Fresh Off the Presses: Two New Artisan Tortillas

September 24, 2010

By Jess Goldman

Editor’s note: Market favorite Primavera, whose meal-worthy handmade tortillas have been popular for years, now has company. And while these new tortillas will make a great addition to your Saturday shopping list, they’re also the kinds of value-added foods that help make sustainable farming possible.

Masa Mogul

Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando began his heirloom bean business because he felt disconnected from the food he was eating. “I’m just a consumer who was limited in what I could find at the grocery store,” he says. After experimenting with growing his own beans and grains and traveling widely throughout Latin America, Sando eventually chose to commission several small growers to produce the foods he wanted to sell. Today he curates and sells a unique selection of “New World” beans and grains.

On Sando’s latest quest — for good, handmade tortillas — he discovered that, even in Mexico, they’re often made from commercial masa harina rather than traditional nixtamal masa. The former is a dried corn powder that is much cheaper and easier to use than freshly ground masa. What’s the difference? It’s like comparing a French baguette to Wonder Bread, Sando explains. “They are both made with white flour, but they’re worlds apart.”

To learn more about the mixed tamal process, Sando interned at a tortilleria in Hidalgo, Mexico. He lasted only three days. “It is really labor intensive, ”he says,“ and I can see why people don’t do it. But what suffers [when commercial masa is used] is the flavor and, as a result, traditional tortilla making is a dying art.”

Sando decided to take matters into his own hands and began working with farmers in Mexico — where many farmers grow heirloom corn for their own use — to bring corn to the Bay Area. “I realized I could pay these indigenous farmers more money for corn that is culturally significant than what they could make for [conventional] corn,” he says. “And I could create a market for heirloom varietals and keep GMOs out.”

Sando recently began importing six different varieties of corn. He’s also currently having some of his regular bean growers in California farm the heirloom corn varieties, but it has yet to be harvested. “Several are white, but don’t be surprised if we show up with red or blue tortillas,” he says. Once it arrives, he sends the corn to his favorite Mission district Mexicatessen, La Palma, to be ground and pressed. It’s a winning combination so far, says Sando.  “This wonderful family business benefits from the spotlight, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and the consumer will get to enjoy great tortillas.”

While Sando’s tortillas clearly reflect his values, it’s equally important to him that they taste good. “When I interned in Hidalgo, I stood at the end of the line and took the tortillas hot off the press,” he recalls. “The taste absolutely takes you somewhere else and you can’t get that without the artisan process.”

Rancho Gordo tortillas are made on Saturday mornings at La Palma and sold exclusively at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Mountains of Wheat

“We started growing wheat because we needed a rotation crop for our rice,” Massa Organics farmer Greg Massa explains. “It was a perfect complimentary crop because they have different tillage patterns and grow at different times of the year.”

There was just one problem. Massa now had a mountain of wheat, but few eaters were baking at home, let alone seeking out local wheat.

Initially, Greg brought wheat berries to the farmers market, but there was a finite demand for them. Next, Massa turned to the grinder and attempted selling fresh wheat flour to local bakeries and bakers. But, once again, the market was limited and the wheat mountain grew larger.

Determined to avoid the commodity market, Massa and his team began brainstorming other ways to market his goods directly. Although Massa was not prepared to go into the bread business himself, he eventually found his answer in a similar product – the tortilla.

Like Sando, Massa searched for a local tortilleria that was willing to make a high-quality product. “We work on a smaller scale and we put a lot of time into all of our products; everything passes through our hands,” Massa says.  “So we wanted a small manufacturer who knew how to create handmade tortillas.” Greg eventually hired a company called Micaela’s California Fresh to do the job.   

Many flour tortillas are made to have very long shelf lives, meaning they’re loaded with preservatives. Massa Organics’ tortillas are a fresh product made with only their organic whole wheat flour, organic canola oil, baking powder, water, and salt.

Since early this summer, Massa has been selling his tortillas every Saturday and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “We bring around one hundred dozen to the Saturday market and we sell out every week.”

With fewer mountains of wheat to worry about, Massa is glad to have a new farm product to feed his family’s five young children, who already enjoy Massa Organics rice, almonds, and ducks. ”The kids love them warmed up with butter or as simple quesadillas,” he says. “It’s a perfect after-school snack.”

Massa Organics wheat tortillas are made in Woodland on Thursday mornings and sold at the market on Saturdays. Greg Massa will also be speaking at this year’s Sunday Supper.

Jess Goldman blogs at Sodium Girl.