“A business we can do together; something we can grow together.” Alan Mundy
Just imagine light, creamy, hand crafted peanut brittle and rich aromas of organically grown Mexican coffee. Alan Mundy and Ausel Diaz Arguello did, and in the process La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle blended their lives. Yet when Alan and Ausel met just a few years ago they were both in flux.
The date “1985” on the package of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle means more than the start of a business. It wasn’t actually the start of a business. It was Alan’s stress therapy.
In Louisiana Alan was in the real estate and electronics businesses. Yet in an urge to do something creative, he started making his grandmother’s peanut brittle in 1985 as gifts for friends. That soon turned into a marketing tool – gifts to clients at the holidays.
For thirty years Alan made upwards of 2,000 pounds of peanut brittle annually as gifts. Yet his life altered several years ago when his mother’s health started to decline. For a variety of reasons, relocating to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was desirable for both Alan and his mother.
Ausel was fresh from culinary studies at Puerto Vallarta’s Casserole Instituto Gastronomico. He was also from Chiapas, the southwestern most state in Mexico, known for its lush tropical beauty, abundant agriculture and poverty.
Ausel’s grandfather had developed a 20 acre coffee farm nearly a century before. Despite the fact that it grew to 120 acres, like many small farmers, his grandfather and father sold the beans wholesale to coffee dealers. Profits were meager.
A regional outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust five years ago led to a downturn in both coffee production and prices, which resulted in the loss of the family farm. Prospects for Ausel’s family were dire. Then Allan and Ausel met in Puerto Vallarta and a plan that would benefit all developed.
With Ausel’s knowledge of Chiapas, family ties and traditional organic farming methods used for centuries, Alan’s entrepreneurial logic saw a way to revitalize the family by reverting to tradition. In the process they created La Fortuna Organic Coffee by elevating common Arabica beans to premium status.
Securing title to 200 acres for the family simply started the process. The densely planted acreage thrived in the mineral rich tropical mountains of Chiapas. The chaff from the roasted coffee beans was the only enrichment added back to the soil.
Planting, maintaining and harvesting coffee have always been hands-on tasks due to necessity. During harvest season in 2017 (November to March) demand for workers exceeded the local supply. La Fortuna employed four workers from Guatemala.
Alan and Ausel created a business plan for La Fortuna that relied on personal attention to every detail by those involved. Traditional hands-on techniques from sorting, roasting, packing and marketing have been essential to ensure premium quality. “It’s a labor of love,” quipped Alan, and he was correct, but not just in the common understanding of that phrase applied to business.
Coffee beans are food, and the cooking method has a major influence on flavor. Using a clay oven, the beans are hand roasted in small batches in a heavy iron bowl topping the wood fire of Indigenous pine and robles. The beans are stirred with a wooden spoon.
Subtle chocolate and spice undertones were enhanced by the gentle roasting process while hints of smoke from the pine and robles wood complimented rich, earthy notes in the beans. The coffee was smooth, medium bodied and light on acidity.
Hand packaging of the beans minimizes breakage that releases essential oils, which trap flavors. The packaged beans are shipped to Puerto Vallarta where Ausel and Alan take over marketing. Yet that’s not the end of the Chiapas connection – there are peanuts.
Peanut brittle was a Southern United States invention from the late 19th century. The South was awash with peanuts and sugar so their combination was to be expected. The recipe Alan grew up on was from his grandmother, who like many gleaned knowledge from regional variations.
Alan had the idea that once in Puerto Vallarta the peanut brittle recipe he had used the past thirty years could be turned into an enterprise that involved his mother. Unfortunately, her health soon made that an unrealistic expectation. Then culinary trained Ausel entered Alan’s life along with peanuts from Chiapas.
What makes the superlative “finest” believable was not just the taste but also the texture. Having grown up on Northern versions where the caramelized sugar was truly brittle – like breaking glass – PVs Finest was creamy. The tan brittle crumbled in the mouth becoming a smooth caramel counterpoint to the deep flavors of roasted peanuts.
Sponge peanut brittle was one variation in Louisiana that existed for well over a century. Alan and Ausel have taken note that Canadians liken it to English sponge toffee. Considering Puerto Vallarta’s popularity among Canadian tourist, that’s a good marketing connection.
