This year, on All Saints’ Day, the neighborhood festival Día de Muertos will take place in the Marolles for the sixth time: a lively tribute to the dead, following the Mexican example. But the country is also becoming as hot as a chili pepper in catering circles. A lot is thanks to a unique tortilla machine in Anderlecht.
Knowing more? This is the Taco ABC
- Tortilla: Mexican cornmeal pancake, not to be confused with the Spanish omelet
- Taco: tortilla with meat or vegetables in it, but not with melted cheese
- Quesadilla: tortilla with melted cheese, folded
- Enchilada: folded taco with a large amount of sauce left over
- Tostada: toasted tortilla, to be eaten as a cracker
- Burrito: texmex invention based on wheat
“Mexicans are proud people. We love cooking, sharing and entertaining people. There is one rule: our food must always be fresh and made with love. We didn’t find that in Brussels for a long time.” Olivia Elias visibly radiates her own rules of life: in her store Las Flores in Anderlecht, with a second location in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, she and her husband Oscar Jiménez make fresh tortillas in front of the customer. Production is done mechanically, in a large bakery, and at the same time artisanally. “It has to be perfect,” says Olivia as the yellow pancakes roll off the conveyor belt. “We remove any tortilla that is not completely round or has holes by hand.”
The device glows and beeps when cornmeal, salt and warm water are kneaded into a flat dough, cut into rounds and roasted. A bakery of Mexican tortillas, so to speak. Yet the mini factory here is quite special. “Nowhere else in Belgium will you find such a tortilla machine today and there are only about ten in the whole of Europe,” says Oscar. Large industry, such as the Poco Loco factory in Roeselare, is of course not included. “We make tortillas without preservatives,” says Olivia. They made the necessary effort to achieve this. The couple took a user training course at an accredited Mexican factory, had the device cross the ocean on a cargo ship and eventually had to round up all their friends to tow it in. “The towing company just dropped it off on the sidewalk,” Olivia laughs. She rolls up a fresh piece of cloth with some salt into a pancake, like a roll of meat at the Flemish butcher. “Taste,” she says proudly.
The taste of this tortilla has certainly convinced the Brussels catering industry. Since the device arrived here a year ago, Las Flores has been supplying more and more players in the city. There is the new Mexican restaurant El Quetzal in the European district, the Salvadoran El Pulgarcito in Ixelles and rooftop bar Tope at the Botanical Garden. Fusion restaurants such as Café Béguin, Djo or St Kilda are working with the tortilla. And in Etterbeek, star chef Yves Mattagne transforms them into modern tacos at Latypiq. “We see our number of customers growing. Not only Mexicans love the tortilla, many chefs are looking for a fresh product,” says Olivia. “It’s vegan, gluten-free and actually cheaper than bread on the table.” Large bags of cornmeal are now stacked in both corners of the display case. “We import them from Mexico, but our storage space has become too small. We have already halved the size of the store,” says Oscar. Mexican sauces, sweets and dried peppers are displayed under multicolored paper streamers.
Mexico also seems to fascinate outside the catering industry. This week the neighborhood party is taking place in the Marolles for the sixth time Día de Muertos place, the Mexican version of All Saints’ Day. This includes a colorful procession with music, dancing and painted skulls. The organization has already seen attendance more than double: from 2,000 people in 2018 to almost 6,000 last year. “We only expected 200 people for the first edition, but it was an immediate success,” remembers organizer Celia Dessardo (Tas d’Os). “We think that the Mexican world attracts parents and children who mainly know it from the Disney film Coco.” It hit theaters in 2017. A year earlier, James Bond was in the film Spectre can also be seen in such a death parade.
Dress up parties
“The traditional celebration of All Saints’ Day is no longer so popular in Brussels and in the gray autumn weather many people are longing for color, joy and music,” thinks Celia. “We want to go further than pure folklore. We give Brussels residents a chance to give death a place among friends, family and in their city.” For example, the organization provides an altar and talk cafés about death. Endless growth is not the intention, it sounds.
