Friday, November 30, 2012

The Food of Canoa

A description of my trip to the farm in Canoa would not be complete without describing the food that Mami made.  As part of the cost of staying at the farm, I was provided with three meals a day, eaten with the family.  Normally I cook for myself so it was an absolute luxury to have someone else cooking for me everyday.  I just loved rolling into the house in the morning with fresh cheese and buns waiting for me, a beautiful big bowl of fruit salad sitting there and double-fried bananas sizzling away on the stovetop.  

This is by no means an exhaustive account of all the food I ate in Canoa.  Mami made a lot of different foods.  These are just some of my favorites.

Canoa is a seaside town, and though the farm itself is about 10 kilometres away from the shore, it was a quick trip into town to pick up fresh fish.

There were a ton of fish types that I had never seen before and my favorite way of eating them was when Mami fried them whole.  A fresh whole fried fish is just so tasty with just a little salt and maybe a squirt of lemon or lime.

Every Sunday, a chicken was killed and made into a delicious potato and chicken stew.  I don't know what spices Mami and Juan's sister used but I would guess there was cilantro as that was quite common.  I might also guess cilantro root but don't quote me on that.

For those who read my original post on going to the Amazon, please note that I didn't kill a chicken.  Juan's sister was just so damn fast that I didn't get the chance even to offer my help. It's like I would go to the bathroom and by the time I got out the chicken would be dead and half-plucked!  My goodness.

Papi was quite proud of the chickens.  He told me that they are a special variety called criojo (spelling?) and are very tasty.  I will say that the chicken soup was quite good.

Juan and I had an interesting conversation about how Westerners generally like their food sanitized and Ecuadorians don't.  He had a big chicken foot poking out of his soup and he was telling me how much he loved it, that it was his favorite part.  I was saying that unless you are eating at an Asian restaurant in Vancouver, you rarely find chicken feet.  This amazed him!

Another thing they grow on the farm is peanuts and one day Juan roasted and ground fresh peanut butter.  I only got a little taste (mixed with a little freshly ground chocolate) but it was definitely the most delicious peanut butter I've ever eaten.

One meal that I didn't get a picture of but that was my favorite was crab-fried rice and beef tendon soup.  Mami had all these tiny crabs from town that she made the most amazing stock from flavoured again with some kind of spice that hinted at curry but that I just couldn't place.  It was the best fried rice I've ever eaten.  The beef tendon was put in a pressure cooker and came out decadently soft.  I absolutely adore beef tendon and am going to make this soup for my parents now that I'm home.  The texture of the tendon was just so luscious and the broth had the subtle taste of onion and cilantro.  It was amazing!  And she also introduced me to the vanilla-infused sour mandarin juice at this meal so it was like I had never eaten before.  Everything was just so delicious.

The last meal that they served me was "tortillas" but they were unlike any tortilla I have ever had.  When I think of a tortilla, I think of flat corn wraps.  These tortillas were more like a muffin and were stuffed with fresh cheese.

Papi spent at least an hour grating dried corn into this giant wooden bowl and then Mami spent what felt like the entire day kneading and mixing and forming.  Once the cakes were ready they were put into a big metal pot and out onto the fire pit.  A piece of sheet metal was put on top and then a burning log was put on that.  It was an old school oven to be sure but the flavour of the tortillas was amazing.  What a treat!

It would not be right to finish a description of food on the farm without mentioning the delicious cheese from across the street.

The cows would be milked and cheese was made and pressed right away.  From recipes that I've found online the whole process takes about seven hours, and the outcome is so yummy.  We would eat the fresh cheese on toasted buns or on top of the double-fried bananas or plantains.  It was also stuffed into plantain dumplings and cooked in soup.  Cheese...

A couple days after I arrived, one of the little girls and I walked over to the neighbor's house to pick up some cheese and because I was a guest she had to feed me.  The slab, and yes I mean slab, of cheese she fed me was something to see.  It was the size of a typical chunk of cheese you would buy in the grocery store.  Huge!  What wonderful hospitality and of course I needed to eat it all so that she wouldn't feel insulted.

My experience on the farm was just lovely.  Despite my limited Spanish, I really felt like I got to know the family by the end of my stay.  They stuffed me with food, the girls overwhelmed me with hugs, and Juan kept me laughing for most of the day.  We both found out that you don't need to speak the same language to make fun of each other.

