March 30th, 2009

Coffee: A Mini History

For over one hundred years, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary export products and a great source of wealth for many Costa Rican families. The history of coffee cultivation is closely related to the history of the country itself.

Costa Rica was a Spanish colony until 1821, when all of Central America received its independence from Spain. During Costa Rica’s colonial period, sugar cane and cacao were important agricultural products, but neither was lucrative enough to allow the colony to enter the global agricultural market. Livestock, lumber and mining provided income to a few entrepreneurs, but none became a national economic force. Throughout this time, small coffee plantations existed in Costa Rica, but they were not yet productive enough to generate significant income.

In the 1820s, the Costa Rican government took an active interest in the production of coffee, hoping to enliven the Costa Rican economy by encouraging coffee cultivation. Some sources indicate that the government became involved in land distribution, providing land grants to small coffee cultivators. Wealthy landowners also amassed large holdings, growing coffee in their vast plantations. Costa Rica’s climate proved ideal for coffee production, and coffee growers were soon producing large crops. By the first half of the 1800s, coffee production was booming, and the country finally gained a foothold in the world economy.

At first, Costa Rica exported its coffee to Chile, where it was repackaged as Chilean coffee and then shipped to Great Britain. Later, Costa Rica exported coffee directly to Great Britain, the real start of the foreign coffee export business. Other countries joined Great Britain in buying Costa Rican coffee. The lucrative coffee bean soon became known as “el grano de oro,” or the golden bean.

The wealthiest of coffee growers were those who owned beneficios, or coffee processing plants. In the earliest years, beneficios used a “humid” method to shell and process the raw coffee beans. More recently, beneficios have becoming increasingly mechanized, automating processes that were once done by hand.

Coffee revenue changed Costa Rican culture, architecture and society. Major coffee growers built expensive mansions and large commercial buildings in San José. Coffee magnates financed the construction of schools, cultural centers and of the National Theater building in the capital. Wealthy coffee growers took an interest in European culture, introducing the country to Old World literature, entertainment and activities. Most importantly to the country’s history, coffee money financed the construction of the first railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast.

By the end of the 1800s, coffee had become Costa Rica’s predominant agricultural product. However, the turn of the century also witnessed the emergence of a new and very important cash crop—the banana. Its cultivation brought with it a host of new social and political problems for Costa Rica.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 23rd, 2009

What Do You Think?

The Sleep Inn blog has been active for almost a year, with postings about Costa Rican culture, language, history, politics and food. We try to cover topics that visitors to Costa Rica will enjoy and find useful.

But we would like to know what you think about our blog. Are there any particular topics you would like to see more often, or are there any subjects we have ignored that you would like us to cover? Are there some topics we address too often? Where do you come from, and what is your relationship to Costa Rica? Would you like to read more about your own particular travel circumstances?

Please let us know how you feel by clicking the title of this posting and leaving your comments. We look forward to hearing from you.

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March 16th, 2009

Eat a Casado

Costa Rica’s most typical meal—for lunch or dinner—is the casado. Generations of Costa Ricans have enjoyed this near-perfect conjunction of some of the country’s best flavors. Up until the mid-1960s, most Costa Rican businesses closed at lunchtime. Workers who lived near their jobs would go home to a hot meal. Others ate lunch at nearby pensiones, whose owners cooked lunch for office workers every day. Whether they ate at home or at a pensión, almost everyone ate a casado for lunch. Now, most Costa Rican businesspeople and office workers eat the same fast-food lunches that their American counterparts do. However, the casado is still the national dinner dish, and it remains dear to the hearts of all Costa Rican lunch-eaters.

Although casados vary from house to house and from restaurant to restaurant, all have the same key ingredients—rice, beans, salad, and some kind of protein. The rice is a true Costa Rican specialty; glistening slightly with oil, each grain is separate from the others, and all have just the right amount of firmness. The beans served with the casado are almost always whole black beans, although some people serve refried beans with their casados. The traditional casado salad is a vinegary cabbage salad that mixes well with either the rice or the beans and gives them a pleasant crunch. Recently, many restaurants have begun to serve lettuce and tomato salads with their casados, a slight departure from tradition. A piece of beef, chicken or fish rounds out the casado. This protein is grilled, pan-fried with garlic or breaded and fried. Many casado-makers also add fried plantains and tortillas to the dish. While not essential, these two additions make for an ideal casado.

There has recently been some controversy about the origin of the term “casado.” Many people believe that the word “casado” is derived from “casa,” the word for house. This theory makes sense because of the homey origins of the casado. When everyone made lunches or dinners at home, the casado was the food of the casa. However, a recent theory has emerged, which traces the meaning of the word, not to the place where the food is prepared, but to the person who once normally consumed it. Thus, the theory is that a casado takes its name from the other word “casado,” which means a married man. When most women worked only in the home, it was only married men—or casados—who ate these meals during their lunchtime breaks.

Whatever the origin of the word, the casado is a wonderful dish. The Magnolia Restaurant serves a first-class casado, complete with fried plantains, perfect rice and delicious, smoky black beans.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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