Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Costa Rican Cuisine, Wine & Ecotourism – Living the “Pura Vida”

March 13, 2013 –This past week I enjoyed my first visit to the beautiful country of Costa Rica. Though better known for coffee than wine, since I was in the country to present a paper on the wine supply chain at the NBES academic conferences, I was naturally curious to learn about the types of wine available in Costa Rica. Therefore I made it my mission to investigate wine lists and store selections during my stay.

Monkeys in Costa Rica

Chilean Wine Dominates, Followed by Argentina and Spain

After visiting six restaurants, three grocery stores and four wine shops, I would have to say that Chilean wine seems to dominate the market place by about 50% – at least on the Pacific Coast near Jaco where I was staying. This was followed by Argentinian and Spanish wine, both with estimates of around 20%, and California wine making up the last 10%. The most common US brands were KJ, Robert Mondavi Woodbridge, and Barefoot (Gallo).

Obviously this was not a scientific poll, but it does provide an idea of what types of wine you will find when visiting the country. In addition, Costa Rica actually produces some fruit wines, because wine grapes cannot grow in such a hot, tropical climate. It is interesting to note, that since their alcohol taxes are higher, wine prices are more expensive as well. For example, a bottle of 2011 Barefoot Chardonnay was $12 in the grocery store, whereas in the US it usually sells for around $7. In a restaurant I paid $11 for a glass of 2012 Montez Alpha Sauvignon Blanc.

Hot, Humid Climate Calls for Chilled White Wine, Beer or Rum Drinks

Since Costa Rica is covered with many rainforests and volcanoes, and is known for producing coffee and bananas, it obviously has a warm and moist climate. Indeed, from December through May, the Pacific side of the country where I visited is very hot and sunny. Everyday the temperatures hovered in the high 90’s F with 90% humidity. Then during July through November, the rains come – dumping an average of 400 inches on the land, and allowing them to grow rice in the fields.

Because of the warm climate, most locals drink beer or rum with a preference and pride in their homegrown brands of Imperial beer and Cacique Guaro rum. The latter is blended with fruit juice or “agua de pipa” - coconut water. Because of the intense heat, when I bought wine, I was drawn to the crisp, chilled sauvignon blancs from Chile and verdejos from Spain. At the Marriott Los Suenos, I was interested to see that when they did serve cabernet sauvignon, it was chilled because they kept the bottles on ice. Though that may sound strange for a red wine, it made sense in Costa Rica because the nights were so sweltering and sticky.

Costa Rican Food – Fresh and Simple

Not much has been written on Costa Rican cuisine, and that is because it is rather simple, consisting of fresh fish, fruit, rice, and beans. They also enjoy chicken and fried plantains, and craft some local cheeses. The food has a bit of Caribbean flare, but I found I was missing sauces, salsas, and spices in general that would make the cuisine more interesting.

A very strange experience occurred when I ordered a whole red snapper, which is supposed to be a specialty of the region. However when it arrived, it was so tough and rubbery I could barely eat it. Apparently the custom is to flour and salt it, then deep fry it for about an hour. It is served with fresh lime, but no sauce. I found the best bet is to order fresh filet of sea bass or mahi mahi. They also make good ceviche with tilapia and/or mango.

Costa Rica is World Class in Ecotourism

Where Costa Rica does excel is in ecotourism. I have never visited a country that has perfected this subject to such an art form. It is very inspiring how the whole economy seems to revolve around protecting the rainforests, their national parks (which make up more than 25% of the country), conservation, recycling, and education on all of these issues to tourists.

Baby Sloth in Tree in Costa Rica

We visited Manuel Antonio and Carara National Parks, and in both cases had professional guides with degrees in biology and conservation that guided us through the rainforest. They carried large telescopes and could easily spot toucans, red macaws, sloths, monkeys, fruit bats, and other exotic rare birds and creatures. They knew the name of every tree, bug, and bush, and showed great enthusiasm in explaining nature and the impact of man on the environment.

