Thursday, 23 December 2010

Review: The Coca Cola cafe, Panama City, Panama

The Coca Cola café is a favourite eating spot with both backpackers and locals in Panama City.  It is situated in Casco Viejo, the old part of the city and will guarantee you a big feed at cheap prices!  We went a couple of times, the first was quite successful, the second less so!  The plates of rice are huge but I didn’t rate it.  However, some of the meat is very good here.  There is always an old film on the TV and the staff don’t use any paper so they remember everything and at the end simply hold up a calculator to show you the bill!  A good experience and a chance to sit amongst locals and soak up the atmosphere.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Food Glossary: Ceviche

Ceviche is a popular cold, spicy fish or seafood dish served with salad.   The dish typically uses raw fish and the marinade is made from citrus juices and chilli’s.  It is popular in the America’s, particularly Central and South.  I first sampled it in Panama City, but it is also common in Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Review: Aroma’s Cafe, Panama City, Panama

After spending a few days in Allejuela changing our travel plans we took a night bus down to Panama City where we stayed for a few days before setting sail to Columbia!

The American influence in Panama City is very clear, however we really enjoyed our time exploring the city and enjoyed some good food here.  Our first stop was a small café where I first tried ceviche.  It was really quite a spicy dish but the flavours were incredible and the prawns perfect.  It was just the type of dish I fancied as I love the fresh, light and healthy feel to the dish.

The café itself was small and cute.  Very friendly staff who were willing to tailor the menu to customers and a good corner spot to allow for people watching.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review: La Mansarda, Alajuela, Costa Rica

During our time in Alajuela we stayed in a small, quiet hostel ran by a local man who was really friendly and helpful.  It was fun speaking Spanish with him and he was a good source of local knowledge.  He recommended La Mansarda to us as a decent local place to eat, with good prices.

On arrival we were given a complimentary cocktail (we showed the card from the hostel) and we ordered two casados.  This was a brilliant recommendation as it was a fantastic casado.  I particularly liked the addition of the jacket potato – a first for us on a casado, but really tasty and reminded us of home!  I had pork and despite it always tasting fabulous I was still amazed at how well cooked and tender the meat was.

Again, this place was popular with the locals and had really friendly staff and a nice feel.  You probably wouldn’t really notice it walking past so people go there deliberately – another good sign I think!

Review: Café Delicias, Alajuela, Costa Rica

After our final splash out meal at Café Mundo we were unsuccessful in leaving Costa Rica!  Our flight to Quito, Ecuador was cancelled due to the airport being closed and riots occurring in Quito.  After spending a fair portion of the day in the airport and being no clearer on when we could fly we decided to stay in Alajuela – the suburb of San Jose just next to the airport.  It is actually much nicer than staying in San Jose itself and I would recommend staying there.

We spent a fair amount of time over the next couple of days in the café decilicias where there was free wi-fi so that we could arrange our travel plans.  It also happened to be quite a good café, as was obvious by its popularity with the locals.  There were lots of groups of young women meeting up for drinks after work, or for lunch as well as families and younger people so the atmosphere was always buzzing.  The staff were very friendly and didn’t hassle us to get ordering despite the amount of time we spent there!

As you can see from the pictures we had many tasty wraps/sandwiches here with all fresh ingredients.  Also – they claimed to have the ‘world’s best coffee’ – it was pretty good but I think that’s quite a claim!

A great day time, friendly café to sit and read a paper, catch up on emails and grab a bite to eat.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review: Café Mundo, San Jose, Costa Rica

James and I had one last evening in Costa Rica before we were due to fly to Ecuador and so we headed to a restaurant just around the corner from our hostel that had come recommended.  It is a beautiful restaurant and we actually walked past it at first as it looks like someone’s house.  It has a beautiful garden and outdoor seated area and is popular with the locals as well as (it seemed ex-pats).  We were a bit concerned that we looked a bit scruffy but our friendly waiter showed us to a table without a second glance!

I had a really good, crisp glass of sauvignon blanc here and we were given a plate full of fresh, homemade breads while we looked at the menu.  The breads were delicious!  There was a sun-dried tomato, olive and wholemeal bread which were perfect in flavour and texture.  (Good bread seems to be rare in this part of the world so when we find it we get very excited!)

