All Souls Tortilleria Spurs the Search for a Short-Season White Heirloom Corn
By Jesse Natha
On one wall of All Souls Tortilleria, a whiteboard is filled with the week’s open orders. Fresh-that-day masa; tortillas for Burlington’s El Cortijo and City Market; Mad Taco in Waitsfield and Montpelier; and bulk masa for Gracie’s Tamales of Waitsfield are among the list of regular accounts. But those orders represent just one branch of All Souls’ mission, with much of the other work taking place outside of their one-room factory, in the fields of Vermont farmers. This sprawling work falls far outside the confines of one tidy whiteboard, incorporating crucial help from City Market, UVM’s extension program, a team of Vermont farmers, and chefs, retailers, and consumers willing to share feedback on the end product.
The Tortilleria was founded by Arizona-to-Vermont transplants Sam Fuller and Hubert d’Autremont, along with Joe Bossen of Vermont Bean Crafters. One important goal was sourcing heirloom corn varieties to make the fantastic tortillas they first debuted in their own kitchens, to the rave reviews of their friends.
Now, thanks to a Local Farm and Producer Investment Program loan from City Market, their dinner-party tortilla operation has become a full-fledged business. Situated at Warren’s Kingsbury Market Garden and sharing a building with Bossen’s bean enterprise, All Souls Tortilleria is in operation four days a week creating two varieties of sublimely fresh tortillas.
Looking like a page from a Dr. Seuss picture book, a series of stainless steel machines snakes through the one-room shop, transforming a churning mass of wet masa into a steady string of six-inch tortillas. The City Market loan paid for these custom machines, which were hand-built by Guillermo Campbell in Santa Fe Springs, California. Campbell crafted every component of the production equipment, from the hand-carved basalt grinding stones that smoosh the soaked corn into masa, to the brass roller dies that spit out perfect disc-shape tortillas, from the extruded fresh dough and the three-tiered, lime-brushed comal that replicates the griddling action of traditional tortilla ovens. When every detail is correct, the tortillas emerge puffed up like an Indian poori before they flatten into the familiar disc shape, ready for a dollop of carnitas.
“Tortillas are like baguettes,” Fuller says, “they’re meant to be eaten fresh the day they’re made.” While that may be true, All Souls isn’t in a place to sling them fresh right from the shop. Instead they are all cooled and bagged for distribution.
Simultaneously with building a market for top-notch tortillas that are locally made of regionally grown corn, All Souls is spurring development of palatable, agronomically feasible heirloom corn varieties that can thrive in Vermont’s climate. In turn, putting these improved varieties to work filling tortilla orders will grow demand for a new agricultural product, while filling a long standing, tortilla-shape hole in local food availability.
Vermont has a long tradition of growing corn for human consumption, going all the way back to the Abenaki, who relied on strains of flint corn as a staple grain. The native Abenaki flint corn is beautifully colorful and flavorful, but its tough starch layer makes it unsuitable for tortilla-making. The Vermont market for edible grains has been lying fallow since the 19th century. In 2016, 90,000 acres in Vermont were planted to corn, yielding 1.7 million tons of production; 94 percent of this was used for silage, leaving only a tiny fraction for palatable grain. Only a small portion of that is well suited to making tortillas. To meet their 2016 demand, All Souls bought about 30,000 pounds of heirloom corn, only 20 percent of which they could source from Vermont farmers, with the balance coming from a grower in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
The variety All Souls currently uses, an heirloom dent corn called Wapsie Valley, has a similarly flinty texture but a softer starch, which makes for a delicious, aggressively corn-y tortilla with a golden, sunsetty color—but it has a toothiness that isn’t as polite on the palate as modern taco-eaters expect.
In response to feedback from its restaurant accounts, All Souls sourced an organic white corn from Illinois’ Rovey Seed. This corn was developed specifically for tortillas, and its softer starch results in a more delicately textured, cream-color product that meets the restaurants’ gastronomic needs. And herein lies the challenge; these white corn varieties that tortilla consumers expect require a long growing season to mature. With our short window of warm weather, that is not the kind of growing season a corn plant in Vermont is going to get.
Developing a short-season white corn will require “looking at corn differently than we look at it currently in Vermont,” says Heather Darby. Darby runs UVM Extension’s Northwest Crops & Soils Program, which actively works to “rebuild a grain industry in Vermont” by removing some of the risk inherent in developing new crops through support and crop development. Their goal for the corn project is to identify a white corn variety that can be successfully grown in our short-season climate, one that offers sufficiently high yields, disease resistance, that can “stand up well”—that is, that remains upright until harvest—and that has sufficient root depth to resist pulling out when combined. Along with this, the variety should come with a good story, be it an heirloom variety or a strain of historical significance.
“My job is to find that corn,” says Darby. To do that, she is planning the first year of official trials. This begins with scouring seed resources for contenders, choosing 20 to 30 varieties to test, then based on those results, narrowing the field to a few promising varieties. These will be planted out at test farms across Vermont, from the warmer fields of the Champlain Valley to the chillier hill country, to determine their viability in a real-world application.
At the same time, Darby will test the development of a new variety that crosses heirloom corn from the region, taking advantage of its hardiness for this climate, with the long-season white corns that have more desirable palatability traits. Between these two approaches, Darby and the team at the Northwest Crops & Soils Program hope to develop the corn variety “that will help farmers develop new markets and will meet their customers’ goals.”
To aid in the development of the market, the founders of All Souls prioritize the economic feasibility of the entire system, aiming for an end product that Fuller calls “appropriately priced.” He explains, “We pay a premium for our corn, but we’d like to pay even more.” As the market for All Souls’ tortillas and masa grows. Retail shoppers at City Market pay $4.39 for a dozen of the Wapsie Valley heirloom corn tortillas. That buys them the foundation of a scrumptious dinner—and a vibrant, growing local food system.
Jesse Natha lives in Vergennes. She has written for Local Banquet and The Boston Globe. Her collection of essays Farming and Feasting with the Robinsons was recently re-released by Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum. Her other interests include Italian, gardening, and helping creative people craft profitable businesses.