In the meantime, commercial players, such as party concept Thé Dansant, also organize fancy dress parties in the city. “The funny thing is: even in Mexico we celebrated Día de Muertos Until twenty years ago it was not so exuberant at all. The party was fairly isolated in the villages and there was no big parade in Mexico City,” says literary scholar Diana Castilleja of the VUB, herself a Mexican. “The tradition of calaveras, skulls, did exist as a cartoon in the nineteenth century. The figure of served in this catrina (lady skeleton with a flower hat, ed.) mainly to laugh at the bourgeoisie. Calaveras later lived on as satirical verses to make fun of political leaders,” she says.
“In recent years, people have revived that image. The. are mixed catrina now even with portraits of Frida Kahlo,” notes Castilleja. “It is authentic, but the fascination abroad mainly comes from films and marketing.” Although Mexico, with its pre-Columbian cultures, pyramids, literature, art and history, has always captured the imagination abroad, Castilleja sees. “There is just an enormous wealth of traditions. It’s nice that my country is once again known for what it is, rather than for its current state. Drug violence is not what really characterizes Mexico.”
In any case, the publicity seems to be working, because Belgians also love Mexico, as they know at new kid in town Tope. That is the rooftop bar on top of The Hoxton hotel. “We conduct market research in advance for each location. This showed that there were few taco restaurants in Brussels, that Belgians like to travel to Mexico and that they even often buy Mexican cookbooks,” says PR manager Elsa Fralon of The Hoxton. “These first months were an immediate success. Of course thanks to our rooftop and international name, but also because of the tacos. You now also see these types of restaurants in New York and London.” The recipes were created by a foreign agency and mix Mexican flavors with Japanese, Moroccan or other spices. “It shouldn’t be too spicy,” laughs the local chef in the kitchen.
Don’t say mex to texmex
It is immediately clear: not every taco is equally Mexican. La Taquería in Ixelles, for example, is a concept from the hat of two Antwerp catering entrepreneurs. Burrito bar Donki came over from Leuven. The founders there are a Belgian-Nicaraguan duo. Ancho is a Brussels brand, with now four restaurants in the capital, but its roots are not far from home there either: the managers come from Waterloo and were also involved in sushi.
“It’s business,” says Virginia Lobato of food truck Aca Tacos, one of the pioneers of Mexican food in Brussels. She still makes her corn tortillas by hand and has been at a different market in the city every day for the past six years. We speak to her at the Grote Zavel. “They often come here for advice, but many new players quit quickly or are forced to mix styles. It’s just very expensive to do it right.” Importing original ingredients costs a lot or in some cases is simply not allowed for food hygiene reasons. “I can’t make sauces with insects or worms here,” says Lobato. So many Mexican restaurants in Brussels make do with dishes such as chili con carne or nacho dishes with minced meat. “That’s Texmex,” emphasizes Lobato, a recipe box from the US. “Not Mexican.”
The cost also affected Olivia and Oscar during the Covid crisis, when they were still managers of the El Mexicanito restaurant in Ixelles. “We then decided to import the right ingredients ourselves,” says Olivia. They sold the restaurant and started looking for their professional tortilla machine. “I have seen interest in Mexican cuisine growing since it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Only that started in Paris, New York and London. Now that trend is also coming to Brussels.”
It remains to be seen who will continue to drive the trend, because Brussels has less than a thousand Mexicans and most of them come here for an existing job, study or Belgian partner. “The kind of American dream that exists in Los Angeles or Texas with small restaurants to survive, you don’t have here,” says Olivia, who arrived here as an expat. The new cocktail bar Vamos Mezcal, for now one food bike, comes close, but was founded by an Ecuadorian. “My mother arrived here in 2000 without papers, looking for work,” says founder Yvette Tupiza, who wants to make the Mexican agave drink mescal known in Brussels. “I followed her five years later, went to hotel school here and finally have papers five years ago.” She now runs a lunch restaurant and was able to gather some savings and subsidies for her tricycle bar. “I think that many Latin American entrepreneurs will only start in the coming years, when those first migrants have collected enough start-up capital.”
“Bring it on,” says Virginia Lobato, who made her European dream come true, because she was once a doctor in Mexico. After drug violence in her native region, she followed her Belgian partner to Brussels. She had to put away her doctor’s degree and there was no room for studying. “I started cooking to stay independent. So I think competition is good, it helps us to improve,” she says.
Can demand continue to grow? “Certainly, our orders are still increasing every month,” says Olivia from Las Flores. “You don’t know you need this device until you have it,” she laughs. “But don’t give my husband any ideas. He is already dreaming of a second machine.”