My starter was an avocado filled with tuna and crisp vegetables like celery, pepper, spring onion etc.  It was really scrumptious!  I could have had more and had it as my main dish it was so fresh and healthy tasting.  Avocados are fairly expensive to buy in Costa Rica and Nicaragua so I had been craving them for a while.  James ordered the bruschetta which was also very tasty although not the best we’ve had.

For main we ordered a creamy ravioli pasta with bacon and a bolognaise pizza.  They were both very tasty but perhaps a little too rich.  We did not finish either portion due to this factor.  Bolognaise pizza was new to me and I did really like it although the sauce had made the base slightly soggy.

All in all, a great restaurant for a special occasion.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Review: Cafes in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan Del Sur is a small beach/surfer town on the south, pacific coast of Nicaragua, close to the Costa Rica border.  It is well equipped for travellers and the small town is full of restaurants, cafes, internet and surf hire shops, souvenir shops and hostels.  We decided to end Rachael’s holiday here as she had wanted some beach time and it was both cheaper and easier to get to than some of the Costa Rican beaches.

Unfortunately the weather was not on our side during our stay – in fact it was quite unpredictable!  This meant a fair amount of rain, large storms, wind, then sun.  It didn’t affect our time too much as we had a great time just relaxing, playing cards and eating good food in different cafes across town!

San Juan is great for ‘western’ style individual cosy coffee shops with really tasty food and drinks – the type I often wish I could find in central London instead of another Starbucks!  We visited three in particular which I’d like to mention here.

The first and probably my favourite is ‘El Gato Negro’.  This coffee shop has a really relaxing, homey feel to it.  There is a large library of books (although most are just for sale and they don’t let you read them!), a coffee grinding machine for their own brand of coffee, a variety of seating – some sofas, hammock chairs (we loved these!), large tables and smaller tables.  There is also an outside area, although I don’t really feel they are making the most of it at present!

We spent many a morning in El Gato Negro tasting the different coffees such as the Irish Cream Mocha and the Raspberry Cheesecake Latte!  If you have a standard coffee then you get free re-fills, great if you need to spend some time reading travel guides or on your laptop sending emails etc!  Then the breakfast menu….where to start, so many good options!  Between us we had the AMAZING banana chocolate chip pancakes (some of the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted!), a variety of bagels with egg, bacon, cheese, hummus, tomatoes and avocado inside, and the banana raita – a bowl packed with fruit, yoghurt and granola.  In addition they claimed to sell the best brownies in the world – ‘expresso fudge brownies’ so of course we had to sample….well they WERE exceptional!  They are not just chocolate but also contain expresso coffee and this really gives the flavour a rich, strong, moreish appeal.

The second of the cafes we enjoyed is ‘El Barrio’.  This place is much more of a surf/sports vibe but for those of you who also don’t like football don’t worry, it doesn’t overbear!  There is a book swap here and lots of info re local events/classes/tours.  The bebidas (juices/smoothies) here are amazing and also come in pint glasses which is rare!  They also have happy hour on good cocktails and wine each day and again, a great menu, especially breakfast.  Our favourite here was the eggs Benedict – wow!  I never dreamed I would eat eggs Benedict in Nicaragua!  The pancakes are also very tasty here and a large portion.  We also sampled the pesto pasta (great satisfying and fresh meal) and the burgers which are exceptional.

The third café/bar is ‘Big Wave Dave’.  Once a week they have a food market here (unfortunately we missed this) but it has good reviews and you can try lots of fresh bits and pieces.  We had burgers here one evening which were very tasty, although some come with strange accompaniments (such as Chinese noodles….I would stick to that traditional chips!)  Rachael and I also had some very tasty fruit flavoured bellini cocktails here – hmmmm!  The staff are friendly and relaxed and there is a darts board along with book swap.

Finally ‘The Black Whale’ is more of an evening bar with food.  We went and played some pool here, had fun with the artwork and ordered the famous giant burgers!  You really only need one burger between 2 people, although its quite clever marketing as people tend to order a whole themselves for the ‘challenge’!  It was a tasty burger although the bun was not so good and I don’t think as tasty as in El Barrio or Big Wave Dave.

So if you spend some time in San Juan, ensure you have some time to relax, read, chat or just people watch (and of course eating and drinking!) in some of these great locations.

