Volcano-hot chillies, a shot of Caribbean turtle eggs and toad water as sweet as sugar cane. Michael Raffael discovers that Costa Rica’s dizzyingly diverse terrain yields a kaleidoscopic cuisine.
Currency is the Costa Rican colón (£1= CRC809.712). Costa Rica is six hours behind GMT. It enjoys a tropical climate year round, with two distinct seasons: the dry verano season, which runs from December to May, and the invierno wet season from May to November. Average temperatures peak at 28°C in April and March, and drop to lows of 17°C in September, although these will vary with elevation: temperatures are higher on the coastal lowlands, and lower in the mountains.
Iberia (iberia.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to San José via Madrid.
Costa Rica’s Tourist Board (visitcostarica.com) offers advice on everything from historic walks in San José to rural tourism, alongside practical information on how to plan your trip.
Costa Rica: A Journey Through Nature by Adrian Hepworth (Firefly Books, £25) A vivid photographic voyage across Costa Rica’s terrains.
Feasting and Foraging in Costa Rica: A Comprehensive Food and Restaurant Guide by Lenny Karpman (Booklocker, £15.95) A guide to recipes, ingredients and restaurants.
Click on Costa Rica’s official tourist website. The first image is of Arenal Volcano’s perfect cone. Next up is a white sand beach. Nature at its most beguiling? Of course, but the country is also nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Anything and everything flourishes in its rich equatorial clime: hummingbirds flit above bullet ants, and fiery pero chillies hotter than Scotch bonnets grow alongside sweet-scented maracujas. This is a place of both multinational burger chains and local roadside eateries, known as sodas, where food is cooked over a wood fire.
Sandwiched between the Pacific and the Atlantic, Costa Rica has a spine of active, smoking volcanic chimneys. Rising over 3,350m, the lava and ash they spew mulches soil that’s already rich. Stick a cutting in the ground and within months it’s a fencepost. In a year it’s a sapling and in two a tree. Meadows, rainforest, cloud forest and jungle intertwine in knitted shades of green.
Costa Ricans have a stable democracy, low unemployment and no army to swallow resources. In exchange obesity tips the scales at over 50 per cent of the population. In the capital San José a cartoonish piece of street art urges passersby to ‘eat fruit and vegetables’. Former lawyer José Paolo Gonzalez would endorse this advice. He’s returned home after four years as a chef in France intent on starting a taste revolution in Costa Rica. He likes to breakfast at Challe on Avenida Central Fernandez Güell. ‘It stays open all night,’ he says, ‘and we often come here when we’re partying.’
Over a glass of horchata (a drink made from ground nuts, unrefined sugar, water and cinnamon) and a flaky pastry sandwich not a million miles away from a cheeseburger, Gonzalez accuses Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, in the capital of settling for junk food.
Gonzalez makes a powerful advocate for the country’s indigenous produce. In the markets of Cartago, Costa Rica’s second city, or the farming town of Coronado, he flits between the large variety of food stalls like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
‘This,’ he says, ‘is pejibaye, which comes from a kind of palm. You cut off the skin and the fruit is great cooked with ham hock… And this is jocote, a fruit with a nut in the middle. You make jam with it.’ Pointing to a bunch of what looks like twigs, he says: ‘Mozote stems. Indians use them for medicine. They make a refreshing drink. Some people add tamarind ... Nispero – a kind of medlar – sweet and juicy; try it… Wild culantro. It’s a herb. You put it in a pot au feu, with picadillo or beans.’ Even turtle eggs, sold in shot glasses with tomato and onion juice, don’t slow him down: ‘They’re from the Caribbean coast; they aren’t fertilised. The government issues permits and regulates what can be gathered.’
Drive north from the capital into the central highlands and the thrum and bustle of the Pan American Highway soon gives way to quieter roads that coil around the hills, with their dips and climbs, and hairpin bends. A girl sitting under a brightly coloured parasol sells fresh strawberries by the roadside.
At 7am José pulls up outside El Rancho de Sabor, a soda en route to the Poás Volcano National Park. At El Rancho Maria Regina feeds a log into the fire under a blackened cast-iron range. She’s been up cooking since 4am, she says, but doesn’t mind. People have told her she should open a proper restaurant, but she doesn’t want to. She enjoys meeting people.
Gallo pinto, black beans and rice, is Costa Rica’s staple dish. Her version is rich and slightly smoky, made with garlic and stock. She dishes it up with a fried egg, tortillas and a dollop of soured cream. She fancies José. ‘You’re the cutest thing ever,’ she tells him. To prove she means it, she offers him a piece of crust off the bottom of the pan — the costra. We eat crisp tortillas with potato picadillo, a hash that she’s flavoured with fresh annatto. She gives us a sweet cornmeal porridge too. José asks what she’s put in it. ‘Just freshly grated kernels, water, sugar, salt and amor.’