I hope to make it back in a couple of years to roam the cacao trees, eat the fresh bananas, and enjoy the company of the wonderful Estancia family.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Making Coffee: Roasting, Grinding, Drinking

I am a coffee fanatic.  Some would call me an addict.  I am known to not want to interact with the world until I've had my two morning coffees.  An appreciation for a good cup of coffee goes hand in hand with my addiction and so the chance to roast and grind my own coffee was a prospect that excited me terribly.

Besides growing cacao and citrus fruits, Juan and his parents also grow coffee.  Mmmmm, coffee.  The berries are a beautiful bright green and ripen to a dark red.  As you can imagine from my post on cacao, all of the colors in their food forest are stunning.

Once the beans are ripe, they are laid out in the sun to dry, until they turn a dark brown on the outside.  The bean on the inside is a light green and splits down the middle into two halves.  What we traditionally think of as the coffee bean is half of this bean.

After the beans are dry they are put through the same mill that was used in the chocolate making at a very loose setting.  This is to separate the beans from the hull without breaking the bean itself.  Once the beans are milled though, you are left with a big bucket full of beans and chaff.

This is where Mami stepped in.  She scooped up a big handful of beans and held it high in the air, pouring the beans into a bowl waiting below.  As the beans dropped, the wind blew the chaff away, leaving just the green beans behind.  It was amazing how well this worked.  She and I then picked through the beans to remove any remaining chaff.

With the beans separated, it was time for the roasting.  Mami first rinsed the beans in water and then put them into a large pot over high heat.  It was then my job to stir, and stir, and stir - to bring the beans from green to a golden brown without burning them.  This meant relentless stirring for at least an hour with Mami tutting over me saying, "Ne cancelar", which means, "Don't stop" in Spanish.  She finally took over when I got quite tired.

It was fun watching her stir the beans because you could tell how practiced she was, how she must have done this hundreds if not thousands of times.  And finally, the beans were ready.

Once they reached a dark brown, she took them off the heat and I started to stir again as she set up the food mill one more time.  Into the hopper the beans went and this time we called on the two little girls to muscle through the coffee beans.  Of course they were such balls of energy that more coffee was getting on the ground than on the pan so I quickly took over.

The smell of the freshly roasted and ground beans was amazing.

The next day Juan treated us all to cappuccinos.  He got fresh milk from the neighbour across the street, and heated it up gently in a sauce pan.

While the milk was heating, he poured boiling water into a tin can full of ground coffee, letting the dark liquid seep out of the drilled holes in the bottom.  Spoonfulls of coffee were added to the heated milk and then each cup was topped with a dollop of whipping cream and a generous sprinkling of canela.

As I drank I noticed golden fat droplets forming on the surface of the milk.  It was so rich and delicious that all I could do was sit and sip.  Oh my goodness that is a coffee that I will never forget.

It also made me question my relationship with coffee, my treating it like a drug, and the careless abandon with which I consume it.  To know that there is this lovely family in Ecuador who go through this process to create a cup makes me realize how little I actually appreciate coffee.  How I mindlessly scoop my grinds into my little french press, impatiently waiting for my morning hit.

I don't know how this experience will change my relationship, maybe I'll drink less, or drink with more care or drink with a greater appreciation?  I look forward to finding out.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Making Chocolate: From Bean to Ball!

One of the big draws for me when deciding to work on the farm was that they grew chocolate.  The website mentioned the possibility of learning to process chocolate and that sold me.  As people who read my blog know, I love to get down to the nitty, gritty of food production.  That being one of the main reasons I started this blog.  The opportunity to learn about chocolate was one I couldn't pass up.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the farm, I took a tour of the cacao forest.  The pods start off as the tiniest and most delicate flowers that you can imagine.  The flowers to the right are about the size of my pinky fingernail.  I am a bit of a nut for tiny, cute things so I was quite entranced by the cacao flower.  Once fertilized the flower turns into a tiny purple pod, becoming a brilliant yellow or red once it grows and ripens.  The mature pods are about the size of a football.

Cacao trees grow quite tall but the cacao pods that contain the chocolate bean grow directly off the main trunks and branches so they are relatively easy to harvest.  

