Sunday, April 7, 2013

La Parroquia

La Parroquia is our favorite restaurant in Campeche.  First of all, it's open 24 hours a day which is nothing short of a miracle here.  Most restaurants that cater to local people close by 7 p.m.  Food stands in the market close by 2 p.m.  There are a couple of places that cater to tourists and stay open til 10 p.m. so I was having trouble believing in this promise of 24 hours.  But remember in December when the world was coming to an end because of the Mayan calendar?  Here dawn events were staged in the main square in Campeche to mark the end of the thirteenth baktun with fire ceremonies, shamans and a procession through town with everyone dressed in white.  Basically a whole lot of New Age hooey.  But Bruce & I rose before sunup and went down to catch the show.  And, as you can see, sure enough, at 4:45 a.m. La Parroquia was open!  Not a soul inside but later by 7:30 - after the planet didn't explode - it was jammed.

The restaurant is open to the street with ten ceiling fans going continuously.  They have metal roll down gates to cover the doorways but if you're open all the time when would you ever use them?  The walls of this old colonial building are decorated with murals the like of which you see all over Mexico.  I call it "the curse of Diego Rivera".  Large allegorical, quasi political, faux naive extravaganzas.  On one side of the room is a wall length piece showing the idyllic world of the Maya pre-conquest and on the opposing wall this one depicting the apocalyptic result of the arrival of the Spaniards.

The cuisine is Mexican and includes a lot of regional specialties from around the Yucatan. Here's a local breakfast dish called huevos moluteños which is basically huevos rancheros with ham, peas and fried plantains.  There are two words used for the meal eaten in the morning, desayuno and almuerzo.  The translation for both of these in English is breakfast.  But desayuno seems to be eaten earlier than almuerzo although it's all the same food.  Nobody, even gringo friends who've lived here for years, can explain this to me.

Here's my favorite egg dish, it's called huevos tibios which translates as tepid eggs.  Very, very soft boiled eggs served with salt and, yes, a squeeze of lime.  In John L. Stephens book from 1840 "Incidence of Travel in the Yucatan", they employ a local Mayan woman, Chia Chi, as a cook while they're staying in Uxmal but cannot get her to cook their eggs any longer than these so she is re-assigned to just making tortillas - her forte.  Another young boy who follows the egg cooking directions to their liking is substituted.  Probably most of you would feel the same.

Some of these breakfasts are pretty hefty but the big meal of the day is comida corrida which is served starting at 2 p.m.  La Parroquia serves a different special of the day every day but it's always the same on that day of the week.  So, for instance, Monday is black beans with pork and on Saturday it's albondingas - meatballs.

Here's what your set price meal includes.  First of all a fruit drink - either jamaica (made from hibiscus flower) or tamarind, although another fab thing about this place is that - unlike most eateries - they also have a full bar so you can order a beer. Yippee!  Next comes a kind of appetizer called a sope which sounds like soup and sometimes is but it can also be a small plate of overcooked, overdressed espaguetti.  Sorry, that's the Italian snob coming out.

Then comes your main course.  Here's Wednesday’s plate of chicken pibil which is a classic Yucatan dish.  In theory it's chicken marinated in a paste made with ground achiote, local oregano, cumin, black peppercorns and allspice.  Then it's wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven - the pibil - kind of like a New England clambake.  But you have to be out in the country in a Mayan village to accomplish that so this version was cooked in the oven.  As you can see it comes with rice, black beans, habanero salsa and tortillas.

Your desert choices are the ever popular flan or a fluorescent colored gelatine or fresh fruit.  After all this - even in the cool months - you can see why the siesta is still honored here.

Mexicans don't seem to eat large meals in the evening.  Antojitos - masa snacks - are usually all that's consumed.  These are panuchos.  Hands down the number one Yucatan antojito.  Small tortillas fried til they're puffy and then smeared with refried black bean paste topped with chicken, lettuce, tomato, avocado and these fabulous pickled red onions that everyone either makes at home or buys.  Salsa on the side. 

