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Having written Ireland's Green Larder, a history of the food and drink of Ireland, concentrating on the food of the rural poor in particular, I was particularly interested in the food of a country I've just visited - Costa Rica.
Think coffee, think avocados the size of melons, think stupendous chocolate and think fresh, fresh fish and shellfish. But also think poverty. The people are well nourished, but not well off, so the staple diet for many is still gallo pinto - rice and black beans.
The translation is speckled chicken, and it's the two mixed together that gives that dappled look. (No chicken is involved!) This basic is often supplemented with meat or prawns, and yellow slices of fried plantain are often served as a vegetable accompaniment.
Gallo pinto is often served for breakfast, while at lunchtime you might typically order a casado, where, interestingly, the rice and beans are served side by side, accompanied by meat or fish and a salad, perhaps with the fried plantain (patacones) again.
It's very curious, this business of sometimes mixing them, sometimes serving the rice and black beans separately. But, as with the potato in Ireland, if you eat enough you'll get sufficient nutrients to live on. These days, of course, the diet is more varied than it once was.
Those of us in Europe who buy pineapples can never hope to experience their true sweetness, as the fruit for export is picked before it is fully ripe. In the home of bananas, pineapple and mangos, you are offered an enticing choice of blended drinks, so if you're not drinking beer out of the neck of a bottle of the local brand, Imperial, you will very likely be sipping a fresco or batido (similar to a smoothie) through a straw.
The number one feature of my visit was the homestay night. We arrived at the small agricultural commune of Juanilama, Santa Rosa de Pocosol, where some 60 families have moved from the capital San Jose to start a new life as organic farmers.
After a tour of the farm, we were offered a brilliant lunch in the communal hall. A tangy, chilli-spiced broth was accompanied by tortillas made from maize flour and water that morning. As soon as that was devoured with grunts of appreciation, we loaded our plates with tiny chicken dumplings, an intricate salad of organic vegetables, toasted cheese that resembled haloumi, plus a seemingly unending supply of fried chicken thighs. Like the Irish, the Costa Ricans are generous and hospitable, sharing what they have.
I was privileged to get a cookery lesson from kind, patient Gisele, who taught three of us how to make those spicy little chicken dumplings, a delicious chicken broth and the secret of making a flat and even tortilla from the simplest of ingredients - maize flour, salt and water!
At Sarapiqi we were given an unforgettable chocolate tour. Did you know that the cacao tree is unique in that the pods grow on both the branches and on the trunk of the tree? Doubly unique, in that when the unpicked fruit withers and dies, it remains on the tree and doesn't drop off, as other fruit does. But we weren't concentrating too much on these interesting facts. Our entire senses were given over to seeing how the relatively bitter inside of the cacao pod is transformed into seriously impressive chocolate by the Costa Rica Best Chocolate company.
It's a co-operative that cares for the land (they're very, very eco-conscious in Costa Rica), pays fair wages to its suppliers, tries to employ local people in areas of poverty and sets itself to live up to its name by making chocolate that is of the top quality. Even in the steamy heat of a Costa Rican afternoon, the bars of chocolate showed no sign of melting, unlike some of our group!
The best meal I had in Costa Rica? It was in Monteverde. It's a tourist town and the repetition of dishes on most menus could get monotonous, but Jaime, our guide, took us to a brilliant restaurant where the wife cooked up a storm in the kitchen, her husband presided amiably over the tables and the whole place is named for their little three-year-old, Thomas. Ceviche, carpaccio and amazing grilled tuna steak were outstanding.
If, as I was, you're unsure where this country is, I can tell you that it's in that little neck of land that links North and South America. Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. And it's not to be confused with Puerto Rico!
If you have any interest in the wildlife of our planet, you should consider a trip to Costa Rica, which has a huge amount of earth's biodiversity. Among the stars are the incredible (and lovable) animal that is the sloth, which spends most of its life hanging upside down, crocodiles, iguanas, hummingbirds, the Jesus Christ lizard (so called because it 'walks' on water), the keel-billed toucan and the resplendent quetzal.
My book Ireland's Green Larder is currently being crowd funded and publication will be spring 2018. To see a short video and description of the book, click on this link.
As deputy editor and food and drink editor at Country Living magazine, Margaret Hickey commissioned a range of food writers and chefs, including Richard Corrigan, Nigel Slater, Rick Stein and Darina Allen. In her freelance writing career she wrote on food, drink and travel for most of the national British press, including The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times.
In 1999 she moved to Ireland to complete a book commissioned by UK publisher Kyle Cathie. Irish Days, a collection of oral histories, received coverage in both Ireland and the UK and she was interviewed about it on the Pat Kenny Show, plus the TV3 morning show. The paperback version came out in 2003.
She has lectured at University College, London and University College, Limerick on the subject of oral history and had a weekly food and cookery slot on Premier Radio in London during the 1990s.
She is currently Vice Chairperson of Portumna Arts Group, which runs Shorelines, an annual arts festival, and for many years she has been a judge at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival.