The fresh butter spread easily onto whole grain bread. Rich in chia seeds, the tender yet appropriately dense bread was yet another tasty creation of Tina, Hotel Cuna del Angel’s pastry chef. If gluten intolerant, everything served at Cuna del Angel is safe to eat and to all other guests it’s simply delicious.
A quick read of the classic European inspired menu at the La Palapa restaurant gives guests not a clue their dining health is being guarded. An array of breads vies with such classics as spinach tagliatelle with artichokes, beef tenderloin accented by porcini mushrooms, and a presentation of greens in the Jungle Salad that’s an evocation of the surrounding forest. Deeper reading reveals the pastas are made from cassava, lentil and garbanzo bean flours and many of the salad’s greens are sustainably harvested.
German by birth, Tom Nagel’s passion for natural healthy eating developed over time and was accelerated by organic farm ventures in Spain. Drawn over a decade ago to the climate, business potential and progressive farming methods practiced in Costa Rica, Tom’s vision for Cuna del Angel’s La Palapa dining room was to be a discrete haven of healthy eating. Second hand experience with celiac disease made the 100% gluten-free decision easy.
The Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica, of which Cuna del Angel’s a member, take pride in living sustainable tourism. Hotel Cuna del Ángel has the highest recognition – five leaves – by the Costa Rica Tourism Board through its Certificate for Sustainable Tourism program. To Tom, caring for the cradle (cuna) of the angels is a reciprocal arrangement with the guardians of human life.
Demonstrating this commitment to local, organic and sustainable foods and sources is as close as Tom Nagel’s own farm. Many of Cuna del Angel’s vegetables, greens, herbs, legumes – and eggs – are grown using hydroponics or permaculture agricultural methods. The farm produces its own natural fertilizer utilizing a bio digester with its methane gas byproduct channeled to other uses. A natural wood vinegar herbicide is made through a distillation process that condenses a smoldering fire of wood and banana leaves.
Honey for Cuna del Angel’s kitchen is harvested from the farm’s hives but only from the upper layers so as to minimize disturbance to the colony. Four hundred cocoa trees discovered on the farm produce the dense, smooth dark Tom’s Chocolate Bar, but they’re not for sale. Tom donates the bars for charity fundraisers and uses them as a delicious business card.
All of these techniques take time, but to Tom the alternatives are not debatable. Even the hotel’s design is an expression of a vision that it is possible to find balance in life and space. La Palapa dining room is homage to the traditional indigenous culture’s sense of orienting life according to energy points – the web site has a complete explanation. The soft ambient lighting in the open walled dining room that overlooks the jungle and Pacific Ocean is certainly conducive to calmly enjoying fine cuisine.
Meals usually start with bread and a gluten-free menu easily complies. Cultures worldwide have been making bread products from non-gluten flours for millenniums. Chef Tina at Cuna del Angel uses corn, rice and yucca flour blends. All baked items, ice creams and other desserts are made in house. Gluten-free hors d’oeuvre bread with a chewy cracker texture was served with a seasoned butter of capers and olives. Whole grain bread speckled with chia seeds was indistinguishable from its wheat flour compatriots. It was simply an excellent slice of bread.
The aforementioned Jungle Salad featured kutuk leaf, Jamaica leaf, organic spinach and watercress with oil and balsamic. The variations in texture and color are as interesting as their source. All grow as bushes so harvesting is by trimming as the plant continues to produce.
Soups included an earthy cream of porcini and truffle that tasted like the forest after a summer rain. Bright reddish orange cream of pajibaye is a true Central American treat. The fruit of the Peach Palm, cooked pajibaye has a dense butternut squash texture and color. Its flavor has notes of pumpkin with a touch of lemon juice. Classic entrees of baked fillet of local snook was bathed in a bright green basil sauce, while the flavor of pork tenderloin – only prepared well done – was sparked by tangy tamarind sauce.
The imaginative dessert creations are impressive especially given that they are prepared as a component to a balanced meal and not just an extravagant indulgence – but don’t remind your endorphins. Nothing is more iconic of formal dining than French table service and Roberto Bonilla Campos did appropriate justice with flourishes to table side flambé mangoes in brown sugar butter sauce with Grand Marnier and Courvoisier. Gluten-free crepes are available, but the rich mango was terrific with house made vanilla bean ice cream.
Fortunately it was possible to taste the desserts over several meals, so the chocolate, pistachio, passion fruit and honey ice creams are as luscious as the vanilla. Tart Tartin had as flakey and buttery a crust as any Parisian patisserie, and passion fruit pie had a firm but creamy chiffon-like texture with a zing of citrus to compliment its natural perfume.
Hotel Cuna del Angel has sixteen spacious rooms with balconies facing the ocean in the main building and seven in the Jungle Villa. The Jungle Villa has a tree house vibe as the balconied rooms are built into the forest. Wellness at the hotel extends beyond gluten-free foods to the attractive spa and the extensive list of outdoor activities in the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
Located in the hills above a quiet and secluded stretch south of Playa Dominical, the hotel is ideally situated for half and full day excursions for a plethora of activities including Corcovado National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, forest hiking and canopy tours, sport fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, horseback riding, whale and dolphin watching as well as ten nearby beaches. The front desk will help with any arrangements. Or relaxing at the hotel’s infinity pool surrounded by the jungle with the chirping of birds might be the best prescription for wellness. Active or passive, a guest will be cradled at Hotel Cuna del Angel.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose. Getting around: Costa Rica has an extensive inter city bus system and many tourist van options. The easiest transportation is renting a car. Costa Rica’s road system is generally in good condition.
Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Hotel Cuna del Angel, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads safe and comfortable.
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