Here's a truly wacky choice.  Stuffed cheese.  Do not try this at home.  Perhaps the strangest recipe I've ever read in Diana Kennedy's Mexican canon.  It goes on for almost as many pages as Julia Child's instructions on how to make baguette in your home kitchen.  It is - I kid you not - a hollowed out gouda cheese stuffed with chopped cooked meat that has been flavored with a tomato mixture which includes green pepper, onion, capers, green olives, raisins, allspice, cloves, and cinnamon.  After you've filled your cheese halfway you embed a layer of whole hard boiled egg yolks then finish filling it up.  This whole shebang is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until the cheese is gooey whereupon it is napped with two sauces. One made of beef stock, saffron, and a local fresh chili and another made from some of the reserved tomato mixture thinned with tomato juice.  Serve with tortillas and habanero sauce.  This is considered an appetizer.  I'm still trying to figure out how gouda cheese got to the Yucatan.

The late night crowd comes for the mondongo.  That's tripe and calves foot soup.  I have been told on more than one occasion that there are enzymes in tripe which ease a hangover.  So after an evening of drinking one has a bowl before bed.  I don't know if that's true.  I do know that I love tripe but when I ordered it my waiter was very concerned that I didn't know what I was getting myself into.  "Pancita, no?" I said patting my tummy.  "Oh, si, si señora" he said with relief.

It was so good I resolved to try and make it myself while I'm living in a place where the ingredients are easy to find.  At least I thought so.  Getting the cow's foot wasn't hard and the butcher in the market cut it up into nice pieces.  But getting the tripe was an ordeal.  Everyone I asked kept telling me to come back the next day or they'd have it on Thursday and then I'd go again and they'd tell me sorry not today try tomorrow.  I was about ready to go to the supermarket and buy a packet of pre-cooked honeycomb tripe imported from the United States.  Since American's don't eat that stuff it all gets shipped down here in packets with the stars and stripes on it.  Finally, after almost a week of searching I managed to score some fresh stuff. 

The first three stomachs of the cow are: 1) rumen (known as blanket tripe and in Spanish as toalla - towel);  2) reticulum (honeycomb);  3) omasum (book/bible/leaf tripe) which I'd never seen before.  Here's the omasum which really does have leaf-like folds that you need to rinse really, really well.

The recipe I made is called Mondongo In Kabik - which is Mayan for Tripe in a Spicy Broth.  I had to marinate the tripe in Seville orange juice overnight to tenderize it while cooking the calves foot for hours with garlic and local oregano.  The next day I added the tripe to the calves foot and cooked it for another couple of hours.  Then I seasoned it with a sauce made from tomatoes, green pepper, onion, epazote, grilled fresh local chili and that achiote seasoning.  Serve in large bowls with more fresh hot chili, chopped onion, chopped local chives and squeezes of key lime.  It was so good I haven't had a hangover since.



Friday, March 15, 2013

La Licuadora

This was our very first purchase in Mexico because without it you can't cook much around here.  In fact, if suddenly there were no more blenders in the country, I think everyone would starve to death.  Whether you're making salsas or moles or margaritas you need one of these.  And, unlike in America, you don't just discard it and buy another if it breaks.  There are fix-it shops here that exist just to keep your blender alive.

In every market there are stands that sell nothing but blended fruit and vegetable drinks.  You can also buy them pre-made and concentrated like from this stand which specializes in drinks made from grains.  Here you can buy barley drink or rice drink or oatmeal drink.  I always wondered why there were large packets of oatmeal in the supermarket when I'd never seen oatmeal on a breakfast menu.  Turns out you whiz it up in the blender with some milk or water and feed it to the kids.  It's considered very healthy -  probably is.  By the way, I bought a bottle of the barley concentrate but no matter how much I diluted the stuff it was still teeth-achingly sweet.

Here are some of the more unusual fruits and vegetable that get made into drinks.

