Monday, 28 September 2009

Chinampas and Camellones

More people arrive at this blog through Chinampas than anything else. This is very encouraging and I would like to give more information sources on this incredible and pertinent method of farming.

In brief this method of low technology, high intensity farming is as old as agriculture. The ancient civilizations of the Americas as well as those in south east Asia and parts of Europe used canals or terraces with raised beds and waterways to produce enough food for their population centers with relative ease and efficient use of mostly marginal land. Rather than hashing together a long entry here myself, I'm listing links to various other sites and research which say it better. Happy and enthusiastic reading! And please leave a comment if this works for you! (in Spanish)

Cahuita market

For the last three Sundays, we've been taking our fruits and products to sell at the Cahuita Farmers' Market. Cahuita is a small town with one main road and a lot of hotels and restaurants hidden along the beach or back in the forest. It used to be the end of the road and very popular for backpackers, but then the road was pushed through all the way to Manzanillo and Cahuita became a bit of a backwater.

The farmers' market started maybe 2 months ago. It's in the basketball court behind the casa de cultura at the end of the main street, almost at the beach. There's no roof over the stalls, but morning shade is provided by a large almond and even larger caimito tree. A mature mango soaks up the sun across the court from where we set up our stall. It seems fitting that fruit trees surround the market, they are certainly beautiful to look at. Our spot is under the almond and yesterday we were graced by a soft rain of tiny yellow white flowers.

While the setting is more beautiful and bigger than the Puerto market, there are fewer vendors and a little less energy. Claudio the market manager is trying to change that. Yesterday he had a good calypso / reggae band perform - he even sang a couple of numbers himself - until a heavy downpour shorted out the speakers. It was good, although the band set up behind the stalls and all the customers left the market to be near the music. But we enjoyed it. And there's a raffle: each vendor donates one or two items to make up two baskets to be raffled off. Every time someone spends 3000 colones (about $5) they receive a raffle ticket. It doesn't matter if you spend a dollar here, another there - for every 3000 spent you get a ticket. The draw is called at noon and one has to be present to win. It's a great idea and the raffle draws people. I think the market will continue to grow. Five vendors, including us, come from the Puerto market. Cahuita is far more mellow, with people drifting in and out, there's time to share a little bit or visit with the other stallholders.

We're there not because we don't enjoy a restful Sunday morning, but because we have a lot of fruit right now. Our harvest will last for another 6 weeks or so and then I don't know if we'll continue at Cahuita. I would like to - to support the market and I like the atmosphere, but it makes for a long weekend. Our plants go down very well and slowly people are buying our jams and dried fruits. I haven't taken tempeh or kombucha there yet - that's a whole education and I don't know that there's so many people familiar with them, or interested in learning. It works in Puerto because of the large number of north Americans who already know or have heard of them. The foreigners in Cahuita are mostly Swiss - we sometimes hear more Swiss German spoken than Spanish - and seem a bit more cautious in their eating habits. We'll see, if they can erect a roof of sorts for the rain and more people come it will be hard to give it up. Support your local Farmers' Market!!!

Friday, 25 September 2009

day out

Yesterday we went out for the morning to run errands, nothing special in that but I thought it might be interesting to share a somewhat typical day on the Caribbean.

We left the house running only 20 minutes late, but 15 minutes along the road had to turn back because I forgot my passport. We needed the passport for the police checkpoint. The police stop traffic and check mostly for illegals from Columbia, but it depends . . . usually on the time of month and whether there's been any recent trouble. We sailed through the checkpoint without a policeman in sight, ah well.

Our first port of call was the wonderful Aviarios Sloth Rescue Center. This is really a unique place, the only one in the world. They have over 130 sloths which have been rescued and are now living at the center, many because they were brought in as abandoned babies and have grown up there. It's an incredible organization run on love and respect for these amazing creatures. They have an "Adopt a Sloth" program which I would highly recommend for birthday or Christmas gifts to all those people who already have enough. We were there because they want the farmer to work on their gardens. A long time ago, when they were just starting out, the farmer helped them with their initial gardens, now they are so much bigger. I'm excited, it means we get to see more of this:

The center is seeing more and more abandoned babies. Sloths are pregnant for 11 months and they keep their babies with them for up to a year. The babies ride on their mum's belly and then her back. If the mum doesn't think the baby will make it, she'll drop it to save herself. Sloths have a terribly slow metabolism and need to conserve as much energy as possible: a sickly baby is just too much. The fact that more babies are making it to the center could mean that the sloth population is having a harder time environmentally OR it could mean that the people are more responsive to animals in need and know that they can be saved at the rescue center. I choose to believe the second option.

