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