This is the fruit of the cashew tree.  You can see the actual nut part on the end of the fruit.  Unfortunately, there is a toxic oil related to the same irritant found in poison ivy that exists between the hull and the kernel of the cashew which makes it inedible.  In fact, until a safe way was found to extract the nut (which involves soaking and roasting them to render them harmless) people used to eat the fruit and throw away the nut.  Cashew fruit has a very short shelf life so now it's the other way round.

The fruit is still very popular here and is in season now.  Blended it becomes this lovely pale pink color although, to my taste, it had a slightly astringent quality which reminded me of an unripened persimmon.

Although cashew fruit didn't win me over this did.  This is chaya, a plant native to the Yucatan and the only leafy green (other than lettuce) that you will find in the market.  The English name is tree spinach.  At first I didn't know what to do with it.  And when I checked on line I was warned repeatedly not to eat it since it contains cyanide and must be boiled for at least twenty minutes - or ten minutes - or two minutes - depending on what post you read.  I tried boiling it for twenty minutes hoping for something akin to Swiss chard but it was pretty dreary.  Here people use it two ways.  First as a wrapping for tamales but most of the time as a drink blended raw with pineapple called chaya con piña . 

I figured that everyone here is still walking around after drinking it on a regular basis so I bought a bottle at the restaurant around the corner and it was so refreshing and tasty I am now a fan.  I've also been told that it gives you a slight buzz which Bruce thinks is probably due to the alkaloids in the plant. 

This is called pepino kat.  Which translates as pepino (cucumber)  kat  (something in Maya).  So I don't know what it would be called in English or Latin or even Spanish.  The man who sold it to me told me to peel it and put it in the licuadora and that it was good for the kidneys.  It seems you can pretty much turn anything into a drink.  I've even had one made from the seeds and stringy bits inside of a cantaloupe.  Zap them up with water; let sit for twenty minutes; strain and quaff.

Bruce came back from his hunt for a hammock at the market and said he'd seen a woman selling bits she'd hacked off of an animal's head with horns.  We examined this photo he'd taken carefully and I guessed it was some kind of plant.  I went back to the market and found her and she confirmed that, yes, it was the root of a plant called cabeza di chivo (goat's head).  You take a hunk and boil it in a litre of water for five minutes until it turns blue and then you drink it.  Once again, it's good for the kidneys.  I asked her how much it cost and she said if I just wanted a small piece she'd give it to me.  I know this doesn't involve the blender but I had to put it in since it was so fascinating.  I went home and googled my head off but couldn't find an answer as to what it might be.  The Spanish entries said the plant was native to Puebla and I found a reference in English to something called a kidney tree so maybe that's it.  If anyone can figure out what it looks like growing, let me know.

But as much fun as the blender beverages are, here are bushels of my favorite daily Mexican drink.  We can buy a sack of these local oranges for 60 pesos - that's around $4.50 U.S. - and drink lashings of fresh squeezed OJ every morning.  Viva Mexico!   

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sin Fins

There's another aisle in the fish market that sells everything that isn't a fish.

Huge piles of shrimp.  From some as tiny as your thumbnail to enormous head-on beauties like this.

This woman is selling pre-cooked octopus. We bought a raw one, cleaned it ourselves and tried a recipe for pulpo en escabeche or octopus in a light pickle.  I was following a highly respected Mexican cookbook's instructions so even when I had my doubts about the cooking time I reproduced the dish as written.  Wrong.  Octopus, I discovered, is like squid.  Either cook it for a moment or a very long time but nothing in between.  Fabulous sauce but chewy with a capital C.  I tried letting it sit a couple of days in the fridge in case the vinegar in the recipe would break the octopus down.  Didn't happen.  Friends counseled that freezing the octopus before cooking it helps to tenderize it.  So, that's where my next attempt is now - in the freezer.

This has to be the most sustainable seafood ever.  Stone crab claws - cangrejo.  You don't eat the crab just the claw and the beauty of it is that if you detach the claw properly from the body it grows back!  In the sea, a crab who gets himself in a tight corner with a predator has the ability to jettison his claw and scurry away.  Fisherman catch the crabs in a trap and then take just one claw, leaving one for defense, and then throw them back in.  Two years later - whole new claw.  I've served these with a chipotle mayonnaise but people here eat them simply with a sauce of lime juice, finely chopped habanero chile and salt.

