Inside a tent in Herbert Park, Evelyn Rivera and Eduardo Bibbins had covered the table with a poncho, and laid out a Mexican flag to cover the front.
Rivera places baskets on the table. Some hold dried chillies, others have hibiscus, fresh cheese, or the deep-fried pork skin and belly known as chicharron.
The biggest basket, though, is for their white corn and blue corn tortillas.
Outside in the windy morning, Rivera, seated on a camping chair, is greeted in Spanish from afar.
“Hello, I’m here to collect my order,” says Adriana Ramirez, approaching from the other side of the park. She pulls a wallet out of her jacket.
Rivera quickly finds it, and hands over a bag with 1kg of tortillas, fresh cheese and dried pasilla chilies.
After the transaction is done, they talk about Ramirez’s plans for the chilies. They’re “for enchiladas”, she says, and the conversation goes on for a while.
Ramirez had come across Balam Mexican Food after asking on Facebook for tortilla suppliers in Dublin, she says. They were recommended, she says.
“I tasted the tortillas and they are indeed made out of corn, so when you heat them up, they taste like the real deal. That’s why I like them,” Ramirez says.
That freshness is what Rivera and Bibbins have been striving for, they say.
They’ve been trying to recreate the freshly made tortillas they would find in Mexican cities with a tortilleria on every other corner, in a city where tortilla seekers are fewer and further between.
Test and tweak
“In Mexico, at lunch time, you go to the neighbourhood tortilleria and you eat your meal with freshly made tortillas. But in Ireland all we could do was to reheat tortillas sent from abroad,” Rivera said.
In November 2020, when the business started, the couple imagined themselves delivering fresh tortillas wrapped in brown paper every day at the best price they could offer, Bibbins said. But they had to adjust.
Most people were used to packaged tortillas, he says. “We never thought of vacuum packing our tortillas, but we realised that the customers wanted them like that.”
The logistics of daily deliveries were also tricky, especially on top of parenting and – at the time – full-time jobs.
Eventually, it made sense to look out for selling points. It was more convenient for them and for customers, he says.
After several rejections, Rivera tried a shop that she frequented as a customer, Quick Pick in Ryder’s Row. “The same day we asked him, the owner said, ‘Yes, bring them over,’” she says.
These days, they sell from two shops in the city centre, and the Herbert Park Sunday market – and they also sell wholesale to restaurants.
Aldo Estrella and Costel Scortanu were the first restaurateurs to buy from them, says Bibbins. They run the Mexican restaurant Agave.
“They had some samples, then they made an order. We were astonished it was so simple,” said Bibbins. Later came Acapulco, Masa and El Milagro.
“Some of our customers are also pubs like Cat & Cage and TapHouse, but they mostly buy triangular tortilla chips named totopos,” says Rivera.
Some families outside of Dublin buy directly from them too, Rivera says. “Once a month we send them a package full of our products”.
Adjusting to the weather
When Bibbins arrived in Ireland six years ago, the pantries had a limited offering of tortillas, he says.
“I am a tortilla lover and I said to myself, no, people cannot live with those tortillas,” he said.
Ramirez said she didn’t like the flavour of the brands that she tried. “I wouldn’t be able to tell what they tasted like, but definitely not like a tortilla,” she says.
“The chemicals used for preserving the tortillas for longer make them smell and taste differently,” Rivera says.
In October 2019, she and Bibbins went to Mexico to get married – and to research tortillas for their soon-to-launch business.
“We knew nothing about tortillas back then, so we had to investigate a lot,” says Rivera. “About machinery, getting to know which one fitted our budget, and looking for corn.”
When it came to corn, Bibbins had a clear idea of what they wanted. “Native Mexican corn,” he said.
That led them to central Mexico. “Tlaxcala, Mexico State, Puebla,” says Rivera. “States that have kept their traditions. The rainfed corn they grow, we liked it.”
They found themselves in the middle of a movement to protect heirloom corn and small cornfield producers. They also went to a workshop to learn the nixtamalization process.
Fewer tortillerias in Mexico these days do nixtamalization, says Rivera.
That’s a traditional way of preparing the corn that makes it more digestible and nutritious, she says. “It consists of cooking dried corn kernels in water and lime.”
“When we got taught, we were handed a recipe: for so much corn, so many litres of water and lime,” she says.
“But when we arrived in Ireland we had to start from scratch, because of the altitude and the weather, we had to figure it out ourselves,” she said.
They currently rent a unit five minutes away from their home, where they make their batches, and store their equipment – three 100-litre pots, a tortilla machine nicknamed Bertha, the corn mill, and the vacuum-sealer machine.
Bibbins says they make new batches each day, and that they are maybe at 20 or 30 percent of their production capacity. But that’s because they have decided to prioritise the freshness of their product, he said.
“Our label says our tortillas have water, lime and corn, nothing else,” Rivera says proudly. “Other tortillas can be found on the shelves, whereas ours have to be refrigerated.”
Bibbins says that after years of knocking doors, now the customers look for them.
Three years on, the business employs them full-time and also two part-time employees. “The business is stable and it sustains us, but it still has a lot of potential,” Bibbins said.
“When we started this business, we didn’t fall in love with the business, we fell in love with the tortilla-making process, for what it means and for whom it nurtures,” he says.
It is almost 3pm in Herbert Park. When the last package of tortillas is gone, it’s time for them to go home.
As Rivera starts emptying baskets, she says they haven’t fully abandoned the idea of opening a bricks-and-mortar tortilleria. But for now, they’re just focused on growing the business without compromising the quality.
Bibbins appears just in time to help Rivera carry the baskets, tablecloths and any unsold items to the car.