Friday, 30 October 2009

getting ready for Christmas, caribbean style


Bastimentos is a small island about 10 minutes by water taxi from Isla Colon. We went there to visit a friend who manages an incredibly beautiful 24 hectare farm. The island is really lovely, there are no cars and the only 'road' is a concrete path about 7 foot wide by maybe 1/2 a mile long. Most people live on or just off this main street. The houses are quite tightly cluttered and almost all are wooden Caribbean style with gingerbread trim - in various states of repair. Kids played baseball, a rather narrow type of baseball, on the street. The restaurants and houses on the ocean side stand out over the water, on the other side they rise up a low hill. The islanders are a mix of indigenous natives who still live traditionally (again to a greater or lesser degree), afro-Caribbeans, Chinese (who came for the canal and settled), latinos and foreigners. It's low season here and we only saw two other tourists.
After a great fish lunch we hiked up the hill to views of beautiful beaches on the other side of the island, to visit another organic farm: up in the hill. This farm is owned by a Scottish girl and her Argentinian husband. For some odd reason there are very few Scots in this part of the world, and I had heard of this girl for a couple of years. Jeanette and Javier and their two kids are really lovely and working very hard making their farm a beautiful place to be. They have a cabin for rent with great views and Jeanette makes excellent brownies with coconut oil and deliciously light teas. She has her own line of organic coconut based oils, lotions and creams and sells home produced chocolate. And Javier is a carpenter and built their house and the cabin. Very nice. She sells online and at the new farmers' market on Isla Colon, and to shops around Panama. I'm hoping we can trade some things!


Sitting eating delicious battered fish on the deck of a shabby looking restaurant standing on stilts out over the water, a few raindrops begin to fall. Not too worried, we continue to eat. The rain becomes a little more persistent so we pick up our plates and move back under semi cover and continue. Five minutes later, with steady rain we move under the tarpaulin roof. Two minutes later we, and everyone else, retreat to the bar which has a tin roof. By now the rain is falling hard and the wind has really picked up: the paper lantern lights are now banging wildly against the roof, and the Panamanian flags on the bar are behaving like proud wind socks. The lights are flickering, the rain is coming straight in, sideways. They move the TV. Now the wind which is in turns warm and cold is really blowing. The street behind us is flooding as the waves begin to schloop over the deck and hit the road between the buildings. Then the power goes. The wind feels colder, or perhaps it's because we're wet. The staff are wearing trash bags with holes torn for head and arms. They have given up on the customers and are talking loudly into their cell phones crouched down out of the rain and wind behind the bar. The only light comes from taxis which are ploughing through water on the street. In the lights of one a dog is swimming across the road. Someone in the bar lights a cigarette and the wind does strange things to the glowing ember tip, making it look as if it is 3 or 4 lights instead of one. The lightning illuminates us from time to time: grey, wet, hair plastered to heads, sodden meals, a child still eating dark pink ice-cream. We wonder how to find the hotel and try to estimate the wind speed. The farmer, who was a sailor, estimates 70 miles an hour, with gusts of 80. Coconut palm fronds are lashing buildings and each other. It looks like a newsreel.
And then slowly the wind lessens. The lanterns cease their crazy dance, the flags hang down, we can hear ourselves speak. The rain drops a little, not stopping but mellow enough for us to pay the bill by cell phone light and head out into the flooded street. The road has holes and we bump up and down, sometimes ankle deep in water, sometimes knee deep. We've been on the island 2 hours and we find our hotel by chance. Inside the dark room we discover we have no towels, no water and no fan. But it's okay, this is the Caribbean and all will be good in the morning.

trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama

Just returned from a great little trip down to Panama. The Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro are 3 1/2 hours from here, including crossing the terrifying border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Terrifying because the Sixaola river lies between the Costa Rican and Panamanian borders. The river itself isn't so scary, though it does have alligators I hear, what is scary is the old, old, rusty, old wobbly iron and metal 200 yard bridge that spans the river. It's best not to look down as one can clearly see the river (a good 30 feet below) between the ancient wooden railroad tyes, some are rotten and there's places where the boards are missing. At one point officials laid planks perpendicular to the tyes to help support traffic. And by traffic, I'm not talking foot passengers: enormous 18 wheelers thunder across the bridge and when they do the folk on foot have to squeeze themselves against the railings (those old, old, rusty railings) to avoid being squished somewhere on a Central American no man's land. It's enough to make one want to go to Nicaragua instead.

