Friday, July 30, 2010

TWO COUPLES/TWO FINCAS

TWO COUPLES/TWO FINCAS

I would like to use this opportunity to both appreciate and introduce you to the two couples that do the hard work that brings me the organic produce I value so highly. Mauren Jimenez and Ademar Varela, who own and run Los Coreotos, their own certified organic finca, are one couple and Marjorie Cerdes Mora and Bolivar Cortes Gomez, the operators of Diamante Organico are the other. These two couples, between them, supply me with 90% of the produce (all organic) that I put on my plates. In each family both partners share the workload, and interestingly, on both farms, the women handle the ordering, the paperwork and the bulk of the communication.

I have written here at great length about my trips over the hill and down into El Valle de San Isidro to visit the Thursday Feria in Perez Zeladon. The market there is immense and the beautiful produce is a multi-colored reflection of the bounty the valley has to offer. My visits there, however, are not of the onions and carrots, garlic and potatoes variety; the nuts and bolts of cooking, if you will. The Thursday Feria is where I hunt down the newly seasonal, the small batches and special growths, the perfectly ripe tomatoes and the handpicked watercress that screams “use me today”. I should note that there was no watercress yesterday, it was eaten by a tapir.

The real workload and major part of my tiny supply chain comes, however, from Los Coreotos and Diamante Organico.

I first met Mauren and Ademar at the Perez Feria a year and a half ago. My boss, Geinier Guzman, introduced me to them on my first day back at the market after a long absence and suggested that if I really wanted to go all organic that they were a good place to start. They had a table in the line of tables in the back corner of the football field sized platform and Mauren wore the green blouse that showed that she was selling “certified organic”. Geinier introduced me to a couple in their early 40’s who were a bit “Tico shy” at meeting a gringo, but I pulled out my somewhat rusty Spanish and we were off.

Mauren is slender with tousled curly black hair and the patient but world weary look of someone who has raised three children while partnering in a small self-sufficient farm. It appears that sleep is somewhere down the list of her priorities, but she is warm and open and we have become good friends. Ademar is the muscle, the physical part of the farming and he looks the part. He is short and strong with a dark tan, a firm grip and and ever present white straw cowboy hat perched on his head. I am so immensely grateful that we all hit it off from day one.

My buying history with Los Coreotos began with me making one buy from them at the Thursday Feria in Perez Zeladon and then another at the Saturday Feria in Uvita. At that time La Cusing was buying our "nuts and bolts" from a local non-organic vendor. I wasn't happy with that arrangement, nor the quality of his goods and I wanted a change. It became clear over time (and as our business increased) that we would need a delivery early in the week and we struggled with how to put that together. Los Coreotos is above the San Isidro Valley and it is a long trek to the coast for Ademar to service just one account.

In February of this year Mauren and Ademar courageously pooled resources with a local seafood vendor and opened a small retail outlet here in Uvita. This was great news to me, but sadly, community support was tentative at best. Signage was bad and our local gringos went on buying produce and frozen fish from far away at La Corona and the BM as they had in the past. But what this did do was open the door for Mauren and Ademar to develop a small produce distribution network here along the coast.

They say that when a door shuts a window opens, and suddenly I was able to get not only my specialty produce from Los Coroetos, but also to have them pick up and deliver the potatoes, onions, carrots and garlic that we need on an ongoing basis. Now I get three deliveries a week and we're all happy. Additionally, Mauren and Ademar have begun to participate in yet another Feria further south in Ojochal and their business is good, but not doing much for Mauren's world weary smile.

My introduction to Marjorie and Bolivar at Diamante Organico came in a much more roundabout way. Diamante is owned by Linn Aosjia, a vibrant woman with spectacular blue eyes who split her time between farms in California and the San Salvador valley, between the coast and Perez Zeladon. Ironically, I had met Linn during my riotous days at the Lookout Hotel in Ojochal and had even catered the week long party that was her wedding in Spring of 2006.

We had made phone contact and had circled each other a bit warily, as our previous relationship had had it's ups and downs. We had, however, each been through a few changes (perhaps a bit more significant on my part) and our first meeting was classically defined by her showing up at my kitchen entrance for her first delivery with the Grateful Dead singing "when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door" from my iTunes. We had a good laugh about the irony of that and the ice was broken. And better yet, the produce she brought me was nothing short of awesome, a word I use infrequently.

Everything she pulled from its bag that first visit was of exemplary quality. I had asked her to bring me a sampling of greens to braise, one of my passions, and the bag she brought had not just three or four, but nine different varieties, beautifully mixed. There were the first Chinese long beans I'd seen in Costa Rica and beautiful bok choy. The red romaine was tender and still crunchy and she even brought me variegated amaranth leaves for garnish. I was like a kid at Christmas and completely sold on Diamante Organico.

Linn was, however called away to the US on long term business at her other property, leaving Marjorie and Bolivar to run the finca. Marjorie is robust, red-faced, jolly (but quite business like when need be) and filled with energy. Bolivar is the perfect foil; slender and quiet, but with twinkling eyes and a look on his countenance that engenders trust. I loved them immediately.

So now each Wednesday Marjorie calls me and we joke and laugh over the bad connection. Diamante Organico sits deep in the San Salvador valley, in reality just over the coastal hills from us, but far, far away as far as climate and phone connections. The valley is in rain forest and when it is raining it looks like a set from "Lost World" with fog hanging in the trees and mists floating through the valley. The finca is quite a special property and the care and love that is taken with it is impressive.

On Thursday morning Marjorie and Bolivar do the cutting and bagging and head out of the valley and over the hill to the coast. They make a stop in Dominical and then head down to see me at La Cusinga to hand deliver their lovely perfect produce. I give them some of my homemade ice cream for their troubles and Marjorie always packs a gift bag with chiles, annona or some of those variegated amaranth leaves for me.

It is so moving to me that these people, these two couples, work so hard to provide to such a limited, specialized market. I don't know how they're making it, but thank God they are. If the produce wasn't just so damned good and if they weren't all such special people, I could never feel this strongly. But they are, and it is, and I feel that it is not just my pleasure but my duty to support them. It is definitely a privilege to count them among my friends.

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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
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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.