When we first moved to Costa Rica in 2006, we didn’t mind the food. In fact, we had the idea (although that turned out to largely be a gross misunderstanding) that in a “simpler” country, the food would also be “simpler” — as in, more natural, maybe even better for you — and we knew it wasn’t a country known for its fine cuisine so I think we arrived with some reasonable expectations.
So, for the first few years we were actually pretty content with the food. It was all still part of the adventure. The very fact that we even had supermarkets with a broad array of relatively “North American”-seeming food was seen as a bonus that made life easier. And the feria — or weekly “farmer’s market” — was a fun occasional trip to add a little “local color” to our food shopping.
But then, time passed. We came to learn that “simpler” meant not that the food was more natural, but just the opposite. Simpler meant that the ticos, overall, didn’t waste too much energy worrying about things like dangerous pesticides or toxic fertilizers. No need for fuss and bother — they just applied them with abandon, often using chemicals that had long since been banned in the U.S. And we came to realize that while there was, indeed, colorful stall after stall after stall at the feria, they basically all sold the same few things, and the sense of variety was somewhat of an illusion.
Finding “organic” anything was very difficult, with one small organic vegetable stand at the feria and almost never anything in the local grocery store. (A little bit more was available at the large Auto-Mercado chain, but the closest one of those was about 45 minutes away so not convenient for your regular shopping.) There is a “local” (Costa Rican) company, Bioland, which does make a few natural products, but almost nothing we needed, so that wasn’t much help.
The chickens you could buy in the store were all from “industrial” chicken farms and although much of the beef is perhaps “grass-fed”, there’s no real suggestion that it was humanely raised or hormone and antibiotic free or anything else that one might desire for their meat. (Now, on the plus side, we did get wonderful eggs from the cage-free chickens that our housekeeper’s family kept, and equally wonderful raw milk when the cow wasn’t feeling ornery, so it’s not like it was all bad!)
But mostly, it was simply that the lack of variety became wearing on us after a while. They butcher their cows into virtually unrecognizable cuts (most of which we found borderline unusable) and seemed to simply “not have” so many things that to us seemed normal — both in cuts of meat, vegetables, and other ingredients or if they did have it, it was incredibly expensive. So as time went on it became more and more of a struggle to come up with dinner plans or feel inspired by our food.
Now, I say all this NOT as a bashing of Costa Rica (and apologies, in fact, that it might sort-of sound like that!) but rather as a stage-setting, of sorts, leading up to what we’ve been enjoying so much for the past two months here in Utah.
FOOD. Food, glorious food. In a vast variety that we’d nearly forgotten existed.
Our small town of Centerville has the big-box grocery stores (WalMart and Target) but also a wonderful “normal” supermarket called Fresh Market. By local standards, it’s considered a small store, but it serves us just fine. Even its variety is a bit overwhelming at times, so we haven’t even gotten up our nerve yet to go to Harmon’s.
(For those of you still in, or at least familiar with, Costa Rica, the difference between our Fresh Market and Harmon’s would be about the same as the difference between the local MegaSuper or Maxi-Pali and AutoMercado, except that Fresh Market is the AutoMercado and Harmon’s has no equivalent in the entirety of Costa Rica. Just to give you a feel for it.)
We’d missed cheese terribly in Costa Rica, so have been delighted to find a huge wheel of brie at Costco for about $7 — the equivalent weight of about four of the tiny rounds we would occasionally indulge in down there, paying about the same price (that is, the $7 for the tiny one). Just the variety of cheeses at the local market — and the incredibly reasonable prices, again comparing to what we’ve been paying the past 5+ years, — has made us happy.
And that’s before you get to the huge assortment of vegetables, seafood, and — in some ways, most interesting of all — organic products available.
We’ve savored our share of tender asparagus and artichokes (both items we desperately missed in CR) and eaten lots of mushrooms. (These items are available in Costa Rica, but typically not at our local stores in San Ramon, at least not the asparagus or artichokes, and when you did find them, say at AutoMercado, the prices were astronomical and the quality low.)
We’ve enjoyed lots of steak (nice sirloins at $3.99 a pound) and london broil ($3.29 a pound), along with good old American pot roast, ribs, and pork tenderloin. (Pork tenderloin is mysteriously missing in most CR grocery stores — although we did finally find it, at least sometimes, at PriceSmart — but since they eat plenty of pork, you have to wonder what in the world they do with the tenderloin?!?)
Our groceries, overall, cost so much less than they did in Costa Rica, that our budget can withstand the slightly higher prices for the readily available organic foods, so we’re able to buy much more of that — organic whole milk right at the supermarket, organic chicken broth (for only 30¢ more a quart than the non-organic), organic flour and rice and spinach. There’s organic canned black beans, just in case we feel a craving for gallo pinto coming on. Even my “little” local market has “all-cranberry” juice (not to be confused with the “all-juice” varieties you can find in CR, where most of the juice is apple or pear) and organic unfiltered apple juice, right on the shelves with everything else.
Now, all of this has been lots of fun, but it’s also only the first step toward better eating, as I alluded to in the title of this post. In the years that we were in Costa Rica, we’ve become more and more interested in eating as much “real food” as possible, eating “closer to home” with food grown more naturally and sustainably. (I don’t think there’s any “cause and effect” here — it doesn’t seem that being in Costa Rica inspired that interest, although perhaps the sheer lack of that there did fuel the fire a bit….)
So, that means that many of the packaged or prepared or exotic foods that we felt like we’d missed in CR, are now available to us, but we’re less interested in eating them. (By exotic, in this context, I mostly mean out-of-season, transported to the store some vast distance so that you can eat fruits and vegetables that were never meant to be eaten where you are, at that time of the year.)
We’ve only been here two months, so this has been “stage 1″ of our enjoying good food. I’m looking forward to stage 2 over the coming weeks and months as we begin to buy organic, grass-fed beef and chicken, plus cage-free (and organic) eggs and raw milk from a local farm we’ve found. Farmer’s markets will be starting up before too long, where the wide array of produce and other food items really did come from local farms and where heirloom breeds abound and variety is the name of the game. We’re looking into whether there’s still time this year to join up with a local CSA — community supported agriculture — where you pay a “share” upfront of the costs of the farm and then reap the benefits throughout the harvest season.
So, stay tuned. There will be other food posts to come, I’m sure. And in the meantime, while there are, indeed, things we miss about Costa Rica (our friends first and foremost), food isn’t one of them. We’re enjoying being back in the land of plenty, and while I’m sure it’s possible to spend a lot of money on food here, the complete variety of options means it’s very easy to spend a lot less. So for now, we’re appreciating a lower food budget with a higher level of food enjoyment! Bon appetit! (Or buen provecho, as they say in Costa Rica.)