Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Finca El Cisne

fresh ginger

The problem with visiting paradise is that you can never stay there long enough and reality hits you twice as hard when you come back. If riding horseback across hills of lush green countryside and through rushing streams in a cowboy hat is what you’d describe as your thing then a visit to Finca El Cisne is a must. Cowboy hats not your thing? What about roaming field after field of fruit trees and being able to cut down a piece when you fancy? Where you can pick avocados from trees when their ready to eat rather than storing them in paper bags for days. Where ginger (photographed above) is pulled straight from the ground. Or how about a place where you sit down to a meal consisting of dish after dish of food; all of which has come out of the ground or plucked from a tree within a two mile radius? Or drinking coffee that was harvested, dried and roasted across the street that’s served with milk that was only milked from a cow an hour ago. And if you still don’t really think it’s your thing then let me just be so bold as to say, it would be after a visit to Finca El Cisne. If ever I had a desire to move out to the countryside and live solely on what I grew- it was after a visit to the Finca. And it’s not because I think it would be easy but once you’ve tasted food this fresh, then you’ll know it’s even harder to go back to Trader Joe’s.

finca el cisne

A diversion in our planned route in Honduras led Don and I to this little gem- and the highlight of our Central American honeymoon. I usually save my reviews for Tripadvisor, but being that this is a foodblog I felt impelled to gush about it on here too. Finca means plantation and Finca el Cisne is primarily a coffee and cardomom plantation that is set in the Honduran hills about 10 km from the Guatemalan border and 25km from the famous Maya ruins in Copan. It is a working farm, with an agrotourism component.  You can stay there, for up to three days and learn about the production of coffee and cardomom- did you know for instance that farmers only earn about $.60 per pound of coffee compared to the $9/10 we pay per pound? Just another reason to buy fairtrade.

But aside from a new insight into the coffee industry,  a visit to the Finca will immerse you in a life where the chickens roam free, bananas grown in on trees, corn is hand milled to make tortillas, cooking is done on woodburning stoves and evening meals are served by candlelight. Oh, and the only noises you can hear are the crickets at night and the roosters warming up their vocals in the morning. There certainly isn’t incessant drilling going on in the aparment above, or the hammering to the one on my left or the noise of traffic out the window…. well, like I said- reality hits twice as hard.

Topado

tapado

Topado is the famous dish of Livingston on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. A mild but rich stew made with coconut milk, coriander, tomatoes, plantains and full of just about everything in the ocean. In fact eating it was rather like diving into the ocean- uncovering new crustaceans with every spoonful- and there were even a few surprises that I’m sure are placed at the bottom for maximum effect. Served with garlic bread for dipping this is not what I would typically choose to eat on a sweaty Caribbean day but it was certainly worth the bumpy boat ride to get there.

tapado

Queso por favor

cow

Cheese is not something that most people associate with Costa Rica. It’s not even something that most Costa Ricans’ associate with Costa Rica.  Queso fresco is the most popular cheese in CR and really across Central America- it goes by other names but we know it in an American supermarket as Farmer’s cheese. If you are offered cheese on a menu nine times out of ten it will be Queso fresco- so if you’re coming to Costa Rica in hopes of expanding your cheese palette, you’ve been badly misled. In the States Queso fresco comes like a twisted cable of stringy white cheese- much like Mozzarella just not in ball form and it goes from mild and milky to sour very quickly. Here it comes in blocks, it shares the same squeaky texture of  Halloumi and to be honest is pretty bloody tasteless. Unless it’s fried, when it becomes Queso frito (fried cheese). Up until recently if you bought a pizza in Central America it would be Queso fresco and not Mozzarella- which is interesting to me as Queso fresco does not melt like Mozzarella making for quite a solid pizza. It does however make an excellent grilled cheese sandwich.

One of the things Don and I have taken great pleasure in doing on this trip is food tours- who would have figured! In a small mountain region in Costa Rica called Monteverde we visited the Monteverede cheese factory.  It was set up by a handful of  Alabama Quakers in the 1950’s, who actually named the town which means Green hills. In a land consisting of cloud forests, insects, bumpy roads and afternoon thunderstorms, they did what they knew how to- which happened to be making cheese. They are the only company in Costa Rica to produce cheeses other than Queso fresco- including: Cheddar, Parmesan, Edam, Gouda, Emmental, Swiss (all legally named in CR as they are not members of the EU). The cheese is actually quite good- although it is not exported as they are such a small factory, and I doubt that they could compete worldwide. Instead they market themselves in tourist towns where they find people fed up with rice and beans and are desperate for a cheese sandwich.  They happened to find Don and I on one such day.

The process of the cheese making was fascinating- from the milk coming in daily, delivered by over two hundred farmers from across Costa Rica to the actual pressing of the cheese to remove the whey and the storage.  What was most interesting to me is that like all great recipes, cheese starts with a basic recipe or formula and variations on that are what make for different cheeses. Those variations are in the form of bacteria cultures added and the length of time and temperature at which it is left to mature- and that’s really about it.

