Saturday, July 11, 2009



Awaken in Austin where the light at 7:00 AM is significantly different and even dimmer than 5:15 high in the cloud forest of Uvita. It was a twisty road to get here and had a lot of unplanned stops along the way that ranged from mildly amusing to downright annoying.

The whole traveling circus took a blow to it's scheduled departure time with traveling woes suffered by others. My friends, Debbie and Todd from Oakland; she a teacher, he a chef, had bravely volunteered to come down for a free Costa Rican getaway of sorts, as co-housesitters of "the house at the top of the hill." This would be perfect, as I'd have someone I knew and trusted to watch the house, feed the dogs and make sure that the Land Cruiser had kidneys to crush.

Debbie and Todd got the entire affair off to symbolic start by having their flight out of San Francisco delayed by three hours, missing their connction to San Jose, CR, and having too suffer the indignity of spending the night at a hotel in Dallas. Their presumed arrival to the Costa Ballena was delayed nearly 24 hours and the half-day that I'd wanted to have to give them a proper orientation/meet and greet in the bright of day was reduced to my speed rapping a one hour spiel in the dark to two sky-weary souls who had been up nearly 24 hours. God bless them.

They had arrived with my friend Mel, a Colombian who makes his living driving newbies around the country in his extendo-van. To give Todd and Debbie the first night's sleep that they deserved I gave Todd his crash course in LandCruiser-ville by having him drive me back down the hill that first night so Mel and I could crash at the dharma trail, surf bum Euro-backpacker hostel/hotel called the Tucan Hotel, run by my buddy Tre. We slept for four or hours or so in a slatted bunkbed and by 4:30 we were out on the Costanero making for points north.

The original plan, like so many original plans had been dashed in the mud and the sand by the change in the arrival time of Todd and Debbie. Rather than a night on the town in Escazu on Thursday, I was groggily accompanying Mel up the coast to Jaco and Los Suenos where he had blithely engaged another fare for Friday morning, presuming that he would be rid of me by that point. Instead, there we were as sun smeared the morning sky and the palm groves took shape all around us, chugging up the richly promised, but as yet unpaved highway north of Dominical through Quepos and further north. We blasted through one gringo tourist surf mecca and headed for another.

The ocean was somewhere out there to the West on our left, but even as the morning sun cleared the eastern mountains, all we could see were palm groves and the gathering workers with their long poles, hooked, for pulling down the date palm globes. We hit Jaco by 6:45 and after Mel made a few calls we breakfasted in the ever-growing tourist center of Jaco and gazed around at what seemed like a whole new generation of highrise condos and apart/hotels. Jaco is the other side of Costa Rican tourism from our gentle south coast Eco-Lodge; all neon signs, bars, casinos, "adult entertainment" clubs and yes, the ever looming high rises.

We slipped out of Jaco and wended our way into Los Suenos, where tourists go to pretend that they're not really in Costa Rica. A giant sprawling pseudo-Spanish Marriott dominates the waterfront and massive condos litter the hills and the masts of really really expensive fishing boats bob in the swanky marina. We picked up Mel's new client/riders, two couples from LA who confessed that they had not left the sanctity of the Marriott in the ten days of their visit, preferring to use the casino and golf course there and eating of course, all the delightful local fare that the Marriott restaurants had to offer. It turned out that one of the men in the traveling party was Tommy Davis, former Dodger great and arch-nemisis of my beloved Giants. As I speculated at his remarkable achievements in 1962 (.346 batting average and the most RBI's in the history of baseball by a player with less than 20 HR's. 153), he gently corrected me, as my sabermatric baseball mind was off by a single digit for each stat.

The drive into San Jose was a piece of cake after the semi-rutted route along the coast and the pass over the mountains is a beautiful drive. We were at the airport by 11:15 and were cruising right through the day, and despite what had earlier seemed like long odds, were well ahead of schedule. All I had to do was buy a book and an iced tea or two and wait it out for my 2:55 departure. And oh joy, y que milagro, WiFi was free (US airports, get a clue, please) in the San Jose Airport. We were in the sky on time and on the ground in Houston also on time. From there it became confusingly sketchy.

I breezed through immigration and customs, found myself a bookseller and was pretty pleased with the way this had all gone after the previous day's travails and doubts. And it all looked pretty damn good until I got to the Continental desk and looked at the departure screen. It was a 9:10 flight, but for some reason, on this a busy Friday night, the numbers next to my flight read 10:07. Well this just couldn't be. This is not a cross country, nor international flight. This is a 25 minute hop from one Texas town to another that barely has time to reach elevation before it drops down again. I politely asked and was told that, sigh, yes, the flight from Denver, which would provide us our plane was inexplicably late; shrug, wince and recite a not too convincing aplogy.

In what would prove to be a litany of unconvincing aplogies, Continental could not get us off the ground until nearly 11:00, almost two hours late for a 25 minute hop. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I wandered the terminal in a sweaty fog, drinking way too much iced tea and not enough club soda. My stomach roiled (probably as much from the in-flight "ham and cheese" sandwich as much as anything), and I must confess, with a certain amount of guilt and remorse, crankiness set in. So close, so very close after a full day of traveling delights; yet denied.

Finally, on the plane, but delayed again, as we were told that the rampers, in their hurry to speed us away into the night, had jammed their device under the plane, damaging whatever parts of it that could be damaged and that the engineers were on their way "right out." Dully, slowly, ploddingly we eased down the runway and rose, finally into the heat of the Texas night. The cabin smelled of sweat, whiskey and beer. A crowd that had been kept waiting over two hours settled in uneasily for their tiny time in the air. And yes, up we went and down we came, just like that. Had we gotten on the plane at the correct time, we may have been able to taxi from Houston to Austin in the amount of time it finally took us.

There she was; my sweet, charming and slightly bleary-eyed sister, waiting at the bottom of the Austin Airport escalator. The bags went round and mine came out earlier than most. Out we went into the heat of the Austin night. At the house there was a nice spicy and cold okra and potato salad (Indian spices), my favorite lemonade with club soda, many scratches on the belly for the winsome Pastis and finally, at 1:30, bed, bed, oh blessed bed.

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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.