How does a boy raised on a farm in north County Dublin go on to introduce the flavours of real Mexican food to Ireland? That’s what we asked Philip Martin, the founder of Blanco Nino, a company producing traditional Mexican corn tortillas from its base in Clonmel.
“I’m just a pasty-faced Irish lad who knew nothing about Mexican food except that it tasted good,” jokes Philip, before launching into his story.
It starts on the farm. “We grew our own vegetables and had cows, sheep, pigs and turkeys,” he says.
[pull_quote_center]Seeing what was available in supermarkets versus what we had on the farm made me realise the difference between what is and what could be.[/pull_quote_center]
Travelling was another influence. “After wandering around America and Mexico for a while, I assumed I’d find Mexican food when I came home,” says Philip. “I thought the reason I’d never found it before was because I hadn’t known to look for it. Instead, I discovered no one was doing real Mexican food here.”
He saw an opportunity and decided to open a restaurant specialising in tacos. However, his next realisation was that he couldn’t source the corn tortillas necessary for making those tacos anywhere in Europe.
“I could find a certain kind but they were as different to the proper Mexican kind as real mashed potatoes are to mash made from potato powder rehydrated with water,” he says.
This meant that he opened Little Ass Burrito Bar instead and now has two outlets in Dublin City.
Despite this success, the lack of corn tortillas continued to bother Philip. So much that he eventually decided to do something about it.
“I went back to Mexico to learn how to make them,” he says. “I went to farms where I saw what corn they grew and how they harvested it. I went to mills where I saw the corn being steeped in limestone solution before being ground on volcanic stone. This process turned a food that is pretty indigestible into masa, which is nutrient rich and tasty.”
Philip returned to Ireland with the intention of starting a new corn growing and processing business here. His first step was to raise cash. He got this through online crowdfunding, raising €44,000 from Linked Finance and €124,000 from CrowdCube.
Next, he started assembling his team, which now includes former Dawn Fresh Foods Chief Gerry Rafferty and former financial boss of Valeo Foods Aidan O’Byrne.
Only one part of his plan failed to materialise. “Originally, I was going to grow corn here, which made Mexicans laugh at me,” says Philip.
[pull_quote_center]But I tried anyway. We only got a few cobs of corn per acre which was a let-down to say the least.[/pull_quote_center]
Nevertheless, by July 2015, Philip was importing corn from the Americas and his tortillas and tortilla chips were ready for market by September.
“As far as I know, we’re the only people in Europe using whole white non-GM corn to make tortillas the authentic way,” he says.
This uniqueness is one of the reasons Blanco Nino has been so successful since it launched last September. The company now has three distributors in Ireland, three in the UK and one each in Germany, Holland, Finland and Spain.
Philip thinks quality plays its part in this success too. “Our tortillas are more expensive than wheat tortillas but anyone who cares about quality loves them,” he says. “Jamie Oliver uses our tortillas.”
The next plan is to launch on the retail market in Ireland and the UK next summer. Philip’s team is already working on a taco kit that will be sold in the child section of supermarkets.
He may be pasty-faced but this Dublin lad is well on his way to bringing the authentic flavours of Mexico across the Atlantic to Europe.
[quote_box_center]For more information on Blanco Nine, visit www.blanco-nino.com.[/quote_box_center]