How a Toronto-based tortilleria keeps it authentically local
It is late June on a plot of land in the greenbelt village of Schomberg, Ont., just outside King City. Planted in neat rows, a field of corn is growing, the green stalks about knee high. By August, the plants will have been pollinated and grown cobs, and if it were sweet corn, it would be ready to eat. But this starchy vegetable has another destiny: it will stay on the stalk until October (or even longer), letting the sun and the elements suck as much moisture out of the cobs as possible before it is harvested, at which point the kernels will be dried even further.
That’s because this field of corn is being grown to become the organic, non-GMO masa that makes Maizal Tortilleria’s cult-favourite all-Ontario-corn tortillas and totopos, their version of corn chips. “I never get tired of this,” says Iván Wadgymar, who not only tends this crop on a piece of land that’s part of the Cavaleiro community farm, but also co-owns the tortilleria where the corn is used and which sends their food waste back to the farm for compost.
The clue to this circular business model is actually in the name: “In Mexico, a maizal is a place where you grow corn,” explains Wadgymar, who credits all his knowledge of corn growing and tortilla making to generous friends in the country’s Michoacán state. “Here, we picture a corn farm looking like somewhere in the Midwest corn belt, where you get thousands of acres of corn stretching to the horizon,” he continues. “But in Mexico, it was very common for everyone to grow a little plot of corn, enough to be self-sufficient, and make their own tortillas at home. It was the essence of life to go through that cycle from corn to tortilla, and that’s what we’re recreating here.”
It is small-scale farming the campesino way, right down to the beans planted in between the corn to pull nitrogen into the soil, a natural alternative to fertilizer. “That’s another old science rooted deep in Mesoamerica,” he says, adding that in Canada, this same wisdom can be seen in the First Nations tradition of planting the “three sisters,” corn, squash and beans, together.
Not all of Maizal’s tortillas are made from this corn—their volume means their corn has to be supplemented by other like-minded Ontario growers, including J.P. Gural of Samsara Fields in Waterford, Ont.—and not all of this corn will become a tortilla. In fact, a portion of this year’s crop will be set aside for seed stock, specifically to combat an ongoing shortage of Ontario-grown blue corn. “This year, I decided to grow a hell of a lot of blue corn to make enough seed for JP to throw it into his tractor in Waterford and grow a good ten to fifteen acres of it next year,” explains Wadgymar, who’s passionate about seed diversity, and has spent the last ten years doing corn “R&D,” experimenting with various varieties to find the ones best suited to the climate—and tortilla making. Next year, he’s got his eye on a white corn seed from Zimbabwe his neighbour is growing, and another variety grown by a friend from the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River.
“This grain is the epicentre of so many things, so many gastronomies and different civilizations,” he says.
The next step in this corn’s journey takes it to a kitchen squeezed into the back of a bar on Queen Street between Dundas and Ossington. Starting early in the morning, this is where you’ll find Wadgymar, his co-owner, Saqib Siddiqi, and their colleague, Alejandra Hernandez, producing an average of four thousand tortillas each day, soundtracked by Whitney Houston, the Beatles or salsa merengue, depending on who got to the Bluetooth speaker first. “We’re pretty lucky that we all like each other’s taste in music,” says Siddiqi (Maizal started as a restaurant until their tortillas became so popular, they switched to being a tortilleria full-time).
The tortilla process begins with nixtamalization, which is the ancient practice of soaking corn overnight in alkaline water so the hard outer shell can be peeled off. It’s then ground into masa dough, using a stone mill grinder. Corn is the only ingredient, which Siddiqi says is unique to them. “All of Iván’s R&D means we’ve been able to create a product through nixtamalization that doesn’t require any other stabilizers and preservatives,” he explains, noting they do also sell just the dried corn to anyone who wants to grind their own masa. Next, this corn dough is fed into a machine, recently upgraded from the one they imported from Mexico in 2017. Because it both presses and cooks the tortillas, they no longer have to cook each one on the flat-top grill by hand, which is essential for a business growing as quickly as this one. Maizal has gone from producing dozens to hundreds to thousands of tortillas in less than five years.
But while the trio is happy their business is a success, none of this is actually about building a tortilla empire. “This whole thing was born out of values, and we’ve worked backwards to profit,” explains Siddiqi. Those values include caring about people and the planet, encouraging biodiversity and combating food insecurity, eliminating waste and promoting sustainable farming practices. That’s why, if you’ve ever found yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of these things, Siddiqi has a simple solution: Eat one of their tortillas. “The food system is a reflection of our values as consumers,” he says. “We’re helping people eat the change they want to see.”
And change, it turns out, can be pretty delicious. Just ask Samantha Valdivia, a Mexico City-born chef who serves Maizal tortillas at La Condesa, a Feast On-certified restaurant in Wellington, ON. “I’m touching their tortillas as we speak,” she laughs. “It’s amazing that not only are they making tortillas the way they were made a thousand years ago, but they’re doing it using corn from all over Ontario, giving us the best product out there.”
The signature dish at La Condesa is tuna tostada, which is raw, sashimi-style tuna served on an open face tortilla with guacamole. The tortilla is the foundation of the dish, which means it has to be good. “Even if you’re not a connoisseur, you’ll be able to taste the difference between a Maizal tortilla and a mass-produced one,” says Valdivia. “There’s that big of a difference.” Those rubbery, cardboard-esque ones that ruin Taco Tuesday by splitting? These are not those. “These taste like what corn cooking on the grill smells like,” rhapsodizes Valdivia. “To me, it just tastes like home.”
Initially, Valdivia explored making her own tortillas in-house, but as soon as she discovered Maizal, she knew there was no point. “These guys are just doing it right,” she says, adding it didn’t make sense to go buy her own machinery when such a good product was on her doorstep. “They don’t cut corners, and that’s really hard to find.” The fact that they source corn from a farmer two blocks away from her restaurant was a nice bonus. “It doesn’t get fresher than that,” she laughs.