One man’s gourmet delicacy is another’s backyard basic. Just take Costa Rica’s distinctive pejibayes (peach palm fruits) in their warm cauldrons that greet shoppers in so many food stores and street markets. A traditional treat not considered particularly special here, the pejibaye’s nutty flavor, plate-worthy appearance and exotic rarity would garner it gourmet status in many cool-climate countries if presented in suitably elegant packaging.
Many equate “gourmet” with imported – aka expensive – goods, but Costa Rica has a wealth of locally produced and distributed fine foods that will keep any committed “buy local” supporter more than satisfied. In fact, the choice of national delicacies is so extensive that the list presented here is inevitably incomplete – but part of the fun of epicurean foraging is finding your own favorite delicacy.
Most products mentioned here can be found in the better supermarkets, unless otherwise indicated.
Dairy. The U.S. Quaker pioneers who settled in the hills of north-central Costa Rica’s Monteverde region in the 1950s brought their cheese-making skills with them, and today offer a wide range of cheeses under the well-established Monteverde brand (www.monteverde.net). Lekkerland (www.monteverde.net/lekkerland.html) offers Gouda cheeses from 30 to 500 days’ maturation – the 500-day Black Label is almost crystalline in texture and piercingly challenging in flavor – as well as goat, blue, Edam, Parmesan, feta and mozzarella cheeses and creamy quark.
Local farmers markets and most corner stores stock the lovely fresh Jersey- and Guernsey-milk soft white cheeses for which the Turrialba region is famous.
The Blue Flag-certified EARTH University sources milk from its campus dairy farm in Guácimo, Limón, for local producers to make excellent-quality yogurt and other dairy products (www.earth-brand.org, available in Auto Mercado supermarkets).
For good locally made ice cream, the huge Dos Pinos dairy cooperative offers a premium Deleite line with flavors such as cheesecake, chocolate chip, Dutch orange, Irish cream and caramel fudge.
Meats and fish. Where to start? Purist fans of U.S.-certified Angus steaks may disagree, but Costa Rica produces excellent beef products as well as lamb, rabbit, pork and even buffalo meat.
For delicious home-raised, -slaughtered and -aged beef, go to Doris Metropolitan restaurant in Santa Ana, southwest of the capital, where you can dine in style and take home tasty cuts of aged beef (2282-2221, www.dorismetropolitian.com). Don Fernando butcher shops and steakhouses, with three outlets in the Central Valley and one in Tamarindo on the northern Pacific coast, sell a huge range of premium cuts of beef, pork, rabbit, barbecue-ready meats, cold cuts, hams and sausages (www.carnesdonfernando.com). Family-run Don Melchor, with stores in San Francisco de Heredia, north of San José, and Escazú to the west, specializes in every kind of pork cut – smoked chops, sausages, salamis, bacon and hams – and also offers a wide range of beef products (www.carnesdonmelchor.com).
For authentic British bangers, or pork sausages, contact Tico Claudio Pacheco ([email protected]), who makes fabulous sausages and even Scottish haggis (TT, July 15).
Grupo Fampak (2460-3160, [email protected]) is worth contacting for lamb. Based in Santa Clara, Ciudad Quesada, in north-central Costa Rica, the company distributes a growing range of premium cuts and products. Its only retail outlet is in Santa Clara, but it could be worth the trip to stock up your freezer. Auto Mercado supermarkets (www.automercado.cr) also reliably stock a limited selection of lamb.
For the adventurous, Búfalo Grill & Market (2282-4122) in Santa Ana serves up Guanacaste-raised buffalo meat dishes in its restaurant, and clients can buy the meat to try out at home (TT, June 24).
For the freshest fish, oysters, lobsters, mango-wood smoked fish and other seafood delicacies, look no further than Demian Geneau’s product-c upscale restaurants and distribution points in Santa Ana, Avenida Escazú and Malpaís on the Nicoya Peninsula (www.product-c.com). Auto Mercado also has a dependable selection of fresh fish and shrimp.
Breads and baked goods. Más x Menos and Fresh Market stores now offer excellent fresh baked goods from sourdough to rustic Italian and French breads and pastries, hot from their in-house ovens.
Soon to arrive on supermarket shelves, Salicsa’s delectable coffee, orange or rum liqueur cakes in pretty cardboard gift boxes are currently available only at the company’s Guachipelín de Escazú offices (2289-4121, www.salicsa.com). Call beforehand; sales are cash only.
Robin’s Kitchen (2228-3407) in Escazú Centro bakes up amazingly original special-occasion cakes as well as cookies and quiches and other savory delights. Also consider Giacomin (www.pasteleriagiacomin.com) and Chez Christophe (2228-2512) in San Rafael de Escazú for a great range of fancy cakes and pastries.
Vegan cupcakes might sound anything but gourmet, but contact chef Marco González (www.facebook.com/DeliciasTerricolas) and order at least a dozen – you will be bowled over.
In the northwestern Guanacaste province, the German Bakery (2668-1081, www.panaleman.com) is rightly famous for its dark rye, multigrain and fresh-baked goods, sinful pastries, cheesecakes, fruit tarts and cookies. Based near the airport in Liberia, this bakery is worth a visit if you are anywhere in the area. Lucky Guanacaste beach residents from Playas del Coco to Flamingo can take advantage of its twice-weekly deliveries. Trucks also deliver to the Central Pacific and Monteverde, Tilarán and Arenal in north-central Costa Rica.
