Thursday morning starts early, or at least what I consider early, at 5:45. The howler monkeys have resumed their pre-dawn calm and there are only a few plaintive moos from the remaining milk-full cows. My cabina looks out over the cow pasture to the ocean and I love the early morning sun beginning to show its reflection out over the Pacific. There is always a moistness, a rich loaminess, a physical presence to the air at this time of the day.
I ease myself down on the cool floor and begin my morning stretching and faux yoga in a mostly vain attempt to get the stiffness out of my lower, upper and middle backs. I take a quick shower in the riverstone stall, shake dry like a dog and pack everything I’ll need for the next 15 hours into my computer bag. The walk up the hill to the Lodge through the middle of the jungle is a classroom of flora and fauna each morning and I love to look up the path to the light that comes through the tunnel at the top.
I hit the kitchen, pour myself a tall glass of black tea and honey, check the internet briefly and begin the leaving process. I grab spare plastic grocery bags from the bodega, fill two water bottles and pour four or five scoops of ice into the leaky ice chest. I lug the ice chest out to R2, the wonder Tercel, shove the key in the trunk and do the magic tap in just the right place to spring the trunklid. In goes the ice chest and I start the car. Up goes the hood and I twist off the radiator cap to check the ALL-IMPORTANT water level. One of the water bottles gets emptied into the black hole atop the radiator and I’m ready to roll down the hill.
The drive out of La Cusinga takes me down the tree-lined entrada, past the office and up to the main gate where the trabajadores de la finca are working on a new riverstone structure that is rumored to be a museum for displaying the works of natural wonder that John has collected over the last 37 years. Julio, the eternally smiling guardio swings the gate open and I head out toward the Costanera, remembering to wave at Gabiano’s hijos as they run out for the ritual goodbye. The entrada is short, windy and rocky but easily navigable except for the final “curvo peligroso” that requires proper placement and approach in order to keep R2’s tires from spinning wildly. I emerge onto the Costanera and do the quick jig around the landmark “hole in the road” that’s been there for nigh on two years, and head north.
The early morning drive up the coast is gorgeous. The sun hasn’t quite come over the mountains, so the water to my left is just catching the growing reflections of the early light. The blooming rays sift through the palm trees on the ocean side and snatches of the blue ocean jump from between them. On the right the jungle is still shady and dark, the steep hills trapping the last of the cool night air. Work starts at six for the Tico laborers and they’re already hacking at the roadside growth with machetes. The road at this hour is quiet save for the occasional big rig using the coastal conduit.
I cruise past the surf ghetto of Dominical, wave to the hombres de la fuerza policia who “guard” our modern highway and swing right, up the twisty road that will take me out of the jungle and over the mountain. This is the part of the trip where falling in behind a slow moving truck or God forbid, the bus, can make the half hour mountain pass seem endless. Straightaways are infrequent and passing on these turns is either suicidal or an art form.
The air changes temperature rapidly on this ascent and heavy fog drifts up the valley above the river that runs down the mountains and empties into the ocean at Dominical. The bosques (forests) here are dense and the valleys on either side of the mountain pass are thick with vegetation and farms set among the heavy growth. I wind past the Parque Reptilandia and Finca Feliz Flores and climb to Platanillo, the first of the two villages I’ll pass through. The restaurante Baru has an outdoor brick-made wood burning oven that I covet but have still have never seen fired up.
The road winds farther up and a lot of second gear is in order. R2 climbs well for an 18 year old car and handles the rises relatively easily. The road reaches a false peak at Tinamastes, a slightly larger village, that is home to the valley Alfombra, where a lot of hippie expats do their organic farming. Another kilometer further, the peak is symbolically reached at Los Chorros, a mirador (lookout) restaurant that used to be a “must stop” for a shot of rum on every trip over the pass.
The road rises a bit from Los Chorros, but quickly turns into a descent into the Valle de General de San Isidro. The rich green farmland stretches out to the right and numerous hillside casitas and restaurants perch over the valley view. The twin spires of the church are the first thing one notices about San Isidro and they seem dwarfed by the mountains that rise behind them. A few final curves, the quick pass through La Palma, two one-lane bridges and I’ve reached Perez Zeladon de General de San Isidro, one of the longest city names I know and easily my favorite.
San Isidro is big city compared to the coast. There are paved streets, traffic lights, sidewalks and billboards. And women; women everywhere. It has been explained to me that a large percentage of the male workforce heads off to the US, leaving behind a population that is largely female. The way they dress and the way many of them walk goes a long way in explaining the inordinately large number of shoes stores and boutiques with names like, “Hot Baby” and “Modern Doll”. Cleavage es muy tipico and spike heels a must for navigating the city streets.
I make my turn past the stadia de futbol and another quick left at the Funeria Joyeria (the joyous funeral parlor) and head into the parking lot of the feria. I cautiously navigate through the crowd for the dirt area at the back end of the feria where the asphalt ends and the trucks unload. The football field sized platform of the feria stretches and roars with noise before me, shaded by its immense corrugated tin roof. I take a quick look in from the car and can see that, as usual, it is wall to wall bodies inside I get out, stretch, lock the doors and pick my way through the puddles and over the rocks.
