Monday, May 11, 2009

Welcome to the opening salvo of my Chef of the Jungle blog.  I am sitting in my "office" at the La Cusinga Lodge (www.lacusinglodge.com), the large table on our upper deck, looking out over a gray Pacific and feeling the change of humidity almost minute by minute.  I sat up late last night on my back porch until almost 1:00 AM watching a brilliant and continuous electrical storm out over the ocean.  When the weather changes here it does so with a sudden and dramatic shift.   An hour ago I was feeling the sweat from my arms soaking the bottoms of my short shirt sleeves and now they're dry.   The air is quite still and the jungle seems to have quieted.  There is a needle-beaked colibri (hummingbird) enjoying the sweetness of a ginger blossom a few feet from me.

I am enjoying a "dia libre" today, my first since I returned from Panama, just over four weeks ago.  The Lodge has only a family of three as guests and I am enjoying the down time after the weekend opening of our in-house restaurant, The Gecko.  It was a classic Costa Rican week in that it included at trip over the mountain to the Feria (farmers market), a 3 KM drive down a heavily rutted rural road in the rain to meet  a new grower, the subsequent literal blowing of a gasket in the car on the final leg of the drive home, and almost secondarily, the opening of the restaurant.  Nothing happens here the way it seems that it should.  Pura Vida.

I make a weekly journey from my home here on the coast to the town of Perez Zeladon de General de San Isidro, not only one of my favorite town names of all time, but also the closest outpost of civilization.   My trip is primarily to pick up produce from the Feria but I also include on my trips visits to the dentist, camera store and hardware stores.  This particular trip was a typical one with stops at my favorite farmers stalls in the feria for organic lettuces, tomatoes, honey, goat cheese, blackberries and more; but was all the more important to me as this was the produce I would serve for the opening weekend of The Gecko.
Another important stop along the road back from this week's trip was a first time visit to the Finca EcoLoco, a gringo-run farm in the fertile valley of Alfombra, below the mountain-top village of Tinamastes.  I had been contacted by Lynn, the farm owner (and ironically, a woman whose wedding I had catered at another hotel three years ago) about buying organic greens and tomatoes.  My mission here is to source as many local and organic products as possible and I was excited about buying and cooking with new product.  What I wasn't excited about was the steady ascent toward hot of the needle on the temperature gauge of my '91 Toyota Tercel as we climbed back up over the mountain.    The road down into Lynn's finca (farm) is almost downhill and both the car and I were grateful for the change from climbing up to easing down.
Easing down it was, as the road, while passable for a small car, must be navigated somewhat carefully as the rocks and ruts will rise up to smack a low undercarriage if one happens to look away for just a moment.
And it is hard not to look away and just plain gape at the jungles that spring up on either side of the narrow red road.   This mountain and valley are known for sudden rains and the valley is dense primary rain forest.  There was heavy mist hanging in the trees giving a movie-set "enchanted valley" feel to the entire trip down.  Unfortunately the change in altitude was not correcting the direction of the temperature gauge's needle.  I reached the gate to Finca EcoLoco just as I was wondering whether or not to stop to let the engine cool.  I swung the gate open and drove through the dense jungle/forest along the even narrower dirt road, across the small stream and up to the main houses of the finca proper.  Lynn had advised me that she'd be out of town but that I was to ask for Bolivar or Marjorie, the Tico couple who ran the farm for her.  Bolivar, shirtless and sleepy-eyed came out to greet me, followed my Marjorie, sturdy and business like.  
The sample bag of greens was laid out on the table and it was indeed gorgeous; deeply red chards, ruby amaranth and shades of leafy green from deep to pale spilled out of the bag; kales, bok choy, even basil flowers.  Equally nice was the half-kilo bag of mixed cherry tomatoes; yellow pears, sweet 100's and fat ovate reds.  I was happy, they were happy, and Bolivar helped me to fill the radiator with water; although it seemed odd to both of us that we seemed to keep pouring and pouring it in.  I was confident that except for my climb out of this deeply hidden valley that my car would coast easily and swiftly down the hill to the coast.  I edged back out the jungle road and as I swung open the gate to let myself out the skies opened.  The rain was sudden and dense.  In the five steps from gate to car door I was soaked.  The rain didn't fall, it hammered down, pounding a warning on the car roof.  The drive back up the worn dirt and gravel road turned slippery and red mud streamed down the hill, torn loose instantly by the deluge.
As I drove I realized that my hands were clenched tight on the wheel and I heaved a deep breath, laughed somewhat nervously, and told myself to "Relax, take it easy, once you're at the top it's clear coasting.  That would have been a fine philosophy but for the one wrench that had typically for here, been thrown in the works; a traffic stop for road  and gutter clearing to keep the streets from flooding.  That five minute stop may have been the final stop for all the water in the radiator.  The entire way down the hill I let the car coast and turned off the engine for parts of it.  All I wanted was to reach the flatlands and civilization.  There is nothing on the way down the mountain.  And a sure as the rain that falls from the sky, as soon as I hit the coast and drove a half mile, my little old Toyota, like a worn and weary horse, heaved and shook and I coasted to a stall on the side of the road.  I'd made it this far, but had a car full of fresh produce and smoke pouring out from the engine block.
As fate, provenance and clean living would have it, the first car heading North was driven by John, the owner of La Cusinga and my temporary savior.   We piled the bags and and cooler chest into his car, he turned South toward the taller (mechanic) and La Cusinga, and I was still on the road and in time for Opening Night.

3 comments:

  1. A great start. And even more important, a start at all. High time for a blog, you've outgrown FB. I look forward to future installments, oh CotJ. Who knows where they will lead us?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow..not only a Chef but eloquent as well..but then again, what else would you expect from a Berkeley grad! Though I haven't known you for long I'm proud and a better person because I do!
    ellen

    ReplyDelete

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
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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.