The return of native corn in Mexico
From chefs like Enrique Olvera to civic organizations like the Alliance for Our Tortilla, they seek to promote native grains against industrialized flours
Arnulfo Melo sinks his sun-tanned hands into a bucket full of red corn seeds and lets them fall between his fingers, observing them like someone looking at a family album, a family tree. They come from those planted by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in the fertile lands of Milpa Alta, in Mexico City.
"They are my origins, my way of transcending," he says. In his small plot of one hectare, he grows since he remembers those conical maize seeds from Chalqueño, one of the 59 native races of Mexico. It was here that a slow selection process 9,000 years ago converted a herbaceous plant called teosinte into the corn we know today.
Surrounded by misty mountains, Melo grows soft yellow maize, almost black or deep red blue that sells between 12 and 23 pesos per kilo (62 cents and $ 1.19). The problem, he says, is to market it. "The commercial chains have monopolized the spaces".
Although their lands are located just over 30 kilometres from the centre of the capital, there is very difficult to find corn as the one that cultivates. In the big city, speed is prevalent in most tortillerías, where industrialized flours of major brands such as Maseca or Minsa are used.
Fresh out of the machine, cost about 14 pesos per kilo (74 cents), well below 60 pesos (about $ 3) that can cost the kilo of native corn tortillas in the city.
"Industrialized flours have brought ease to the tortillerías, but they present many problems," says Rafael Mier, founder of the Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana group. The most evident is the taste, but there are others that are more difficult to perceive, he says. "The big brands buy a few producers that use hybrid maize of high productivity, that does not compare in nutrition and quality with the native races".
Like this organization, in the last years, a large number of initiatives have proliferated in Mexico City that seeks to raise awareness of the importance of consuming native corn that has been nixtamalized, the ancestral technique that involves cooking the grains in water with lime to increase their nutrients
One of the most recognizable figures of that movement has been the chef Enrique Olvera, who opened last year the Molino El Pujol tortillería. There the customers are explained the producer, colour, variety and place of origin of the corn "as if it were wine", says Olvera while tasting a blue toast.
His obsession with this thousand-year-old grain has been reflected since he published his book In the Milpa in 2012 and today permeates every word of the conversation about cereal. His interest so that the native varieties are not lost is such that he would like to see them elevated to denominations of origin.
Dressed in a simple black T-shirt and coat of the same colour, he says that the consumer has the power to change things. "The fundamental thing to preserve the native corn is to consume it. If you are buying a bad quality tortilla, what you are promoting is a monoculture, the concentration of wealth and the destruction of habitats. "
There is not a pin in the Mill. Framed illustrations on the wall show various moments of the corn harvest while at the bar a woman bites a taco wrapped in a holly leaf. In a wicker basket, black corn grains are sold at 80 pesos per kilo (more than four dollars).
With this space, the chef who brought to Mexico the culinary vanguard wants to "show that opening a tortillería of native corn is good business". And it seems that it is. From the Expendio de Maiz in Colonia Roma, Cal y Maíz in Mixcoac or Maizajo in Azcapotzalco, Mexico City is rediscovering what traditional tortillas taste like.
In front of a group of more than 20 students, Maizajo co-founder Santiago Muñoz explains the process of nixtamalization to aspiring chefs. He does not understand that in many of the culinary schools in Mexico he is taught to make a Béarnaise sauce but not to prepare an omelette.
After having passed through the kitchens of the Nicos and Fonda Mayora, the young chef now only thinks of corn. It is giving results: when Maizajo opened in late 2016, nixtamalizada less than 30 kilos of corn a day. Now they are 200 kilos only in white, plus another 50 in blue and 20 in pink.
Despite the growing interest in native grains, Muñoz recognizes that there is still much to be done. "We have to demand a regulation that forces us to say what we are selling." Its objective, like Olvera, is to obtain a denomination of origin one day that recognizes the true value of corn.
While the movement has permeated Mexican haute cuisine, the defence of native corn goes beyond the kitchen. Organizations such as the Alliance for Our Tortilla fight through corn fairs, information campaigns, maps to locate traditional tortillerías and public talks.
Rafael Mier, who is part of that alliance, says that one of his goals is to increase the supply of native grain tortillerías so that "they do not stay in the elites."
The tortilla is the backbone of Mexican gastronomy and the main source of protein and calories for Mexicans. But Mier warns that its consumption has fallen almost 40% in just 30 years, while the purchase of prepared food and processed foods has skyrocketed, and with it also the obesity rates of the country.
Mexico is the second country with the highest obesity in the world with 32.4% of the population, only below the US, with 38.2%, according to the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 1988, before Mexico signed the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, that rate was 9.5%.
"People no longer have access to these types of products that are healthy and nutritious," says Arnulfo Melo from his lands in Milpa Alta. The producer hopes that the new Mexican government will support small producers who, like him, preserve the biodiversity of this cereal so deeply rooted not only in food but in Mexican identity.