Almost. Because after that ordeal, and an hour in a nervous taxi over a beautiful mountain landscape, and 1/2 an hour by water taxi across a marvelously calm sea, one arrives at Isla Colon, the largest and most developed of the islands.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

christmas pudding

Today I made the christmas pudding. It's always a fun thing to do, partly because the list of ingredients is long but simple, partly because it's so much a part of tradition, partly because the end result is so, so good. I'm not sure of the tradition of Christmas Puddings, and anyway there are plenty of sites explaining it, even a site or two dedicated to this institution, but I do enjoy them. As a child we would have at least two puddings each Christmas - one made by my gran, the other, a more traditional Scottish pudding, made by my great aunt. The Clootie dumpling was, alas, always shunned by my sisters and myself. It was perfectly round and had to be cut to stand on the plate, but the skin was spongy and gooey-slimy at the same time, and it gave me the dry heave - literally. Too bad, because inside it was like the other pudding - delicious. But we weren't allowed to just pick at the inside, no we had to take the skin too. Now as an adult, I would like to try it again, just to see if it really is as dreadful as I remember. I somehow doubt it.

I have made christmas puddings on and off for the last few years, this year I even made one for my birthday cake in August. They are so delicious because they are basically a combination of fruit, spices and alcohol held together by a tiny bit of flour, some breadcrumbs and good will. Once made they sit for a minimum of 2 months gathering flavour and texture, aided by the regular addition of more alcohol. They are twice cooked: steamed for 6 hours initially, then a further 2 hours on the day of serving.

Very very rich, and most often served with brandy butter or whipped cream: a perfect companion to an already dangerously heavy Christmas dinner. But that is what Boxing Day is for - recovery time for all the over-indulgences. It was traditional in my house, and many others in Scotland, to slice left over pudding and fry it for breakfast, served with a fried egg on top. Never mention cholesterol.

Christmas Pudding
4 oz suet (or vegetable shortening)
2 oz wholewheat flour
4 oz brown breadcrumbs, fresh
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon clove
1 whole nutmeg freshly grated
2 oz chopped crystallized ginger
8 oz brown sugar
24 oz mixed dry fruit - I used 10 oz prunes, 10 oz raisins, 4 oz mango, but as long as you use plenty of raisins you can add whatever you like - figs would be great, dates too, I used bananas in my birthday version.
1 grated apple
zest of one lemon or lime, or orange
2 eggs
5 fl oz dark beer
2 tablespoons port or other rich alcohol. I use whiskey or rum.

Mix all ingredients except eggs and alcohol. Blend eggs and alcohol and add to mix. Mix should be sloppy, not sticky. Leave overnight then steam, tightly covered in pudding bowl for 6 hours. Wrap in wax paper then cloth (traditionally, but here in the tropics I put it in the fridge), and leave in cool place for at least two months. Every 3 weeks make holes on top of pudding and add 1/4 cup of whiskey, brandy or rum.

To serve, steam for further 2 hours, remove gently from bowl, douse in alcohol and set alight. Serve with brandy butter, heavy cream or ice-cream.

Oh and another tradition - wrap a penny in foil or wax paper and add to the mix. Whoever finds the penny in their serving has a prize. For my birthday pudding, the prize was a massage, this time it might be dinner at Loco Natural, my favourite restaurant in town.