This woman is selling dried, salted roe called huevos de lisa.  I asked her the price for two lobes and she said it was 100 pesos - $8 US - which is a hell of a lot of money for a little bit of food in Mexico.  I bought one lobe for 50 pesos and took it home not actually sure what I had purchased.  After a bit of research, it turned out to be the preserved roe of the grey mullet which in Italy is called bottarga and is served over pasta.  Molto costoso.   My pal, Glynna, is asking her how she preserved it and what she does with it.  The seller said first you clean off the excess membrane and veins and then soak it in a brine solution for an hour or so.  Then you let it dry out.  "Do you dry it in the sun?" I asked.  She answered "You can, but you have to watch out for the cats".

She told us that she sautés it with onion, tomato and chile but she'd also heard it could be made into a paté although she didn't know how to do that.  Bingo.  Here's a shot of the fabulous taramasalata Glynna made with her huevos de lisa.

 They also sell fresh roe in the market.  This is huevos de corvina known in English as sea trout or weakfish roe.  Delicious and could conceivably give shad roe a run for its money.  I cooked it using a technique I learned from my friend, David Leiderman, in his cookbook's recipe for shad roe.  You very gently poach the lobes before sautéing - equally gently - in order to stop the egg sacs from exploding.  Here you can see it sautéed and then served Mexican style - yeah - tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, squeeze of lime, eat on a tortilla.  Works for me.

This interesting pile of crustacean is conch or sea snail or in Mexican, caracol.  There are two kinds - red and black.  Red is 50% more expensive than the black because it's tenderer and more tasty.  Here's a video Bruce took of the conch vendor showing me how to clean it.  At the end he declared that we could now eat the whole thing and it should be cooked for fifteen minutes.

But every video I'd watched on YouTube told me to remove all the red stuff and just cook the white bit in the middle.  And, given my octopus fiasco, fifteen minutes seemed iffy.  I resolved to take another tack.  I removed all the red stuff and divided the whole creature into three piles.  One, the red pile, would be cooked as per the fishmonger.  The second pile, half the white, would be blanched.  The third, the other half of the white, would be left raw.

Here's my conch crudo.  Thinly sliced, salt, lime juice, olive oil and parsley.  Excellent.

The fifteen minute red pile was just so much cat food.  But the blanched pile was perfect for a coctele.  In every eatery from standup counters in the market to the most upscale restaurants in Campeche they serve coctelesChico/Medio/Grande.  You can have one with shrimp or octopus, or conch or oysters or any combination thereof.  They are always served in a tulip glass like this and always with saltines.  In Veracruz they're called Vuelve a la Vida - Return to Life - since it is held that they are a miraculous hangover remedy.  Here's how you make it.

Fill the glass half full with your shellfish of choice.  The one in the picture is a mixture of shrimp and conch.  Pour in a little of the liquid you poached the shrimp in.  Then add the sauce which is a combination of 1/ 2 cup of ketchup mixed with 3/4 cup of fresh orange juice.  (I know it sounds bad but it ain't.)  Top it off with finely chopped white onion, cilantro and chile - to taste.  Mix it all up and eat with crackers although I prefer toasted tortilla chips.   Some people add some chopped tomato and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.  Which is a bit fancy pants for Campeche.  And in Veracruz you would definitely also get a slice or two of avocado on top but I haven't been served it that way here.  This could be the only fat free dish you'll be served in Mexico.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Shots and Snacks

As everyone knows, tequila is the national tipple of Mexico.  And, as perhaps many of you also know, it is an internationally recognized DOC manufactured in the state of Jalisco using a distillate of the blue agave plant.  If your bottle says 100% agave that's what it is and if it just says tequila it can be 51% agave and 49% something else - usually distilled corn.  I prefer a white or blanco tequila but most of what's in the stores here and everywhere else looks like this.
It's reposado and means it has been aged in oak.  But looking at row after row after row of reposado tequila I started to have my doubts.  I mean were all these hundreds of thousands of gallons actually aged in anything?  It seemed like the Mexican equivalent of truffle oil which I know for a fact - since a friend of mine makes it in Italy - has never made the slightest acquaintance with a truffle.

