Imagine if our most celebrated food cultures all served the same bread? What a mundane world it would be. We should be thankful then for Mexican-born Gerardo Lopez and his Australian partner Diana Hulls, who are, collectively, La Tortilleria – a shining light of authentic Mexican food and pioneering producers of ‘real’ tortillas in Australia. Among the warehouses of Stubbs Street in Melbourne’s Kensington they stone-grind their own corn on a traditional Mexican mill to make their tortillas, which they bake fresh daily.
I asked Gerardo why he started tortilla making.
‘When I arrived in Melbourne in 2009, it was obvious to me that, although Mexican food was slowly maturing, the main ingredient of my fantastic cuisine – a great tortilla – was missing. The majority of the tortillas you could find here tasted like preservatives and lacked that distinctive corn flavour that I was used to in the villages of Mexico. Deciding to change the face of Mexican food in Australia, my business partner Diana Hull and I embarked in 2012 on a project to make the best tortillas Australia had ever tasted.
I have to admit that back then, even as a Mexican, I had little idea about tortillas – I simply knew that the best were always found in small towns. I assumed that what made these tortillas so much more special than the ones found in the big cities was the fact that they were made by hand. Little did I know that the secret to the best tortillas was in fact an ancient process called nixtamalisation – the basic principle of soaking whole corn kernels overnight in naturally occurring limewater, then milling them with volcanic stones. This technique, which has been used historically across Meso-American civilisation from the Olmecs to the Mayans and Aztecs, produces a far superior product to an ordinary industrially produced corn flour in terms of flavour, freshness, texture, aroma and look. The difference is like comparing instant coffee to a coffee made from freshly roasted and ground beans.
Making nixtamal tortillas, however, is not a simple task. In Mexico, people work in their family’s tortilla bakeries – tortillerias – from a very young age to learn the craft that has been passed down from generations before. Just as we enjoy the coffee from a specific barista, blend or country of origin, a tortilla will be different based on where the corn comes from, the variety of corn and the unique craft applied to it. At La Tortilleria, we are now very proud to have Isaac Nava, a third generation nixtamal tortilla-maker from the north of Mexico leading our tortilla production. Isaac brings decades of tortilla-making expertise and craftmanship to Australia.
Today at La Tortilleria we have come to understand that nixtamal is more than a craft, but rather a way of living respectfully and honouring the traditions of our ancestors. At La Tortilleria we strive every day to make the best nixtamal tortillas possible, carefully following the same traditional method used for millennia, so Australians too can enjoy a fresh piece of Mexico on their family table.’