Monday, March 15, 2010

when in Culebra, eat as Culebrians do

Typical lunch -- chicharrones my addition

“When in Rome...,” quoth I the other day when my companion complained that his pre-plane Bloody Mary was rather watery. We weren’t in Rome, but believe me when I tell you that the choice of a Piña Colada couldn’t have been more apt in this instance.

We'd fled Vermont just on the leading edge of that nasty spell a week or so ago, when it was still deep winter, and came back to balmy, sunny skies filled with the steam of maple sap and signs of spring. Since when have I been so lucky? Well, “Lucky is as lucky does,” as Grandma used to say, and we did skedaddle ahead of plan, nevertheless finding ourselves in the Dartmouth Coach (what a great deal) grinding sideways up (or down) 89 in a foot of snow on the way to Boston; but better that than standing in grounded Rutland APO missing our Boston/San Juan flight.

Because, yes, we were on our way to the little island I wrote about last year, where the flock of wild chickens that roams it wakes you at 4:30AM crowing raucously PUERto RIco, PUERto RIco! They scratch and scavenge up and down the island, making a mess of your gardens and planters, meanwhile providing a certain amount of protein for hardened islanders. “Makes wonderful soup,” one of them told Leo, and indeed they are all handsome, feathers glowing, living the good life under that hot hot sun.

Culebra, with the creamy white sands, the long white rollers on the edge of the turquoise sea, the thorny acacia, the rutted roads, and the house of friends high above the bay.

View from the deck. Bougainvillea is rooting. Book? Fortress of Solitude
The drill? Wake and wander through the breezy, bright kitchen to get coffee then out to the deck to observe the sun’s progress up over the end of the bay. Walk. Breakfast. Read. Lunch. Desultory conversation. Read. Beach. Showers. Cocktails. Conversation. Dinner. Discussion. Bed. To be repeated next day. Lovely way of alleviating the sense of existential loneliness caused by residing in one separate body and mind.

Zoni Beach, inaccessible, with a shrouded St. Thomas in the distance

The only decisions needing to be made were which beach, the secluded and lovely Zoni or the more accessible and world-class Flamenco; and what and where is dinner. Oh, and whether or not it’s worth it to break the unspoken agreement to agree to disagree. Diverse opinions there!

Breakfast consisted of eggs (each marked “U.S.” in blocky red-inked letters), bacon, English muffins, and fruit – grapefruit, bananas, mango, pineapple, and papaya, most from local trees. Lunch was usually sandwiches made of the only bread that could be had, which was tan and square with the consistency of Wonder, along with coldcuts – mostly ham and swiss cheese, and whatever salad was left over from dinner the night before. Chips and bottles of pickles and green olives usually accompanied the sandwiches. Some of us eschewed sandwiches and resorted to the gigantic local avocados, drizzled with olive oil and chopped garlic, salt and pepper, or else tucking slices of them into sandwiches.

But dinner was a different story; that was where we shone. At home, grilled tuna, red snapper, pork loin. Potato salad, lentil salad, pineapple and yellow peppers brushed with garlic and olive oil and then grilled. Man, that was good. The pork was marinated in the spicy fish sauce Nuac Cham we’d made the night before as an accompaniment to the tuna.

It was a whole different way of eating, of course – I hadn’t had sandwiches like those since I was there the last time. The fruit and the avocados were local, but nothing else – even the fish had been imported from Boston, I imagine. There you are, surrounded by fishy seas but the fish are... unavailable, though we did see one sign on top of an insulated picnic cooler advertising fresh fish but didn’t have the opportunity to investigate. The pork was very good, so it may have come from the main island. Puerto Rican cuisine is known for its pork, as well as its use of dried cod (bacala).

“But not for its beans,” chided a restaurant owner in Old San Juan, where we spent a few days before taking the small plane to Culebra. “You have us confused with Mexicans,” she spat. In Old San Juan we explored and ate tapas, which were invariably small regularly shaped items, like bacala, coated in that tan granulated cornmeal that makes everything look industrial and pre-formed whether it is or not. Much to my chagrin, time after time these tasted like they were. Our last morning, after the early morning flight from Culebra, we took a cab to El Convento, a fabulous 400 year old Carmelite convent-cum-hotel, for breakfast. I spent the morning within its thick walls and shaded courtyards just wandering around inspecting the original art and tapestries or sitting in a cool corner reading. I heartily recommend it.

In Culebra, we did go back to visit the fabulous Jennifer at Juanita Bananas, the hilltop restaurant I wrote about last year that is owned by the young couple who grew much of their produce hydroponically just outside the restaurant, and set up a system to obtain much of their fish from local fishermen. But no more. Our visit to their full-moon tapas celebration was disappointing, no fresh produce in sight, the little dishes too few and uninspired. Apparently a new baby is taking up their time these days.

Another night we had a superb dinner at the new Susie’s, right by the bay in an old fish house in the small – and only – town of Dewey. In the open air, accompanied by the cats that also roam the island (I’ve seen them lazing about surrounded by baby chicks), we ate our plantain mash, fresh fish, and nice sauces with gusto.

We were back in Vermont by last Saturday’s Winter Farmers’ Market, and I burst in there, too, with lots of gusto! Local food! My friends, the farmers! You’d think I’d been gone a month!

I’m not complaining about the food in Culebra – not a bit! We make our own good times and good food. But how much better to be able to rave about it.

I wonder. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to help make the wonderful little island sustainable again? People growing their own pork, catching their own fish, planting their own gardens and small farms? Hmmm. Six months here, six months there. Doesn’t sound too shabby!

In the meantime I bought those Boardman Hill pork chops and a small pineapple from the Co-op, and that’s what we’ll be having for dinner! And maybe a Piña Colada.
You know, made out of pure Vermont rum, coconut, and pineapple! How local can you get?

Published as Twice Bitten column, Rutland Herald, 09 March, 2010

1 comment:

Penny said...

Sounds like an interesting trip Sharon. Love the view from your deck. Hope Spring is showing it's face in Rutland.