Moving to CR: Dispatch 4

9/9/12:

We did our usual trip to the feria (farmers’ market) on Friday. I have gotten into the routine of stopping at one booth, where there is a large griddle set up and a woman (sometimes with a helper, but usually alone) makes tortillas with a variety of toppings, or pupusas (Salvadoran turnovers), using the same masa or dough. She has an enormous white bucket filled with the prepared masa, pulls out just the right amount of masa for a tortilla or pupusa, gets out a heavy plastic round and places the masa on it, then starts using the side of her hand to pound the masa until it completely fills the template. Next, she takes the plastic with the tortilla and flips the dough onto the hot griddle, peeling the plastic off. Then she grabs a large handful of cheese or other ingredients she has at the ready, depending on what the customer ordered, and puts the toppings/fillings on. Then when the bottom of the tortilla is sufficiently browned, she either covers it with another piece of dough (for a pupusa) or simply flips it without the additional dough on top. Why the cheese doesn’t stick to the griddle is a mystery, but it never does.

I always order a pupusa. It’s filled with refried beans, some spiced meat, cheese, grilled onions and peppers. She usually cuts it into four or six pieces and hands it to me on a paper plate. It’s so hot that I force myself to wait a few minutes before I start tearing pieces off, but always manage to burn my fingers in the process because I can never wait long enough. It’s one of my favorite things, and costs ¢1100, or around $2.25. Paul finds a place to sit and waits for me.

We don’t always stop at the pork vendor, but this time we got some chuletas, those divine smoked, very lean and nearly boneless, pork chops. One acquaintance refers to the vendor as “the pork boys,” and the name has stuck, even though several of the staff are women. They’re one of the vendors with a refrigerated case and usually have an assortment of sausages, ham, bacon, the aforementioned chuletas, and other meats, though no chicken or fish (other vendors have those). We were having friends over for dinner on Saturday night, and I was making a dish with sweet potatoes, carrots, black beans, and smoked pork. At another stall, I bought some sweet potatoes – much drier than their American counterpart, but delicious nonetheless – and something for which there is no American equivalent: pejibayes, or “peach palm.”

At PriceSmart (started by the same founder as Costco), a while back they were offering samples of canned pejibayes: pay-hee-bah-yays in regular Spanish, but pay-hee-bah-jays in Costa Rica, where the y and the ll are both pronounced as j. Or as our Spanish teacher, the excellent Johann, said, “You don’t want to speak with an accent do you?” PriceSmart offered their pejibaye samples with mayonnaise, the traditional way of serving them. Paul and I thought they were delicious, so I bought several cans. (It being PriceSmart, like Costco, if we only wanted a single can, too bad.) They’re long gone, so I got some cooked ones at the feria to go in the stew. Pejibayes need to be cooked for several hours prior to being used, and at least one vendor offers cooked ones, which get fished out of the hot water in which they’re kept. They’re a bit smaller than a peach, have a skin which must be removed, and, like a peach, orange flesh. The texture is a bit like a slightly-undercooked winter squash, and the flavor is mild, slightly nutty and very rich. There’s one large black seed inside, a bit smaller than that of a peach, and easily removed. I like them with mayonnaise, too, but they were wonderful in the stew!

When I remember, I also pick up a bunch of flowers at the feria, the cost of which is between ¢1000 and ¢1500. Paul has to have half a papaya for breakfast every morning and always goes to the same vendor, who now greets Paul as a regular, shaking his hand and picking out a couple of very nice papayas for him each time. There are other vendors selling papayas, but Paul has developed a nice relationship with “his” vendor.

Each week at the feria, I try to remember to pick something up that I’ve never used before. One week not so long ago, several vendors had some green or orange “things” that were on a stalk, each of the things maybe a little bigger than those tiny new potatoes you can find at the grocer’s. I asked about them at one of the vendors, using my best bad Spanish, how do you cook these vegetables? “Cook?” he replied, “no, they’re fruit! You don’t cook them.” Then he told me they were very rich and sold me a bag of reddish and orange ones. They’re called jocotes (ho-CO-tays), and I had to get on the CR forum to ask how to handle them. Turns out that they get blanched to make them easier to peel, then you pull off the peel and pretend that the peel is an artichoke leaf, and use your teeth to scrape the jocote flesh from the peel. Then you’re left with an enormous seed, with a very thin layer of jocote flesh adhering to it. It takes a lot of effort to eat them, it’s true, but they are delicious. I really cannot describe the flavor, but the vendor was right: muy rico (very rich), indeed!

 

17/9/12:

A neighbor told us about the lecheria (dairy) about a mile north of us. It’s a tiny place, but crammed with a refrigerator case with dairy products and piles of packaged items on top of the glass case and in wire shelves next to the entrance, beside the back door, behind the glass case ,and against the wall. For such a small space, it has a remarkable variety of food!

