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“Our native corn is essential, we cannot lose those seeds for any reason. One way to defend them is to generate a demand and thus, the more people know these original flavors; the more present we have them, the less chance that the seeds will be lost ”, explains Gabriela Fernández Orantes with conviction. With a degree in biochemical engineering, Gabriela, of Chiapas roots, never intended to work in the world of restoration. However, with the mission of rescuing and protecting native corn, in 2001 he founded the tortillería-antojería Itanoní together with the agronomist Amado Ramírez Leyva.
“We realized that just like coffee or grapes, there were differences in the sensory characteristics of the corn of the different races that were consumed in the communities and towns of Oaxaca. A corn from the Isthmus did not taste the same as one from the Central Valleys. Amado started looking for seeds and we started doing tests to show what we were saying ”.
In Mixtec, a language native to southern Mexico, Itanoní means corn flower. This plant is an indivisible part of the Mexican idiosyncrasy to the point that the Popol Vuh, considered the most relevant of the Mayan texts that are preserved, includes the myth that humanity was created from it: “Their meat was made from yellow corn and white corn; the man’s arms and legs were made of corn dough. Only corn dough entered the flesh of our fathers, the four men who were created ”.
Tortillas are essential in the culture of the Mesoamerican indigenous peoples and in the formation of Mexican identity. What differentiates Itanoní from the thousands of tortillerías in the country is that they have been pioneers in offering tortillas made with a single variety of native corn –such as tablita, bolita, olotillo and tuxpeño–, showing the different flavors of each one.
Flavor, key to biodiversity
“When we started, the challenge was for people to stop to see the difference in flavor between one corn and another. It is very common not to see what we have. So I would say, ‘wait and see, which one do you want’. The first difference was by color, it is what we see first. And they asked me, ‘How little do they taste different?’, And I answered ‘well, yes, try them. Now among the whites, which of the whites do they want, ‘and they said to me,’ Do they know different a bit? ‘And I said,’ of course they do. It was difficult to get people to stop and try, ”he recalls.
Industrial tortillas are consumed in most of Mexico. Few states have artisanal production
Gabriela and her team make tortillas in the traditional way, including nixtamalization, an ancestral technique in which the grain is cooked in a mixture of water and lime — in the past it was cooked in water and ash — and left to rest for several hours. This way allows to soften it before grinding it and increases the nutritional value of the dough with which the cakes are made.
“Industrial tortillas are consumed in most of Mexico. Few states have artisanal production, especially with their own corn. Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacán and others in the center of the country have native corn and consume the tortilla in a traditional way, but they are not the majority. Most consume the industrialized one, ”explains Gabriela.
The per capita consumption of tortillas fell by 32% in the last three decades according to data from the National Survey of Household Income and Expenditure (ENIGH). The causes are diverse, but the new lifestyles and the increased presence of fast food that followed the structural changes of the 1980s and the entry into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, in 1994, are often cited.
Before this treaty came into force, Mexico only imported this plant when national production was not enough, but the value of exports from the United States to its southern neighbor was sextuplicó in the first two decades after the agreement. In turn, according to calculations by researcher Timothy A. Wise, the price paid to small Mexican farmers in the first decade after NAFTA fell 66%. This favored the search for other ways of earning a living among the peasants, including emigration, and the intensive production systems of hybrid maize as one of the alternatives to the milpa, the ancestral Mesoamerican polyculture system that includes corn, squash and beans and that has guaranteed genetic diversity and the adaptability of seeds to climatic conditions for millennia.
Despite the drop in the price of raw materials, the price of tortillas, a basic element of the popular Mexican diet, has not stopped increasing (in the last decade more than 60% according to data from the Ministry of Economy). The reasons for this rise include factors that influence its production, such as fuel, and the power of industrial producers to set prices. This increase in price is one more difficulty especially for that 41.9% of the population Mexican living in poverty.
“The commercial treaties have not impacted me so much precisely because the original corn that I acquire are productions for self-consumption. For example, I tell the peasants I work with, ‘if you were going to plant five rows, then now please plant ten.’ So in the cities it can have an impact, in terms of the industrial production of tortillas, but for the market niche and the producers it has not affected us much because they are products for self-consumption ”, explains Gabriela.
She negotiates the price of corn directly in the communities with the small farmers who grow it, avoiding speculation and market fluctuations. “What I do do is pay a fair price. While one that comes from export costs five pesos (20 euro cents), I can pay the creole at 60 pesos (2.40 euros), because according to the production, that is what it is worth ”he affirms.
Corn for self-consumption
The native grains for self-consumption that Gabriela uses are the most representative crop of Mexico, the distant relatives of the teocintle, the wild plant that was domesticated by the Mesoamerican Indians and from which corn is descended. “We are talking about very special maize that do not compete with hybrids, or to a certain extent with transgenics. The productions and yields are much higher in the hybrids than in the Creoles ”.
Likewise, the natives are part of the national culture and identity. For example, some peasant communities in Oaxaca – one of the three most humble states in Mexico, where more than 65% of its population lives in a situation of poverty, and 1.13 million live in a situation of extreme poverty according to the report of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval)– continue to celebrate rituals and festivities around the native corn, considered a deity.
By integrating the direct purchase of corn, processing and consumption in the same place into its business model, Itanoní invites dialogue between two worlds, the urban and the rural
Regarding the differences, Gabriela points out that “the nixtamalized corn tortilla is not the same quality as the industrialized flour tortilla. With industrialization all the variants are brought together to make them flour, then the flavor of each of them will be lost, there is no differentiation to be able to try one type or another, as is the case of the communities, where they will give you a black one, and you will feel the taste of black ”.
By integrating direct purchasing, production and consumption in the same place into its business model, Itanoní invites dialogue between two worlds, urban and rural. There, the native corn grown by Oaxacan peasants who live in rural areas, in places like San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán or in the Sierra Norte, meet. Gabriela and her team transform the raw material depending on the sensory profile of the corn, using colors above all to explain the nuances in its flavor. “I use the softest ones for the taco omelette, the hardest I use for the memelas or tetelas, which are thick tortillas, or that have some folds, and I am interested in that they cook evenly so that the dough does not get stuck between the teeth… According to the characteristics, they bring me a new corn, I taste it and see what I am going to use it for ”.
Itanoní’s menu revolves around the defense of Creole variants and traditional autochthonous stews, and its clientele is made up of Oaxacan residents and national and international tourists. “We have native corn for all conditions, where there is little water and where there is a lot, where there is cold or wind. Corn has adapted, along with the original men, to all the conditions to which it has been exposed. It is a product from which we Mexicans are made and we have not given it the importance that we should. The proposal we make in Itanoní is to give it the place it deserves, here is the king ”, Gabriela concludes.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.