Organic peanuts and small batch production are the hallmarks of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle. The peanuts are sourced from farms owned by Ausel’s extended family, which provide over 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) of roasted peanuts per season. No changes have been made to the recipe of Alan’s grandmother.
Enhancing the basic recipe though was always considered. Alan and Ausel are developing a recipe with the addition of coconut. Coating PVs Finest with chocolate would pair a Southern tradition with the birthplace of chocolate.
Made by Ausel in their climate-controlled kitchen, the week’s production sells out quickly. PVs Finest Peanut Brittle winter production coincides with the seasonal schedule of Puerto Vallarta farmer and craft markets. During the winter season Alan and Ausel work five major markets selling La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle.
Before meeting, Alan and Ausel had separate desires to make a difference in the lives of loved ones. Together they succeeded – a proud mother and a revitalized family – based on centuries of tradition. What they could not have foreseen was how candy and coffee would grow their own love.
Please read more by Travel with Pen and Palate at…
Naxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a large aquifer under the island in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zeus at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) tends to trap the clouds increasing rainfall. Agriculture is an important economic sector making Naxos the most self-sufficient island in the Cyclades.
This abundance is obvious in Naxos restaurants, artisan food shops and food markets. Besides produce Naxos is famous throughout Greece for its cheese, meats, fish and seafood. Simply walking along the wide, beautiful, long, crescent, pedestrian friendly waterfront of Chora (Naxos Town) is a gastronomic delight. Some of the best cafes and tavernas in Naxos are sandwiched between shops offering Naxos crafts and food products – it’s the center of nighttime social life in town.
From artisan cheeses and wood oven baked breads, handmade ecclesiastical beeswax candles, weaving on a century old loom, bathing at another secluded beach to leisurely sipping tsipouro while enjoying meze on the waterfront, Lispi is for seekers of tradition and tranquility.
Lipsi is an island lover’s dream and a journey back to tradition.
please read my July article for the Hellenic News of America
Sure Moira Martingale, the doyenne of the French House Party, wants her guests to relax. Yes the conversation among the international gathering of participants is often scintillating. Yet when you’ve just prepped your pigeon and are reaching for the brandy to marinate, neither hand is on a notebook or adjusting the voice recorder – the pigeon rules.
As a travel journalist I like capturing the thoughts of others to illuminate articles. Yet as a chef, the pigeon held my full attention.
French House Party culinary workshops are not cooking demonstrations. They are hands-on learning experiences working alongside award winning chefs. The multi-course lunches and dinners guests enjoy are the dishes they are preparing.
Moira Martingale, British novelist, transformed her eight-bedroom en suite villa, Domaine St. Raymond, outside the UNESCO World Heritage City of Carcassonne into the French House Party over a decade ago. Small group workshops (approximately 10 guests) are offered in singing/songwriting, creative writing and the culinary arts. The experience is all-inclusive with the workshop fee covering room, meals, wine, snacks, excursions and the villa’s facilities that make this a five star party (pool, tennis, bike riding…ask Moira.)
The pigeon is still in my hand. There are seven procedures in creating Chef Robert Abraham’s Young Lauragais pigeon with sweet clover, confit of shallots, carrots and honey. It was worth every time-consuming step and even better when paired with a Domaine Le Fort Malepere.
Yet despite popular assumptions, French cuisine is rarely as complex as the pigeon. French recipes do not all ooze with butter and cream. They’re light, fresh with an emphasis on taste, texture and presentation.
Whereas it may not be easy to find pigeon in the local market, smoked haddock is in many fish markets or, as a last resort, in the refrigerated packaged fish section of larger supermarkets. If time does not allow for making the fresh buns, a good quality bakery will have a selection of soft buns – do not use a hard roll.
Chef Robert Abraham’s Smoked Haddock Burger with lime cream
A light, savory alternative on a warm summer day.
Ingredients for 6 servings:
400 gr (14 ounces) bread flour
20 gr (4 teaspoons) sugar
7 gr (1 teaspoon) salt
25 cl (8 ounces) warm milk (43°C/110°F)
12 gr. (1¾ package) active dry yeast
40 gr (3 tablespoons) soft unsalted butter
golden or black sesame seeds
Warm the milk, remove from heat and add the yeast.
