Monday, December 20, 2010

Food Begets Life

We have come to the end of the high season at Casa Sweeney-Britton. Our last guests for a while, the Miller-Ouimet family, left yesterday. Sniff.

While they were here, the blog was a periodic topic of conversation. Specifically, this week's topic. We batted around several topics but eventually settled on food.

So much of our lives here revolve around food. The finding of, the buying of, the preparation of, the eating of, the cleaning up after of, etc. Food provides sustenance, satisfaction, frustration, adventure, entertainment, and creates and strengthens friendships.

Take ice cream, for example.

You may remember that our first guests to the casita kindly lugged with them a rather large and heavy ice cream maker. Once washed and plugged in, the hum of the motor became the constant soundtrack to our lives at home. Ian experimented with flavors and friends and family provided willing assistance as official tasters. A few batches later, a few conversations later, and "¡Que Rico! - Helado Natural de Nosara" was officially launched!

Deals were made, spreadsheets were created, and labels were drafted, printed and taped. Salted caramel was created as the signature flavor and, voila, we have an income! (Get your cup at Market Organico or the Beach Dog Cafe now!) Granted, the profit from a batch of ice cream is minimal, but no one is complaining at the bonus dinner out each month. Food begets food.

The salted caramel flavor was launched first because: 1) it is darn good, and 2) all ingredients are available locally. Which brings us to food begets friendships. Ian's search for good, fresh ingredients led him to a local farm where we now purchase fresh raw milk and fresh eggs. The owners of the farm are wonderful, nice and generous people. We brought them a sample of the ice cream made with their milk and eggs and they sent us home with a huge bag full of langostinos they had caught the night before in the river.

They also invited us to come back to help make juice from sugar cane. Their small sugar cane mill is powered by a horse that walks in a circle pulling a beam of wood which turns the gears of the mill. While the gears are turning, the sugar cane is pushed between heavy rollers. The kids worked hard pushing the cane in and were rewarded with a ride on the horse and a taste of fresh sugar cane juice over ice. Food begets adventure.

Food also begets conversation. Guests to Nosara are treated to endless discussions on food. What we can and can't get, how much it costs, the best and the worst of, what we wish for, what we have had enough of....

We describe the typical costa rican "casado" lunch of salad, rice, beans and meat or fish, and compare and contrast our favorite lunch spots.

We talk about how we can get fresh bread from the bread truck and fresh fruits and vegetables from the fruit and veggie truck.

We describe how Sadie and Ian figured out how to get fresh fish from a house on the beach before it gets delivered to the fish markets.

We talk about getting great cheese (ordered in advance now) and organic greens at the farmer's market. We talk about our rental property and its mango, banana and lime trees. We talk about the price of olive oil and soy sauce.

We love to compare and contrast for our guests the ceviche in various establishments. Who uses what kind of fish, which one is the freshest, which one is the spiciest. No visit with us is complete without a trip to the gas station to where the best ceviche is sold from a small table near the pumps (which explains why our car always has a slight smell of fish - eating a cup of ceviche on the Nosara roads is definitely a challenge).

We have a lot to say about food and I'm certain it is as fascinating a topic for our guests as it is for us. Right? Right??

With guests we relish in the relatively rare treat of dinner out (fish and tempura at our favorite restaurant on the beach or pizza at our favorite Italian restaurant), but we also relish in the joy of cooking and eating at home together. Food strengthens bonds.

With the Miller-Ouimets, in addition to spending close to 20 years in each others' kitchens, we have spent many vacations together, renting houses on the Russian River, Hawaii, and Mexico. We fall easily into our comfortable and collaborative roles for cooking and cleaning for six. Over food we all share stories and opinions, we laugh, we discuss the day we've just had and we plan for tomorrow. For entertainment we watch the geckos catching and eating insects, and the monkeys eating flowers and leaves.

Finally, as our guests leave, we send them off with hugs and plenty of snacks for the long journey home.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Peninsula de Osa

Lonely Planet describes the Osa peninsula as "the most picturesque, the most pristine and the most perfect spot in Costa Rica." Much of the peninsula is taken up by Parque Nacional Corcovado, containing the last great original tract of tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America. Lonely Planet goes on to say, "...Osa is the real's a place for travelers with youthful hearts, intrepid spirits and a yearning for something truly wild." In other words, the perfect place for my mother and I to steal away to for a long weekend.

My mother and I meet in San Jose where we take in the city sites for a day before hopping on a puddle jumper to fly to Bahia Drake, on the Osa peninsula. It is a short and beautiful flight and we soon land on a patch of dirt in the jungle that somehow met the qualifications for an airport. We fish our small bags out of the belly of the plane, and climb in a waiting jeep. Our ten year old driver (okay, maybe he was 13) takes us past some farmland, among coastal jungle, through several very large rivers, and drops us off at a beach. Bahia Drake. He points to a small open motor boat and bids us farewell.

Thankful at the minimum amount of baggage we brought with us, my mom and I wade into the sea, climb in the boat, and speed off to the other side of the Bay. We turn inland on a river and soon pull up to a small wooden dock.

Our bags are grabbed, and we are helped out of the boat and up the stairs. We have arrived at our home away from home for three nights: Drake Bay Wilderness Resort.

Again, to quote Lonely Planet, the resort "occupies the optimal piece of real estate in all of Bahia Drake." Quite right. Situated along the coast at the edge of the Bay, the resort consists of several small wooden cabins situated among beautiful landscaping, all with porches and all facing the water. Breathtaking.

