Many nation’s have brought something unique to Costa Rica, including — to a minor extent — the British. Their influence was certainly evident on the culinary front, with menu items like dumplings, journey cake and plantain tart commonplace. And then there’s the sweet made of shaved ice, powdered and concentrated milk, and syrup with the most British of names: Churchill. Most important of all, there’s rice and beans, the Caribbean equivalent of gallo pinto, the staple dish of Costa Rica, from which it differs in its use of chillies and coconut milk. The reason there’s an English-named variant of a Costa Rican dish lies in its origins — having first arrived in Costa Rica with workers from the then British colony of Jamaica.
Today, the province of Limon — the home of their descendants — is a four-hour drive from San Jose, but you meet plenty of Limonenses in the capital. Marcela Johnson, a young baker from the coast, comes up to Zapote market at weekends to sell rice and beans, plus her delicious home-baked, piquant meat patties and oval pastries filled with pineapple compote (“a bit like sweet Cornish pasties”, she tells me).
At the Feria Verde organic market, Edgar Campbell — the proprietor of a cacao planation near Puerto Viejo — sells bars of luscious, high-quality chocolate made locally using his own cacao by the pioneering, beans-to-bar manufacturer Caribeans. “We’re one of the oldest families on the coast,” he says. “Chocolate making is booming here, but we were one of the first to make organic chocolate. Caribeans runs chocolate tours and has a community centre for all sorts of activities, and not just chocolate-based ones!”
Lack of modern roads and bridges kept the province of Limon cut off from central Costa Rica until only a few decades ago, and its culture consequently remained distinct. A wave of Afro-Caribbean labourers was brought to the Limon area in the 19th century from Jamaica, along with Chinese, Indians, and Italians to work in the banana plantations and build the Atlantic railway.
The end result, among other things, has been to bring a strong Afro-Caribbean influence to bear on coastal cooking. This is most apparent in the use of tubers such as yam and yucca, as well as vegetables like the Jamaican staples callaloo, ackee and okra, plus a heavy reliance on tropical products like coconut, banana and plantain. The flourishing tourism scene in beautiful palm-fringed tropical beaches around Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo has encouraged a burgeoning crop of local restaurants — places like Sobre las Olas, in Cahuita, where the waves virtually lap at the table legs as you dine. Or the legendary Lidia’s Place in Puerto Viejo, a Caribbean soda, run by the jolly and energetic Lidia Palmer, who’ll share the secrets of the family recipe for her wonderfully tasty version of the classic rondon — a fish soup made with coconut milk that’s full of flavoursome tubers and vegetables — or her whole grilled red snapper.
Although the first Limon-cuisine restaurants outside their home territory have only appeared in the past 20 years, San Jose now has half a dozen. The Caribbean — a brightly painted little bistro that’s packed at lunchtimes and weekends — is regarded as one of the best. Its chef/proprietor, Luis Enrique Thomson, claims his shellfish-rich rondon and his magnificent grilled snappers — served on a bed of shining lettuce leaves — are even better than the ones he used to make during 30 years of cooking on the coast. “I have an even better choice of fish now,” he explains. “I just have to phone my supplier for delivery the next day, fresh from the boat.”
What with Thomson’s terrific authentic cooking, the vivid palm grove murals and soundtrack of reggae and calypso, you could almost save yourself the trouble of a trip to the coast. But nobody who’s sipped a beachside guaro cocktail in front of a tropical Limon sunset while the seafood simmers in its coconut broth would ever seriously recommend that.