I discovered that the licenses to produce tequila are controlled by the Mexican government.  Indeed, all of the distillation, aging, bottling, transportation, etc. is governed by law.  Upon reading this law it seemed that the aged in oak requirement was for real.  Two months for reposado; one year for anejo.  But then, Ah Ha, section 4.1 also allows for "mellowing".  What can you put in tequila to "mellow" it?  Caramel coloring.  Natural oak or holm oak extract.  Glycerin.  Sugar based syrup.  So, my suspicions confirmed, my advice to you would be to only purchase A) Blanco Tequila B) 100% agave which doesn't have any of that crap in it.  Plus look for a bottle that says not only C) Hecho (made) in Mexico but also D) Bottled in Mexico.  Any tequila that gets shipped abroad in bulk ends up being mixed.

That being settled, how to drink it?   Mexicans do drink Margaritas but not to the extent Americans do.  It seems the most popular tequila cocktail here is called a Paloma, a mixture of tequila and grapefruit soda.  Yuck.  For me the most civilized way to drink it is with sangrita.  You can buy it already made up like this or you can make it yourself.  If you have a shot of tequila, a shot of sangrita, and a shot of lime juice together it's called a bandas - the colors of the Mexican flag.

Supposedly the original sangrita wasn't tomato based but a mixture of sour orange juice, fresh pomegranate juice, salt and dried, powdered chili pequin.  Since sour oranges are all over the place here and we found fresh pomegranates at the supermarket I recreated the original and it was delightfully refreshing if not what I was used to. 

I found some pretty outlandish recipes for sangrita through Google.  Wacky non-Mexican ingredients including soy sauce and horseradish. The noted American chef, Bobby Flay, makes sangrita and then dumps the tequila into it as if it was a Bloody Mary.  But my favorite recipe is one I came up with in Italy.  Surprisingly, given the fact that tomatoes figure in every other dish, it is hard to find tomato juice in Italy.  So when I wanted to make sangrita there I made some homemade tomato juice and added pomegranate juice from the fruit tree in our garden plus the chili and salt.  Delicious.  I'm only showing you one picture of sangrita because they all pretty much look the same even though they all taste different.

In Mexican bars you are never just served a beer or a shot.  There's always a snack - a botana.  It can be as simple as a bowl of chilied peanuts or some chicharron.  For those who don't live in North America this is chicharron.  Deep fried pig skin sprinkled with salt.  Incredibly popular and surely a dish which contributes significantly to the girth of the population.

The Yucatan peninsula is famous for the diversity and yumminess of its botanas.  Bruce and I have a couple of watering holes we're cultivating where all you have to do is order two beers or tequila shots and they bring you so many goodies you don't need to eat lunch.  These "small plates" - as the trendy saying goes - can be simple like pickled cucumbers or potatoes with sour orange juice, onion and habanero chili or more filling - scrambled eggs and chorizo (sausage) or what is practically the "national" dish of the Yucatan "pan de cazon" -  shark meat layered between tortillas with black bean puree, spicy tomato sauce and maybe a little grated cheese on top.

But my absolute favorite botana is a sort of dip called Ttikil p'ak which sounds like sikh sikh pak when you pronounce it.  It's a Mayan word and a Mayan dish.  The best one I've had is at the bar/restaurant "El Bucanero".  I asked them for the recipe and the chef, a woman named Karla Pech, happened to be making some right then in the kitchen and showed me how it's done.  By the way, Pech is also a Mayan word as in Campeche, which, in the original Maya, means "place of snakes and ticks"  Not a very salubrious sounding locale.  Here's Ms. Pech's recipe.