We left and headed for Limon, the regional city. The road runs along the ocean for much of the way and over a few rivers where I always look for caimans, never seen one yet though. We pass houses on stilts with wooden walls in pastel shades of mostly peeling paint and rusted tin roofs. Homemade hammocks are strung between trees and the sign for 'dos-pinos', the large co-operative selling dairy and juice products, has its round green metal presence on the telephone poles. We rounded a corner to see a recently killed German Shepherd dog in the road being mauled and fought over by vultures. To come from the Sloth Center to this was very ugly, but re-enforced how close life and death are. The Caribbean is good for that - everything here is sharper, more real, life and death are bigger and bolder. We have a German Shepherd at home and I was struck by how familiar and awful the sight was.

Limon is a pirate town. Just offshore is the island where Columbus landed claiming Costa Rica - rich coast - for Spain. It's a port, with all that entails and has been the center for shipping enormous quantities of bananas and pineapples, coffee and cacao out, and who knows what in. It's far more Caribbean than Costa Rican and has an energy that's a little raw and buzzed. Most of the stores we had business in were run by descendants of the Chinese workers who built the railway, but I wouldn't say it is a very cosmopolitan place. We had good cold fresh pipa (young coconuts) as we walked through the crowded, dirty center. We walked through the Central Market between stores selling plastic pots and offal, cheap Panamanian clothes and imitation electric goods. There are herb stalls which have odd colored liquids in old soda bottles and great wads of dried grasses; vegetable stands offering piles of mango, carambola, avocados; fish shops with great heads of snapper and chunks of marlin, and everywhere the pungent aroma of trash left out. We snacked on roasted peanuts with salt and lemon. Limon is always hot and we are always in a hurry to leave. We hit the road home stopping for a pati - the local corn pastry with spicy meat filling, and frozen jobo juice. Both were delicious.

It took us an hour to get home, sailed through the checkpoint with no questions, my passport tucked safely in my bag.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

making chocolate

I was asked how cacao beans became chocolate. Here's the simple answer, demonstrated by Flori, who helps me in the kitchen twice a week (and who is showing me her method for 'milk' chocolate here), and Luca, my nephew visiting from Scotland.

First the beans must be harvested, fermented, dried, roasted and the shells removed. (See earlier post, Cacao.)

Grind the beans in a mill with the finest tooth possible, you want the beans to become a paste, keep passing it through the mill until a thick paste consistency is obtained.
Make coconut milk by grating the flesh of two coconuts, putting in blender with either the water from the coconuts or a cup of regular water, blending then straining. Save a little of the grated coconut for later.
Put the cacao paste in a pot and add a little of the coconut milk, stir and cook over medium heat until the mixture dries out a little. Stirring all the time!!!
Add more coconut milk add stir again - you want the mixture to almost dry out, the liquid from the milk to evaporate but the flavour to remain. The consistency of the paste will become smoother.
Keep adding the coconut milk little by little until the paste becomes more 'plastic'. Taste and add some sugar if you need it (evaporated cane sugar would have been the sweetener used traditionally).
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Remove the pan from the heat, dollop the contents onto a work surface and allow to cool a little. Roll into sausages or truffle sized balls and coat in the grated coconut, or leave as is. Put in fridge to set up.


Sunday, 20 September 2009

working with the king (of fruit)

We have an abundance of durian. Last year I dried the pieces, but they were a bit strong for my mixes and truth to tell I hoarded them eating them myself until I couldn't eat any more. This year with more durian my situation is different and I have tried something a little more interesting. I know durian candy is made in south east Asia and I've seen a loose recipe or two for durian jam. I've made something somewhat in between: durian chews.