In a mixing bowl slowly blend the flour, sugar, egg and salt. (Either use a mixer with a dough hook or stir by hand)
Add the milk/yeast mixture and the soft butter slightly increasing mixer’s speed (or stir harder).
Knead the dough in the mixer for approximately 5 minutes, or remove to a lightly floured board and knead by hand. Either method the dough should be smooth and springs back when lightly indented by a finger.
Cover the bowl with a slightly damp cloth and allow it to rise for 50 to 60 minutes.
Weigh out balls of dough: 50gr/2 ounces for small rolls, 90gr/3 ounces for large.
Place on a baking sheet and cover with a cloth. Allow to rise 60 minutes. Brush lightly with an egg wash (1 egg white/1 teaspoon water beaten) and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Place a pan of hot water on the bottom rack of a preheated oven and the baking sheet on the middle rack. Bake at 180°C/350°F for 10 – 15 minutes until golden brown.
10 cl (3 ounces) white wine
5 cl (1½ ounces) apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon honey
Peal and chop the shallots.
Place in a saucepan with all the ingredients.
Cook on low heat stirring occasionally until nearly all liquid is evaporated.
Zest from 2 limes
1 teaspoon salt
25 cl (8 ounces) heavy whipping cream
Heat the cream with the lime zest and salt until cream just begins to steam.
Turn off heat and infuse for 30 minutes. Chill in refrigerator 30 to 60 minutes.
If you are familiar with a siphon, add the strained cream and follow directions. If not familiar with a siphon, whip the chilled cream with a beater until soft peaks form just before serving the burgers.
Using a fish fillet knife – and I’d recommend gloves if not used to slicing potentially slippery fish – thinly slice wide haddock no larger than a couple inches in size.
Heat the milk with the herbs until steaming. Add the haddock, reduce heat and gently poach for 10 minutes. Drain.
Cut the rolls in half, lightly brush with extra virgin olive oil, return to baking sheet and heat for 5 minutes.
Place a roll on a plate and spread with a little lime cream, a dap of shallot confit, some haddock slices, more lime cream and then top with the bun.
You may garnish with baby greens, drizzle of oil, sprinkle of sea salt and a dab of lime cream.
There are several steps, but the buns can be made earlier in the day or store bought. The confit and the lime cream could be made a day in advance, just do not whip the cream until ready to assemble the burgers. The haddock can also be prepared a day in advance, arranged on plastic wrap in single layers and refrigerated.
At the French House Party creativity not time is of the essence. With two 3-hour workshops sandwiching a delicious lunch, the pool is inviting at the end of the day. A relaxing multi course dinner that you worked on will top the evening with scintillating conversation, laughter and remind you that, yes, you are a guest at a French House Party.
When you go:
The 2018 schedule of the French House Party runs from May 5 through October 1.
The French House Party, Domaine St. Raymond, is less than 50 miles (77 km) southeast from the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and the rail station Gare de Toulouse-Matabiau. The Gare de Carcassonne is 16 miles (27 km) west. Transportation is provided for guests arriving by air or train from either Toulouse or Carcassonne to Domaine St. Raymond.
Delos was firmly established as a spiritual center by at least 2,000 BC. Apollo was born on Delos, but the island did not need Apollo’s stardom even in antiquity. At its zenith in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Delos was the wealthiest city in the Hellenic world.
Known for its agricultural abundance, Dionysus, god of wine, theater and love, is the protector of Naxos Island and the Small Cyclades. The island provides much to make the god’s stay comfortable.
It was on Mykonos that the young Zeus defeated the Titans, emerging as King of the gods…than the Golden Butler arrived…
The whole idea of Food Paths Tinos, Giorgos says, was “to keep the chain of knowledge alive from one generation to another.”
Soft spoken, young, relaxed, model handsome Giorgos Amoiralis quietly explains how an idea morphs into a phenomenon. We’re at lunch at Bourou Restaurant in Chora on Tinos Island in the northern Cyclades. The brilliant October sun gleams off the Aegean illuminating both the fine cuisine and the mesmerizing conversation.
More than once, I admit, my eyes misted over during lunch. Food Paths’ mission is not saving lives; it’s saving a heritage. Over the past six years as I’ve traveled Greece during its on-going economic problems and, yes, the brain drain of highly educated young people, I’ve experienced a resilience from the first visit. Today many Greek youth are looking back to what made their great grandparents thrive and survive.