6 grilled tomatoes - skins should be blackened
1/2 grilled white onion - also should be blackened
4 grilled habanero chili - you can cut back on these if you like since they're quite piccante

Put the well grilled vegetables into a blender.  Then add what Ms. Pech described as ten pesos of toasted ground pumpkin seeds.  Cilantro/fresh coriander to taste.  Salt to taste and blend the whole to a paste.  I know it doesn't look like much but, boy, is it good.  If you keep it in the fridge she says it will last for three days.  But how much, you ask, is 10 pesos of ground pumpkin seeds?

Well, those Masa Senoras also sell toasted ground pumpkin seeds.  So it was back to the market to buy ten pesos of "pepita molida" which when I weighed it came in at about 100 grams or 4 ounces.

Buon aprovecha


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mercado de Pescados

Here's the second reason I wanted to come back here - the Campeche fish market. All fresh, all local. No Pacific halibut or Arctic char for sale here just what's caught off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. After three years in landlocked Laos this abundance from the sea was irresistible. What was it all?

On New Year's Eve my friend, Glynnna, an American who has lived in Campeche for over six years and speaks fluent Spanish, agreed to come with me and get the names of everything. Bruce came along as photographer. The folks selling the fish were totally into it and once they knew we were documenting their products they started dragging stuff out and running up to us with so many different types of fish I couldn't write fast enough and Bruce couldn't snap fast enough to keep up. We managed to get the names and photos of over sixteen different species before we became completely overwhelmed. And this was on New Year's Eve - a slow day. Here's a guy holding up the primeval looking "peje lagarto" - crocodile fish.

I took my list home and started trying to figure out what they all were in English. Some, like "cazon" - shark was pretty obvious. Others like "pargo amarillo" I figured out was yellowtail snapper. And some like "cochinito" which I know translates as little pig were inscrutable. Perhaps it's colloquial like the names of wild mushrooms in Italy. What somebody in our village calls a particular funghi could have a completely different name twenty kilometers down the road. I consoled myself with the notion that since I didn't know what it was in English I wouldn't be able to look it up on the Monterrey Aquarium website and find out I was dining on an endangered species.

While trawling the net for "corcovado" (caranx lugubria) or black jack I made a surprising discovery that gave me pause. There's a disease called ciguatera which can be found in tropical reef fish all around the world. This was a problem. Pretty much all they sell here is reef fish. Ciguatera can make you very sick or really, really sick. It grows in plankton and algae which are then eaten by herbivorous fish who themselves are eaten by bigger fish working it's way up the food chain - kind of like mercury in tuna.

Well, there goes my purchase of a barracuda steak. It seems there's no way to detect ciguatera-poisoned fish although I did enjoy some of the folklore connected with that. Flies won't land on an infected fish or if black ants crawl over it and die you shouldn't eat it. The best was if you put a silver coin under the scales and it turns black it's no good. Which, coincidentally, is what Italians say to do with your pan of wild mushrooms. If the coin turns black non si mangia.

And then it dawned on me. Please. You're going to worry about a food borne illness in Mexico!
Lighten up and stop reading Wikipedia.

Here's what we bought for New Year's Eve dinner. I already knew what these are called. Robalo and huachinango - snook and red snapper. They were both scrumptious but the robalo was superb. I've never understood why it's not more popular in the states. Is it because "I'll have the snook" just isn't as sexy as "I'll have the branzino". Then I found out that snook is not permitted to be commercially sold in America. I don't know why.

But here in Mexico you can buy it at the market and then take it over to the guys who, for a few pesos, clean your fish for you.