The initial process at Monteverde takes about six hours, and with three vats to make cheese they can make up to six types of cheeses a day. The first part of the process is  to test the milk, which is done taking samples on petri dishes before any milk is purchased from the farmer.  The milk that has the highest butterfat content and least amount of bacteria is given the best price. Jersey Cows are the favoured breed in Costa Rica although generally farmers will use both Holsteins and Jerseys and blend the two because Holsteins produce much more milk, though at not such a high quality. Milk found with antibiotics is rejected and the farmer is banned from selling milk for the next month. It’s funny how a country such has Costa Rica has higher health standards than the US.

The healthy milk is then pasturized to kill any bacteria and is transfered to large vats which are used to separate the curds from the whey. The ratio here is about 10:1 which means that for every ten pounds of milk you get only one pound of cheese- now you know why it’s so expensive to buy! The whey in this plant is not wasted but  used to feed their pigs at another factory down the road- which is apparently rather good for them. I love the lack of waste! The curds are removed by hand and fill molds which are then pressed. The pressing is what forms the shape of the cheese and also serves to remove any excess whey. It then becomes a matter of waiting for the cheese to mature- which in the case of Queso is a matter of days and for Cheddar a minimum of three months.

And what about processed cheese- well in Costa Rica processed cheese really means a blend of cheeses, which are scraps cut away and then melted down together. In the US processed cheese is an entirely different thing- with very little to do with cheese or anything natural.

And there you have it- say cheese!

A RECIPE: Volcanic roasted marshmallows

volcanic roasted marshmallows

Volcanic Roasted Marshmallows

This recipe requires a certain level of fitness, a marginal amount of strength and a whole lot of nerves. Good luck!

Difficulty: This is only for adventurous cooks

Diet Facts: a long hike to the volcano will make all marshmallow calories negligable

Ingredients:

Marshmallows

Steps:

1/ Go to a country that permits you to hike up active volcanoes (this recipe was developed on the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala) and take along a pack of marshmallows and a long stick.

2/ Hike up the volcano- making sure to check with guides which side of the volcano you can go to in order to avoid being killed by gasses or lava flow.

3/ Get to the top of volcano and watch out for balls of molten rock as you skewer your marshmallow on a very long stick. Hold directly over lava or if no lava then hold into an opening in the volcanic rock. Watch carefully as it will burn quickly. Make sure that you keep an eye on your feet at all times which could also potentially burn quickly.

4/ Eat and get the hell out of there before it blows.

Rice & beans

rice & beans

I’m tucked away in our lodges seating area- away from the rain which is falling harder than I knew was possible. Raining is some what of a regular thing here in costa rica- Monteverde, where we are staying at the moment has four meters a year. Wowza! And this is no London drizzle- this is the heavens opening and buckets of water being chucked down- unrelentingly. When you have a month of holiday though, it’s hard to complain and rain time becomes time to play scrabble, read or plan the next stage of our trip. Anything that avoids us getting our shoes wet again, which take will take another two days to dry.

Apart from rain, the other thing that there is an awful lot of here is rice and beans- often referred to on the menu as typicales. Typical breakfast dish served with eggs, typical lunch dish served with chicken, typical dinner dish…you get the point. And for someone whose always lacked a love-rice tooth, i’m pretty smitten with this typical combination.  I never thought I’d smile at the choice of rice, let alone for breakfast but I’m not far off an admission of love. Not, that i’m going to start getting up earlier at home to boil some beans and rice for breakfast- that would be a different kind of love. The beans are always black beans, heavily salted and sometimes tossed with diced red pepper or coriander. Reading all the guidebooks I was pretty sure that I would not be interested in   CR culinary attributes but so far we’ve managed to find a few gems. Besides, anything can be jazzed up with some hot sauce or salsa. But my favourite things have been the fruits- avocadoes, pineapples, bananas and oh the limes! The limes are something to write about! They are round and knobbly and smell much more like the kaffir limes of Thailand. Inside they are a much deeper yellow/orange colour and the taste is less sour but much more intense. Perfect for salsas and mojitos. Speaking of which, it’s got to be time for a drink!

Hola amigos!

peurto veijo

The thing about traveling is that things always go wrong. Don would argue that this makes things interesting- but being the control freak that I am, I find little to interest me but lots that irritates. Such as, discovering en route that I was being taken to the wrong airport, or finally arriving at the right airport only to discover that the man I had only five days prior committed my unwavering love too had left his passport at home. The fact that I had asked him three times if he had it was really the just the crux of my annoyance.  They do say there is a fine line between love and hate and whilst Don dashed home like a scolded puppy, I sat and contemplated  a line in my brother-in-laws wedding speech. It went something along the lines of: “statistically, you’re looking into the eyes of the person most likely to murder you”.

