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.