Colorful Cacao to Delectable Chocolate

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What better way to follow up a coffee tour blog than to post about CHOCOLATE (another of my staple indulgences)! Palmer and I went to a cool place called Choco Tour the other day located in La Garita, Costa Rica (about 20 minutes from both Atenas and the San José airport) which offers an informative hour and a half tour about the cacao plant and fruit, how the cacao is processed to produce chocolate and the history of chocolate dating from Pre-Columbian times.

We were the only ones for the 11am tour so we enjoyed a private tour with our guide Óscar who was very informative and passionate about everything chocolate related. He showed us some of the cacao plants, explained where they grow (i.e. rainy, tropical areas such as the Arenal and Limon regions of Costa Rica), and we then tasted the sweet white pulp surrounding the seeds of a mature cacao fruit. It was delicious!

He then explained how they dry the seeds which takes about 3 weeks before they are able to remove the skin and grind the cacao into a powder which is then used to make chocolate. We learned all about how chocolate evolved in Europe from a tasty beverage to bars of chocolate after being brought to the continent from the New World in the 16th century.

We then poured our own 75% cacao mix into molds and were able to choose our own ‘extras’ of almonds, sea salt and/or chile flakes, which we later enjoyed at the end of the tour. YUM!

In the final part of the tour, Óscar explained the ancient history of cacao, what it meant to the Mayans and Aztecs, and how they used it. The word ‘chocolate‘ is said to come from the Mayan word ‘xocolatl’ which means ‘bitter water.’ At that time, they did not have sugar to sweeten it so it was very bitter.

The Aztecs saw the cacao seed as a gift from Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom. It was served as a drink, cold, and mixed with spices such as anise, vanilla, paprika, and pepper that only the rulers, shamans, warriors and honored guests were able to enjoy. In fact, cacao became so valuable in Aztec society, more than gold or silver, that the beans were used as a form of currency.

Of course Choco Tour sells some of their own chocolate bars and specialty items so we had to buy a few Costa Rican chocolate treats to take home. The sugar-coated toasted cacao seeds are especially unique and delicious!

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If you’re ever near San José or the airport and looking to fill a couple hours, check them out!

Our Favorite Typical Costa Rican Dishes

Costa Rican food isn’t known to be especially unique or flavorful, but we beg to differ. It’s always extremely fresh as most ingredients are local and dishes are homemade! We’ve loved the food we’ve found and are always on the hunt for new places to discover another favorite typical dish. Here are a few of our favorites.

‘Pinto’

Gallo Pinto (‘spotted rooster’) is probably the most famous food of Costa Rica. It’s rice and beans mixed with different spices such as cilantro, onion and peppers and served with any meal though we seem to see it most on breakfast menus. It’s a hearty beloved dish!

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Typical pinto breakfast wrapped in a banana leaf = eggs, pinto, fried cheese and maduros (sweet plantains)
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Traditional pinto at La Casita del Café with scrambled eggs and tomato, pinto, cheese and a tortilla. Not to mention fresh mango juice AND a view!

Casados

A Casado (literally ‘married’) is probably the most typical DISH of Costa Rica. They’re usually cheap and they’re found everywhere…from the tiny soda in the market or bus station to the large restaurants catering to all kinds of local and foreign tourists. They always include a choice of meat (chicken, pork or fish), rice and beans, salad and usually another side dish or two. They’re super delicious and super filling. Here are a couple that I’ve enjoyed (you see I LOVE a good casado!):

Pupusas

Alright, so pupusas are actually from El Salvador, but they’re quite common here in Costa Rica too. Most of the pupusa places are owned by Salvadorans. A pupusa is a thick corn tortilla stuffed traditionally with refried beans and cheese, or pork or all three…or really anything meat/veggie/cheese combo you like. You then put a spicy cabbage slaw on top and some hot sauce if you like! It is the perfect combo of texture (soft and crunchy) and flavor (savory and spicy). My favorite is the beans and cheese with lots of cabbage on top. We have an amazing place right here in Atenas called La Fiesta de las Pupusas that we frequent about once a week.

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Arroz con Camarones

Fried rice with shrimp or chicken or pork is very popular here too. It also typically comes with the same side dishes as a casado (salad, beans and/or plantains).

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Pescado entero

Whole fried red snapper is very common as more of a speciality dish and always seems to be cooked perfectly as the fish is super moist and flavorful! There’s a place on highway 34 near Tarcoles on the Pacific coast where you can find many fresh fish vendors standing on the side of the road with a string of freshly caught fish for sale. We are hoping to stop and buy one of these one day and try our own hand at pescado frito.

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Frescos Naturales

All of these dishes pair perfectly with a nice glass of fresh fruit juice of course. I enjoy them ‘en agua’ (mixed with water) but it’s common to request your juice ‘con leche’ (with milk) as well for a richer flavor.  Some common flavors are lemonade (with or without hierbabuena (mint), strawberry, blackberry, mango, pineapple, guanabana (soursop), cas (costa rican guava), papaya and passion fruit. They usually come in huge glasses, often larger than Alice and Oscar heads. 🙂

Our favorite flavors: pineapple and strawberry (Oscar and Alice), passion fruit (Palmer) and soursop (me).