They are looking at the 5,000-year-old heritage of Greece and bringing it into the 21st century, from learning the age-old skill of marble crafts, vineyards reviving thought-to-be extinct grape varieties to actively seeking new commercial opportunities for the unique agricultural products of the varied regions that comprise Greece.
Food Paths Tinos is a gastronomic event to get producers, farmers and restaurants to communicate and create “a huge table where all food traditions are brought together to make things better.” They don’t come to sell, but to become friends. (Old Greek saying: “Food is an excuse to get together with friends.”)
Started in 2014, it already attracts bloggers, food critics and chefs from around Greece. It has grown from a small gathering of food professionals to an island event. Food tastings, cooking demonstrations and the chance for the community to interact with professionals committed to Food Paths Tinos has helped increase demand for local products encouraging more young entrepreneurs to look at the land and what it provides for their future. Held in the second week of May, Food Paths Tinos has grown since 2014 from a volunteer staff of 50 to 150 to manage what has virtually become a festival.
Yet it was Giorgos’ understated passion for what he and a few friends set in motion that he recognizes transcends the original intention. What has held Greece together for millenniums has been the power of family and community. The violence, disruptions and social changes of the 20th century did much to undermine that foundation. Even on islands where everyone knows about everyone, isolation develops; knowing about everyone isn’t the same as knowing everyone.
Tinos Island farmers, cheese makers, cured meat producers and preserved local foods in shops have all experienced increasing demand. Yet Food Paths, Giorgos (owner of EXO Catering) and the other lunch guests said, has energized the community of Tinos. Not only have professionals in the field become friends, rather than simply associates, but the commonality of food has created new friendships and an understanding of the importance of maintaining local Greek food traditions among islanders.
During my four days on Tinos I experienced the islander’s pride in their local foods, especially among the restaurants. Tasoula Kouli and Antonis Zotali of Bourou Restaurant hosted lunch in Hora and it was a virtual menu of Tinos Island.
Malathouni with sun-dried tomatoes and capers: Malathouni is a cow’s milk cheese. The curds are separated from the whey before packing into cloth-lined baskets for a day. The cheese is then removed and hung in cloth to dry for 20 days.
Louza sausage with the wild green kitrena: Louza sausage is a specialty of the northern Cyclades. It’s cured with salt and then red wine. After curing it’s sprinkled with pepper, allspice, fennel, cloves and savory and finally pressed into wide intestine and hung to dry in the air 20 to 25 days. It’s served cut into very thin slices.
Bourou Restaurant’s Tinian Earth salad: Aged Malathouni (more than 20 days) tomatoes, white and black-eyed beans, lettuce, rocket, chickpeas and lentils.
Stuffed Eggplant salad: Bourou has taken a traditional eggplant spread, where the ingredients would have been pureed, and deconstructed it as a salad. Per salad, half an eggplant with skin is pan fried until soft. The eggplant is scooped out reserving the skin “cup.” Chopped tomatoes, onion, dill, mint, parsley, salt, pepper, sugar, garlic, olives and olive oil are tossed with the cooked eggplant and served in the eggplant skin cup.
Braised Lamb with pureed artichokes and roast potatoes: The lamb is marinated overnight in orange and lemon juice, thyme, mustard, garlic and olive oil. It’s then braised and slow roasted in a ceramic pot with the potatoes at low heat.
For the artichoke puree: cook the artichokes and then cut away the leaves until there is only the heart. Boil three times as much weight potatoes and carrots as artichokes. Drain the vegetables reserving a ½ cup cooking liquid. Puree all three with olive oil and a little cooking liquid if necessary. The combination of savory lamb and potatoes with sweet artichokes was a tasty match.
Dessert was rich, creamy homemade French vanilla ice cream with sour cherry sauce. The contrasting sweet/sour flavors were terrific.
Lunch at Bourou Restaurant coupled by inspiring conversation with Giorgos Amoiralis boosts my optimism even more that the future of Greece is in encouraging its youth to plow their roots back into the economy. In 2014 Food Paths Tinos started as a way for farmers and restaurant owners to get together. In four short years it energized Tinos Island community pride. Just imagine how such passion could stimulate a nation.
When you go: Tinos Island is easily reached by ferries from the nearby Athens ports of Piraeus and Rafina.