(For those of you unfamiliar with durian I have an earlier post, Durians are here.)

It's a fairly basic recipe. Take some durian:

open, and remove the flesh and seeds:

take the shells to the compost:

separate the flesh from the seeds, keep the seeds for planting. Remember the seeds must not dry out!!

Put the flesh in a pot, add a little bit of raw sugar and cook down til thick and a dark green/yellow:

Then my camera broke. But spread it on a sheet, about 1/2 inch thick and dry for about 24 hours, turning every few hours. Cut and store between wax paper in a sealed airtight container.

A lovely, chewy, sweet, not so sticky, not so smelly way to enjoy durian. Long live the King!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Chempedak - heaven, with a hint of something rather more sensual

It's hard to describe the chempedak, it's my all time favourite fruit, possibly favourite food. I have 1/2 a chempedak drying just now and the smell is driving me crazy: it's like walking into a candy store as a kid with a pocketful of change, buying a mix and cramming it all at once into my mouth - that's the heaven part, the hell part - well it's not so much hell, but I don't think the heady sensuality, the tactility, the heavy warmth of the aroma or the enveloping nature of the taste is something that goes so well with the traditional take on heaven. It's so decadent a fruit. I found myself face first in the remains of it, after I had extracted all those golden lobes and had scraped as much as I could with my fingers I buried my face in what was left trying to savour as much from the outer flesh as I could. Finally I somehow awoke from my reverie somewhat embarrassed and very sticky, face and hands covered in sweet goo. . . Oh chempedak.

Artocarpus integer is closely related to breadfruit (Artocapus altilis), marang(Artocarpus odoratissimus) and jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). It's native to Malaysia where it's eaten young as a vegetable, mature as a fruit: fresh, fried in batter or made into ice-cream. The fruit has a strong smell when ready, stronger even than durian and can be mistaken for natural gas - the first time I smelled one I hunted all over the kitchen for the gas leak. It's not such a large tree, at least those I've seen growing in this area aren't very large, although they are all still in their 20s at most. The fruits grow in clusters straight out of the trunk and larger branches, just like the jackfruit. The trees begin to produce between 3 and 6 years and can produce twice a year, with one harvest being heavier than the other.

The fruits take about 6 months to mature and are somewhat cylindrical shaped with a green, yellow skin covered in flat or slightly raised hexagons, each with a dot at its center. They soften as they ripen. Each fruit, between 8 and 12 inches perhaps, breaks apart to reveal around 25 to 30 seeds, large like the durian and fatter than jackfruit seeds. The seeds are wrapped in golden yellow sweeter than honey envelopes of flesh. It's sticky, but nothing like the jackfruit, not as much as the marang either, and the seeds are easy to remove. The flesh is far more like jackfruit than durian and has a firmness which becomes deliciously chewy (like taffy) when dried.

In 'The Fruit Hunters', Adam Leith Gollner describes sneaking his chempedak round the back of his hotel and gorging on it, he compares the taste to his childhood favourite - Fruit Loops. I've never had Fruit Loops, but would be delighted to find they tasted the same. It's that kind of fruit - it becomes in an instant a treasure, a somewhat secret joy to be taken quickly, all at once and in hiding, while one is lost in the very pleasure of it. Something primal about it. It's wonderful, I'm planting a field of them!

Chempedaks are what's termed 'ultratropical' - they won't grow below a certain temperature, they like to be in warm, humid climates, preferably with shade and out of the wind. Definitely a forest tree, so maybe I won't plant a field, maybe I'll search out secret hidden spots in the jungle for my secret, hidden fruit.

up to my neck in fruit

I haven't had time, or energy in the evening, to write anything remotely interesting, let alone grammatically correct. I've been immersed in fruit. My hands are sore and cut from opening durian and removing the flesh; they're stained purple brown from breaking into mangosteens; puckered and lined from squeezing cas pulp through colanders. I'm happy. And tired.