One of the great things about the pudding is the anticipation and the ritual. When I made this with the kids in my classes we always read Truman Capote's 'A Christmas Memory' the day before we began. It's a wonderful story about Truman making Christmas fruit cakes with his ancient cousin, so touching and so beautifully written. I didn't read it this time, but I know the story so well now, "It's fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.". Superb.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

what happens when we're not at home

This is Hoss, our shepherd mix, enjoying time out with the 'Edible Austin' magazine, sometimes life is just too hard . . .

Monday, 19 October 2009

kumquat in rambutan syrup

This is delicious over pancakes and probably good with ice-cream. It also works with chicken dishes. Another recycling recipe from the farm kitchen!

The kumquat part:
Kumquats (Citrus fortunella), are a member of the citrus family. They grow on a small tree with sparse branches and highly glossy leaves: kumquats are often used as an ornamental because of their leaves. The kumquat is unusual for a citrus in that the whole fruit is eaten, in fact the peel is much sweeter than the flesh. The tree originated in China but can be found throughout Asia, the tropics and subtropical regions, Japan, California and Florida. Traditionally kumquats are eaten raw or preserved in sugar syrup, pickled, or dried.

preparing the kumquats:
wash, prick with a sharp knife and boil in water for 30 - 40 minutes or until soft. Set aside to cool. Reserve the cooking water.

preparing the rambutan syrup:
This is the recycling part. I was peeling rambutans to dry and throwing the peeled ones in a large bowl. After shelling a bowlful, I found I had a good 2 cups of rambutan juice in the bottom of the bowl. Rambutans are juicy little fellows - it would be possible to extract more juice by placing a heavy weight on top of the peeled fruit and leaving overnight in the fridge or on the countertop for a few hours. This way you get to enjoy the fruit too! Actually rambutans freeze very well, and make a delicious ice cold nibble - instant sorbet.

to make:
Add the rambutan juice to the kumquat's cooking water, add sugar to taste and bring to a boil. Taste again for sweetness (if you overdid it, add a drop of lime juice), and simmer until the syrup reduces in volume by a half. Add the cooked and drained kumquats, cook for another 5 minutes, then can appropriately in sterilized glass jars.

Drying kumquats is also fun - slice thinly and lay on drying trays. I dry ours until they are quite crunchy, then use them as a sweet citrus chip!

fruit porn

Thursday, 15 October 2009

the website at Island Farm

The website is up at last! The link to this blog is on there too, check us out!

Finca la Isla


I've been spending the last week or so writing a brief guide to gathering and growing food in this area, although I think it would be applicable to all low lying humid zones in Costa Rica. I am quite pleased with it, though at this point I haven't printed it out: need to take pictures and I have been waiting for my new camera to arrive. It came this morning, so I should be busy all the day snapping vegetables and plants. Not sure what to do with the guide, whether it's something to sell at the Farmers' Market, or make available on the website. It's been fun, and I'm already thinking of new additions and possible inclusions.

Got a new mini laptop too! Love it, will be so useful for carrying between home and the kitchen.

Friday, 9 October 2009

back in the dirt . . . for a moment

Somehow I found myself with time yesterday. It was a wet pleasantly cool day and I took the opportunity to check the pumpkin that's threatening to take over the farm. I had planted 12 seeds back in late July and of the 12, 5 had come up, 2 of which got inadvertently chopped by Sandro on his weed whacking rounds. I was sorely disappointed. However those 3 have done me proud and now I'm out there gingerly lifting the thick hairy vines off the heliconias, and unwrapping tendrils from young citrus. Oh I do love a pumpkin plant.

Still with time on my hands I went to work on our covered raised beds. It was so good to have my hands in the soil again, even if it was full of ants. The smell of the fresh compost and the decaying broccoli that never worked, was just so good. We have such a hard time getting seeds here that we now try everything we can find, just to see what works. At the moment we have a large stack of seed packets from the Asian stores in San Jose - there's not a letter on the packet that I can decipher, so we just try it all. The broccoli didn't work, nor did the one that looks like a radish. The parsley came up and withered after about 3 weeks, the eggplant sprouted and did nothing. What has worked is some variety of bok choy which works well as a salad green, and a flat leafed parsley. We have cherry tomatoes from seed we saved and chili peppers from seed smuggled out of Cuba.

