Can you smell the corn? Locally made tortillas a hit in the valley
The Recorder, April 19, 2017, By Richie Davis.
Open the plastic bag and you immediately smell the corn in these Mi Tierra tortillas, said Jorge Sosa proudly.
That was far from what it was like when Sosa arrived in western Massachusetts from Mexico in 1992 and opened his first bag of store-bought tortillas.
“You couldn’t smell the corn,” he recalls. “I didn’t know at the time, but it was the preservatives, the chemicals, all the things that they put into the tortillas to make them last forever.”
Back home, in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, Sosa said, “usually you grow your own corn, pick the corn, cook it, wash it, grind it, and you go back home and make your tortillas.”
Or at least make them from corn flour, masa, he said. “It wasn’t as tasty as the ones I used to have in Mexico, but at least didn’t have the really bad smell.”
By the time he opened his original Mi Tierra — “my land” — Mexican food market with an add-on restaurant in Hadley in 2007, Sosa was convinced that he couldn’t serve anything but corn tortillas homemade from masa flour, but had a dream that if he ever could, he could buy a tortilla-making machine.
“I couldn’t serve junky tortillas, so we started making tortillas by hand,” he said. “A good tortilla with rice and beans, that’s a meal. I never imagined having a tortilla factory, a tortillaria.”
In 2013, Sosa and his wife, Dora Saravia, had finally saved enough — $40,000 — so they could buy that machine, and for which he drove all the way to Mexico. Two months later, a fire destroyed the machine along with their popular Route 9 restaurant.
“I remember conversation with a friend, ‘Why you doing this?’” Sosa recalls. “She said, ‘You’re going to lose everything. How are you going to compete with these people? They have a tortilla that lasts six months. Your tortilla doesn’t last more than a week.’ She’s Mexican, but she’s been here forever, so she doesn’t remember, probably, the real corn.”
Even before the fire, the couple had begun buying Midwest corn in their quest to make a better-tasting tortilla. And he’d already begun talking with Food Bank Farm founder Michael Docter, who by then was growing root vegetables at his Winter Moon Root Farm in Hadley, about experimenting with Mexican corn seeds.
Afterward, Sosa said, he knew he wanted to rebuild, and the fire had given him an opportunity to think about how to do it right.
The Mexican corn varieties — yellow, white, blue — didn’t succeed in New England soil, but Docter was convinced this was a project worth planting here. So he and Sosa became partners in Mi Tierra Tortillas, convincing area farmers to plant 50,000 pounds of corn for tortillas, and ultimately convincing Common Capital in Holyoke to provide a loan to buy a $54,000 tortilla-baking machine.
Before it arrived at their Springfield tortillaria, Sosa and his crew made tortillas with a hand press to honor their commitment to the farmers and keep their crew busy.
Docter sold the hand-pressed tortillas at the five winter farmers markets.
“To make 3,000 tortillas by hand,” said Sosa, “took seven hours and five people. With this machine, 40 minutes.”
The machine turned out five cases a week. It had arrived in 2014, a few months before Sosa opened a new Hadley restaurant more than twice the size of the original.
Today, Mi Tierra Tortillas sells 95 cases of tortillas a week, each containing 24 packs of a dozen 6-inch tortillas.
That translates to 950 pounds of local heirloom corn a couple of times a week from Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley and Frank Ernst in Amherst. It’s sold, in organic and conventional varieties, at Green Fields Market, McCusker’s Market, Atlas Farm Market, River Valley Market and is served at The Brass Buckle, Mesa Verde and People’s Pint in Greenfield, as well as well as other restaurants as far away as Somerville and Brookline.
“The hard part is trying to educate people,” said Sosa. “At the beginning, they said, ‘This tortilla is harder than the other ones, it lasts just a few days. It’s supposed to be white corn, and last for months.’ But even for people who are used to tortillas made with a long list of preservatives, softeners and artificial flavors, often one taste is convincing.
“I find people who really care about what they eat, and where the food is coming from, that’s kind of the client that’s really loving the tortilla.”
J.D. Hairston, co-owner of The Brass Buckle, said it’s a “no-brainer” to pay 17 cents more per tortilla to make “basically designer tacos” with a taste that reminds him of his own upbringing in south Texas.
“If I ate a tortilla as a child, it was fresh,” said Hairston, who mostly ate flour tortillas then, but “when someone was making good corn tortillas locally and delivering them hot, I was ready to go. Before we even tasted them, I just knew I had to.”
Hairston and his crew use them “all over the place,” turning the 6-inch disks into huevos rancheros, pork belly kim-chi tacos, corned-beef tacos and other delights. He admits they’re “quirky” and can be frustrating for the novice trying to figure out exactly when to flip them on the griddle.
“But in the end, if you take time and listen to the tortilla, it will tell you what it needs,” he said. “Tortillas are not just a disk you put food on, and Mi Tierra has done a really good job bringing the taste of our backyard. It’s the most beautiful thing. To me, this is the coolest thing happening foodwise in the valley,” said Hairston.
Across the street, at Mesa Verde, co-owner Amy McMahan said she loves serving the fresh, local tortillas to customers who request corn tacos, often because of gluten-free diets.
“It’s non-GMO, organic, local corn, and we’re supporting a local business,” she said. “They’re great. I think we go through a case or two a week. It’s just a great product.”
Docter said, “A lot of people are eating these tortillas, and it’s a really healthy carbohydrate: a whole grain, it’s got nothing in it and it goes with anything. That’s kind of why we’re selling so many as people are learning how to eat these things.
“For me, as an advocate all my life of local agriculture, this was the next logical step to making a significant impact in eating locally. We eat carbs, we eat bread, yet wheat’s really hard to grow in this climate. Corn is something that’s always been grown here and can be grown here really well.”
In a 2014 opinion piece, Philip Korman and Margaret Christie of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture wrote, “Individual actions of local residents have ensured the business’s success, not only by buying tortillas but by recommending new market outlets and spreading the word about the delicious tortillas across the state. Last year, CISA released a local food calculator on buylocalfood.org that shows the collective impact of these kinds of individual decisions. It reveals that if you shift just $5 per week to local fruits and vegetables you contribute almost twice as much income to the local economy as purchasing non-local fruits and vegetables.”
Docter said, “We’re getting pressure all the time from restaurants: ‘Can you make it softer? Can you make it last longer?’ We’re like saying ‘no,’ and it’s working for us.”
You can reach Richie Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269