Sunday, 6 September 2009


hot jobos cause explosion

I knew it would happen. It was like the day I learned to ride my bike: I cycled over broken glass and it didn't harm my tires, so I turned back and did it again - 2 flat tires and no more bike riding. It was the same with the jobos.

I knew I wasn't supposed to put hot things in my plastic jugged blender, but the day before I had been impatient and had done it anyway without any ill effects. So I reasoned that I could do it again, being careful not to put too many in. But wrong. Within a few seconds the plastic exploded sending shards all over the kitchen, spraying walls and counter tops with hot jobo juice and sending the scalding pits flying everywhere. The blade continued to whir, effectively cleaning out all of the hot sticky mess, until I could reach behind it and yank the plug out the wall.

That was the end of that experiment.

We have three large jobo trees which have been dropping copious quantities of thumb length, fat, yellow brown fruit for weeks now. The jobo is related to the jocote and the june plum, both of which give larger fruits than this smaller cousin, and both of which are sold in markets and by roadsides all around Costa Rica. I like the taste - very apricot like in a sour kind of way, and strongly flavoured. However the pit is large and the fruit fibrous: not so practical for my purpose.

And yet . . . well we have three large trees dropping fruit I'm stepping on as I harvest carambolas. What to do? I'm giving vinegar a go - fill a bucket, cover, shake periodically, strain a month later, bottle for several more months. The fruit is somewhat sweet, it should make vinegar. And jam? Well the taste tells me yes, but scraping that 1/8th inch flesh from round the seed - is a little crazy making, especially when I've got ALL this other fruit piling up in the kitchen. So I thought I'd simmer it a little to soften and extract as much of the juice, then throw it in the blender and strain it.

So now I've had to just stick with the juice - not a lot to work with, but we'll see. If I can make a syrup that would be fine. A long time ago I made sloe gin. I think jobo gin might be quite nice . . .

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Mangosteens are in!

Eric Mjöberg, a Swedish explorer, zoologist and ethnographer, wrote of the mangosteen:

" abundant white, juicy pulp, soft, sweet, slightly acidulated, and with a delicate, delicious flavour, which recalls that of a fine peach, muscatel grapes, and something peculiar and indescribable which no other fruit has."

"The mangosteen has only one fault; it is impossible to eat enough of it, but, strictly speaking, perhaps that is a defect in the eater rather than in the fruit."


"It would be mere blasphemy to attempt to describe its wonderful taste, the very culmination of culinary art for any unspoilt palate."

The Mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), is a beautiful evergreen tree with good sized dark glossy green leaves. Size ranges from 7 to 25 meters, although most of the trees we have are around 12 meters. The branches run fairly straight out from the trunk making climbing the tree about as simple as walking up a spiral staircase. The fruit vary in size from a little larger than a ping pong ball, to a little smaller than a tennis ball. When ripe they are an incredible royal purple colour.

Breaking open a mangosteen is - for the first timer - (and for the first time each season thereafter), an opportunity for rapture: the denseness and richness of the purple, possibly streaked through with bright green fibers; the mound of juicy, soft white flesh, ready to fall into segments; the light floral fruity scent and the rising levels of salivia in the mouth as one knows just how good it's going to taste. The taste, especially if the mangosteen isn't quite as ripe as it could be - is at first sour like an unripe strawberry can be (but lighter than that), then just as your wincing from the acidity, the most mellow subtle sweetness hits. Simply wonderful.

The mangosteen (the Queen of Fruit, Durian incidentally is regarded as the King of Fruit) has some interesting peculiarities: firstly the fruit does not require fertilization; secondly the 'shell' or husk becomes harder the older the fruit is - old mangosteens can lie on the ground for 2 years or so before they'll begin to break down (even in this climate); there was an import ban on fresh mangosteens into mainland USA until 2007; Queen Victoria supposedly offered rich rewards to anyone who could bring her the fruit.

Mangosteens are also enjoying something like star status in the world of 'superfoods' - seemingly the xanthones found only in the inedible shell fix just about every ill. Too bad the husk is far far far too bitter to eat.

But I'll settle for that unbearably good almost painful first bite where the balance between sweet and sour is enough to drive one to madness. Say it again Mr Mjoberg!