Almost a quarter of the country is set apart for national parks and Poás must be the most spectacular. It’s set around a collapsed volcanic crater almost a mile across. Puffs of white smoke rise from its base, dusting the fissured and striated rocks around it. Costa Rica’s volcanoes are very seductive, and their forested slopes support an abundance of local plant and animal life, but only the foolhardy would dismiss their volatility.
Don Federico Ortuño Victory was his country’s ambassador to Rome, but now manages his family’s coffee and sugar estates, while living at Hacienda Tayutic, the guest house he owns in Turrialba. It has not one, but two active volcanoes on its doorstep. Don Federico is all too familiar with nature’s capriciousness. ‘My father,’ he says, ‘bought the villa from a farmer whose son died after being bitten by a snake, not from the bite but as a reaction to the anti-venom he was given.’ His coffee pickers also face the hazards of poisonous reptiles, which can drop off the bushes into their baskets.
Local shops in Turrialba still stock brown sugar loaves, panela or tapa. Solid, truncated cones of evaporated sugar-cane juice wrapped in banana leaves and sold in pairs, this sugar is the basis of two soft drinks: agua dulce (sugar water) and agua de sapo (toad water) that are as popular as coffee. When Don Federico was a child, he would enjoy watching the workmen crushing and boiling the cane to make the loaves: ‘We used to drink the juice, the foam skimmed off the top, the syrup and finally eat the fudge when the loaves were setting.’
Now, for old times’ sake, he keeps an antiquated press once driven by a pair of oxen and boiling vats on his farm to show his visitors how it used to be done. The bulk of his crop goes to making organic unrefined sugar for export.
The northern volcanoes of the central valley are no less verdant or volatile than their southern counterparts, though Arenal – until recently Costa Rica’s most active – seems to have mellowed. It still inspires awe, however. Stay at a resort in La Fortuna and the spectacular view of Arenal changes by the minute. Cloaking mists or ominous rain clouds can dissipate with a shift of the breeze. In the spas, masseuses apply volcanic ash facials or exfoliate tired skin with miraculous coffee and cinnamon rubs. There are natural hot springs to bathe in. The wine bar shows the sports channel and a sushi bar features salmon and tuna.
A few kilometres down a track that follows Lake Arenal, the vast body of water that stretches to the west of the Arenal Volcano National Park, Rancho Margot offers the alternative. Juan Sostheim isn’t a typical eco-warrior. Once he managed a Burger King franchise in London for Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones, then spent the next 15 years setting up a business in the chemical industry. A minor heart attack gave him a Road to Damascus moment: he decided it was time to leave the rat race and now strolls his 400- acre farm with a glass of red wine in hand.
His property is more than an ‘organic farm and yoga retreat’. Yes, it makes butter and cheese. Yes, it grows pineapples and yardlong beans. Yes, it has happy pigs, whose manure, treated by biodigesters, supplies gas for cooking. Compost from organic waste heats hot water in the guest chalets. The ranch also generates all its own electricity and has a carbon-negative footprint.
About two-thirds of what his guests and staff feed on is home produced and one day he hopes to be fully self-sustaining in food. ‘If we have to buy in some chicken,’ he says, ‘we always let our guests know.’ Serving a staggering 15,000 meals a month, the kitchens manage with just one fridge and a freezer.
Puntarenas Province stretches along the Pacific coast. Manuel Antonio National Park, its star attraction, woos all-comers with twotoed sloths, howler monkeys and crab-eating raccoons that thieve what they can from careless sunbathers. Offshore, sports fishermen bend their backs for marlin and sailfish.
Theme restaurants line the road into Quepos, the town nearest the park. Dinner at El Avion is served in a gutted Fairchild C-123 cargo plane.
Finding a decent meal in this culinary jungle depends on luck, or a good tip. El Arado, off the main beat, has a corrugated roof, no walls and no attempt at décor. The closest thing to entertainment is an old man playing a game of chess with his granddaughter. Its owner has to light his barbecue to cook the spare ribs and the shrimp. Ana in the kitchen finishes off her fish stew. It’s fresh, delicious, a reminder that there’s a small fishing village, Boca Viejo, in the estuary.
Boca Viejo doesn’t have a marina, waterfront bistros or cafés. There’s nothing so much as a bar. Pelicans and vultures stare at only a handful of boats, hoping for a fish-gut snack. Barefoot children pad along a pontoon. In a hangar, a crewman fillets a large snapper over an empty sink. A gulf separates this quiet way of life from what visitors experience of Costa Rica.
José asserts that Ticos haven’t learnt how to turn unique produce into a cuisine. This could change with the opening of Sabores Centro Gastronomico. It’s a cookery school and bakery underwritten by newspaper La Nación, Costa Rica’s Channel 7 TV and cookery magazine Sabores. Miguel Barboza, managing editor of Sabores, describes the school as ‘pioneering’. When asked what his readers want, he responds: more Italian recipes.
