(December 8 – written by Dave)
We’ve been in Mexico now for more than 2 months. The title of this blog is a question that we get asked almost daily. We didn’t know what it meant at first. We vaguely recognized the term maíz (corn) and we knew we were being asked something. Our early safe answer was maíz. Eventually, we figured out that the other word was Spanish for flour – that is, what kind of tortillas would you like – flour or corn?
We like flour better because the flour tortillas hold up better in a taco – you can actually put the taco down once you’ve started eating without the taco insides falling out the bottom. Fresh maíz tortillas are nice, but getting through a whole taco without messy hands is a challenge. Eventually, we learned how to actually spell harina and maíz (ok, to be fair, Nancy may have gotten the spelling part a wee bit before me).
One of our favourite fish taco restaurants has a tortilleria right across the street. Tortillerias are found in just about every town. The amount of automation is probably a function of how many tortillas are sold. In “our” tortilleria, corn tortillas are made mostly by a large machine, while the flour tortillas are made mostly by hand.
By hand, I don’t mean that there are no machines. At least in “our” tortilleria, the flour production line includes a giant blender to make the dough, a stamping machine that bulk smashes out balls of individually sized tortilla dough, a dough-ball-spinning/rounding machine to perfect the shape, a dough-ball-smashing-flat machine to make dough discs, a grill for cooking and a good old fashioned pair of scissors to trim any tortillas that are not round enough to stack evenly. There is no conveyor belt for the harina tortillas – everything is moved from machine to machine by hand.
In contrast, the production of maíz tortillas is much more automated, with a machine spitting out nice even tortillas onto a conveyor belt that takes them right up to the front of the store to be packaged up by the staff as they are sold – hand-wrapped in paper for each individual customer, of course, to ensure they stay fresh.
Today we got to watch the whole process for harina tortillas from start to finish. Tortillas are a big part of everyday life here in Mexico but judging from the reaction we got taking pictures, I’m guessing that most locals don’t give a second thought as to how their tortillas are made. The tortilla bakers and shop owner all smiled with pride as I took photos. We were even allowed back into the kitchen to see all of the prep steps, and then given the full show back out front during the smashing and cooking steps.
The smasher lady and grill man have hands that move at the speed of light. We stood back as the smasher lady made dough balls into flat disks at the mashing machine, then flung them across the room to the grill. Tortillas cook very fast, perhaps only 15 seconds each side. The grill man flips, checks and re-checks a grill-top of up to 21 tortillas simultaneously – finished tortillas making room for more raw disks to fly across the room. Disks and finished tortillas, fast hands, a scary smashing machine and a hot grill – stand clear and leave this to the professionals.
We have some tortillas at home but how could we not buy more after we were given such a great performance and backstage passes to the whole production. I asked for 20 tortillas but was given 20 pesos worth of tortillas. They sell by the kilo, not the tortilla. This explains why we received 23 the other day – I didn’t quite get it first time around. Just like the harina o maíz question – sometimes you have to see or hear things a few times before they make sense.
While we were outside getting some photos of the building, the owner came out with souvenir cold drink holders affixed with the logo of the tortilleria as gifts for us. He was quite proud to show off his store. While the tortilleria was “just ordinary Mexican life”, it’s another great reminder to us of why we do these trips – what’s ordinary to locals is often extraordinary to us.
We are still in La Paz, still in Spanish classes. We are getting it, slowly. Fluent – not hardly. Able to talk to people – perhaps a little. This week we moved into past tense which is quite exciting – at least for us. We’ll be here for another 4 weeks before we move onto other parts of Mexico. And for sure, we’ll be ordering harina tortillas when given the chance.