To harvest the pods I used a machete and chopped through the little stem attaching the pod to the tree.  As I did this I also looked for unhealthy or "malo" pods covered in a white fungus.  These pods were also cut off and thrown into central piles where they will be burnt in order to control the spread of the fungus.

The chocolate that Juan grows is called criollo and it makes up only 5% of the world's chocolate supply.  The flavour of criollo is less pronounced than the two other more common varieties but it has a more complex taste.  Chocolate connoisseur's generally consider it a superior chocolate.  It is much harder to grow and tends to suffer from fungal outbreaks more readily than the other types.  It takes a dedicated person to grow this variety and Juan uses organic methods no less.  Very inspiring.

Once the pods are harvested, they are sliced open and the seeds with their pulp are removed.  The pulp surrounding the chocolate seed is sweet and moist and delicious.  It makes a wonderful snack to just suck the pulp off the chocolate seeds and it is quite easy to eat an entire pod of pulp in one sitting.

As you open each pod, you have to check that the inside is pure white.  If the pulp is brown then the inside of the pod has rotted or is infected and the seeds must be thrown out.  The pods themselves are full of phosphorus and the empty ones are cast back onto the floor of the forest to add their nutrients back into the soil.  The fallen leaves of the cacao trees are also left on the ground to protect the soil from moisture loss.

Juan's farm is an integrated system so all of the parts work together.  The citrus trees grow among the cacao trees to offer shade and the rotten fruit and discarded peels also add nutrients back into the soil.  I am sure that it doesn't hurt the flavour of the cacao to have all those citrus essential oils permeating the earth.

Breaking open a seed at this point reveals a beautiful purple nut with an extremely bitter taste, nothing like chocolate.  It tastes raw and quite horrible.  In order to begin transforming the cacao seeds into chocolate, the seeds need to ferment for several days.
All of the pulp-covered seeds are collected and put into a wooden box, covered with banana leaves and left outside.  This is where the tropical air and micro-organism's begin to do their work.

As someone who has some experience with fermentation, I found it quite interesting to smell and watch the chocolate seeds as they fermented.  A clear chocolate liquor drips out of the beans and they begin to smell like cheese.  Almost like a soft blue cheese, not especially chocolate-like.

After a few days of this though, the smell begins to change and the scent of chocolate begins to tease at your nose when you smell the beans.

Once the beans are fermented they then need to dry in the sun.  In Canoa we had a few nice days with some sunlight and so the beans got a nice sun bath out in the yard.  Chasing the chickens off the beans was the farm work for a couple days as they seemed to find cacao beans quite tasty.  The color of the dried bean is still a vibrant purple and the chocolate smell is much more intense.

After the beans dry, they need to be roasted.  At Juan's place this means being roasted over an open fire for quite a long time.  This was my job and I anxiously baby sat and stirred my beans while they were roasting away.  The beans turn quite a dark color and once they are roasted the aroma of chocolate is compellingly clear.  But watch out!  The bean is still overwhelmingly bitter.  The smell will fool you into thinking otherwise.  

Once the beans are roasted the hulls need to be removed.  On the farm we did this by hand, gently pinching each bean until the hull cracked and fell off.  One by one each chocolate nut was revealed.

The next step was to turn the roasted seeds into a smooth chocolate paste.  There was a hand-cranked mill, much like my hand-cranked sausage maker with two metal plates rather than a grinder attachment.  The beans were fed in through the top and a paste oozed out the sides.  The paste was then fed through again to make the chocolate as smooth as possible.
Once the cacao beans had been milled twice, the paste was allowed to cool slightly and then was hand rolled into a chocolate ball.

This ball of chocolate is as pure as it gets.  Just a big hunk of freshly made chocolate.  Watch out though because it is still super bitter.

To eat, use a beautiful old grater and grate the freshly made chocolate bar finely.  Don't be stingy if you don't have to be.  Once the chocolate is grated, warm up fresh milk in a sauce pan and add the chocolate to it.  Allow the milk and chocolate to simmer until the chocolate is completely melted.  You could add some fresh canela if you like, though it might detract from the taste of the cacao.  Add sugar to taste.  Sugar changes the flavour of chocolate radically - it's like alchemy.