The Goumenissa P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin Goumenissa ) lies within the lush rolling hills of the Kilkis district in central Macedonia. The zone lies on the southeastern foothills of the Mount Paiko in the southwestern part of the Kilkis territory. The boundaries of the wine growing P.D.O. Goumenissa zone cover the areas around the town of Goumenissa,
Recognized in 1979, the compact zone is the smallest of the four Greek P.D.O. The region had also been a major silk producer, but competition from the Far East ended the industry in the 1950s.
Although the region grew and marketed wines since ancient times, the Great Wine Blight of the 19th century devastated the industry throughout Europe. By the 20th century new grape varieties from America resistant to the blight revived the Greek vineyards. Most of these vines were hybrids created from both American and Greek cuttings.
Xinomaveo and negoska are famous indigenous red grapes of the Goumenissa region. Xinomavro grapes have high acidity, strong tannins and complex aromatic character. Negoska contributes dark, purple color with medium acidity and tannins and is often a 20% blend with other grapes.
Aidarini Winery– established in 1864
The Aydarini family have been a fixture in the Goumenissa region since the mid19th century.The family-run business, led by Christos Aidarinis, maintaines its own vineyards and buys grapes from other wine-growers in the P.D.O. zone. A new state-of-the-art winery facility welcomes guests for guided tours and tasting trips as well as for purchases. Besides Greece, Aidarini wines are also exported to Germany, France and Cyprus.
Sauvignon Blanc – most exported to Germany – had aromas of walking through fresh fields of summer wild flowers. On the palate it was semi-dry with notes of lemon zest, fresh green grapes, white raisins. The finish is nice and dry in the throat. At Aidarini they served it to me with an interesting pairing of green olives sprinkled with orange zest.
Notes, an Aidarini blend of assyrtiko, malagouzia and chardonnay, was very light in aroma, like a soft breeze of fresh spring air after a light rainfall, with tones of grapefruit zest. In the mouth it was initially tart with subtle secondary tar notes. Swirled in the mouth hints of citrus zest, and green apples are evident – a complex wine. Finish is dry and slightly acidic – gives a slight punch. Food pairing: smoked salmon with cream cheese.
Roymenissa (Goumenissa Red Wine of Origin Name) is 70% Xinomavro and 30% Negoska). Earthy aromas of walking into a humid cave with hints of ripe grapes. In the mouth it was silky smooth with rich notes of ripe berries and currents that cut through the sweetness of secondary hints of plumbs and dried figs. The finish was smooth, dry and flavorful but not tart. The one-year maturation of wine in oak barrels gives an exquisite bouquet of fruit, wood and smoke. May be aged three to five years. Food pairing: prosciutto with cheese and apricots, grilled meat and mature cheeses.
Domaine Tatsis Winery – established 1996
The grandfather of Periklis and Stelios started making wines decades ago and turned it into a business. In Greece the level of wine appreciation is high due to the reality that so many families make wine at home.
Tatsis specializes in organic wines and since 2002 biodynamic growing techniques have dominated the growing process. The German association Demeter International is the only one that certifies biodynamic wineries (it’s an expensive certifying process.)
Domaine Tatsis never uses yeast, enzymes or preservatives. The hand labor involved with biodynamic farming is intensive. Leaves need to be hand trimmed to increase ventilation and prevent deadly molds and fungus. They do spray with copper sulfites and they ionize the water to multiply the copper’s effect. The winery has 32 acres of vineyards made up of Roditis Alepou, Malagousia and Chardonnay for the whites and Negoska, Xinomavro, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cinsaut for the reds.
Angel’s Heart Xinomavro White 2014 has aromas of honey. In the mouth those honey notes continue with ripe peach, apricots and figs. Dry with a slightly astringent finish. In a 2015 vintage the honey disappeared in the mouth and was replaced with fresh mineral water and subtle notes of herbal flowers. The finish was dry with a bit more acidity. Domaine Tatsis likes to age their whites believing they not only improve but that too many whites are sold young and raw – agree!
Tatsis 100% Negoska (a red grape cultivated exclusively in Goumenissa and part of the makeup of the area’s P.O.D. wines).
Domaine Tatsis is the only winery to bottle 100% negoska and as a red wine. The nose was full of ripe blueberries and red currents. The same notes continued in the mouth but intensified as very ripe, full flavored fruits that lingered on the tongue. The finish was dry and tingled in the throat.
