Tuesday 15 April 2014

The tortilla revolution

This is going to seem very like a story about tortillas, rather than whiskey. Think of it as allegory.

According to Philip Martin, owner of the Little Ass Burrito Bar in Dawson Street, we don't know tortillas in Ireland, or even in Europe. The real deal is a corn tortilla (by corn, I mean maize), not the wheat imposters that we have latched on to. And the corn must have been nixtamalized first, which means steeping and cooking in limewater. This increases its nutritional value and improves flavour.

Philip Martin. Photo courtesy Blanco Niño.

Philip, who is a connoisseur of Mexican cuisine, has not been able to source authentic tortillas in Europe. So he is going to make them in Dublin, and ship 'em continent-wide. The part of this story that caught my eye is that these will not just be Irish-made tortillas. They will be properly Irish, made from Irish-grown corn.

Whoa, back the corn truck up there... corn grows in Ireland? I assumed it didn't because we import corn from southern France to make grain whiskey. It's combined with malt or pot still whiskey made from Irish-grown barley to produce all of our famous blends. I guessed that corn requires sunny climes to prosper.

Turns out that's only true up to a point. By choosing an appropriate early-maturing variety and taking into account soil, exposure and aspect, you can sow and reap maize quite successfully in Ireland. It's not going to be sweetcorn (though there are a few farmers pulling that trick off in low volumes every year) but it makes a good animal feed. And it can make corn flour.

Talking to Philip, I learned that corn has become quite a conventional feed crop in Ireland in recent decades. It calls for some quite technical farming - taking the temperature of the soil and using plastic to warm it up for planting, for example. But Teagasc and the universities have been throwing science at the problem for some time and have figured out what works on this island.

Corn tortillas. Photo courtesy Blanco Niño.

Blanco Niño, Philip's company, plans to be making tortillas by June (though not from Irish corn this first year, I think, it being too late to plant). The tortilla revolution will be crowd-funded. It has already met its basic funding goal but there is a week left to swap cash for equity, with full voting rights.

What a marvellous idea, eh? Philip saw a market for corn-based products and has matched it up with spare capacity on Irish farms following the forced demise of the sugar beet industry.

It seems to me that a gauntlet has been thrown down here. If tortillas can be Irish, surely Irish whiskey can be Irish, made of grain grown in Irish soil, in an Irish climate. Since distillers started importing French corn, research, experience and - perhaps - global warming have made maize a commercial crop in Ireland. Philip's collective of farmers would be just as happy to supply corn for alcohol as for flour so how about it? I'm just floating the thought.

In the meantime, if this article has you jonesing for good Mexican food in Dublin, here are a few leads. First, of course, Philip will fix you a tasty burrito at his Little Ass restaurant in Dawson Street. Check out the menu (pdf).

My neighbours, Lily and Alan, run an online shop that sells specially sourced Mexican ingredients. Lily will be showing how to make real corn tortillas, among other Mexican standards, at the upcoming Slow Food Irish-Mex Taco Night.