treat them the same way they’d treat store-bought wheat tortillas.

A Wider Market

Phil Martin also has a passion for authentic Mexican tortillas.

When he set up Little Ass Burrito Bar, he wanted to serve fresh corn tortillas to his customers. He originally made them on a small scale, but soon decided that to produce a consistent product, he’d have to go bigger.

“Nearly by necessity, we had to do it,” he says. “And to get the tortillas down to a reasonable cost, we had to export.”

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, which earned £123,000, he explored Mexico to learn the best methods of making tortillas. In 2013, he set up Blanco Niño in Clonmel to produce them. (Yes, that translates to “white boy”. It’s a name inspired by his travels around Mexico.)

Since then, Blanco Niño has started to export to the UK, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Finland. There are plans to launch it soon in Sweden, France and Spain.

At the moment, Martin’s tortillas and tortilla chips are only sold to hotels, bars and restaurants. “Mexican restaurant owners know the difference,” he says.

In Dublin, you’ll see them at 777 on George’s Street, El Grito at Merchant’s Arch, Flash Harry’s in Blackrock, 250 Square Coffee in Rathmines, K Chido Mexico on Chancery Street and Azteca on Lord Edward Street.

And, of course, Little Ass Burrito Bar gives customers the option of wheat tortillas or authentic corn tortillas.

Education, Education

Having convinced plenty of restaurateurs to pay extra for his product, Martin hopes to convince supermarkets and consumers next.

For now, only Get Fresh in Rathfarnam sells Blanco Niño’s tortillas to the public. But Martin plans to launch another crowdfunding campaign later this year to raise the money – and awareness – he needs to get his products on shop shelves.

Those who have travelled to Mexico or the US may already know the difference in flavour.

Still hot, they’re delicate and thin, full of earthy notes and much lighter then their wheat counterparts. They’re soft but not doughy, there’s a hint of crunch in the bite.

They smell delicious, exuding a pleasant sweet aroma – though they taste savoury. Authentic tortillas are nice enough to eat with just some salsa for dipping, but even better when full to bursting with Mexican beans, sauces and meat.

As Ramirez-Foran and Martin tell it, there’s no comparison between fresh and more processed tortillas.

Martin says it’s like sachet mashed potatoes versus real potatoes. “It costs more, but it doesn’t taste of cardboard,” he says.

For the most part, Dublin’s Mexican eateries use wheat tortillas, which Martin describes as the American or Tex-Mex version of corn tortillas.

“They’re not the end of the world,” he says. “But I prefer corn tortillas. At least they taste of something, as opposed to wheat tortillas which are just spongy stuff that you wrap food in… You can throw it across the road and catch it with a hammer and it’ll be fine. Corn tortillas need a bit more love.”

But beyond flavour, the long list of ingredients is what concerns both Martin and Ramirez-Foran. “You shouldn’t need a degree in Latin to read the back of a label,” says Martin.

Photo courtesy of Phil Martin

Growing Pains

Martin wanted to grow corn for his tortillas here in Ireland. Farmers in Mexico warned him that it wouldn’t work.

Still, Martin gave it a go.

“It was a nightmare,” he says. “Half of it didn’t come out of the field. The other half barely ripened.”

So now he imports non-GM white corn from the US and cooks, steeps, and mills it here to transform it into tortillas.

He still has his eye on growing it closer to home, maybe in Hungary or the Ukraine. He also hopes to expand his product line, develop packaging to optimise freshness and get his tortillas into supermarkets around the country.

And he plans to open a taqueria in Dublin before the year is out.

As for Ramirez-Foran at Picado, she plans to keep her authentic tortilla network small, with only a few outlets like Avoca stocking them. Her cookery classes are booked out for the next month, but she’ll soon be adding more dates for May, June and July.

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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