So today I had the pleasant task of pulling up everything that wasn't happening. I say pleasant because so many of the gardening blogs I read are full of fall chores and bemoan the demise of harvests and summer gardens: it was nice to share some of that experience. But I'm not bemoaning because I get to plant again. After pulling the dead and dying I covered the soil with fresh compost, watered a little and left it to settle in - and give the ants an opportunity to disperse. I think we'll plant more of the bok choy and some incredible mustard greens that taste like wasabi. Perhaps tomorrow after the market I'll have another spare moment to get dirty again.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

self sufficient propaganda!

kitchen thoughts

I was considering today how different my life is from anything I could have expected even 10 years ago. Back then I had just split from my partner, was teaching a third grade class, living in Oregon and making apple butter and dried figs from two friendly trees in a nearby park. My class had a wonderful allotment growing so many things I couldn't have imagined being able to grow back in Scotland: peppers, chilies, tomatoes, pumpkin, cucumber, beans, squash, corn and sunflowers. There were so many new experiences and so much I couldn't do.

I'm still having new experiences and there's still so much I can't do, but so much has happened too. It's incredible to think how 10 years have passed by so quickly and yet that time seems very long ago.

I was thinking about this today for two reasons: firstly it's almost time to make our Christmas Pudding. The first time I made it outside the UK was with that third grade class. What fun they had when we lit it on the last day of school before Christmas. I'm still in touch with a few of those kids, it's hard to believe they are 19 going on 20!

And secondly, I was sharpening my favourite knife. This knife is now my current oldest possession. It was given to me by a mother in that class when I first moved to the US in 1997. It's the only material thing I have left from that period. It has remained with me through relationships, jobs, over a dozen house moves, climates, environments, emotional and physical upheavals, times of peace and times of chaos. It has served me well, and it's only in this last year that I've learned how to sharpen it with a stone. It's a soothing experience this sharpening: the sound of the blade against the stone, the rhythmic circling, the feel of the slurry as spit mixes with stonedust. Something ancient and absolutely human: connection with all the cooks, butchers, barbers, sailors, warriors, scribes, woodchoppers, gosh just about everybody who ever wielded a knife since man first worked with metal.

Time flies. But back to the present. I needed a sharp knife to slice kumquat. I'm making kumquat marmalade and the fruits need to be cut thinly. Kumquats are a small citrus, orange in colour, with a good tasting rind and not much flesh. They are somewhere between a sweet and a sour orange in flavour and acidity and make a very nice marmalade with good flavour, colour and presentation. We have two trees and they are heavy with fruit. I also want to candy some kumquats for the Christmas pudding I'll start making in about 2 weeks time. Lots to do, isn't it great?

Monday, 5 October 2009

eating locally

The Farmers' Market is becoming increasingly important to me, not simply the social enjoyment I get from sharing time and space with the other stallholders and our friends and customers, but the whole ideology behind the market: eating fresh local foods produced by fresh local farmers who know their dirt and love their land. (long sentence)
I've long been an advocate of harvesting my own food, whether it's something I've grown or something I've foraged, the simple joy never fades. I'm lucky and blessed to be able to make a living from this joy now.
Our first newsletter focused on support of the farmers' market and enthused about eating locally. Now I'm excited to be putting together the second with editorials continuing the theme and gardening info on which edibles work best in this area: I hope this becomes a series with each newsletter talking about a specific fruit, vegetable, medicinal or spice. I'm an avid reader of websites like Sustainable Table, Via Campesina/ Food First,Slow Food, which brings me to this post.