Enjoy your hot chocolate sitting around a kitchen table with friends.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Frutas (y Jugos) of Canoa

The journey from Quito to Canoa was harrowing.  For those who haven't been to Ecuador, the drivers are pretty crazy.  They drive fast and the rules of the road are taken as more of a guideline than anything else.  For example, you really only need to stop at a red light if there are other cars around, otherwise, honk and speed on through.  I found the driving style quite humourous until I realized that my bus driver to Canoa also drove in a similar manner - hurtling down 3000 metres of hair-pin turns in the pitch-black night.  Trust me, all you can do is pray and try to sleep through it.

Once I arrived in Canoa at 5:00 in the morning, I was met by Juan, the owner of the farm.  He strapped my giant backpack to his motorbike, I clung to him and we sped off down a dirt road.  Needless to say the whole trip to the farm was a bit of an out of body experience.  

When I got to the actual farm, the whole family greeted me!  His parents, who also live there and work the land, his sister, her husband and two kids, as well as Juan's wife and four children.  It was a full house.

There is so much to say about the farm and my experience there but because my blog is focused on food, that is where my focus shall stay.

One of the most amazing parts of living on the farm was the beautiful fruit growing all over the place.  This was the first time that I've ever seen a little pineapple growing out of a pineapple tree, a giant tree full of papayas (right) and citrus trees heavy with limes, lemons, pomelos and mandarins.  It really was heavenly.

Juices, or jugos in Spanish, play a huge role in the Ecuadorian diet.  Juice accompanies every meal and it is always made fresh from the produce found on the farm.  In the morning Juan would blend up fresh papaya with pineapple or mandarins or watermelons.  His mom (Mami), though, made my absolute, absolute favorite juice: a vanilla-infused sour mandarin lemonade.  Let me explain.

The farm is in an ecological niche called a cloud forest.  This means that the air is generally moisture-laden and foggy with not a lot of sunlight.  I think this was especially true for the time of year that I was there - a wetter season.  Because of the lack of sunlight, the mandarins had a hard time ripening and tended to be very sour.  It was in this sour state that Mami made the ultimately delicious sour mandarin drink.  

She combined fresh sour mandarins with whatever lemons were on hand, added sugar and water to taste and then vanilla essence.  Oh my goodness I don't know why I've never thought to add vanilla to my lemonade before???  When I make perfume with lemon or orange I use vanilla because they smell delicious together, and now I know that they taste delicious together as well.  This juice was so freakin' good.  I don't know how I'll emulate it but I am definitely going to be trying.

There was also a lot of fruit eaten whole or out of hand.  The property had banana trees everywhere and just outside the kitchen door hung a branch of bananas.  These bananas were absolutely delicious.  While of course the taste was similar to a store-bought banana, they had a much subtler, complex sweetness.

Bananas were used for lots of different things.  If the bananas were ripe then they were eaten fresh or cut up into fruit salads. When they were green, Mami double-fried them for breakfast. Oh my goodness I love double-fried green bananas.  They are a bit like a hash brown and are a great way to get some complex carbohydrates into your body first thing in the morning.

Another common snacking fruit were the pomelos.  A pomelo is similar to a grapefruit, but is much less sour and much more giant.  The little girls (there were two on the farm with me) would grab a giant piece of bamboo that had one end sharpened to a point and hit at the fruit until one came tumbling down.  Using a giant machete, they would cut it open for me and we would suck the juicy parts out of the thick pulp.  What a fabulous treat after you've been sweating it out on the farm.

Another equally delicious fruit treat the girls shared with me were guava seeds (below).  On the path up to the farm was a neighbor's property where they grew guavas.  The girls and I would climb through razor wire fences and nab a few pods.

The pods were about two feet long and once they were opened, the seeds could be pulled out and the sweet pulp sucked off.  Imagine orange pulp but juicier with a floral sweetness.  I was addicted and also kept the beautiful black seeds once I was finished snacking.  I am thinking about turning them into earrings, an idea that the girls found hilarious.  Everything we ate after I shared my earring idea was contemplated as possible jewelry.  The cocoa pods were to die for but turned brown after I dried them.  Darn.

The fruit was truly unforgettable.  I would often wander through the forest, just marvelling at the colors, the smells, the abundance.

