Hallacanomics 2021

How has the bodegón economy affected the ingredient availability and price of Venezuela's favorite Christmas dish? Let's see

People talk about two Venezuelas. Two entirely different social and economic realities sharing the same land. The rich one and the poor one. The malnourished and the obese. The civil and the barbarian. The Saudi and the North Korean.

From my point of view, after researching for this piece, there are more than two Venezuelas, spread along the spectrum of grays between the black and white politicians insist on making us see. 

It’s easy to see those shades of gray in the economics of the hallaca, the most representative Venezuelan Christmas dish, as 2021 comes to an end. The star of the Christmas dinner will cost this year 1,000% more than it cost in bolivars in 2020, which is way more than the annual inflation just reported by the Central Bank at the end of November (769%), and the expected result of eight years in recession, four in hyperinflation, and an industry that’s 80% less productive than it was in 2013.

Of course, hallacas make me think of another Christmas without my kids, who left the country, and without many friends and family I miss. Out of almost 100 members of my extended family I used to see around Christmas two decades ago, 47 of them are dispersed in three continents. We never shared the same table again. 

But I better wipe that tear and focus on the numbers. 

One Dollar If It’s Homemade

If you buy the ingredients to make 50 hallacas, the bill could vary dramatically depending on the place. The range goes from 36 to 70 dollars, that is, every hallaca could cost you from 70 cents to one dollar and 40 cents.

You can pay up to 70 dollars at some supermarkets and bodegones in Caracas, such as Unicasa, Excelsior Gama, Plaza, Bicentenario, Central Madeirense or La Muralla; but you can buy the same things for less than 60 dollars at public markets like Quinta Crespo, Guaicaipuro, El Cementerio, or Chacao.

Among the ingredients we’re considering here (corn flour, olives, raisins, capers, leek, chicken, pork, beef, tomato, onion, green onion, garlic, sweet pepper, annatto, plantain leaves, oil, pickles, red pepper, white cooking twine… and no almonds) we can see important deviations. Plantain leaves can cost, per kilogram, from 2 to 3.50 dollars; olives from 2 to 5 dollars, beef from 3,5 to 9 dollars, and capers from 3 to 5,5 dollars.

We also found price variations in the full Christmas plate. In downtown Caracas, you can get a plate with one hallaca, pernil (pork roast), and chicken salad for 3 dollars. But not far from there, at a restaurant in La Candelaria, you could end up paying up to 20 dollars for the same trio.  

At Pollos Hermanos Riviera, you’d pay 7 dollars per plate including hallaca, chicken salad, and pan de jamón, or 10 dollars if you want to add a piece of pernil. If you want to shoot for the sky, you can have your Christmas plate at Alto in Los Palos Grandes (35 dollars), La Castañuela in Las Mercedes (29 dollars), and Moreno in Altamira (28 dollars). That is about eleven times the price of the combo in downtown Caracas.

The middle range could be Casa Bermeo at La Candelaria or Dolce Vita in Altamira: 10 – 15 dollars.

Criolla With a Hint of Exotic Autocracies

Arturo Uslar Pietri wrote that the hallaca was a testimony of our melting pot: “the corn and plantain leaf of the Indians, the raisin, and olive of Romans and Greeks, the caper and almond from the Arabs, the beef of the captains from Castilla.”

That concept proposed by Uslar Pietri becomes even more real this year, with so many ingredients imported by Chavismo’s international allies—without tariffs or taxes—after Venezuelan production was quashed. Now the hallaca is not only built with local ingredients and products sourced from Spain, Italy, the US, and Portugal, but also from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, and other Maduro-friendly places.

For instance, the third secretary of the Turkish Embassy in Venezuela, Hüseyin Özen, told the Anadolu news agency that the Venezuelan chocolate company Zisnella was importing olives and hazelnuts from Turkey at least since 2017

The traditional corn or canola oil local brands such as Vatel, Mazeite, and Mary are competing not only with olive oil Gallo, Carbonell, Colavita, Olitalia, Wesson, and Kirkland, from Spain, Italy, and the US, but also with Ukraine’s Olyan or Argentina’s Kaldini. The same happens with the pickles produced by Nina: they have to compete with Eureka, Fragata, La Giralda, and Krinos, from Europe, and also with Turkey’s Sibas and Tukas. 

Regarding flour, the main hallaca ingredient, here you can find corn flour and wheat flour from Latin America, the Middle East, and former Soviet republics, at the same price as the one produced in Venezuela, or cheaper. So we can’t rule out that some hallacas this year are using those brands instead of the typical marriage of Polar’s Harina Pan and annatto (onoto).

What About the Other Christmas Stuff?

The enduring tradition of setting up a Christmas tree in a tropical country is opening the gate of craziness. You can buy “Canadian pines” in downtown Caracas from 75 dollars to 500 dollars. But if you’re up for the full Bodegonia Christmas experience, you can get a designer-adorned pine for 3,500 dollars in East Caracas.

The best prices for the beloved pan de jamón (the rolled-up Christmas ham bread) usually can be found with families who sell their own artisanal creations from home, starting at 6 dollars for 35-cm, while at restaurants it could go up to 25 dollars.

Finally, if you want to say goodbye to 2021 by jumping on one foot and eating one grape with every bell toll at 12 o’clock, the kilogram of grapes goes from 3 dollars in the Catia or Quinta Crespo open market to 15 dollars in Baruta, El Hatillo, Libertador, and Chacao.