These are not just any tortilla chips. These are the real thing, made from scratch in Clonmel

Russ Parsons: There are few things more comforting than the perfume of a freshly made, warm corn tortilla

When someone asks me what I miss most about living in California, my answer is usually simple: My friends and fresh corn tortillas. And depending on the day, that order may reverse.

For those who grew up with them, there are few things more comforting than the perfume of a freshly made, warm corn tortilla. It’s a primeval smell, earthy and sweet at the same time. In California, it was something I sometimes took for granted.

Almost every neighbourhood has a tortilleria where you can watch someone pat them out by hand and bake them on an iron griddle. Even in supermarkets, tortillas are often so fresh they have moisture beaded inside the bag. And they are such a staple that people buy them 50 at a time.

This is all a long-winded windup to telling you that when I pulled into the parking lot at the Blanco Niño tortilla factory in Clonmel, I was tempted to roll down the windows and sit for a while, luxuriating in the smell. Expat aromatherapy.


The Blanco Niño brand is familiar to most as a fried tortilla chip. But these are not just any tortilla chips. These are the real thing, made from scratch in the traditional way, starting with dried corn.

As with so many wonderful foods in Ireland, it started innocently enough and then turned into someone’s passion project. In this case, that someone is Philip Martin, a 35-year-old Dubliner. He set out to start a Mexican fast-casual restaurant, but quickly disappeared down the corn tortilla rabbit hole.

The project began with Martin dreaming of a field-to-fork tortilla operation featuring corn grown on his family’s farm. After the Irish climate proved inhospitable for high-quality dried corn, several years of searching ended up with him importing organically grown corn from a farm in Illinois.

“I’ve always loved the idea of growing from scratch and making a product,” he says. “Going the whole way back to seed. But ultimately that didn’t work out. That was a very difficult period when it was very conclusive that it wasn’t going to be possible to grow the corn.”

True corn tortillas begin with a process called nixtamalisation – cooking dried corn in calcium-rich water. This not only makes the corn easier to grind into the thick masa dough, but it frees up nutrients so they can be better utilised by the body. And it lends an unmistakable aroma to the finished product.

There are various industrial techniques that can shortcut this process, but the finished product is never the same (if you look at the label, most corn tortillas sold in supermarkets in Ireland are made with the addition of wheat flour; this extends shelf life, but diminishes the flavour drastically).*

At Blanco Niño, you won’t find anyone patiently patting out balls of masa. Working with more than 1,000 tonnes of dried corn every year requires a certain amount of industrialisation. Still, in the gleaming stainless steel assembly line at the company’s plant, at the crucial points the process is decidedly old school.

Every chip takes three days to make. It starts with the dried corn being cooked and then soaked overnight in water mixed with calcium hydroxide – called cal in Mexico. Martin experimented with using calcium carbonate from seashells and calcium from wood ash (the way the Olmecs and the Mayans did). But he found he preferred the corn flavour using the Aztec technique of calcium mined from the earth.

“We tried them all,” he says. “Calcium carbonate [from sea shells] worked but it didn’t taste as good in my opinion. We tried wood ash, but it was really messy. Calcium from the ground has some hydroxides that really lifts the flavour of the corn. It gives a really lovely corn flavour and so that’s the way we went.”

The cooked corn is then rinsed, removing the hulls, and ground. And therein lies another old-school touch. Because hidden in all that modern mechanisation is a volcanic stone mill not that different from the metates that have been used in Mesoamerica for centuries.

Once ground, the corn is kneaded into thick masa dough, rolled thin and stretched, cut into tortilla circles and baked. At this point roughly half of them are sold fresh to restaurants. The rest are left to go stale overnight before being cut up and fried (chips traditionally are a way to use up yesterday’s tortillas).

Though the process is highly industrialised, at the crucial steps there are no shortcuts taken. “That’s my thing, probably to a fault,” Martin says. “If you’re going to do it, do it right. It’s not without reason, you do create a better product when you slow the speed. Time is a big ingredient.

“There’s a market for the middle-of-the-road tortilla chips, but that’s not what we’re about.”

Rigorous as his approach might be to making what is essentially a snack food, it has certainly paid off. Blanco Niño tortilla chips are sold in supermarkets across Europe, including SuperValu, Dunnes and Tesco in Ireland. They are launching in Marks and Spencer and have a deal to deliver to Co-Op food markets across the UK this autumn. They are also used by chef Tommi Miers in her Wahaca restaurants in the UK.

Taking the slow road has definitely been a long road. But Martin wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s been seven years now. But you take certain turns in life and you keep going.”

*This article was amended on Monday, August 28th, 2023.