I often wander the stalls of Feria Verde, a mostly organic market held on Saturday mornings in San José’s Barrio Aranjuez, and have developed a certain routine: breakfast burrito from Jardín del Parque, rich coffee from Taza Amarilla, and a quick pass for lettuce, strawberries, coconut water, fresh pasta and cheese. On a morning several weeks ago, though, my rounds were interrupted.
An unfamiliar, rosy-cheeked vendor was leaning almost entirely over his table, an arm extended to block my path. In a white glove, he held a sagging, pink slice of fish. I must have looked uncertain, and he moved the fish closer to my face.
“Is it salmon?” I asked.
“Trucha salmonada curada,” he said.
“Trout salmon?” I said.
Although I had never seen trout that looked like this, I’m a fan of the fish, so I took it and put it in my mouth. At first I didn’t chew because I was wary of how it might taste. But as soon as the morsel began to melt on my tongue, I made it a point not to chew. It had the texture of lox but not the fishiness, and I had never tasted anything like it. Not in Costa Rica, not anywhere.
Before I could speak, another customer stepped in front of me, waving bright yellow and green Costa Rican bills and demanding the largest filet, which cost ₡13,500, or $27. He also wanted the sweet dill sauce for ₡1,500 ($3) and the smoked trout dip for ₡5,000 ($10). I had never paid more than $5 for any one item at Feria Verde.
When a woman asked the vendor how long the trout would keep – meaning, how long could she store it in the fridge – he smiled. “That depends on the company,” he said. He then recommended pairing it with a Chilean Pinot Grigio.
The woman seemed satisfied, and the fishmonger began cutting and handing out more samples. With every slice I accepted, I became more certain that I would buy a $20 trout. Also, I would find a way to make its curious salesman spill his secret.
By the next day, I had finished off the trout, savoring every bite and becoming annoyed each time my roommate requested a piece. Although Bruno had recommended eating it on crackers or putting it in a salad, I didn’t have the patience. I had cut pieces and put them directly into my mouth.
I also had done a search on the Internet to figure out what I was eating. I understood that my trout had been cured – a catchall term for preserving fish or meat by salting, pickling, smoking or dehydrating – but there seemed to be more to it.
Googling “cured trout” brought up a story from The Toronto Star, along with a video in which food columnist Corey Mintz described a simple process for curing trout. He bought a steelhead trout and skinned and deboned it. Then he mixed a rub of salt, sugar and dill in a food processor. “Cover the fish with the cure mix and really rub it in,” he said. “Wrap it in Saran. And shove it in the fridge.” Could it really be that simple?
I wrote to Francisco Grau, organizer of the Feria Verde, asking about the trout guy. And as it turned out, Grau is also a big fan. “Don Bruno has an exceptional product that reminds me of the cured salmon I’ve eaten in Oregon,” Grau wrote. “His trout has an outstanding flavor and consistency due to the fresh ingredients and good hand he has.”
Don Bruno – or Bruno Maurach – would be back at the market the following Saturday, and so would I. Only this time I would bring more money, and I would buy a bigger trout.
As I approached the stand, Bruno turned to face me, extending a piece of fish. With his white hair and jolly demeanor, he was like the Santa Claus of seafood, and I couldn’t wait to receive my gift. It occurred to me that the longer I could make this encounter last, the more goodies he might feed me.
There were fewer customers that day, perhaps because area schools were out on break and everybody had gone to the beach. So aside from Bruno’s outreach to the occasional passersby, I had him all to myself.
He told me that he is from Germany, but he’s been living and working in Latin America for about 20 years as an ecologist and an economist. The way he prepares his trout is very common in Scandinavia, and in fact, he learned from a Norwegian he met in Bolivia. He lives with his family in Escazú, where he prepares the cured and smoked trout he sells at the market.
Clearly, I needed to visit his home, so I invited myself over to watch him make the trout. “Maybe,” he said, handing me seconds. “But I can’t show you the secret.”
