Friday, May 22, 2009

Santos Castillo "Pescadero Supremo"

We got a call at the Lodge that someone locally had some fresh shrimp that they normally sell to the owner of the property and her husband.  She, is Bella, Geinier's mom and her husband is a Gringo, John.  The call came from someone about 20 km down the coast in a little village called Coronado.  The price, 5,500 colones a kilo for juveniles was too good to pass up so I volunteered to take a drive down to pick up 5 kilos.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and we only had two for dinner, so I had plenty of time on my hands.  I rolled down the window of R2 and down the coast I rolled, through the glades (glades?) of palm trees with the ocean and soon the mangrove trees on my right.
Coronado is a tiny, tiny village that is made up of nothing more than a embastador (grocery/variety store) on one side of the street and a tiny little rundown hotel on the other side.  The houses in the village are off to the right of the non-stoplighted crossroads.  By way of directions I was told to find the Escuela de Coronado and then to start asking for Santos Castillo.  I can follow directions sometimes, so I stopped in the embastador and asked first for the school and then for Santos Castillo.  I got the directions to the school immediately and several shakes of the head for Santos until one frail gentleman shook his head up and down and flashing a toothless grin told me, "derecho, derecho, y directamente, abajo la escuela."  Okay, take a right and go behind the school.
It turns out that there is one major decision to make in Coronado once one gets onto the rutted dirt road that runs out to the ocean; there is a fork.  I rolled right and after about 100 meters or so saw large woman nursing a baby.  "Perdoname, por favor.  Conoces Santos Castillo?"  Si, si, she did and I had taken the wrong side of the fork so I backed up and headed straight, toward the water.  I should have known.
I picked my way between the rocks dotting the road on my way due West until I finally came to a bend that I had to take and thankfully, came alongside a pedestrian.  "Conoces la casa de Santos Castillo?"  He smiled happily and said, "No, Senor, no."  "Tal vez (perhaps) la escuela?"  "Oh si, senor, si, directamente".  It had to be around here somewhere.
I found the school (it was not lost afterall) about another 500 meters or so down the road and drove into a driveway hoping that perhaps I'd found the casa de Santos.  I was immediately set upon by tiny yapping dogs and a wary looking Tico came out of his blanketed front entrance.  Again I asked and this time he knew for sure.  Excellent.  I should mention that these are barebones casitas we're talking about here.  No windows, seldom doors and maybe a TV mounted on a rickety table.  We would call this abject poverty, but in these villages, this is just the way it is and they don't seem particularly unhappy about it.
I pulled into what seemed to be Santos' front yard and was eyed suspiciously by the two women propped up in front of the blaring television.  "Santos Castillo?", I ventured and was acknowledged by a cursory shift of the head toward the back of the house.  I sidled through the narrow living room and was graciously greeted by a woman whom I assumed to be Sra. Castillo.  She was plump and congenial and met me with a barrage of questions about who I was, where Bella and John (and Henry, their other son) were and what I wanted.  Once I had established my credentials as the Chef at La Cusinga we were ready to do business.  I followed her to the back of the house where we were met by a smiling little elf of a man who was indeed Santos Castillo, the man of the hour.  
The room we were in was maybe eight feet deep and fourteen feet wide and it held two bench style refrigerators and a huge old concrete sink that had a cut-off plastic soda bottle tied to the spout with a rag to increase it's range.  A scale with a tin bowl/spout hung from the ceiling.  The floor was concrete and the walls were uninsulated wood.  Santos was barefoot and in a wifebeater T-shirt and smiling hugely.  The concrete sink was filled with bright red pargo (red snapper) and when he swung the lid of the refrigerator open there was another pile of fish and two five gallon buckets filled with shrimp.  Sra. Castillo hovered around plying me with a sales spiel for more and more fish in rapid fire country Tico Spanish.  I demurred, telling her that it would be just the shrimp today and Santos hauled out a five gallon bucket and commenced to rinsing and weighing them.
He was a delight; a grinning, happy little man with a big bucket of shrimp and fish all around him.  And I must say that at no point was I hit by the overwhelming scent of old fish or anything to indicate a lack of freshness.  Despite the humbleness of the surroundings, it was kept clean.  Santos began pouring the shrimp out onto the scale and I ran to R2 for my ice chest.  When the weighing was carefully done, Sra. Castillo carefully counted the money, twice, and indicated that I owed her another 500 colones.  It was true.  We shook hands all around, exchanged phone numbers and Santos lugged the cooler out past the television ladies (who had never moved or spoken) to the car and I waved my goodbyes, jumped in the car and bumped and jostled my way back out of Coronado.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the shrimp were impeccably fresh and delicious.


  1. cool... the best part of the shrimp is that they catch them locally and by local traditional ways, not by the commercial boats that kill turtles and other animals... they are done the artisan way!

  2. I liked the television ladies and the happy old man in wife-beaters. Keep it up, Dave, local color and the food, that's why we're here.


Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.