December 10th is Terra Madre Day - a day to celebrate local foods, sustainable and fair agriculture and the abundance the earth is prepared to offer us day after day:

"Slow Food is launching Terra Madre Day around the world, to be held for the first time on December 10 this year. Slow Food convivia, Terra Madre food communities and all people supportive of our ideals are invited to organize an event, however small or symbolic, in your local area.

By taking this opportunity with passion and inclusiveness, we can achieve one of the largest collective occasions celebrating food diversity ever achieved on a global scale,

A global revolution can only grow from local roots, and together our community actions will help build opposition to the misguided approach of agribusiness.

We invite you to let loose your creativity and make December 10 a memorable day, encouraging and supporting sustainable food in your corner of the world. It will give us all a boost and renewed pride in what we are doing locally, while knowing that we are part of a world network for change."

We'll be doing something here to celebrate, not sure what yet, but I'll let you know. Have a look at what's happening near you!

Friday, 2 October 2009

a corner of our farmers' market stall


From left to right: kombucha, durian, marang, dried fruit mixes, crystallized ginger, fruit leather roll ups, mangosteen, salak, rambutan, langsat.
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three burners, three pots, three jams . . . oh my!

Today was a jam day. A lovely, bubbling, boiling, sugary, syrupy, fruity day. With a massage at the end (thanks Maria!).

I have a three burner gas stove in the kitchen. I love this stove, it has a black glass top, automatic ignition and there's space around the burners for all sorts of spoons, spatulas, jar lids and measuring/pouring devices. It's wonderfully easy to clean and looks good.

Today, as most days, it was busy. I had jam orders to fill and just about enough fruit to do it. We have a client who wants to sell our products in a health food store in San Jose, she wants a sample jar of every jam we make. I've explained to her a couple of times that our jams are seasonal - I use what's on the trees until there's no more left, and then I use what's coming into fruit next, and on it goes. She understands what I say, but the gap between understanding and understanding can be large at times - especially when we live in a world where everything is always available (so it seems even for those in Costa Rica). Seasonal is an empty word for most of us.

But that's the beauty of my work - I can never get bored of making the same thing - two months or less and that fruit I thought I'd always have is gone and something new has to be created for what's up next.

Having said that, there are fruits which have seasons throughout the year - and these were the ones I concentrated on today. Taking the beagle, I set off looking for nutmegs. The main harvest comes in the spring, but most of the time one can find 2 or 3 or 5 or 6 ready and open. Today I found 5 - just enough for 2 pots of jam.

Next we headed to the araza - a tiny gathering of 12 fruit, enough for about 4 pots. We had more luck with the cas, but the season is winding down after 2 glorious months.

By the kitchen I picked up half a box of mangosteen, and a couple of limes. The mangosteen has maybe another 3 weeks to go, I'll be sorry to see it go, for a whole year too.

Back in the kitchen I peeled, chopped and simmered the nutmegs while I opened the mangosteen and slipped the seedless segments into the blender. The seeded segments have to be squeezed - the seeds add too strong a flavour to the jam. I blended the mangosteen pulp and began to cook it down in a pot while I pureed the nutmegs. The araza had to be washed, halved and the seeds and goop scooped (think overripe pumpkin), then chopped, put in a pot and cooked down also. Then came the adding of sugar - white cane sugar for the mangosteen and araza, and raw brown cane sugar for the nutmeg. Grate some more nutmeg and sprinkle some cinnamon into the nutmeg butter, add lime juice to the mangosteen, and try to stir three pots simultaneously while telling the beagle he had better not chew my baskets for the market. Think about coffee and wish the farmer would appear and make some.

The nutmeg has a tendency to sputter and spit, but today no, thankfully. The mangosteen came out a beautiful pink, and has the best flavour so far (2 limes to 1/2 a box of mangosteen, about 3 handfuls of sugar). The araza behaved impeccably as usual and set up first. And the cas? Well that was scooped, strained and is sitting in the fridge waiting to become fruit leather tomorrow. After all I had my massage to go to.