Pasta. Don’t feel like cooking? Try one of Pasta y Basta’s (2222-2722, www.pastaybasta.com) authentic gourmet range of agnolotti, tortelli or pansotti in Auto Mercado or Saretto’s frozen section. The Bonessa family, who immigrated to Costa Rica from Italy 30 years ago, decided to create genuine “fatto in casa” (homemade) pastas, launching their first line in 1996.
Sauces. A growing array of tempting gourmet sauces line the shelves of larger supermarkets. Hot, fruity, tangy – they’re all out there waiting to be tried. Alimentos Kámuk (2574-3055, www.kamukcr.com) in Cartago, east of San José, distributes sizzling, top-quality hot pepper, Asian and barbecue sauces made with Costa Rican ingredients. It’s mostly wholesale, but it’s worth looking at the delectable product list and contacting them for further details. Look in supermarkets for Kámuk-produced Sabor Fusión lightly spiced but tasty mango habanero, ginger or apple chipotle glazes; the range of gift-worthy, straw-hatted Jambo bottles of hot sauce; and the Norka line of chili jellies flavored with mango, pineapple or habanero ginger.
Grupo El Ángel (800-352-6435, www.elangel.co.cr), better known for rather mundane jams and canned goods, has launched a new line of excellent lively fusion sauces, such as habanero mustard, respectably similar to the Barbados yellow hot sauce I always crave.
Want to try for an authentic gallo pinto, that quintessential Tico rice-and-beans breakfast dish? Try Tío Pelón’s gourmet gallo pinto sauce in bottles.
Soy products. Más x Menos stocks a varied range of refrigerated soy chorizo, wieners, hams, mortadella and pâté under the Robyresmi S.A. label. Fresh and baked tofu can be found at well-stocked Asian supermarket Super Sony in downtown San José (Ca. 3, Av, 8, 2221-1263, www.supersony.com), as well as many macrobiotic stores. Also check out Bio-Land products (see next section).
Organics. The organic markets in Escazú Centro opposite the Red Cross (Wednesdays, 8 to 11 a.m.) and in Montezuma, Malpaís and Tambor areas on the Nicoya Peninsula (Saturdays) sell quality salad greens, herbs, cheeses and baked goods. Also, the feria orgánica in Paso Ancho, 400 meters from the church (Saturdays, 6 a.m. until everything is sold), has excellent fresh produce and breads.
Synonymous with quality organics has to be Bio-Land, the well-respected Costa Rican company specializing in an extensive range of natural and organic items. You see their stuff everywhere, but take a look at their website (www.bio-land.org) for a full list of food and personal care products – snacks, cereals, dry soy products, cookies, organic bars and supplements.
Mushrooms. Restaurants such as product-c, L’Ile de France and Grano de Oro buy the freshest oyster, button and portobello mushrooms from Luis Coronado. He grows them up at Los Santos, 25 kilometers beyond Cartago, but will deliver around San José for orders of 1 kilo or more (8386-7472, [email protected]) within 48 hours of your phoned order.
Herbs. Seriously wonderful, fresh potted kitchen and medicinal herbs are available from the Ark Herb Farm on the slopes of Poás Volcano, northwest of the capital (2239-2111, www.arkherbfarm.com). Enjoy the tour and take home pots of fragrant and unusual herbs.
Jams and honey. There are plenty of good runny honeys on the shelves, but look for EcoMiel’s (8843-5353, www.eco-miel.com) solid honey with or without royal jelly in Auto Mercado or macrobiotic stores. The German-run Villa Blanca (2279-0120, www.jaleasvillablanca.com) range of chemical-free jams and jellies makes elegant and tasty use of passion fruit, pineapple, cas (Tico guava), strawberry and mora (tropical blackberry), as well as a tangy wine and hot pepper jelly. They also do gift boxes online.
Stevia. Now you can find 100 percent Tico-grown stevia under the name Natuvia (www.natuvia.cr), produced by Laica and sold all over the country in sachets and boxes. The website provides recipes and information.
Coffee. Think Costa Rican coffee and most think Café Britt, the hugely successful supplier of quality coffees, chocolates and gifts. Its nine gourmet coffees include ground and whole-bean dark, light, organic shade-grown, fair-trade, decaf and espresso. But don’t overlook brands such as 1820, Triángulo de Oro and Doka Estate lines, or shop online from Costa Rica Coffee Shop (www.costaricacoffeeshop.com) for a choice of quality brands.
Chocolate. Again, Café Britt dominates the supermarkets, airport and other commercial outlets with a fabulous array of dark, milk and white chocolate goodies, but also look for handmade chocolates and truffles – and marzipan – at family-run Pastelería Giacomin, with several outlets in the Central Valley and also online ordering (www.chocolatesdelmundo.com).
La Chocolatería in Escazú, which uses Tico and Central American cacao, has a sumptuous display of truffles, chocolate flowers, gift boxes and even personalized, client-designed chocolate bars (2272-1833, www.lachocolateria.net).
Using 100 percent Costa Rican organic cacao from trees deveoped by the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education (CATIE) at its Rainforest Alliance-certified farm, Sibú Chocolate crafts imaginative bonbon boxes, truffles – think white chocolate mint with fresh herbs, or fresh lime with coriander – and chocolate bars. This is not in supermarkets; for a list of places to get this chocolatey goodness, see www.sibuchocolate.com.
Beer. Not an obvious gourmet choice to wash down all the delectable locally produced items available, but Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company (2573-3724, www.beer.cr) is collecting a growing band of aficionados with its flavorful Segua Red Ale and Libertas Tropical Golden Ale (TT, July 29). More and more restaurants are selling the brand, but you can take a brewery tour at the plant in Tejar de El Guarco, Cartago, 800 meters west of Riteve (Wednesday to Friday by appointment).