Up next: The beautiful cocoa pods growing amidst the fruit trees leads to a lesson in making chocolate from bean to ball.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Eating in Quito: Part 1

So my trip to Ecuador started off in the capital city of Quito.  Quito is in a valley between mountains and is at an elevation of almost 3000 metres.  This altitude makes it hard to breathe when you first arrive and forget about walking up hills or stairs - whew!  I was winded in seconds.  And I took altitude sickness medication!

The city itself is gorgeous.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site because the Historic District is full of beautiful colonial era buildings.  This is where I mostly hung out, haunting the vendors and restaurants for delicious bits of food.  The streets are narrow and everywhere you look is a little store with someone cooking up something.

Staples in this part of Ecuador are rice, potato, chicken, fruit and pastries.  There are lots of street food vendors selling fresh fruit, beautiful juices, barbecued meats, ceviche, and roasted pig skin.  It was not abnormal to see a big pig head sitting out, waiting for some lucky person to dig in.

I saw these little piggies (right) on my first day there but I hadn't quite worked up the nerve to fully dive into the street food scene yet so I passed up the opportunity for a napkin full of pig skin and nuts.  Day two, on the other hand, had me feeling more adventurous and led to my first run in with barbecued street meat.  

It all started in this little park near my hostel - Parque Alameda.  I met two street kids who were trying to convince me to let them shine my shoes.  Instead I decided to buy them something to eat and they took me to this stand.  The skewers had chicken, potato, plantain, and some sort of sausage.  I will admit to feeling a bit nervous as the chef piled the new raw chicken skewers onto the grill right next to the cooked chicken skewers.  As well, my chicken was quite pink in a few places, but I decided that if this was how he cooked them then this was how I would eat them.  Delicious!

My next stop took me to another park in Quito - Parque Eijido (if I remember correctly).  As I wandered through, checking out all the various happenings, I saw this lovely lady serving up some of the delicious pig skin I mentioned earlier.  How could I say no?

The meal was fully loaded with pig skin, pig meat, two types of corn, boiled potatoes, and salad - all covered in a yummy creamy, salsa-like dressing.  It was lovely to just sit in the park and enjoy the beautiful weather and some authentic Quitoean food.

The weather in Quito is absolutely perfect.  The morning generally starts out warm, glorious and sunny and stays that way until about mid-afternoon.  At that point, the skies cloud over and it rains for a little while, sometimes heavy, sometimes light.  It's like the perfect signal for a nap.  The night then cools down to about 10 degrees, great for bundling up under the covers and getting a snuggly sleep (or salsa dancing until the wee hours of the night).

After surviving my first two days of eating with nary an upset stomach, I decided it was time to sample the national dish of Ecuador.  Cuy or to us English-speakers, guinea pig.

One thing that I really appreciated about the food in Ecuador was that they have no need to sugar coat what they are serving you.  There is no disembodied chicken thigh or fish fillet.  This method of serving their meat carried through to the guinea pig.  If you order half a guinea-pig, that's what you get.  Skull, teeth, soft palate and all.  Mine was deep fried and I found the taste quite mild.  The meat on the head was the most flavourful, probably because the guinea pig chews alot and so the muscles in the head get a good work-out.  I really enjoyed it!

Besides the meat, which I know I am quite focused on, there was also amazing amounts of fresh fruits available to snack on.  These little gems (right) are called ojos.  They are a most interesting little fruit.  The peel is quite thick, kind've like a tomato and then there is about half an inch of sour flesh.  A giant pit takes up the majority of the inside.  They were a great refresher after heavy meats and starches and were sold all over the place.

Another really interesting type of fruit juice that I tried was Colada Morada.  It turns out that my trip fell at a point in the year when an Ecuadorian blueberry was in season.  Nothing excites a foodie like a limited-edition food experience and this special blueberry is the basis for the Colada Morada drink.  It is a hot, yes hot, blended fruit juice with chunks of fruit in it.  Besides the blueberry, there was pineapple, strawberry and mango.  Oh my goodness I never would have dreamed it was as delicious as it was.  I am totally sold on hot berry smoothies now!

To top it all off, the prices are incredibly cheap.  My chicken skewer was $1.50, the pig skin was close to the same, a huge hunk of watermelon sold for $1.00.  Talk about a food paradise.

Next up?  My adventures on an organic farm on the coast!  I make chocolate, make coffee, eat tons of delicious food and then return to Quito for part 2!


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.