Lily Ramirez-Foran comes from three generations of tortilla makers in northern Mexico. When she arrived in Ireland 17 years ago, she found that it was the lack of real Mexican food and ingredients that made her miss home.
“When I came first there was absolutely nothing … it was really desperate,” she says, laughing. “I found myself getting very homesick, and within six months I realised it was the food.”
“We’re completely connected to who we are through food. I think there’s an emotional connection that happens when you eat. If I have a taco, and I bite it, it transports me back home to the heat, and the family memories.”
Now, all these years later, she and her husband Alan are the owners of Picado, a Mexican pantry on Richmond Street, on the Southside.
Stocked with tortillas, hot sauces and other Mexican specialties, the shop becomes its own supplier by night, when Ramirez-Foran holds intimate gatherings for the hungry and curious: once a month, she runs a supper club in the shop after it’s closed.
Ramirez-Foran is not the only one, though. Theresa Hernandez has since 2012 been running another Mexican supper club, hosting up to 60 people at a time in a variety of venues through her Mero Mero México.
The waiting list for Ramirez-Foran’s supper club at Picado is typically two months. She taught cooking classes in the shop first, but soon noticed that there was a core of people who just wanted to eat, not to cook.
The suppers are themed and the menus are secret until the night before. Ramirez-Foran never asks guests how hot they can handle, just about their dietary restrictions.
“We have a three or four course meal. You come in, you sit down, and we do a Mexican experience; it’s like coming into my home while I’m cooking in the kitchen.”
Sitting eight strangers at a table always makes for an interesting night, she says. “The minute they come through the door, they already have one thing in common; the love for Mexican food. Starting a conversation is very easy.”
The setting is intimate, which can put some people off, but others relish it. “The diners feel like they can ask you lots of questions because you’re cooking in front of them, so they can get up from the table and come in and have a look at what you’re doing.” It’s not just a meal, there’s an educational element to it, and there’s a history and story to every ingredient.
“You get some people who come and say, ‘Oh, I don’t really like spicy food,’ and then they go home feeling surprised because absolutely nothing on the table killed them. Traditional Mexican food is not about heat, it’s about flavour,” Ramirez-Foran says.
The first guests for Saturday night will arrive any minute. She fries and shapes small tartlets made from masa harina, or sopes, for tonight’s starter, while Alan sets the table for eight in the middle of the shop floor.
The sopes are filled with refried beans, meat and vegetables, and queso fresco, or feta in this case, with a drizzle of salsa and crème fraîche. It’s messy to eat, but worth it. If your nose isn’t dipped in dressing, you’re not doing it right.
A Labour of Love
Theresa Hernandez runs another kind of Mexican supper club. Hernandez is Irish, and lived in Mexico for five years, where she met her husband, Gustavo.
Already the co-owner of a taco truck, K Chido Mexico, in Smithfield, and a salsa business with Gustavo, Hernandez puts on supper clubs for sometimes dozens of people at a time, enlisting her family as experts and helping hands on the night.
Her supper clubs began in 2012, after a friend introduced her to the Set Food Club, a pop-up dining experience in the abandoned warehouses of Dublin city.
“They served a peach custard in an egg shell, and they had an interesting smoking system where they used a hairdryer and a cardboard box. I was hooked,” says Hernandez.
Since then, she has been showcasing Mexican food in private homes, hotels and restaurants.
She has a steady base of regulars, and doesn’t need to advertise, she says, but there’s no fixed venue, so the suppers are spontaneous and irregular.
“I try to introduce an element of fun and something different. If I walk into a vegetable store in Mexico there’s a myriad of fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen before in my life, so I wanted Irish people and locals here to experience that,” she says.
Hernandez is passionate about Mexican food, but says that it can be difficult for people to take her seriously.
“People look at me and go, ‘She’s Irish, she’s selling Mexican stuff. She’s making it.’ It takes a while for it to filter down that you can have an expert on Mexican food that isn’t necessarily Mexican.”
But, this isn’t a problem at the supper clubs. “People were just hungry, they looked at the menu, they thought it looked incredible, and they just wanted to get their teeth into it,” she says.
Food as Heritage
Since 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine has been part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity list, including its rituals, ancestral customs, and oral tradition. Hernandez tries to use these practices in her own menus, but says there’s also nothing wrong with a good burrito.
Burritos and other Tex-Mex and Cali-Mex foods are having a moment in Dublin, but both women agree that they are not authentic Mexican cuisine. You would never find someone eating beans and rice in a tortilla in Mexico, according to Ramirez-Foran.
“A few months ago I got obsessed with fried, candied chicken tacos that had hibiscus and chipotle caramel on it. I was absolutely obsessed and cooked it for every occasion I could until I was happy with it,” says Ramirez-Foran.
“I get to be playful with the food. I can go really traditional modern. There’s very little boundaries in the supper clubs,” she adds.