Guatemala #5 Alta Verapaz – Coban

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I am now in Coban, a cool little mountain town with a history of German development and coffee farming. Most recently Cardamom has taken the spot as the top cash crop although everyone here is quite upset because prices are really low. Good for India i guess! (the prime export market for Guatemalan Cardamom)

Today, while awaiting a guide to do a cloud forest hiking trip, I had a relaxing day at a spectacular waterfall/river called Samuc Champey, 2 hours outside of Coban. Standing in the midst of this beautiful natural scenery I was struck by how amazingly special the Earth really is. The variety of natural beauty that she is capable of producing through her inexhaustible resources of matter and form, and her indefatigable patience is astounding.

But also with this traveling I had some time to write, and the subject that has been on my mind recently is the tortilla. For Guatemala, the tortilla is more than just a staple food crop, it’s a part of the culture. The Mayan cosmology literally says that men are made of corn, which if you believe the phrase “you are what you eat” is exactly correct! Not a day has passed since my arrival here that I have not eaten at least one tortilla and it has been absolutely fascinating to observe how obsessed this culture is with corn.

Maize was domesticated by the Mayans around 5000 years ago from an ancestor that resembles a type of grass found in the region today. It is cultivated across the entire country today, and it is a source of pride and security for the Mayan farmer, who regardless of where he is or what he is doing will hurry home during planting time to sow his precious milpa (this is the term for field of corn). There are stories of wars during the conquest of Guatemala by the Spanish where the Spaniards were on the brink of being eliminated by Mayan armies. What saved them was that planting season was approaching and the Mayan army deserted to return home to plant their milpas, therefore allowing the Spaniards to reinforce and defeat the Maya upon their return months later. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I really don’t doubt it at all after seeing how Maize obsessed the people here are.

I have talked to many farmers and watched enough women working their magic in the kitchen to know the basics of how this wonderful plant is produced and consumed. The maize is sown in different parts of the year according to the location, altitude and climate. It takes about 4 months from sowing to harvest, again depending on climate. The cobs are harvested and dried, from which the kernels are removed. In order to make tortillas one must take the kernels, soak them in water for a few hours then boil them for 20 minutes. Once they have been cooked the water is removed and the cooked kernels are ground and mixed with water into coarse dough. This dough is called masa and is the base material for making tortillas, tamale and every other delicious derivation of maize. The masa is then shaped by hand into flat little patties and cooked for about 2 minutes on a clay slab called a camal. A wood burning fire sits underneath to provide the tortilla with a wonderful smoky flavor. I have observed several times in kitchens of Guatemalans here both a gas stove (rare) and a wood burning camal. Even though gas is available and much more convenient, everyone prefers the taste of the smoke.

The taste is absolutely wonderful, delicate and mildly sweet with a hint of smokiness. The texture is fairly rough and doughy, quite heavy and very filling. I smell every tortilla before I eat it, which most Guatemalans think is quite strange. I was feeling creative and composed a short poem on the subject with mostly the same information as above. Learning is way more fun when it rhymes.

An ode to the Tortilla

Thousands of years in the making, the domestication of Maize
Whose stalks now stand proud, soaking up rays
A plant woven into the cosmology of a people
As ubiquitous a symbol as a cross on a steeple
But i dont want to bore you with history and fable
What ide really like to tell you is my perspective from the table
 
The wonderful process begins with the placing of a seed
The noble campesino performing this historical deed
Four months after the kernel springs to life with such force
The farmer is rewarded, weather permitting of course
The harvest is then dried and set over fire to stew
Quite a lengthy process before consumption can ensue
 
The grains are now ground into a rich textured dough
With machines powered by hand, meticulous and slow
Meanwhile a fire has made the clay cooking surface ready
And the tortilla making commences! consistent and steady
Thousands of hours of practice forms them perfectly round
Only one minute to a side and their perfectly browned
 
The anticipation builds as the stacks of tortillas grow
My oh my what a surprise! how the saliva can flow
The smoky richness alone is almost too much to savor
Add beans and eggs? a treacherous triangle of flavor
Factoring in the chilies the combos defy comprehension
Simply an orgy of flavor that demands your attention
 
If my tale doesnt tempt you, your buds need surgery or a suture
I sense a google recipe search may lie in your future
But to claim your creation is the same, your taking delirients
You simply cant trump five thousand years of experience
Still not convinced corn can make your mouth sing?
Then come to Guatemala and try the real thing!

3 responses to “Guatemala #5 Alta Verapaz – Coban

  1. I should have sent you down there with a copy of Annabelle from Sanibel. I can just see you reading it to all the little campesino children in Chisec! Love your poem. Seems you have also inherited a love of food, from your dad!!!! Kelly’s quota was 17 tortillas per day, I think!

    • Jane, sorry I didnt reply to your comments, for some reason I just saw them. I loved spending time with Ernesto in Chisec. That family is so beautiful and their hospitality was amazing. I think ive been averaging about 10 to 15 tortillas per day, depending on how much exercise i do! I would love to spend more time in Chisec but Africa seems to be in the cards at the moment. After however? you never know!

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