Once we are settled in our simple but comfortable cabin, we head to another building where lunch is waiting for us. As it turns out, my mother and I are two of the only four guests currently at the resort (it pays to travel during the low season!). As the other guests are out for the day, we are served by ourselves in the family style dining room. A bean salad and fresh juice followed by a taco AND a very large burritto. All fresh ingredients, all made from scratch, all insanely delicious. Osa may be the place for "endless opportunities for rugged exploration" for some, but I had an inkling that for us, it may be the place for "endless meals of outrageously good food." Just the thing for our youthful hearts and intrepid spirits!

Our stay at Drake Bay Resort is as a part of a package. Three nights, all meals, and two tours. That evening after dinner (fresh shrimp in an amazing sauce, vegetables, dessert...) we are asked to sign up for our tour the next day. Not sure we were quite up for the "required" trek through Corcovado Park yet, we choose CaƱo Island as our destination for the next day. A 362-hectare island outside of Bahia Drake that is the tip of numerous underwater rock formations, the island is a popular destination for diving and snorkeling and a "must do" tour for those visiting the area.

That night it pours rain all night long. Knowing how the weather can change easily, however, my mom and I wake up early and head out in the rain to breakfast (coffee served in heated cups, fresh baked cinnamon roles, fruit, eggs, gallo pinto...). The rain indeed begins to peter out and we are sent to "the dive shop" to get our snorkel gear and told to be at the dock in 15 minutes. By the time we get our gear and towels and lunch are loaded into the boat for us, the rain has completely stopped and we are on our way with our guide for the day, Roy, our boat captain, and a couple from another hotel.

We head out through choppy waters to the island, encountering two species of dolphins along the way, which we stop and watch for a while. Again, I am thankful for the, how shall I put it, casual, nature of Costa Rican tourism where instead of being told to keep my lifejacket on and my hands in the boat, Roy hollers at me, "stand up on your seat so you can see! Go climb on the bow of the boat! Look at those DOLPHINS!"

Once near the island we get a quick review of how to snorkel (stick together, try not to breath in any water, and make sure you keep track of your lifejacket you can sling under your armpits for buoyancy). Okay, put your mask and flippers on, grab your lifejacket, climb onto the edge of the boat, and JUMP! "Right" says mom, and, with a little assistance from the captain, she does just that.

Now I should qualify what I am about to say by first letting you all know that despite my love for the ocean I have done very little snorkeling in my life. But, this was the most amazing snorkeling ever! I saw lots of beautiful and colorful small reef fish, and I also had the phenomenal experience of snorkeling among schools of large fish - jacks and grunts and snappers - sometimes hundreds at once. Here's a smattering of other things I can remember, with help from my handy dandy "Costa Rica Field Guide - Pacific Coast Reef Fish": devil ray, stingray, sergeant major, rainbow wrasse, moorish idol, puffer, cardinalfish. I'm sure I'm forgetting many other species, but you get the idea. I was happy.

Lunch on the island (rice and beans, fish, side salad, home made cookies...), more snorkeling, then home for dinner (whole cooked fish, beet and lime juice, salad, green beans and cauliflower, cake, etc...).

That night it poured and poured again, but again, began to clear up over breakfast (fresh fruit, more cinnamon roles, etc...). Today was our Corcovado trip and we were determined to be able to do it. After all, what trip to Osa is complete without a hike in Corcovado?

Another boat ride, another beach landing to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station. Manual, our guide, provides us a geography lesson with a stick on the sand, grabs his high powered telescope and tripod and we are off. The trail is wet and muddy but it isn't raining so we are able to see and hear quite a bit. Though Corovado is huge and many people trek for days within its wilderness, this is a more well-traveled "Corcovado Light" version. The path is well defined and we meet up with two or three other tours along the route. Still, the rainforest is definitely stunning in the way only rainforests can be.

And we do manage to see a sloth, a couple of different kinds of monkeys, bats, a few birds, several agoutis (in the rodent family), pizotes, and lots of insects. Manual is great at spotting wildlife and quickly sets up his telescope for us to get a good look. These pictures were taken from my camera through the lens of the telescope.

After lunch back at the ranger station (delicious food, yummy dessert...), it begins to drizzle. Despite the rain, Manual suggests we go ahead with our planned afternoon hike to the waterfall. Difficult terrain, he says, but only 20 minutes of walking. Now my mother had already been in Costa Rica long enough to know that all short things take "5 minutes" and all long things take "20 minutes" and that therefore "20 minutes" could be anywhere from 25 minutes to two hours, but she is game. After all, when would we ever get this chance again?

We grab our parkas and head off. As we begin to hike through the rainforest, the rain begins to steadily increase. We slog through mud and up and down over roots and rocks. It begins to rain harder. We grab walking sticks. We hike through rivers and along narrow ledges. We avoid trees with spikes and try not to slide down hills. We hike some more. It rains harder. We hike some more.

We finally make it!

After oohing and ahhing at the roaring giant waterfall, we head back down the pathway to a smaller waterfall feeding a deep pool of water. In the pouring rain, we strip off our ponchos and dive in.

Yes, it was definitely worth it.

Manual finally says something about "flash floods" and so we grab our stuff and head on back at a slightly faster rate. We climb back into the boat, sopping wet, and speed home in the pouring rain, bodies still, heads down, conversation impossible.

After our warm showers, mom and I head to the bar for a well deserved drink. We are exhausted and exhilarated, wet and proud, and our youthful hearts and intrepid spirits are definitely ready for dinner.