I’ll leave alcoholic beverages for another post, but suffice to say, we’re totally on top of the boxed wine trend.  Ha!

Chillin’ in Esterillos Oeste

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Soda Margarita

We spent a week on the Pacific Coast over Christmas at a beautiful home with mom and dad and Keith and Annie and enjoyed lots of pool and beach time and exploring a few nearby towns (Uvita and Manuel Antonio). The closest town to our rental home was Esterillos Oeste, a super chill small town laid out on dirt roads right along the beach with a few restaurants, a small grocery store and a couple places offering surfboard and boogie board rentals. It’s about 20 minutes south of the popular surf town of Jaco. We had stopped here once before a few months ago just to check it out quickly, but finally made it back this time to soak it all in.

At low tide, tide pools appear at the northern end of the beach along with La Sirena, a statue of a mermaid gazing out to sea..kind of random, but kind of cool. Supposedly, no one knows how it got there. The beach has some good waves but it’s shallow for a ways out so it’s fun for swimming and boogie boarding (we all had a ball trying to catch the waves – Oscar is quite a pro now!), and popular for surfing too (Keith was stoked to catch some rad barrels). Ha!

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Treasure hunting
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Ice cream and granizado (like a snow cone but better) vendor on the beach
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La Sirena

We also enjoyed a delicious lunch at Soda Margarita which came recommended by a local, but finding it was half the fun. After starting off along the road and then walking along the beach for awhile looking for a ‘little pathway’ just beyond ‘La Sirena’ statue, we had to stop and ask a few people along the way to find this hidden family-run place. We finally arrived after inadvertently crossing a few backyards and were pleasantly surprised by the casual and friendly atmosphere and delicious traditional meals, pescado entero (whole fish) and arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp) to name a few, along with their fresh fruit juices.  The kids were entertained trying to crack open a coconut they had found as well playing with all the animals (kittens, dogs and parrots) at the home.

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Pescado Entero (whole fish) with patacones (fried plantains), rice and salad
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A coconut entertaining the kids

More adventures from our Christmas week coming soon! Happy New Year!

9 Costa Rican Fruits We Love

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Our fruit bowl

We’ve enjoyed so many delicious tropical fruits while we’ve been here! Of course, Costa Rica is known for its pineapple, mango, papaya and coco which are all a regular part of our diet, but here are a few fruits that are a bit different and some you may not have even heard of before!

  1. Carambola (Starfruit) – The carambola trees are full of fruit right now, and we’ve had fun slicing them up to highlight the ‘star’ part for the kids. Ticos enjoy putting them in the blender to make fresco (natural fruit juice).
  2. Jocote – When we first arrived here in late August/early September, there were little jocote stands all over selling bags of this delicious small fruit. I admit I was a bit skeptical as I had never heard or seen these before, but once we tried them, we couldn’t get enough. They are picked when they’re greenish/yellow and they quickly ripen and turn to red after a day or two. The taste is something completely unique – they’re part of the cashew family and the yellow innards have a delicious sweet nutty flavor when ripe.  img_1695
  3. Granadilla (sweet passion fruit) – Palmer’s favorite fruit which he likens to ‘a sweet oyster that grows on a tree’ (Ha! — only a Mainer would come up with that analogy!). The edible slippery insides offer a seedy sack of sweet goodness which you slurp down…thus the oyster reference. img_2827
  4. Maracuyá (passion fruit) – My absolute favorite! Passion fruit is very sour, but makes for the BEST fresco once blended with a bit of sugar and water. On a sidenote, check out its gorgeous flower.
  5. Plátano (plantain) – Plantains are very versatile and used for both salty and sweet meal accompaniments. The salty version is called patacones and are made by using green plátanos which are cut into thick slices, fried and then smashed and fried again giving it a crunchy outside with soft inside – they’re sort of like the french fry of Costa Rica. The sweet version is called ‘maduros’ and you wait until the plátano turns brown before peeling and then frying them whole in oil until they’re soft and sweet. Maduros are often eaten with breakfast. plantains
  6. Cas (Costa Rican guava) – This is another fruit that is often made into fruit juice. It has a mild guava flavor and is super refreshing on a hot day.guava-144145_1920
  7. Guanábana (soursop) – This larger spiky fruit has a white fleshy inside with black seeds that again is used to make fresco. It has a citrusy flavor but also a creamy consistency giving it a unique taste. soursop-2837863_1280
  8. Caimo – We just discovered this fun yellow fruit yesterday at the feria and had to give it a try. It has a soft and super sticky inside with a mild taste that combines melon and pear flavors.
  9. Mamón chino (rambutan) – This is another fruit that was in season in September and October and found around much of the country piled high at roadside stands and at markets. The funky looking fruit has a delicious sweet white center with a dark brown seed inside that you eat around. rambutan-2477584_1280

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