Needless-to-say, we made our flight to Costa Rica, which is lucky for Don really as I was intent on catching the plane regardless of whether he made it back in time or not. As far as I’m aware there was no clause in my vows saying I had to miss the plane on my honeymoon because I’d married a cretin. That said, nearly a week into our trip and I can hardly find a complaint- white water rafting down the pacuare river, swimming in crystal clear jungle pools, rappelling down waterfalls, relaxing in hammocks and body surfing in the warm carribbean sea. I could get used to this. The travel bug that had layed dorment in me for the past few years is officially back- bed bugs and flight bookings to airports further away from our next location than the one we just left included….

A weekend away

Don and I just dropped back to earth after a weekend getaway-from-the-kitchen-carnage (yes, it’s still going on). It also happened to be our minus one year wedding anniversary. We left work/school early on Thursday and hopped on one of only two daily Trailways buses up to Palenville in the Catskills. The bus felt like a journey back in time, complete with a driver born in 1900, unmarked bus stops and a glimpse at a world away from Starbucks and Duane Reade’s. Only two and a half hours outside Manhattan-who knew? Palenville isn’t so much of a town as a village, a village shop that doubles up as a garage station, a village pub serving 25¢ wings on Thursday nights (Irish, obviously), a small library, a church, a post office, n a family run restaurant and a B&B- for city types looking to get out of the city. We were very much out of the city. Oh, yes.

What a city type forgets, of course is that once you are out of the city- you’re out of the city. All of a sudden Starbucks and Duane Reade’s on every corner don’t hold the same negative connotations. In fact they seem positively bloody marvelous. Palenville, was more like three hours outside the city and we had to take a break for the driver in Rosendale so the romantic picnic I had planned for when we arrived was eaten on the bus with plastic forks and little paper sachets of iodized salt. That is all but the beer, which was by now luke warm. It was only a couscous salad, one of the few grains whose instant cooking nature lends itself well to cooks without a cooker. I tossed it with teeny cherry tomatoes, handfuls and handfuls of herbs (parsley, basil and mint) that I had blitzed in my mini food processor with garlic and lemon juice and zest and then folded through some rocket and crumbled goats cheese.

The B&B was delightful and Don’s six foot three frame wrangled us an upgrade to the ‘French Quarter’ complete with claw foot tub and guide books to Paris- which were much more enticing than the leaflets for Palenville. We were in decidedly good hands though. Michael, a fellow Brit and his French wife Christine were trained chefs from the Savoy in London and the Red Cat in NYC- breakfast alone was worth the trip. A perfectly cooked omelette filled with oozing goats cheese and crispy slices of chorizo served with a potato and bell pepper hash. The kind of feast one needed for hiking and that we wouldn’t be finding in the village shop/gas station that would provide lunch. The hike ( I use the word singularly because there was only one hiking trail, and we only did it once) was supposed to start out with a two hour climb. In fact nobody had ever completed it faster than two hours and though Don and I assured each other that we were going to take things easy and plod along at a normal pace we managed to do it in one hour and forty minutes- it must be that city-type sidewalk aggression in us.

Exhausted from our five hour march we were in need of a hearty meal and Fernwood was our only option in walking distance and so there we headed. The walk took us over a suspension bridge with a sign “constructed by the people of Palenville” swaying over the top as we too swayed across the creek. The family run restaurant was located on a quiet cul-de-sac- the only business on the street and we dined in what appeared to be the family’s living room. The tables were covered with floral patterned tablecloths, the room garnished with a variety of family photos and kitch collectables and each diners chair was unique. The mother was the chef, the daughter the hostess/waitress and the son the bartender. Dad made the “made to order table side Caesar salads”. It was an unforgettable restaurant- if not for the food. Don ordered “Chicken Nicholas” for a pocket pinching $20 and I opted for the safe option and ordered the most basic thing on the menu: Tagliatelle with meat sauce. Don’s dish arrived as a whole chicken breast garnished with two shrimp and a creamy mustard sauce. On a side plate he was given eight green beans and three tablespoons of mashed potato. He cleaned the plate with gusto- but then that’s nothing unusual. The pasta was fine, the sauce on the soupy side- I finished the meal looking forward to another five star breakfast and I would not be disappointed.

Our weekend get-away was cut short by the looming storm front and we elected to head home on the early bus rather than stick it out in Palenville and the promise of another garage lunch. Pleased as I was to be heading back to civilization as the Manhattan skyline loomed in the distance I was reminded of laundry that needed to be done, unopened post and yet another inch of dust that would need to be brushed off every surface in the apartment. The French Quarter and Palenville were a long way away it was back to cooking porridge in the microwave and washing up in the bathroom sink. At least for the time being.


Follow me on Twitter!

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

This site has moved!

http://www.londonfoodieny.com

Proud member of FoodBlogs

UK Food Bloggers Association

a

I am a friend of Local Food Advisor, visit the site to find your local food supplier