In Havana I joined a group of carpenters, plumbers and electricians for a game of…
“So. There are three areas on the stove basically. The hottest is right here over the area where you put the wood.” Maria Luis waved her hard-working, muscled hand over the front part of the stove. “Both sides. Hot. Then the medium heat is here in the center. Over there on the edge is the cooler section. But it is still hot, you know.”
She pushed her way around to the right side of the stove, pulled a boiling pot of water from the heat and poured it into a long, dark tear shaped fabric filter full of coffee grounds. It took several minutes for the coffee to start dripping through into the metal cup below.
Just outside the kitchen was a box of coffee wood, trimmings from the coffee plantations scattered below. The coffee workers stacked the woods ten feet high into medieval-looking walls by the side of the road and then sold it out to people like Maria Luisa who bundled and tied it with a cord and hauled it up the rutted gravel road to the hilltop restaurant overhanging the Río Reventazón.
Comida a la Leña
El Mirador Sitios Angustura is a small, very out-of-the-way eatery south of Turrialba in Costa Rica’s Cartago province. They pride themselves on their wood stove (“comida a la leña”, the motto of the restaurant means “food of the wood”) and the fact that they cook up outstanding Costa Rica foods in traditional ways.
They also pride themselves on the stunning views from the outside patio looking up the Río Reventazón to the Angostura hydroelectric dam and the massive lake backed up behind it. The river eventually makes its way to the Río Parismina and then to the Caribbean.
Massive swaths of the landscape hundreds of feet below the patio were blanketed in fields of chayotes and pejibayes, ferns for export and of course coffee. And then there were the sugar cane fields, bright swaths of radiant green snaked with narrow lines of eucalyptus. Sugar cane fields are one of those aesthetic tricks. They are so picturesque from far away and yet the reality is that they are hot, rough, dangerous and environmentally damaging in reality.
Due to habitat loss from clearing land for plantations sugar production may in fact be the cause of more biodiversity loss than any other single crop in the world. Growing sugar cane also uses incredible amounts of water to grow and large amounts of agricultural chemicals. The discharge water from the plantations is often heavily contaminated.
There are also human health hazards associated with harvesting the largest crop in the world.
The fact was however that from El Mirador Sitios Angustura the sun light playing through the cloud cover up valley and across the sugar cane fields was quite the sight to behold.
Rice and Beans and Beans and Rice
I ordered the Casado, a plate of rice, beans, fried plantains and salad with a slab of soft pork on the side. This is the most typical and traditional dish in Costa Rica. “Casado” means “married” in Spanish and so the name for the meal speaks to the traditional “marriage” between the items on the plate. The pork on my plate had been roasted over the coffee wood and had a wonderfully smokey flavor.
The black beans and rice together are known as gallo pinto and are served with just about every meal. At breakfast they are combined with corn tortillas, eggs and a load of tropical fruit. (I’ve been using this recipe to make gallo pinto at home and I find it works quite well)
Costa Rica foods are flavorful but also very mild, to say the least. I was forever seeking out some imported spicy sauce to add a little fire to my food. I’m a full on spicy food addict. The food in Costa Rica was always hot and fresh and came loaded with vegetables and fruits.
The only thing that bothered me about eating in Costa Rica is the fact that pesticide use in the country remains unregulated. In fact, Costa Rica is one of the highest chemical pesticide using countries in the Americas.
Other notable meals I had in Costa Rica were the olla de carne, a stew made with beef, potatoes, carrots, plantains, yucca and chayote (a type of gourd) and a corn stew called Guiso de maíz. There were also some fantastic fish dishes. Of course, like when I was in Panama I really couldn’t start out a meal without some fried plantains – the ubiquitous patacones.
Oh. And the ceviche of course.
Oh. And the tamales.
Anyway, after my order was placed I snuck back into the kitchen and asked if they could show me how they cooked with just one wood stove.
A Seamless Operation
Maria Luisa calmly walked me through the preparation of my meal. She had everything ordered and planned so that they was no panic and no rush. Cooking on an old wood stove requires patience and attention.
“You have to keep an eye on everything though,” she said. “The heat can flare up pretty fast. You have to adjust your cooking style to the fact that the heat is always on and you can’t just turn it off. Everything has to be steady and even.”
Maria Luisa had several different dishes on the stove. My chunk of pork began to sizzle. A small stew of beef cubes bubbled in another pot. Water for coffee whistled and tortillas were flopping on and off the stove and into a warming box all at the same time.
To the side, another woman was busy slicing and dicing fresh squashes like zucchini and ayote. Then she dove into working on potatoes and onions and red bell peppers. All of these she put into Tupperware containers and then into a small refrigerator.
“That is for some fish soup that will be on the menu for dinner,” she said.
Maria-Luisa also had her firewood laid out and planned. A slower-burning piece of wood went in to maintain the heat. When the oven got too hot she opened it, just for a minute or so. Then she opened the front of the firebox to get more oxygen to the wood and increase the heat.
It was all a pretty seamless operation – with impressive results……