Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Olman 2009

Olman was the first Tico I knew.  He came into my life even before I knew him, as he had made The Lookout Hotel in Ojochal his new domain in the two weeks prior to my arrival in September of 2005.  Olman was both a friend and a nemisis.  He was someone you cared for and someone you were careful of.  

 Olman and I shared a disease and we both suffered greatly from it.  I drank with him, worked with him, fought with him and lent him money on a regular basis.  Olman showed me more about Costa Rica in those first few months than I could ever have learned without him.  When he was sober, he had style, flair and he fairly oozed charm.  When he was drunk he was coarse, angry, sweaty and acutely bitter.

Olman died on May 16th of this year.  He had been taking medication to help him to keep from drinking, but it didn't always work.  On the nighttime bus from Palmar to Cortes he talked the driver into waiting for him at a stop so he could buy more beer.  When he didn't return quickly enough, the bus left without him.  Carrying his beer along the side of the Costanera in the dark Olman staggered out in front of a car and was killed instantly.

What follows is a piece I wrote about visiting Cortes with Olman on my first fish-buying expedition in Costa Rica in the Fall of 2005.  This is the way I'll always remember him.



 As soon as the kitchen was respectably cleaned and repainted, the equipment serviceable and derusted, I was ready to start testing recipes.  We really had no idea where to go for our first purchases of fish and produce so we relied on the advice of our in-house Tico, Olman.  He had heard we would be opening a restaurant, he had found us and he had adopted us.  His English was excellent and he had been a waiter and a barman in large hotels. He could be charming to the point of obsequiousness and possessed a wide and inviting smile.  The only drawback with Olman, as we were to discover rather quickly, was that he was also a raging and  savage alcoholic.  When he began drinking he would bitterly denounce all of us gringos as culture grabbing swine (and that was on a good day), grab his belongings and march out the door cursing over his shoulder as he left .  He was also prone to disappearing spells from which he would return; sweating, apologetic and all the more unctuously charming.  

 Olman was all too glad to be our tour guide, host and to provide us with an entrée to all things Tico. He lived for it. He served as our interpreter for the difficult transactions and knew where everything, and I mean everything, could be found.

 It was with Olman that I discovered the best produce markets, the best prices and the most succulent fruits.  It was also with Olman that I ventured to the first fish “market” for fresh product.  “You need to buy some fish,, Chef?”, he practically cackled, "I’ll take you to my cousin’s.  He sells fresh fish.”   He took me to his hometown  of Cortes, down the road in more ways than one.  Cortes sits on a corner of land just before the coastline juts toward the ocean again and is backed by rivers that run behind the town and lead out narrow waterways to the Pacific.  The town sits off the Costanera, well back from the road, hidden behind farmland and remains thoroughly Tico as a result.  There are no sweeping ocean views or lush jungled valleys to lure the gringo dollar.   Cortes is pure Tico.

  The road into Cortes was easily the rockiest main street into any semi-major town (afterall, the post office and the hospital were here) I’ve ever driven on.  Rocks the size and often the shape of footballs protruded and jutted from every angle out of the hardpocked road.  The ride into Cortes was made up of two distinct legs. One leg was on the simultaneously dusty and puddled semi-cartpath that jostled past churches, pastureland and isolated windowless houses.  The second leg began at the only stop sign and included a gas station, several pulperias, a multitude of dingy cafes and bars with haphazardly hung broken beer signs out front and what might be called a  row of houses. Yards ran together and houses ran together and yelling and crying children ran together.  We bumped and lumped along for what seemed like much longer than the town could last until Olman shouted out that we should pull over right here and right now.   We pulled into the driveway of  a lookalike to every house along the street.  This was not a market at all but a house that sat out over the river and the swamp.

  “Chef”, said Olman with pride, “aqui es la casa de mi primo.”  We parked outside what was obviously a residence and made our way over and around an array of broken children’s toys, through the mud and discarded beer cans, along the 2X4’s and into the garage where there was  an assemblage of disinterested beer drinking Ticos.  Past the garage was a large open air concrete room filled with old style “coffin” freezers.  The floor was slippery wet, there were rough wooden tables and concrete sinks, and a whiff of fishiness misted throught the air.

 There was a tall and quite skinny Tico working over a pile of whole fish with a long filet knife.  He was dressed in what passed as uniform for all the Ticos there, an ancient and torn t-shirt, baggy shorts and nearly knee-high black rubber boots.  Olman and I were both greeted with grunts and glares until he communicated to this cousin that I wanted to buy some fish.  It was only then that a big smile was flashed and the tops of the  coffin coolers were unceremoniously thrown open for my inspection.  I gaped.  They  were filled to the top with  piles and piles of fresh, whole uncut fish; firm, fresh, eyes clear and staring.

 In one box were pargo, the red snapper of the coast.  Another held snook, a pointy nosed member of the seabass family.  Still another held five gallon buckets filled with crushed ice and varying sizes of fresh shrimp.  It was amazing and surprising to my Gringo sensibilities to find  fish just lying around whole like this.  And even more surprising to my naïve and freshly arrived Gringo sensibilities was the sight of crocodiles floating ten feet away from me in the river that passed behind the house.  Olman’s cousin turned to the pile of carcasses he’d built from filleting fish and quickly threw a fish carcass into the river.  The water churned briefly and rapidly and then returned to calm.

  I could feel myself being stared at and I'm sure now that Olman and his cousins had gotten just what they’d hoped for.  The house, a mere shell but obviously well occupied, the slippery floors of what was essentially a garage, the whole fish in the ice boxes and now the crocodiles.  I did my best to hold it together, but  this was way more than I had expected and I could sense the amusement in the room.  I wasn’t sure how much fish to buy, what our yield would be from these unfamiliar species and how to go about the entire process.  I have filleted a lot of fish in my time and have numerous scars on my knuckles from spine bones jamming into my hands, but still, this was entirely different.  I kind of hemmed and hawed in my mind, not at all sure how to approach this buying mission.  Olman sensed my uneasiness and was enjoying the hell out of it .  “Here, Chef”, he said with a wicked grin as he thrust an icy Imperial into my hand, “take your time and look at the fish.”  And  they all laughed.

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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.