Review: San Juan Del Sur food market, Nicaragua

After a few days of western food we were craving the gallo pinto again (as well as a cheaper meal!) so we headed to the food market.  One evening we bought fresh ingredients and cooked some plantain chips, and a vegetable pasta dish and another couple of visits we ate in the market itself.

It is a very small market and the food stall owners are over immediately as you wonder through.  We chose one where they didn’t really hound us and they seemed really friendly.  We had a lunch and a breakfast at the stall and it was great quality food for very low prices!  I love eating in the local markets and from the street food stalls as you get to have a bit of chat with the owners who are usually delighted you are there and showing an interest, plus you get to experience the food the locals eat.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Review: Pizzeria de Johnny, Santa Elena/Monteverde, Costa Rica

After enjoying the afternoon at the coffee plantation and having warmed up with all the coffee and back at the hostel we went out to a recommended restaurant - 'Pizzeria de Johnny' for a nice dinner, cocktail and good chat!

The evening started well with yummy pina coladas and a warm cozy restaurant with an open kitchen.  We went for starter and main (and thank goodness I did as it went a little down hill for me!).  For starter Rachael and I had the asparagus soup which was delicious, the texture was perfect and the flavour rich and creamy.  The accompanying bread was very tasty too.  James ordered a garlic bread which was delicious and a huge portion!  It was accompanied by a really tasty sauce similar to ratatouille.

I decided to order a mixed fish pizza and went for a small as it was a little pricy and the soup had been filling.  I was sad to see that the pizza was very very small, and not too tasty!  Unfortunately an overkill with salt ruined the whole thing as well as a rather biscuit like base, and I didn’t even finish (practically unheard of for me!!).  However, perhaps this bad experience should not put you off as Rachael was very pleased with her choice of chicken with mushroom sauce, vegetables and potatoes (only complaint perhaps a little too rich), and James with his huge calzone!

The staff were lovely and a nice atmosphere – just don’t order the mixed fish pizza!

Review: Chunches café, Santa Elena/Monteverde, Costa Rica

On our second day at Monteverde we were feeling a little more energetic and adventurous so we decided to do a ‘canopy tour’.  This is where you travel through the forest way above the ground on a series of zip line ropes!  We knew we needed a good filling breakfast to get us through the day so we headed to chunches café which was recommended by a local, and we were very happy with the choice!

The café is on the first floor above a bookshop that also sells an assortment of touristy gifts.  The design and décor is very simple and the café is really light as the whole back wall is windowed.  It has some nice batik artwork on the walls, however, it does look out onto not a very attractive piece of land that we thought could be made into a beautiful hammock garden!!

We decided to go for the chicken special breakfast which consisted of gallo pinto, chicken, avocado, tomato and plantain.  It was delicious and with one look some of our friends ordered the same on arrival.  Whilst eating I had noticed the scrummy looking cakes on the counter and couldn’t resist in getting a few for the group.  We tried the banana bread and a chocolate chip/oat flapjack/biscuit.  Well, they were AMAZING!  The banana bread I think is the best I have ever tried…I even went back and asked if I could have the recipe and she said both were secrets!  The other biscuit was equally as delicious, it was moist, sweet, crunchy and chocolatey!  These cakes were so nice that I bought their final batch the following morning for our travels and I didn’t even stop or think to take a photo of them, so you will just have to trust my judgement and stop by the café if you are in Santa Elena.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Monteverde Coffee Cooperative tour, Monteverde, Costa Rica

After an early morning bus from San Jose we arrived in the beautiful town of Santa Elena, near Monteverde in Costa Rica.  The region is known for its biodiversity as it is uniquely located inbetween cloud forest and rain forest.  It was Rachael’s first day on holiday visiting James and I and she fancied a fairly relaxed afternoon so we decided to visit a local coffee plantation to learn a bit about how the cooperative worked, how coffee is grown and more importantly to sample it!  We chose the Monteverde Coffee Cooperative tour.  The tour began well when we realised that it was just us and the guide – a bonus of travelling in the low season!

