Cesar's cuisine. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

Cesar Calderon delicately lifts a hallaca, a small green parcel wrapped in banana leaf and string, from the stainless-steel container on the countertop of his food stall.

Cutting the string with scissors, Calderon unravels the leaf to show a yellow rectangle of corn dough. It’s stuffed with piping hot beef, pork and chicken, stewed with olives and onions.

The plantain leaf preserves its moisture, he says. “When you boil it, all the leaf’s fragrance goes into the hallaca and you have all of its flavours too.”

On a paper plate, he lays out a fresh banana leaf onto which he places the staple of Christmas dinner in Venezuela.

He adds two pieces of roasted pork, a dollop of potato salad, and a slice of pan de jamon_,_ a bread with ham and olives.

He sticks a miniature Venezuelan flag into the hallaca and serves it all to the next customer, waiting in line at the Latin American Christmas market in Richmond Barracks.

Organised by the non-profit Venezuelan Community in Ireland, the annual market is the only outing made each year by Calderon and his wife, Nileska Romero.

Mostly, Cesar’s Cuisine is a delivery business, says Calderon. They prepare the dishes from their home in Drumcondra, and send them out mostly to Venezuelans living in Dublin.

It is also only available this time of year, Calderon says.

Because they do seasonal food, inspired by the meals commonly eaten in Venezuela over Christmas, he says. “It’s totally different from what we eat during the rest of the year.”

The Season

Around midday on Saturday, the hall in Richmond Barracks was a bazaar, filled with tables selling Venezuelan sweets and snacks, knitwear, organic cosmetics and hand-crafted toys.

Outside in the grassy courtyard were canopy stalls for pulled pork burgers, artisan cheeses, tacos and pastries such as cachitos, filled with ham and cheese.

It was the Venezuelan Community in Ireland’s first Latin-American Christmas market, Calderon says. “Before, they used to do only a Venezuelan market.”

The couple had been involved in the market since they first started Cesar’s Cuisine seven years ago, Romero says. “And normally, this is the moment when we get very busy.”

They get cooking around late October until Christmas Eve, she says. “We celebrate on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is for the leftovers.”

Cesar Calderon and Nileska Romero. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

All of this began when they moved to Ireland in 2013, originally to learn English, Romero says.

She hails from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, while Calderon grew up in the town of Puerto Ordaz.

Cesar’s Cuisine was born in 2015 as a way to pay their college fees, says Calderon. “After that, we just continued because people kept calling us and I liked cooking.”

For a while, cooking was his day job too. He worked as a sous chef in Bay Restaurant in Clontarf between 2016 and 2020, he says, before switching to become a market analyst.

It is exhausting, balancing the kitchen on top of their full-time jobs, he says. “Basically, when I come back from work, it is to continue prepping for deliveries.”

“But it’s our commitment, bringing these small tastes to the Venezuelan people, and some other people who just want to know more,” he says.

The hallacas are made by Calderon, he says, although the style is more indicative of how they are prepared in Caracas. “In some regions they are made with chickpeas. In mine, we have boiled potatoes.”

The blend of meats is stewed in a red-wine marinade, which gives off a fruity fragrance once the doughy outer layer is broken.

A light potato salad with coriander, sweetened with crunchy slices of apple, complements the dish. That’s prepared by Romero.

Such a platter could also include a couple of slices of turkey, says Calderon. But they opt instead for pork, marinated in red and white wine, and stuffed with garlic, olives, capers and onion.

Seared first for crispiness, Calderon then finishes by slow-cooking the meat in advance of their opening.

A Responsibility

Calderon moves back and forth between the front-of-house and a small oven sitting on a windowsill behind the stall.

Inside the oven, they are heating the pan de jamon, or ham bread. Each loaf is 40cm long. They sell it whole, or sliced up and plated with the hallaca and roasted pork.

To one side of the stall, a father and his son tear chunks out of a full loaf, wolfing it down like a regular roll.

Romero, who makes all the bread, laughs with delight. “It’s the first time that I’ve seen that,” she says.

Introducing people to the wintery foods of Venezuela gives Calderon and Romero an enormous amount of satisfaction, Calderon says.

Catering to Dublin’s Venezuelan community and bringing to the city a taste of their home around this time of year is fulfilling work, Romero says. “I feel that we have a responsibility to serve these Christmas dishes.”

By 4.50pm, the sun has set and they have sold out.

Calderon says he feels happy as they unwind at a table inside the canteen by their stall. “But there is kinda a disappointment too when you have to tell people ‘I don’t have any more of these.’”

“It’s that feeling of responsibility again,” he says. “We are with people who we want to serve and we feel we need to serve.”

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post. You can reach him at michael@dublininquirer.com.

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