For my first several visits, the feria was a confusing writhing mess to me. I had to learn to walk and talk a new way. I needed to understand the etiquette of pushing through the crowds (there is none; except a quick de esculpe me, or perdona me), picking out and weighing my produce (each stand has bags and a scale; you fill up and plop your bag on), and discovering who had what I really wanted, and where they were.
I have a plan now and coming here weekly for five months has solidified my understanding of the layout. First I head to see my friends Ademar and Mauren. Here in Perez they wear the green camisas of those licensed to sell organic produce. Unlike at our tiny Uvita feria, their table is just one of many displaying a wide cross-section of organic produce. This is new and so much better organized than when I was here two years ago. I have pre-ordered with them and I have a big, green plastic bin full and waiting. I need, of course, to add a stiff stalk of cebollinas verdes (green onions), some Italian parsley and a couple of bunches of poc choi. I slide my bin from under the table, heave it to my shoulder, dodge the two chattering and oblivious Ticas in front of the next stall and lug it out to the parking lot. I pass Mario’s corner as I go and give him the signal with two fingers for what I need. Bobbing and weaving with the shouldered bin, I negotiate the parking lot, give the trunk the secret tap and fill up my cooler with the tomatoes, chard, slender green beans, and my fresh herbs.
The biggest chunk of my purchases is out of the way so now the fun starts. My friend Marguerite, who I’ve already pre-ordered with as well, is at the other end of the circuit but there is lots of exploring before I get to her. I’ve waved at Mario and I stop and see him first. Mario is a silver haired Tico don in his 60’s, always dressed in a pressed short-sleeved shirt and a stylish straw hat. He was born here, in Perez Zeladon, but spent nearly 30 years living in New York; both the Big Apple and upstate. His English is impeccable as are his manners, and he seems to always have a light in his eyes. He has a small organic farm in the hills north of the valley and while he does sell his lettuces, it is the dairy that drew me to him.
He and I tried his cheeses for several weeks; him offering tastes and free chunks to take back with me, and me offering my comments. We have decided, mutually, that he just can’t yet make the chunkier, crumblier cheese I’m looking for and that seems to be all right. He does make a wonderful rich natilla (sour cream) that I use for baking, and today, as I do almost every week, I take two half liter bags.
I peel off away from Mario’s corner and head back up the organics aisle. I had seen a table with a pile of frijoles tiernas (fresh beans) and I wanted to get back there before anyone had grabbed the few bags of the whitish yellow beans I favor. These beans are fresh from the shell and cook up rich and creamy in about 45 minutes. The only flavoring I need to use is onion, garlic, thyme and bay (and maybe half a hot chile) and the beans do the rest. There are mountains of the pink beans, but only a few bags of the whites and I grab two kilos.
Paying the bean sellers is easy, getting them to produce a factura (receipt) so I can recover my money from my bosses is not. I’ve finally gotten hip and bring my own receipt book, scribble down the total and ask the sellers to sign. Very few of them can write so I just ask them to “escriba su marque”. We laugh together at the absurdity of my trying to get my bosses to “regresar mi plata” and I move on up the aisle.
The aisle I’m heading up is the one to the farthest left in the giant hangar-like building. The left side is filled with cooked food vendors and I breeze past them, only looking to my right for anything of interest. From experience I know that most of these tables just feature the “nuts and bolts” of the market (onion, carrots, head lettuces, potatoes, etc.) so I push on ahead bumping and slipping past the congregating Ticos. This market is as much a social scene and gathering place as it is a place to shop and the narrow pass between the stalls is continually at a standstill. Tica women in dresses, highheels and makeup stand and talk to each other, oblivious completely to the flow of traffic that they’re blocking.
I need to make it across two full aisles and up another to Laureano and Gretel’s stand to see if they’ve got fresh goat cheese this week and also to replenish my yogurt supply. Laureano is a big guy for a Tico, maybe 6’4” and broad. He is another former resident of the US and loves to throw out a few English expressions at me to keep in practice. “Hey David”, he says, “How are you”. His hand is huge and engulfs mine as we shake. He talks slowly and moves slowly and is always sheened in a layer of sweat. We immediately return to Spanish as I greet his wife and partner Gretel and we talk business. As seems to be the case in these business relationships, she is the one who knows where the pen is, the change is and where the receipt book is.
Laureano and Gretel produce their own fresh squeezed juices and make their own fresh fruit yogurts. I buy the juices when we have a run of large groups at the Lodge and I buy the yogurt for me because I love it in the morning. But what I’m really here for is the small rounds of queso de cabra that they sell for a cheesemaker that they know. The cheese is fresh, moist and doesn’t suffer from the everpresent Costa Rica cheese dilemma of over-coagulation. Most cheese made in this country has the texture of soft plastic. This goat cheese I love and shred it over tomatoes or beets on my salads. I trade some trade talk with the couple, take another bear-like handshake from Laureano, a kiss on the cheek from Gretel and make my turnaround toward the back of the feria.