The Co-operative
The tour began with an introduction to the cooperative which consists of 42 farmers working together.  By working as part of a co-op they are able to gain mutual benefits such as receive training into organic farming methods, and help with acquiring certification for fair trade and organic farming.  Our guide explained that it is very difficult to gain and maintain organic farming status but that it is important to them to be able to educate farmers around this area.  The co-op also helps the farmers become more profitable and get the most from their land.  The co-op has bought an area of land where they plant coffee plants and grow them to a certain age and then they distribute them equally to the farmers.  The land is used as a classroom for quality coffee farming practices.

We were shown how the coffee plants are organised – for example, it is not wise to just have coffee plants on your land.  The prime reason is that it is good for the soil to receive nutrients from other plants so they plant them amongst fruit and veg such as bananas, oranges, papayas, avocados, mangoes, green beans, ginger, and sour mandarins. This is beneficial for the taste and quality of the coffee beans.  Furthermore, our guide explained that the farmers in this region only work small areas of land and would never earn enough just from growing coffee so they need to grow other plants.

The Coffee plant cycle
One thing that surprised us all on the tour was just how complex coffee production is.  Farmers need to be very organised and time their different crops.  In addition weather conditions are crucial to a plants success.  Once you plant a tree, for the first 9 months it stays in a plastic pot and can take as much water as it rains.  Once it has grown large enough to bear fruit it is moved to a suitable area in the farm.  It will then take 2 years for the first fruits to grow, after which the plant is cut down and it will take another 5 for it to fruit again.  Our guide also stressed that it takes 5 years for it to become a decent quality to use for coffee – this is a long time for a new coffee farmer to put in work before beginning to see a reward.  If a plant is organically farmed then a plant can last up to 60 years.

When the coffee plant bears fruit and they turn red they are ready to be picked.  From the first yield most will be turned into fertiliser.  Two types are produced, one where the fruits are given to the earthworms and a year later a rich soil has been produced.  For the other the beans are pealed and left to rot to produce flakes.  These natural fertilisers are then used on a 50% ratio to normal soil.

If there is too much rain it will ruin the crops which can be devastating for a farmer.  In my time in Costa Rica and Nicaragua this year I have experienced many locals being concerned about the amount of rainfall they have received, and as you can see by local news articles it has been a huge topic of discussion and concern this year.  In addition, whilst we were exploring the coffee plantation it rained incredibly and you can see here just how soaked we got!!

To combat this the Monteverde co-op has some measures in place to help manage this, such as a main buyer in Texas will contribute $1 per bag of coffee back to the co-op to go to helping the farmers pay for education for their children.

Depending on what stage the farmers sell the beans at depends on how much money they make.  The earlier they sell the less they get, however most farmers do sell early as the amount of work and cost for the production of coffee beans is too high to warrant the work.

The process
The coffee beans are picked by hand (workers are paid $2 per basket and can pick between 10 and 20 in a day).  Then the beans are shelled using a machine as shown here, and also by using a giant pestle and mortar, and left to dry for about a week.

Once dried they are roasted in a large vacuum for about 15 minutes for light beans where it sounds like pop corn when it is ready.  (longer for dark beans).  You can watch this stage by clicking below:

Then they grind and/or packet the coffee.  Coffee stays fresh for 2 – 4 months but can be used for up to a year after.

Types of bean
Until this tour I really didn’t know too much about coffee or that you could really get different types of beans, so this section I found particularly interesting!  Our guide discussed the different types of coffee in the world, Arabica, Rooibos and Liberia.  Roobus is illegal to be grown in Costa Rica, as it is deemed as not a high quality because it has too high levels of caffeine.  Arabica is the type grown here.

Within this type you can get 3 types of bean:

  • Light bean
  • Dark bean
  • Natural bean (where they are not shelled – not typically sold but the farmers drink this themselves)

People tend to think that the darker the bean, the more caffeinated it is…however, this is not true as the more you roast a bean, the less caffine content remains.  The more you roast a bean the more bitter (or strong) it becomes and this tends to be more popular.  We sampled all three and although it is quite hard to work out what you are thinking I preferred natural, then the light and then the dark.  So I like caffinne apparently!

Accompanying our coffee we had beautiful cakes – a banana and carrot cake which were both divine!  Despite being rained on during the tour we really enjoyed it and learnt a great deal so I definitely recommend visiting a coffee plantation yourself if you get the opportunity.