I’m sitting in the lounge just outside Finca Bella Vista’s open-air kitchen, where Jef Otten feeds guests and residents amazing meals without an oven or a refrigerator. My partner Pieter is in the kitchen checking out the local ingredients and talking to Jef about native Costa Rican cuisine. There’s not much to it, Jef tells him. Ticos eat rice and beans, mostly, and think we gringos are crazy for putting pineapple and starfruit and cassava leaves (a great source of protein) in our salads. This place is where Mother Earth is at her most ripe and generous, and Pieter’s having a ball checking out the natural abundance that Jef cooks with every day.
Fresh chiles are abundant in Costa Rica. Photo by Barbara Bourne
Tonight we’re having a potluck in the community center down at Finca Bella Vista’s base camp, the launching point for a community of treehouses up the hill. Lauren, who lives in one of the treehouses, is making soup from pejibaye, a small persimmon-looking fruit that we found at the Auto Mercado but didn’t really know how to eat. (She has fresh ones. We stopped needing supermarkets once we left Dominical.) We suspect that Erica and Matt Hogan, who founded this most amazing treetop community in Costa Rica's southern zone, are making “poor man’s ceviche” from green bananas (to prove to Pieter, a banana hater, that in this form they won’t taste like the ripe fruit he despises at all). Pieter, inspired by one of the region's most popular fruits, is making pineapple gnocchi. Jef is dusting whole red snapper and salmonetta with flour and frying them in a big pan with a little oil. I’m not sure what he’s going to accompany it with, but he can take his pick from paradise.
Over the past four years, Erica and Matt have been rehabbing this former cattle ranch, planting yucca, plantains, noni and chiles. Hearts of palm grow wild everywhere. The herb garden surrounding the community center offers up oregano, basil, lemon balm and cilantro. If that’s not enough, the greenhouse nursery just up the hill offers up stevia, mint, butter lettuce and cucumbers. “Everything grows here,” Jef says. Filo, who has been gardening in the southern coastal region all his life, follows the moon phases as all native gardeners do. “It works,” Erica says. But if you plant, pick or prune something at the wrong time, you can make a mess of things.
After four years of grueling work, Erica and Matt are just beginning to become self-sufficient in feeding themselves and their guests. Finca Bella Vista’s 10-man gardening crew is overworked, and they’re looking for serious volunteers to spend a little time in paradise, bringing this land back to what it once was. It’s worth thinking about.