I make a quick stop to flirt with the cute Tica who sells chiles dulces (sweet red bells) and buy a bag of ten. I make another quick stop for a stem of cebollas morados (red onions) and remember that I will have to fill out the factura here as well. The onions are sold tied by their stems onto a long stalk and I juggle the stalk, the receipt book and my other bags while the onion vendor scrawls whatever it is he scrawls. The onions are unwieldy, the cheese, yogurt and natilla need refrigeration and I need two more hands so I make another run out to the parking lot.
I’m almost done and am approaching what I call (and I’m certain I’m not alone), gringo corner. Here is where the hippies sell not just produce, but prepared foods, balms, lotions, essential oils and disseminate gringo gossip. The collection of white people with dreadlocks here is substantial, the hippie muumuu smock look is de rigeur and there is always a curious musty scent present, even in this open air feria, that one used to only encounter with the patchouli oil set.
I skirt the hippies for now and bend around the corner for my weekly stop at the mountain of tomatoes. The same Tico family is set up here each week and each week there seems to have been unloaded a truckload of tomatoes. Admittedly, these are not heirloom organic tomatoes by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, they are small, odd-sized and shaped and of varying degrees of ripeness. Some are hard, some are green, some are seriously marred and some have wormholes. But; if one has the patience and perserverance to stand and pick through them, at 300 colones a kilo they represent a remarkable bargain. I do have and have had the patience for several weeks and use the tomatoes to roast for a spectacular chilled soup. I cull through the tomatoes; walking up and down along the table, reaching and stretching for the brightest and ripest I can find. I fill two plastic bags expertly with exactly 2 kilos each and walk away having spent around a dollar for nearly nine pounds of ripe, ripe tomatoes.
Each week my second to the last stop for reasons of both proximity and perishability is with Roger. Roger is an earnest and serious looking Tico with curly hair and an interesting collection of American golf shirts. Roger is also my blackberry connection and I have been buying the blackberries for my ice cream from him since I discovered his table. Roger is pretty amused by the fact that I make helado (ice cream) from his berries and never buy anything else from him despite his handsome display of broccoli, potatoes and onions. He delights in telling passing Tica housewives that this gringo is making ice cream down on the coast. We all get a few smiles out it and I am frankly, rather happy myself to be paying 1400 colones (around $2.50) for a kilo bag of intensely flavored blackberries. The Costa Rican blackberries are smaller and a lot tarter than their northern kin, but they are packed with true blackberry flavor and the ice cream has a rich, intense flavor. I amuse Roger even further with the receipt booklet and then I step over to see Marguerite at my last stop.
Marguerite runs the Uvita feria, and when I see her there she is distracted and hard to pin down. Here in Perez, at the big feria, she is just another table in a world of tables and it brings her back to earth. She is a quiet and pensive with a serious cigarette habit and has been living in Costa Rica for a over twelve years; translating, farming, vending produce and developing quite a relationship with the Ticos. She and I share a background and I enjoy when we can just sit and talk for a minute or ten on these Thursdays. I’m helping her to put together a chef demo program for her feria and we chat about that.
This back corner of the feria is a jumble of Styrofoam, cardboard boxes, dripping water and folding tables, but Marguerite sits calmly amidst it while Adriana and Deylin her two Tica helpers do all the legwork. The two of them, probably not more than 18 and cute in entirely different ways, work the market as a pair, hunting down and bringing to Marguerite the odds and ends she needs to fill orders. She calls out over her shoulder to them to get my order ready and they quietly go about it. I buy kilo bags of beautiful whole baby lettuces from Marguerite and they are a product that would not be out of place at or have to take a backseat to anything at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers market. I am happy to buy them and proud to be able to serve them. I say goodbye and begin to finish up my trip. The girls take my money quietly and efficiently, Adriana being the businesswoman between them, but Deylin smiles shyly at me and hands me a mangosteen as I leave.
I open the trunk one last time, adjust and shift the things in the cooler just enough to get all the perishables in and slam the trunk lid shut. I climb into R2 and get set to make the whole trip in reverse. The feeling of heading back over the mountain with my little car full of fresh produce and cheese is a rewarding and fulfilling one. This has been a perfect morning for me, and my mind is already racing, creating the menu will appear that Thursday night.
THURSDAY MENU, THE GECKO AT LA CUSINGA JUNE 4, 2009
Chilled Soup of Pureed Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables
Salad of Organic Lettuces with Marinated Organic Cherry Tomatoes, Finca Tres Hermanas Hearts of Palm and Shredded Goat Cheese
Roasted Rovalo (Snook) w/ Mango-Mandarina-Ginger Glaze on a Puree of Camotes (White Yams) and Plantanos; Braised Finca Eco-Loco Greens, Organic Green Beans
Flourless Organic Chocolate Cake with Organic Cacao Ice Cream