We also did a kayak trip through a mangrove swamp and learned how the mangroves protect the land from erosion. We visited a few beaches and discovered that they are quite varied, with some having rocks and grey sand, whereas others are pure white sand with native coconut palms. Another highlight of the trip were the very large crocodiles that live in the many rivers and crawl out to rest in the sun on muddy banks.

Overall, Costa Rica is a beautiful country with abundant wildlife, friendly and enthusiastic people, and a belief in enjoying life as illustrated by their motto of “pura vida”, which means “pure life” or “live life in the moment.”

Friday, March 1, 2013

Enjoying a Slow Food Feast in San Minato and Visit to Falaschi Butcher Shop

Jan. 10, 2013 – After leaving Bolgheri the evening before, we arrived back in Florence rather late and checked into Hotel Donatello. This is a beautifully decorated hotel with ornate furniture and draperies in the rooms, but rather tense and unfriendly service. Its upside is a location that is within easy walking distance of downtown Florence, the Duomo, and the railroad station.

We awoke the next morning to our first raindrops of the trip and were grateful the rain had waited until our last day to arrive. As it turned out, it only sprinkled during the morning, and dried up in the afternoon.

The Slow Food Butcher Shop of Macelleria Sergio Falaschi

We boarded the bus and drove about 45 minutes to the ancient town of San Minato, home of the slow food movement. Our first appointment was at the famous butcher shop of Macelleria Sergio Falaschi where we saw a demonstration of how to make sausage. I never realized they used the real pig intestines as the cases of the sausage, and will now make sure to always remove them before I cook my sausages.

We were impressed with how concerned the butchers were with the source of the meat, how the animals were treated, and what they ate. The samples of salami, sausage, and prosciutto they shared were excellent, and my favorite was one that was made with fennel seeds and vin santo. I purchased some to take home and was allowed to bring it back into the country when I told US customs I had bought it in Italy. Unfortunately others in our group had their meat confiscated when they arrived – not sure why.

Wandering Around San Minato

Another ancient hill-top city, San Minato is extremely charming with many small winding streets, a few shops and restaurants, a famous church that was bombed in WWII, and a tower on the top of the hill which a magnificent view. We climbed to the top and enjoyed taking photos of the misty countryside.

Slow Food Lunch at La Colombaie Restaurant

La Colombaie is a small, casual restaurant outside the town of San Minato, and is apparently known for its slow food meals. We sat down in a private dining room upstairs where they had a table that seated 30 people. It was very nice that we could all be together for this last meal.

They served five courses with a tasty Chianti Classico and a local vermintino to wash it down. The first course was a nice soup made of winter vegetables, but the second course (my favorite) was frowned upon by many of the chefs within our group because it was fried zucchini blossoms. Though excellent, they were not in season, and philosophically, all slow food meals should only be made from local foods that are in season.

This was also a problem with the next course, which was pasta with tomato sauce. They mourned the fact that tomatoes were not in season, and therefore, the course was not authentic. The remaining three courses were average – another pasta, a shredded chicken in orange sauce, and an Italian cake for dessert. So all in all, our slow food lunch was slightly disappointing – including the fact that the ingredients were not explained to us – but the company was great, and the wine flowed freely, and we could all relax on the bus back to Florence.

Last Evening in Florence and Flight Home

That evening, I went out for a light calzone dinner with Janeen and found a new digestif which I greatly enjoyed, Fernet Branca Mint – very refreshing. Later we met up with some other members of the group in an Irish pub and celebrated with lemoncello shots. The next morning, I caught a taxi to the airport around 6:45am, and flew back to San Francisco via Zurich, while the rest of the group enjoyed one last free day in Florence and day trips to Rome and Venice.

Video of the Trip

When we all returned to San Francisco, each person sent their 5 top photographs and we put together this YouTube Video (7 minutes) highlighting our trip. Enjoy! (