Bruno was serious. Not only does he closely guard the formula of spices that he presses into the trout (he says there are 10 in all), but he also seals the packages with a label that reads “Arcano d’Escazú.”
“The Arcano is a secret of medieval alchemists,” he said. “A way to make gold from lead. So this is the secret of Escazú.”
In a brief interruption, a child wearing an eye patch approached the stand on the shoulders of his father. The father leaned over so Bruno could place a piece of fish in the child’s mouth. I also moved closer, and Bruno took the hint, dangling another slice above my mouth.
There seemed to be more traffic suddenly, and I began to feel like an obstacle to Bruno’s sales. So I asked one last, important question. “Where does the fish come from?”
Bruno had been on a trip through the mountains several years ago when he met one of the country’s premier trout farmers, Carlos Chacón, who runs an operation in San Gerardo de Dota, a mountain village in Los Santos region of southern Costa Rica. The ponds there are supplied with fresh spring water, Bruno explained, and set in a páramo zone, or a tropical, mountainous region above the trees. He told me the area was nothing short of extraordinary, and fed me one final slice.
I purchased a $30 fish and decided I would visit the place where this trout came from.
Two hours southeast of San José, down the Pan-American Highway, the sun had just begun to rise, and the shrubbery around San Gerardo’s ponds glistened with dew. It was a Wednesday, which meant that the Chacóns – who run the farm and supply a large portion of the country with fresh trout – had already started fishing.
Carlos Chacón, a robust man who led the operation, waded into the pond up to his hips wearing a baseball cap, a yellow rain jacket and a wetsuit to stay warm. But his pinched face suggested the chill was unavoidable.
He dragged a wide net into the pond and walked it in a large circle, entrapping hundreds of fish. Then he cinched the net smaller until the shiny, speckled trout were squirming in a pile at his side. Carlos lifted them out one by one with his hands.
When a fish was the right size – 2 kilos, in this case, the size Bruno orders – it was tossed into a sack held by an assistant. When the bag was full, it was tied off and placed in a crate, where it occasionally wriggled. When all the bags were full, the gutting and cleaning began.
One man cut the fish from dorsal fin to mouth with a pair of scissors and removed the entrails. Then Carlos’s wife, a stern woman with dexterous hands, cleaned the fish and stacked them in the sink. The gutted fish were then placed in a new bag. The team worked fast, and trout blood dripped down the front of their aprons.
It’s a streamlined process, appearing to be honed over decades. But actually, the Chacóns’ sophisticated enterprise has only been up and running for six years, Carlos said. Really, the trout have existed in San Gerardo for just a short time, as they are not native to the area or even Costa Rica. The first human settler in San Gerardo – Carlos’s grandfather Efraín Chacón – didn’t even arrive until 1954.
All of this meant that Bruno’s unusual fish, which the Chacóns are aware of but somehow not obsessed with, only recently became possible.
Finding out how trout came here is a tall order, as relatively few historical records exist. But in a recent academic report on ecotourism in San Gerardo, author Jon Morrow gathered the available sources to reconstruct how it probably happened.
Rainbow trout first arrived in the country sometime around 1927, says Morrow’s report, when sport fishermen introduced the fish into rivers along the Panama border. It wasn’t until 1954, though, that Costa Rica’s Agriculture and Livestock Ministry identified trout as a low-cost protein source for rural areas, and imported 50,000 eggs from the United States.
By 1962, 250,000 rainbow trout eggs had been imported and released into rivers across the country, but the Savegre River – at the time extremely remote – was not one of them. Many of the trout disappeared, and in the 1960s, the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry realized that trout farms might be more reliable.
Efraín Chacón, a cheese farmer who founded the town of San Gerardo de Dota with a few of his brothers in 1955, eventually heard about trout. In 1966, he purchased 100 fingerlings and released them in the Savegre River, and for three years, nothing happened. But Efraín, now in his 90s, still recalls the story of a fateful day in 1969, when on a walk with his cows, he saw something gliding through the river. To his great delight, it was a rainbow trout, and it was huge.