Tatsis 100% Roditis 2014. Perhaps it’s the reddish amber tint to the wine, but the nose detected a hint of mandarin orange zest and honeysuckle. My mouth enjoyed dry, aromatic but light floral and herbal notes of young spring plants. The finish was dry and unexpectedly tingly in the throat.
Tatsis Wines are distributed in the USA by DNS Distributers, New York and San Francisco.
A fairly new winery ( first planting 1993 on 13 hectares – 2007 their first vintage) Chatzivaritis Estate produce three red, three whites and one rose. Wines are aged only in French Oak – $925 each and they keep the barrels at least 4 years.
Chloe Rose, 50/50 cabernet sauvignon and xinomavro, the crushed grape juice is in contact with the skins for eight hours before fermentation begins. It had a nose with floral hints, white currents, slightly unripe raspberries. In the mouth the tongue was coated with notes of strawberries and raspberries. The wine started semi dry but quickly changed to dry and finished in the throat light and dry.
100% Assyrtiko had the fresh, light yet complex flavor of this outstanding Greek white grape. Very little aroma for the nose to detect except fresh summer air. Identical taste notes continued – light floral, summer flowers with sweetness cut by a hint of grapefruit zest. The finish was dry and smooth continuing with notes of grapefruit.
The third wine was a 100% Assyrtiko experiment with natural yeast and aging for 6 months in oak that had been used for sauvignon blanc. The nose detected hints of caramel and wet cedar while in the month there was a slight sweetness uncharacteristic of an assyrtiko. Perhaps the aging in old barrels provided these flavors. Floral and herbal notes were secondary including anise and chamomile. In all a surprising and promising fermentation variation for this classic Greek wine.
Chatzivaritis Estate Eurynome Red 2013 is both deep red in color but in aromas of ripe plumbs and fresh red meat. These intense aromas continue in the mouth with notes of tobacco, grilled eggplant skin, thyme and then slides down the throat in a dry finish. It would be the perfect wine to pair with a grilled prime steak.
Chatzivaritis Estate wines are distributed in the USA by Ekletikon.
When you go: The Goumenissa P.D.O. region is easily reached by car from nearby historic Kilkis, which is 35 miles north of Thessaloniki.
Disclosure: The author was a guest of the wineries mentioned in this article through the cooperation of Kilkis Region Tourism. Special thanks to Marianna Skoularika, Michelle Karamisakis and Fotis Altiparmakidis of Kilkis Region Tourism for being my guides. Accommodations were provided by Dimosthenis Traditional Guesthouse in Goumenissa and Evridiki Hotel, Kilkis. Arrangements were facilitated by Pass Partout Tourism Marketing, DMC, Thessaloniki.
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:
A few people told me earlier that half a day was enough to appreciate Tinos. I’m not sure what they meant by “appreciate.” After four days I felt I’d barely skimmed the surface of the cultural and gastronomic delights of this northern Greek Cyclades Island.
My guide, Adriana Flores Bórquez, had planned an ambitious itinerary that could easily have stretched over a week, but we did manage to accomplish all and a bit more. Yet it’s impossible to write about everything this island has to offer in one article. Since gastronomy is such an essential part of Greek life, the island’s wines, beer, spirits, cheeses and sausages are part of what gives Tinos its unique character.
Leaving the sprawling modern city of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, Maurice Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels and my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica, deftly maneuvered the Toyota Rav4 on the winding roads as we ascended into the Cloud Forest. I was pleased I didn’t have to drive or else my field of vision would have been narrowed concentrating on the well paved but narrow mountain roads on our way to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Instead I could marvel at the panorama of the receding Central Valley as we entered the lush landscape for which this bio-diverse Central American nation is justifiably famous.
Costa Rica is a landmass equal to 0.03% of the Earth, about 20,000 square miles – the size of Vermont – but accounts for over 6% of the globe’s biodiversity. Just one hour from San Jose the emerald green mountain slopes are thick with coffee plants. Costa Rica leads world coffee production per acre because two trees are planted together.
Herds of cows and goats graze wrapped in swirls of misty clouds. Vendors selling large plump strawberries and the country’s ubiquitous balls of fresh mozzarella-like white cheese line village roads.
