What I Learned About Slow and Sustainable Food in Costa Rica
This is the second in a series of blog posts about ecotourism and rural tourism in Costa Rica. Last month, we organised a tour for Hannah, Kasi and Simone, bloggers and members of the Ethical Influencer Network. Kasi continues the series by sharing her insights about agriculture, gastronomy and sustainable food in Costa Rica:
The idea of ‘slow food’ is everywhere.
Consumers are more interested in where their meals come from and they’re starting to demand higher standards. But when we live in a modern system that enables us to squelch our hunger in minutes with a ready made ‘organic’ meal, do we really understand what this means?
My perspective on slow food changed when I visited Costa Rica on a recent trip with Sumak Travel. Knowing Hannah, Simone and I were sustainability devotees, the team at Sumak planned an itinerary for us that centered around ecotourism, with a focus on sustainable food. We learned about coffee production in San Jose, agriculture and cacao at organic farm, and traditional cooking and cheesemaking at a community reserve, where locals hosted us in their homes (read about this in Hannah’s first post The Juanilama Community: Rural Tourism in Costa Rica).
Costa Ricans have been living slow and harvesting food sustainably for eons. They also have an intrinsic joy for it that showed up everywhere we traveled. I learned so much from their way of living that I’m eager to share. But proceed with caution because you may never look at a box of organic lettuce the same again.
Coffee Culture in Costa Rica
Our first stop in San Jose was a local coffee shop called Cafeoteca. It was nestled in the rapidly developing neighborhood of Barrio Escalante and had a level of hip that I was not anticipating. When we walked in, our barista greeted us with chocolate tortes, artisan bread and began schooling us on coffee production in Costa Rica. For starters, he told us the coffee bean is actually a cherry that’s picked from a tree. How it’s processed varies depending on what part of the world you’re in, but generally speaking, the methods are the same they just go by different names. In Costa Rica the ‘big three’ methods are – lavado or ‘washed,’ honey’ or ‘semi-dry’ and natural or ‘dry.’
- Lavado – The sugars surrounding the bean (the pulp and mucilage) are removed through fermentation or scrubbing, leading to a “cleaner” tasting cup. The majority of coffees, especially the prized Arabicas, are processed this way. Washing the bean means you get a cup that’s well balanced, acidic and often lighter in body.
- Natural – The entire cherry remains on the bean during the drying process, usually resulting in a bolder, heavier-bodied coffee. This process is commonly used with Robusta coffees. Leaving the bean intact means you get more of the fruit flavor, instead of just the bean. This is the rarest form of production in Costa Rica.
- Honey – The cherry bean pulp is removed but no fermentation is used, leaving the sweet mucilage on the bean. With this process, you wind up with a coffee that’s sweet and jammy with a body that reflects its name. Honey is less acidic than lavado but lighter and lower in quality than natural – a middle ground, if you will.
But coffee’s flavor isn’t determined solely by process. The region also comes into play. The same way a wine drinker knows the terroir, a coffee drinker should know the altitude. For example, the Tarrazu region in Costa Rica is prized for its high altitudes of 1000-1800 meters above sea level, rich soils and advanced processing methods. For this reason, it accounts for almost 35% of the tiny country’s total production.
The final factor in developing a coffee’s flavor profile – and one you or your barista have direct control over – is the brew method. Our barista introduced four common methods: chemex, French press, siphon and traditional drip. I’m an espresso fiend so I normally use a simple stovetop moka pot at home, but this sampling opened my eyes to a new favorite, hands down, the siphon.
After our coffee 101, I was still curious about one thing: the buzzy word Arabica. I see it widely used without explanation everywhere, so I asked what makes this type of coffee so special. I was told that to know Arabica, I first had to understand its relative, Robusta, which is prized for its insect resistance and high yield. Arabica, on the other hand, has less caffeine, more lipids and sugars and is more finicky to harvest. This is why Robusta is mass-produced and Arabica is regarded as ‘bespoke’ or ‘exclusive.’
If you want to take a deeper dive in all things coffee, Café Imports is a good resource.
