A Soupçon of Creole Brings out the Gourmet in Costa Rica
CHARLES props open a book ontropical fruit, and next to him the picturescome alive on a wide plate, forming agolden platter of mango, pitahaya, passionfruit, golden berries, star fruit,Hawaiian papaya and tree tomato. Guestsof the Inn at Coyote Mountain may not beable to identify the feast when they arrive– but they’ll know how to prepare it oncethey leave.Culinary kitchen fiestas are the draw tothis villa in the Tilarán mountain range,near the coffee town of San Ramón, abouta two-hour drive northwest of San José.Vacationers fly thousands of kilometersand navigate a turbulent Costa Rican backroad to spend a few days immersed innature and gourmet cooking.ON paper, it would be hard to assemblean unlikelier trio of organic, local-producechampions – Daniel Abel and VaughnPerret are lawyers, and Charles Leary hascompleted post-graduate studies inChinese history. But in person, you’d behard pressed to find more “seasoned” anddedicated chefs and gardeners and, ofcourse, hoteliers.A book could be written on the inn co-owners– in fact, onehas. The “Trout PointLodge Cookbook:Creole Cuisine fromNew Orleans toNova Scotia” tellsthe story of the threefriends, and the creativeand physicalenergies behind theirChicory Farm andthe Chicory FarmCafé that revolutionizedgourmet organicproduce in Louisianain the 1990s (one oftheir early champions was no less thanEmeril Lagasse). No strangers to the culinaryvacation, they’ve created successfulhavens in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (TroutPoint Lodge), and Granada, Spain(Granada Cooking School).WHEN scouting out various areas fora third location, they searched in Mexicoand Central America, and decided the 70-acre San Ramónlocation was it –despite the fact thatCosta Rica maintainsa culinary reputationthat is, in general,dubious at best.“It shouldn’t belike that,” saysVaughn, with easyconfidence. “Italy,Tuscany, Costa Rica!This area has got tobe one of the bestagricultural areas inthe world.”Indeed, one of the themes of the culinaryinstruction is the Americas’ contributionto world gastronomy, includingchilies, corn, tomatoes, squash, vanillaand, of course, chocolate.THE view from the elegant, SpanishMudéjar-style inn takes in the foothills thatroll down to the Pacific Ocean, the hazyblue washes of the water, the distantNicoya peninsula and the pale horizon.Paths wind through new- and old growthcloud and tropical forest. The property’sprevious owner was born in thecreek that snakes below the hills, and hisfamily had lived and farmed the hills forgenerations. The family was one of the fewthat had preserved large areas of greenery,and the inn plans to help reforest the rest.The inn follows its own strict sustainabilitypractices. Twelve natural springssupply the inn with all of its water – in apurely gravity-fed system. Gray-water andseptic waste is diverted to the fruit orchards,for irrigation and fertilization. A point-formlist of the inn’s eco-friendly additions runsmore than a page; it’s best to peruse it atleisure on the Web site (see below).HAVING won a business prize fortheir mushroom growing in Louisiana,Daniel and Charles are no slouches atexperimental farming. Dried seeds andpods line the stone walls outside and thekitchen shelves inside, as they build ontheir organic garden of local produce.They’re learning a lot from area residents.“It’s campesino, not scientific,” saysCharles.The specialty is creole cooking withlocal ingredients, but chocolate,Mediterranean and seafood cookery classesare also available. The idea is for gueststo have a part in every meal.THIS certainly doesn’t mean they’llhave to spend the night in the help’s quarters.Airy and spacious, guest rooms featurearched windows and dark gavilánwood coming together around king-sizebeds, letting in light so that the dim lampsare necessary only at night. TheObservatory Suite, reached by a singlehelix of stairs, is glass-enclosed and providesalmost 360-degree views. Like theother rooms, it boasts a tiled bathroom bigenough to get lost in. The circular bathscan easily hold two, offering a welcome romantic and steamy soak in the chillymountain nights.“One of our last guests called us the‘Canyon Ranch’ of Costa Rica,” saysVaughn with a satisfied nod, clearly inagreement with the comparison to thechichi ranch in the United States. Andwhile it’s a trek – four-wheel drive only –to and from the main highway, guests havecoffee tours and San Ramón farmers’-marketjaunts at their fingertips, and the LosAngeles cloud forest is only 40 minutesaway.BUT of course, the focal point is theteaching kitchen. Katti Neshat and AdamGoldin, visitors from Seattle and Chicago,had spent their first evening in front of theopen chimney, lingering over a candlelightdinner. The next day’s breakfast was thegolden tropical platter in the warm courtyard,surrounded by aromatic and edibleplants and herbs, and then off on a tour ofthe wild orange trees and garden, collectingingredients for their first self-madefeast. We left them leaning against the longcounter, listening intently to Vaughnexplain what the day’s cooking wouldentail, while Daniel dipped in and out,scooting any used utensil to the sink almostbefore it had a chance to get dirty.Really, it’s not so hard to imagine thehills of San Ramón as the Tuscany orProvence of Central America.THREE-day/night culinary vacationscost $750 per person, and usually begin onFriday afternoons, February through June.Dates are flexible for groups of six ormore. They typically include an introductionto tropical ingredients and a tour oflocal coffee fincas, gourmet candlelightdinner, breakfast, visit to the San Ramónfarmers’ market, preparation of a variety ofLatin-creole fare, hands-on preparation ofdinner and more. Optional trips to surroundingattractions can be added, andSpanish classes are also offered. If yousimply would like to enjoy the rural atmosphere,rooms start at $139 per night; add$65 per person per day for half board or$90 per person for three meals.Cerro Coyote is close enough to SanJosé, Puntarenas and Arenal to make a dayvisit pleasantly feasible. The day course($99) introduces participants to tropicalingredients and the gardens, includes preparationof a four-course lunch, served in thedining room overlooking the Pacific, and anafternoon of wandering the property.For more information, visit www.cerrocoyote.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 383-0544 or, from theUnited States, (902) 742-0980.
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