Don Federico too betrays a yearning for the Old World when showing off his European herb garden. Under the gazebo at Tayutic, José dishes up tasty escalopes of foie gras. He gently paints them with a lemon and guava-leaf reduction, sprinkles herb salt on top and decorates with flowers. Is he a revolutionary? He’s more of a talented chef in search of a cause.
He should hook up with Richard Neat at Park Café. A character in search of a novel, he’s had the kind of career Casablanca’s Rick, as played by Humphrey Bogart, might envy. He became sauce chef at Restaurant Jamin in Paris, then the world’s most famous restaurant, in 1989. In 1996, still in his twenties, he won two Michelin stars at London’s Pied à Terre. From there he went to Mumbai and Cannes, came back to London and went on to Marrakech.
Back in San José, with partner Louise, he has a five-table restaurant in the antique shop they own. Fiddly amuse bouche and petits fours have gone from his carte, but his ability to cook food that tastes good hasn’t waned. A chequer-board of seared tuna and ceviche parcels, duck fillets and mole, and a perfect maracujascented crème brûlée set the bar for others to follow. ‘I’m proud of what I do here,’ he says. And he means it.
In San Jose street artist Yamil de la Paz paints the city walls with the slogan: ‘Esto es producto de su imaginación.’ This is a product of your imagination. How true! In Costa Rica you see what you want to: a wild tropical paradise, or a cultivated Garden of Eden (complete with snakes). Don Federico has already turned his home into his version of Eden. Juan Sostheim is shaping his. Super-chef and world traveller Richard Neat seems at last to have found a permanent home. And for José, there’s no such thing as a forbidden fruit.
Where to Stay
Arenal Kioro Not the smartest of La Fortuna’s expensive resorts, but it has lovely gardens, hot springs, a professional spa and some of the best views of the volcano. From £237 a night. hotelarenalkioro.com
Gaia Hotel & Reserve Beautiful boutique hotel tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Manuel Antonio resorts. Rooms and suites include duplexes, some of which have private rooftops. Slick but friendly service. Winner of the World Travel Awards’ Mexico & Central America’s Leading Boutique Hotel award 2010. From £197. gaiahr.com.
Rancho Margot Juan Sostheim is living the eco dream on his sustainable ranch near the shores of Lake Arenal. Trails meander from the ranch and plunge deep into both rain forest and cloud forest, offering a good chance of seeing many different species of mammals, birds and reptiles. From £50. ranchomargot.org
Hacienda Tayutic Relaxation and luxury in this tranquil location, with only six guest rooms. Cooking (and the coffee) is better than at any resort and the service impeccable. A former president of Costa Rica used to fly here by helicopter when he needed a break. From around £182 a night, including breakfast and lunch. tayutic.com
Where to Eat
El Arado Ask for directions and show up for fresh seafood and ribs barbecued to order. Friendly and informal – one step up from a soda. Puerto Quepos, Puntarenas province. From £10 plus beer or soft drinks.
Nostalgia Wine bar/restaurant at Arenal Nayara, a top La Fortuna resort. Wines are well chosen. Dinner menu with matching wines £45 approx plus taxes. arenalnayara.com
Park Café Unique. A handful of tables, an antique shop like a museum of Indian and Balinese antiquities set around a courtyard and Richard Neat’s signature dishes. Closes when he goes antique hunting. Sabana Norte, one block north of Rostipollos, San José. From £30 plus wine. parkcafecostarica.blogspot.co.uk
Whappin’ (pidjin for ‘what’s happening’) Cooking from Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast in San José includes fried plantain chips or yucca, black beans and rice. From £12 plus beer or drinks. whappin.com
- Agua dulce : (sugar water) and agua de sapo (toad water). Both drinks are based on raw cane sugar. The former, made with milk, is a refreshing breakfast alternative to café con leche. The latter, served chilled, is a thirstquenching mixture of panela (see below) ginger, water, lemon or lime and a hint of spice.
- Annatto : Seeds of achiote trees that are often thought of as a reddyorange colouring, but they also have a pleasant slightly nutty, sweet and peppery flavour when mixed with stews.
- Arreglado : Like a cheeseburger, but the meat is served between two slices of puff pastry.
- Carne mechada : Stewed and shredded beef skirt.
- Gallo pinto: The national dish of beans and rice.
- Horchata : A sweet, milky drink made from ground nuts, unrefined sugar, water and cinnamon.
- Panela or tapa : Blocks of unrefined fudge-like brown cane sugar.
- Picadillo de papa : Minced potato and beef with herbs.
- Soda : Not a carbonated drink, but a place where you go for a drink and something to eat.
- Chilera : Generic name for a hot vegetable salsa-pickle.
- Mondongo frito: Fried tripe
Michael Raffael and Tom Parker travelled to Costa Rica courtesy of the Costa Rica Tourist Board – Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (00 506 2299 5800; visitcostarica.com).
This article was published on 1st December 2012 so certain details may not be up to date.