Behind the Scenes at a Tortilla Factory
Published May 27, 2008 - (Updated Dec 5, 2012)
Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Spring/Summer 2008 issue.
Few things in Mexico are as emblematic and timeless as the humble corn tortilla. Made by hand since pre-Columbian times, this thin, unleavened flat bread is the star ingredient in popular dishes such as chilaquiles, enchiladas, quesadillas, tostadas and tacos. The process of making tortillas has remained essentially the same since its origins. Corn kernels are soaked in limewater, causing their skin to peel. They are then ground very finely and kneaded into a dough commonly known as masa. The dough is pressed into thin patties and cooked on a flat griddle, or comal, and eaten warm. Place a small amount of refried beans, meat or fish in the middle of a tortilla, roll it and, presto, you have a taco in your hand!
Making tortillas is a time-intensive affair. Visit any taco stand around town and chances are that while someone is taking your order in the foreground, another person (commonly known as the tortillera) is expertly making tortillas by hand, trying to keep up with demand. This is seldom a problem in small eateries but, tortillas being as popular as they are, can you imagine what it would be like if this was the manufacturing method used for larger restaurants, let alone entire cities? They say necessity is the mother of invention and, with the advent of the industrial revolution, the first tortilla-making machines made their appearance in Mexico during the early 1900s, quickly becoming ubiquitous. The industry has evolved considerably and, today, there are several manufacturers producing and exporting tortilla-making machines worldwide.
Any given city or town in Mexico has its share of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its share of tortillerias, or tortilla factories. Tortillerias are hard to miss as you are exploring town. The constant, repetitious sound of squeaking gears in motion that emanates from them is absolutely unmistakable, no matter where you go, heralding their equally unmistakable smell.
Fresh-made tortillas are sold to the public by weight — usually by the kilo or half kilo. Established tortillerias such as Tortilleria Aries, which we visited, also cater to hotels and restaurants, producing between 800 and 1,000 kilos of tortillas every day, holidays included. Open since 2001, Tortilleria Aries has earned a reputation and a steady following due to the omission of additives in their manufacturing process.
An average day at Aries begins early, usually 5 am, with the daily coating of their machines with a special Teflon-like solution that prevents tortillas from sticking. Corn of the highest quality, pre-cooked the day before and soaked overnight, is washed and ground on site to produce the masa. It takes practice to know just how moist the masa should be — too dry and the tortilla will break, too moist and it will stick to the machinery.
Tortilla makers are both mechanical wonders and a visual treat. Once the masa is ready, it is placed in an enormous funnel-like container, and then the machine takes over the work. An elaborate mixture of gears and pulleys pull just the right amount of masa at a time from the bottom of the funnel, pressing and shaping it, and then gently placing it on a conveyor belt. The tortilla then travels over a series of burners, which cook it on one side, and is then automatically flipped to cook the other, completing its metamorphosis in less than a minute. At the other end of the machine, each tortilla is carefully inspected for quality control.
Of course, purists and those in the know swear by handmade tortillas, usually thicker and intangibly tastier than their machined counterparts. However, you will find that the scent and flavor of a warm, freshly made tortilla is simply irresistible, regardless.
Location courtesy of/cortesía de: Tortillería Aries, Ecuador 1454 & Brasilia Hotel Zone • (322) 222-7765
Hold Your Taco Like a Pro!
So, you’ve just taken a bite from your first taco, and the delicious combination of tortilla flavor and filling has captured your senses to such an extent that you failed to realize half the filling escaped out the other end, landing on your plate or, worse, your clothes! Relax. Eating soft tacos need not be a messy affair. The key is in the pinkie. Carefully press the back end of your taco between your ring finger and your pinkie as you eat it. This will keep the filling tucked in and ready for your next bite.