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.


  1. Wow, JoJo, your'be back at it! Wonderful. And I love your story. What an evil photo you found of that Barrera guy. Keep having fun and keep practicing your tortillas. (I am struggling with a good crispy thin pizza dough at the moment using dried yeast. Any advice?)

  2. Wonderful entry--tweaked nicely by the photo of the rich guy with the cheap rug. Now a question: Isn't there some step where you grind the corn meal further in one of those Mexican mortar-and-pestles (forget the Spanish name)? I thought I saw women doing that years ago in San Antonio. Was told that using this stone thing put some calcium in the flour, though of course, that wasn't the reason for the grinding. Am counting on you, food stalker, to offer an answer!