We stopped first at one of Costa Rica’s 27 national parks, which along with private wildlife and biological reserves encompasses nearly a third of the country – the largest percentage of protected national land on Earth. Central America is a seismically potent part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and Parc National Volcan Poas encompasses one of Costa Rica’s six active volcanoes. Exacerbated by the temperature differential of the venting volcano, the crater is often shrouded in mist that wafts up the steep walls of the caldera. Yet when the mist parts mineral rich turquoise lakes are visible.
The spacious modern visitor center at Parc National Volcan Poas has fine educational exhibits of the surrounding ecology. The gift shop displays top quality pottery and woodwork from some of Costa Rica’s most famous artists. I was particularly taken with the ingenious creations made from recycled materials such as a life-size toucan crafted from a single automobile tire.
Our objective for the day was a visit to the privately owned La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge – one of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica. Florida entrepreneur Lee Banks purchased this property with its five spectacular waterfalls with the intention of preserving its pristine biosphere. Visitors take self-guided tours along several miles of well-designed wooden walkways through the hills, along the La Paz River providing numerous vistas of the spectacular falls.
Within the gardens is a large butterfly house with a colorful collection of over 4,000 butterflies from 40 species native to this mile-high environment – only a small portion of Costa Rica’s over 1,200 species. The butterfly conservatory is part of an educational heritage village of pre-industrial rural life.
The visitor center complex is the gateway to the gardens and Peace Lodge. The architectural integration of the structures with their native wood and stone mirrors the surrounding environment. Like all Small Distinctive Hotels, the quality of the cuisine matched the beauty of the surroundings.
Lunch with Vanessa Gonzalez, restaurant manager, and Executive Chef Diego Seitour highlighted the quality of local ingredients and the creativity of Costa Rican talent. Diego’s French grandfather and Argentine born father were chefs. His Spanish mother added an additional culinary insight to his environment. Diego was born in Costa Rica and studied culinary arts in France and Costa Rica but worked in restaurants since he was a boy. I found this mix of talents and culinary backgrounds common in Costa Rica.
Lunch started with a sea bass ceviche. The paper-thin slices of sea bass were garnished with pajibaye – the iconic steamed bright orange Costa Rican fruit of the Peach Palm tree – and napped with a lime, orange juice and olive oil dressing that was bright and intense. Diego adds meat bones to the broth when simmering the pajibaye to provide a depth of flavor uncommon when the fruit is simply cooked in water.
Surrounding the base of a waterfall adjacent to the swimming pool at Peace Lodge is a large free form trout pond fed by the La Paz River. Chef Seitour uses the organically farmed trout in his menus. His impressive trout Napoleon is a pair of fillets sandwiched between grilled onions and eggplant resting on risotto cakes that have been pan seared. The accompanying vegetables and rice have a smoky flavor, which gives depth to the trout. The fish is glazed with a red and yellow pepper jam.
Papaya and Curry Soup blends the natural sweetness of papaya with the spice of curry creating a warm flavored soup.
Diego has assembled an impressive collection of craft beers for Peace Lodge. A local Escalante brew was dark and strong with a distinct hint of chocolate followed by coffee notes that worked well with the warm tones of the soup. Famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià created Estrella Damm Inedit for Barcelona based Damm S.A. that had strong citrus overtones with a light and effervescent mouth feel. It paired well with both fish dishes.
Hugging the hillside, the village-like complex of 18 rooms and suites of Peace Lodge are unique. Each is individually designed to integrate the Cloud Forest into the room while providing maximum privacy. Large log beds, stone gas fireplaces – Peace Lodge is 5,300 feet elevation – plant infused bathrooms with their own waterfalls and hot tubs on private patios and balconies are only a few of the serine elements that make Peace Lodge a sought after refuge and honeymoon haven.
I found it unique that Peace Lodge suggests no more than a three day stay. The expressed purpose is to encourage guests to explore the rest of Costa Rica. After over a week at five Small Distinctive Hotels I was no longer surprised at this sentiment, which seems to run counter to maximizing profits. What makes the Costa Rican experience memorable is the obvious pride both the owners of these beautiful hotels and ordinary citizens from scientist to street vendors have for their peaceful nation and their eagerness to share it with visitors.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive to downtown San Jose and an hour to La Paz Waterfall Gardens/Peace Lodge