Corn brought about a social revolution to Asturias. The exact date in which the cereal was introduced in the region is unknown. Until recently it was believed that corn had been brought to Asturias by Gonzalo Cancio y Méndez Casariego in 1604. Nevertheless, a will dating from 1598 states that a farmer left their heirs corn and millet, proving that corn had been in Asturias for longer that it was originally thought.
In 17th Century Asturias, corn became the epicentre of a social and economic revolution. It grew exponentially, especially compared to local rye, spelt or wheat, and therefore it meant more food for people to eat. Unfortunately the puzzle of pellagra ended that bonanza. Pellagra, which comes from the Italian "pelle agra" (sour skin) is a vitamin deficiency disease. It is caused by a lack of niacin and is common in people whose diet is based on untreated corn. Casal, an Asturias-based physician, was the first one to connect the disease with the corn in 1735, calling it "mal de la rosa" (malady of the rose) and US Dr. Joseph Goldberger the one who solved the puzzle: pellagra was the consequence of a faulty diet.
The disease was rare in Central America where corn was widely available, but relatively common in Europe and the United States. This was because Aztecs and Mayans used to soak the cornmeal in an alkaline limewater-solution to make it edible. That process liberated the bound niacin and the important amino acid tryptophan, from which niacin can be formed, making its digestion easier. Colonists took the corn home but didn't notice the method to treat it and that knowledge wasn't transferred to the Old World, decimating an important part of the population by mid 18th Century.
These days, according to the Principality of Asturias Government's statistics, the production of corn in the region is decreasing, from over 3,600 tonnes in 2001 to 850 tonnes last year.
Despite the recent production decrease, corn is still very present in the traditional gastronomy of Asturias and tortos con picadillo and eggs is one a many corn-based dishes. It is also one of the humblest foods you can come across. The main ingredients are corn flour, minced pork meat and eggs.
This dish is still very popular in rural areas and those who like myself spent endless summers in the countryside as kids, surely keep cherished childhood memories of playing hide-and-seek in fields of corn, non-GMO corn.
Tortos con Picadillo and Eggs
Serves 4 (8 medium-size tortos)
For the tortos
200g yellow corn flour
50g wheat flour (or if you don't eat gluten, rice flour)
250g lukewarm water
1 tsp of salt
Olive oil for frying
For the topping
200-250g picadillo (minced pork meat)
The most difficult part of this recipe is to coordinate the timing so that you end up having the tortos, picadillo and eggs ready at the same time. To make the tortos, mix both flours and salt and add slowly the lukewarm water while you remove the dough with a wooden spoon. The tortos can also be made using only corn flour, the white flour is added for consistency. You know the dough is ready once both flours are well combined and consistent. Leave it to rest for at least one hour.
My grandmother, whose recipe includes 1/3 of wheat flour instead of 1/4 as I recommend here, used to make golf-ball-sized balls with the dough, leaving them to rest for a couple of hours covered with a linen cloth. Michelin-starred chef Nacho Manzano, whose tortos are among Asturias' most celebrated ones, recommends to leave the dough to rest in the fridge for 6 to 8 hours.
Once the tortos dough is ready to start shaping it, heat olive oil in a medium size pan over low-medium heat and place the picadillo so that it cooks slowly while we are sorting the tortos. Stir it every now and then.
Divide the tortos dough into 8 portions (or among the tortos you would like to get). Form a ball with each portion and flatten it with your palms as much as possible without breaking the dough. To prevent the dough from falling apart or sticking to your hands, the best is to place the linen cloth between the dough and your palms.
Heat olive oil in a medium size pan over medium-high heat. It is important that the oil is very hot and that there is enough to cover the tortos. When so, tip the torto into the pan and allow to cook around 1 minute, until its surface is golden and some little bubbles appear. Flip to the other side and cook it for under 1 minute. Remove from pan and place them on paper towel that will absorb the excess oil.
If you are cooking this on your own and you are good at multitasking, try to fry the eggs while you fry the tortos. It is challenging because seconds can make the difference between a golden torto and a burnt one. If you don't want to risk it, frying the eggs once the tortos are done should still allow you to serve the final dish warm enough. You can leave the picadillo on a low heat until the eggs are ready. To serve, first goes the torto, on top of it the picadillo and then the eggs.
As with everything, use the best ingredients you can afford. My favorite Asturian corn flour so far has been that of Molinos de la Veiga, processed in the traditional way in a water mill in Pravia and grown in Asturias, therefore GMO-free. Organic/free range eggs are easy to find in most places, including in Asturias. If where you are you can't find picadillo, shredded chorizo could do.
Vegetarian version coming soon!