Word got out, and the sport fishermen showed up. They needed food and places to stay, and tourism in the area was born. Sport fishing boomed through the ’70s, but what the Chacóns didn’t know was that the trout had disturbed the river’s ecosystem, and soon the fishes’ primary food – sweet shrimp – disappeared. Without shrimp to feed on, the trout decreased in size and sport fishing in San Gerardo also diminished.
Though the Chacón brothers had little idea of how to keep trout, they started building ponds for farming. The fish often did not survive, until a Swiss man with experience offered to help out, and soon the family had the hang of it.
At that time, many Costa Ricans had never tasted trout, and traditional restaurants in San José wouldn’t buy it. Efraín learned that foreigners might be more receptive, and he made his first sale to La Bastille, a French restaurant in San José.
The business grew from there, and the Chacón operation now sells to hotels and restaurants in San José, Puntarenas and Sarapiquí. The family doesn’t have many individual clients, but every time a shipment goes to San José, between 20 and 50 kilos of trout are bound for Bruno.
Every Thursday, the day after the fish are pulled from the Chacóns’ pond, Bruno’s trout arrives at his spacious home in Escazú, where he lives with his wife, six rescue dogs, three cats, numerous chickens and one well-traveled parrot named Esmeralda.
The family has lived here since the devastating 1991 earthquake cracked the walls of their last home nearby. He invites frequent guests – my lucky self included – to sample not only his trout, but also some of his other favorite foods.
Among them is a Parmesan-like cheese that cannot be found anywhere else. “This is something very special,” he said, slicing off a piece for himself at an alfresco table in his sizeable yard. “It’s a Tico cheese, and the Ticos don’t know how to make good cheese.”
The cheese is made by the son of a former Costa Rican president, a flower child who lives in the countryside with 10 cows and a cheese laboratory. Bruno went to his home and waited half a day for an appointment, and the hippie has been selling him the cheese ever since.
Bruno also shared a copious amount of trout, and explained what happens when the fish arrives.
First, he prepares his secret spice medley, presses it into the fish, and stores the result in a refrigerator, where it will absorb the flavors for 10 days. It’s a process that doesn’t take much time, although his secret formula took years to develop and he guards it closely.
Bruno is willing, however, to demonstrate how he smokes the trout, which he also sells at the market. (On a subsequent visit to the market, I purchased the smoked version, and it was juicy and flavorful rather than dry – perhaps the best I had ever eaten).
At the side of the house sits a cylindrical smoker, which Bruno hired a blacksmith to custom-build. During my visit, Bruno took a couple dozen fish, all with hooks protruding from their mouths, out to the smoker. He placed them inside on a rack, as if he were hanging little suit coats in a closet. Then he left the door slightly ajar, and turned the thermostat to 80 degrees Celsius (176 F).
He would leave the fish like this to dry for 20 minutes, he said, and then turn down the heat a bit but keep cooking it for another 45. Then he would add sawdust to the smoker, and continue the process for another 20 minutes. The last step would be to shrink-wrap the fish, package it in plastic and bring it to the market.
After explaining the smoking process, Bruno insisted that I return to the table for a bit more coffee and another slice of trout, and I of course obliged.
If I am beginning to seem trout-crazy, I can promise you, there are others. In addition to Feria Verde, Bruno also sells his trout to local hotels and restaurants, including Buena Tierra, a health food café in Escazú where according one cashier, people are all about cured trout sandwiches. I’ve also heard of the trout showing up at dinner parties, some of which are attended by well-heeled Ticos and held at palatial estates.
Bruno enjoys what he considers to be a cured trout monopoly. And although he has plans to set up a workshop in his home to slightly expand the business, he’s mainly in it as a hobby, a way to share something delicious with others.
Sometimes, the customers hang around his table at the farmer’s market for the better part of half an hour, asking questions as Bruno feeds them sample after sample. When they put the fish in their mouths, he watches closely as their eyes widen and they lick their lips.
“It’s a good feeling,” he says. “The people are really content.”