We took them home and marinated both in olive oil, habanero chili and Seville orange juice. Seville orange juice - which is more sour than regular orange juice - is used extensively in Yucatan cooking. It's kind of like a cross between orange and lime juice. Then we wrapped the pair whole in banana leaf packages and grilled them on the barbecue. Muy rico - delicious.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Masa Señoras

Here's the real reason I wanted to return to Campeche. Yes, it's a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage colonial town on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico but seven years ago when we first came here what caught my eye was this group of vendors in the market. I call them the Masa Señoras.  We'd travelled a lot in Mexico and were living in the state of Veracruz but this was the very first time I'd seen people actually selling homemade masa. Masa is the dough from which tortillas and tamales are made and heretofore the only kind of flour or tortilla I'd encountered was made from this:

This is Maseca corn flour which lines the shelves of every shop in the land from supermarkets to local bodegas. It's made by the Gruma corporation which is headquartered in Nuevo Leon. They manufacture corn flour all over the world - they even have plants in the south of France and China! It's pretty much an instant mix - just add water and press out your tortilla. The only problem is that the tortilla it makes is lousy in comparison to the traditional dough which the Masa Señoras sell. How did Maseca become so ubiquitous? Ah, therein hangs a Mexican tale.

In 1990 this man, Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, made a deal with then Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. For decades the Mexican government had controlled the supply of corn - the country's staple food. Salinas used that authority to freeze the amount of corn supplied to small tortilla producers and decreed that all growth in this sector was now to go to the corn flour business - the vast majority of which was controlled by Barrera. He and Salinas were old pals from Monterrey. It was as if the French government had limited the supply of wheat for baguette in order to manipulate the market so people would have to purchase Wonder Sliced White.

Here's the tortilla "factory" in the Campeche market. Looks like a venerable piece of equipment, right? But no, as a result of Salinas's corn policy many small tortilla producers went out of business. But the Gruma corporation was happy to step in to sell this machinery to Mom & Pop operations everywhere - specifically designed for just making corn flour tortillas - the proof of which is huge sacks of Maseca flour piled up nearby. If you wanted to survive in the tortilla business you had to do business with Barrera. And just to make this deal even more lucrative the government subsidizes the cost of these Maseca tortillas to keep a supply flowing to the poor while paying Gruma the difference between the cheap tortilla and the more expensive real cost of ingredients and production. When Barrera died in August of 2012 he was worth 1.1 billion dollars US.

After uncovering all this information, my Masa Señoras seemed less like a romantic nod to a vanishing way of cooking and more like the tortilla equivalent of Occupy Wall Street.

The Masa Señoras all come from the same town about thirty kilometers from Campeche called Tanuba. That's where their mill is. They each have their names on their buckets to identify their own masa as it comes out of the mill. How does one make masa? You take dried corn and soak it in an alkali solution heating it slightly and then letting it soak. This process, called nixtamalization, does two important things. It breaks down the corn so that the hard bit on the end - you know the piece that holds the popcorn together - comes off so the rest can easily be ground and, more importantly, it chemically transforms the corn to release niacin. Without niacin people who consume corn as a staple fall ill from pellagra. There was a huge epidemic of pellagra in northern Italy 100 years ago because people were living off polenta but didn't know to soak it first as the Mexicans had been doing for centuries. I still haven't figured out what the difference is between say the masa from Lupe's bucket as opposed to Carmen's bucket. And I don't know if they grow their own corn or get it from somewhere else. But I was completely psyched about making my own traditional tortillas.

I bought a tortilla press and a comal in the market. A comal is a flat metal pan you put over a flame to cook the tortilla. I've read that the best type is earthenware but in all my travels in Mexico I've never seen one - and believe me I've been looking. I decided to make my own tortillas into a dinner of enchiladas. Boy, did that not work out. Here I am trying to smile for the camera while freaking out over my abject failure. I know "a poor workman blames his tools" but my comal was crap, buckling and twisting and not letting my dough puff up which is how you know you're cooking the tortilla all the way through. I bought another heavier duty comal at the supermarket which worked better but not as well as my flat cast iron skillet on which I'd cooked tortillas before - but that was back in Italy.

It seemed to me this authentic masa was making my tortillas too thick so Bruce suggested I cheat a bit and mix in some of the evil Maseca dough with the good stuff thinking it would lighten the whole thing up. I think they were better. But it may just be that I'm getting better at pressing them out and getting the heat right. I don't know. What I do know is that a really good tortilla, like homemade pasta or pizza dough, is one of those simple things that could take a lifetime to master.