Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the tortilla press
Kelly Peak, Cool Chile Co
Dodie Miller started Cool Chile Co in 1993 with a simple idea: to import a wide variety of the best dried chillies direct from Mexico, and to provide the UK with a whole new range of flavours for real Mexican cooking. If you think of how proper Mexican food has only really become a ‘thing’ in the last few years, she was really one of the forerunners of this cuisine.
We’ve grown steadily since the nineties and now import and make a wide range of products: from those amazing dried chillies, through salsas and sauces, Maya hot chocolate and fresh tortillas. You can buy all of these things on the stall at Borough Market, which is one of the first places Dodie started trading.
There are certain warm, earthy flavours and smells that instantly transport you to Mexico. Whether it's toasted dried chillies, the unique savoury-sweet of a green tomatillo salsa, or fresh tortillas made using masa harina, or ’nixtamalised’ corn flour.
‘Nixtamalisation’ refers to a process for the preparation of maize (corn), in which the corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution—usually limewater—washed, and then hulled, before being turned into a flour-like dust. We import about 20 tonnes of it each month, some from white corn, the rest from corn that is naturally blue.
Nothing beats the taste of a proper corn tortilla. Once you had tacos or deep-fried totopos crisps using corn tortillas, any wheat flour version you taste will seem pretty plain by comparison. Wheat tortillas have their uses—they’re soft and flexible—but corn provides a certain flavour. If you’ve had them in Mexico, the memories come back straight away.
We sell a variety of sizes and flavours of tortillas on the stall, using either white or blue masa harina. We make them daily in our factory using a machine we call ‘El Monstruo’—she probably gets through four tonnes of masa harina a week. That flour is mixed with water and salt in a big mixer to make a dough, then rolled through the machine, cut and packed by our team.
Thin and flat
It’s actually pretty much the same process as making tortillas at home, just on a larger scale. Ultimately, it’s simply a case of mixing a dough using masa harina, salt and water, rolling these into little golf ball-sized balls, then pressing them until thin and flat.
If you have the time and fancy a fun project, you can get proper masa harina from our stall, both white and blue versions. You’ll also see a beautiful cast iron tortilla press, which does the trickiest part of the process for you: the press squashes your dough ball into a level flat round, and then you just need to dry-fry it in a heavy-bottomed pan until cooked.
It’s a basic process, but I always marvel at how the press turns an unpromising ball of flour and water into a tortilla, which is ultimately the basis of multiple different but equally fantastic meals.
You could pat the balls flat with two boards, but you won’t have much luck with, say, a rolling pin. A tortilla press provides weight and leverage, which makes the process easy and quick. This way you get uniformly thick and round tortillas, with relatively minimal effort. The press, as you’ll see, is pretty rudimentary and the process has been the same for hundreds of years, I guess. No need to change it now!
It’s good to play around with the flours. I think the blue versions look stunning when fried, and also the colour contrasts nicely with avocado, crema, pink prawns, eggs and radishes if you’re having a taco evening. Of course, the classic white tortillas look great too, and contrast nicely with dark rich colours of dried chilli purees, meats and beans.
There really is nothing quite like a warm, home-made tortilla. Though if you’ve not got the time, our freshly made tortillas using the same masa harina trump any flour versions you find elsewhere. Then it’s just a question of deciding whether it’s tacos, quesadillas or totopos for dinner!