They have wonderful fresh sour cream, cheeses, milk (raw, don’t tell the USDA), and all sorts of packaged items, including very good sugar cookies that we always buy. The same neighbor told us that if we arrive shortly after they open at 7, they’ll have available milk from cows that have just been milked. We show up at other times, too, but if I need milk, that’s the time we arrive, The milk is delicious, although Paul refuses to drink it (though that is the milk I use in cooking). I guess maybe I’m taking a chance, but, I haven’t been sick. (And the milk is so good that I sometimes pour myself a glass just for the pleasure of drinking it, which I haven’t enjoyed so much since I was a kid!)

Paul’s favorite thing there is the gleaming commercial espresso/cappuccino maker, and on those mornings when we pick up some milk, he gets a café con leche for ¢600. It seems so out of place with the bags of sour cream and cheese, but there it is.

They have all sorts of interesting cheeses, some of which we like better than others. My absolute favorite is a cheese that comes in small balls, a dark tan on the outside and pale tan on the inside. It’s a gouda-type smoked cheese, and everyone we’ve introduced to it has liked it. I am sure they smoke it in-house, as the outside sometimes has burned bits clinging to it. They also have a few varieties of goat cheese and fresh mozzarella. One of those things we were warned about is how terrible the cheese is in CR. Of course, you cannot get traditional cheddar, and the parmesan is either imported or from Monte Verde (a premium cheese-maker in CR) and very expensive, but some of the other cheeses are delightful! Fancy? No: you won’t find the variety of a good cheese importer like PFI, Pacific Food Imports, in south Seattle, with their 25′ long dairy case with 50+ kinds of spectacular cheese, but we’ve found very good basic cheese here. No doubt we’ll notice the lack of cheddar at some point, but we’ve also heard that there’s a new cheese shop that’s opened in San Ramon, so you never know…..

And this brings us back to the feria and my favorite grocery store, Gran Bodega:  If you choose to eat more or less as you ate in the US, you will pay a fortune. American-style meats, cheese, and prepared items are available here, but they are a king’s ransom, far more than you’d pay for the same item in the US. If you use the foods available at the feria and local markets and eat, for example “spinach,” which bears only a passing resemblance to spinach you may be used to in the US, but which is quite good as a gently cooked vegetable, you will do just fine. Many familiar produce items, like tomatoes, beautiful, sweet cucumbers and zucchini, onions and garlic, gorgeous eggplants, and even broccoli and cauliflower, are all available here, not to mention all the tropical fruit and vegetables grown here or in Panama. Most weeks, including my pupusa and flowers (and Paul’s papayas), we spend around $20 or $25 at the feria.

If we cannot find what we’re looking for at the feria, it will usually be available at Gran Bodega. It’s not a large store, but they have a small refrigerated case with meats, chicken parts, and fish, along with all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables and beautiful fresh herbs, which are used medicinally rather than for seasoning in CR. I’m always happy to use fresh thyme, basil, parsley, etc in cooking!

 

20/9/12:

Our Spanish is getting better by millimeters, but it is improving nonetheless. I went to our next door neighbors’ today to ask them a question. We got to talking, then a friend of theirs stopped by. They switched to Spanish because that’s all their friend speaks, and they spoke slowly enough that I understood maybe a third or more of what they were saying, including some of the jokes. Ernesto (our neighbor) translated parts of the conversation some of the time, but I didn’t always need it. Paul was here at the house getting ready for our Spanish lesson, but I figured that I was learning Spanish without the lesson!

But just when I begin to think that I’m making real progress, someone speaks to me in Spanish, and either I don’t understand the words themselves (more on that in a moment), or people speak so fast that I don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. My guess is that they’re often just making polite conversation, and here I am, totally mystified! One of the interesting issues is that so much of Spanish in Costa Rica – not all of it, by any means, but enough – are words unique to CR, called “tiquisimas.” There’s also a manner of speaking and words used by campesinos, called “pachuco,” which are also not in my dictionary.

Chico, the wonderful man who comes to cut our grass (using a weed whacker) and do whatever gardening he thinks should be done. He speaks just a few words of English, but is patient and he and I can talk after a fashion; Paul is also usually able to talk to him. He is a lovely, lovely man, and uneducated, maybe, but very smart, nonetheless. Paul and two of our neighbors were using bamboo poles that Chico had cut down from another neighbor’s property and prepared, and Paul had varnished, as supports for a ham antenna, which also required installing guy wires. Chico saw that they were struggling, assessed the situation, and then both worked alongside the other three and helped direct everyone so the four of them together installed the two large (about 25′ or more high) bamboo poles, the guy wires, and antenna materials. He’d never done anything like this before, but was able to figure it all out! At one point all four of them were trying to determine the right angle/location for the tethers for the wires, while still avoiding the trees and bushes that were in the way. Chico tied the wires off, then eyeballed things and determined where everything should go. So there he was directing an engineer, artist, and PhD. It was pretty funny to watch, but thanks to Chico, it all worked, and the ham radio is fully operational.