We followed the coffee with a 7-course plant based dinner at Al Mercat, where the chef José Pablo prepared a private meal for us with the same finesse you’d find in a major cosmopolitan city. Big difference here: Costa Rican hospitality. You can also enjoy a visit to the restaurant’s own farm, where they produce most of the produce for their kitchen. Our menu for the night for example included: chickpea croquettes with coconut mayo; sweet potato gnocchi with Caribbean sauce and chard; squash and mango ceviche with hibiscus and basil; tender cucumber with creole apple salad; pinolillo ice cream with wafer and salted caramel peanut and turmeric sauce.
It was a lavish experience to counter our next few days, which would be spent hiking, farming and cooking. That’s the beauty of traveling with Sumak, you get a taste of it all.
After coffee fueled dreams, we ventured to Finca Sura, a family-run organic farm near Sarapiqui, in the North. We trekked across the farm on a guided tour to learn about the crops they grow and the indigenous animals. The crop highlights included sugar cane, vanilla, cinnamon – I promise we weren’t trying to bake a cake – and tropical fruits and vegetables like taro, chayote and pineapple, Finca Sura’s crown jewels (pun intended).
We stopped for some energy shots of sugar cane juice and then (attempted) to catch our own tilapia for dinner. By evening, the family had prepared a full Costa Rican meal for us, about 80% of which came directly from the farm (staples like rice are bought in from elsewhere).
Later that night, our hankering for sweets kicked in. For dessert, the family had promised us hot chocolate. But the milk-heavy creation we were accustomed to was not in the plans. Instead we shelled, roasted and ground cacao beans into a paste that was mixed into hot water – creating a savory raw treat that packed more health than comfort benefits.
A spoonful of brown sugar helped it go down.
With dairy missing in our chocolate, our calcium came in cheese form.
At our next stop, a homestay in the Juanilama community, we tried our hand at traditional cheesemaking. We milked a cow, churned the liquid, added enzymes, waited patiently and strained the final product into a fully formed treat. We jokingly called it “rubber cheese” because it had a squeakier texture than normal. I paired it with the sweet plantain dessert we also learned to cook when we shared a meal with the community.
A new perspective on food
Each time we paused to eat on this trip, a reality hit me. We often devoted an entire day to preparing a single meal, and this doesn’t account for the time involved to grow the food. It’s been beaten into me to buy organic and local produce and cook at home more often than not, but despite this, I’m still incredibly removed from my food. Don’t get me wrong, this is great because it frees up more time for other productive outlets, like writing this article, but now that I’ve seen what real slow food takes, I have a grounded appreciation for what’s on my plate.
If food is authentically slow, an entire lifetime can revolve around feeding oneself, one’s family and one’s community.
I’d like to extend a special thanks to Sumak for planning a trip that balanced tourism with learning. If you’re craving new perspectives when you travel, seek out Sumak for planning your adventure.
About the author:
Kasi writes about ethical fashion for the mainstream consumer at thepeahen.com. She is a member of the Ethical Influencer Network – a global community of writers and creatives committed to promoting conscious consumerism. See more pictures form the trip on Instagram: #ethicalinfluencersxsumaktravel
How to do it:
If you are planning to visit on your own, find below the details of the initiatives we worked with:
- Juanilama Community, you can contact Sandra at firstname.lastname@example.org (in Spanish) or visit their website: www.turismoruraljuanilama.org
- Finca Sura, you can contact Rodolfo at email@example.com (in Spanish)
- Al Mercat, you can contact José Pablo at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page
- Cafeoteca, you can send an email to email@example.com
If you are looking for a food tour in San José, check local company Foodie Tours CR. Finally, don’t forget to subscribe to our quarterly newsletter to make sure you never miss blog posts like this one in the future!
- Ethical Bloggers Promoting Ecotourism in Costa Rica – Campaign Summary
- Finca Sura: Tourism and Organic Farming in Costa Rica
- The Juanilama Community: Rural Tourism in Costa Rica
- More than a turquoise river – Rio Celeste tour with culture, farming and wildlife
- An organic coffee tour at Finca Rosa Blanca, a coffee plantation resort in Costa Rica
- Organic chocolate tour in the Amazon rainforest – An Ecuador Adventure
- Food for thought: Local food and sustainable development