Making a Meal of Nostalgia

 gallo pinto
gallo pinto

We have just had our six monthly visit from a health worker from the local clinic.
He visits every house in his area by motorbike over the gravel roads, dossiers and equipment in the box on the back which he slings over his shoulder to bring into the house.

We’ve come to know him well…a football fanatic, his first cry today after the regular greeting is

‘Italy! Uraguay! England!…..poor Costa Rica!’

Clearly the draw for the football World Cup could have been rather better arranged to his way of thinking!

It’s as much a social visit as a medical one….we discuss all manner of things including, of course, football, before we turn to the purpose of the visit.

How are we?

He checks my husband’s hospital appointments, asks about medication, if he has any problems….takes our blood pressures and asks if we are eating healthily.
Not just are we eating plenty of fruit and veg…but which and how much…and what else are we eating?

Which starts another chat about foreign food, its tastes and traditions.
How did we get a taste for Indian food? What do we think of Costa Rican food? What did we have for breakfast this morning?

He departs, the dust rising behind his motorbike as we see him off at the gate, and we go back to the house.

But what did we have for breakfast this morning?

My husband is breakfast chef in this establishment and split second timing is required of his commis (me).
Have I prepped the onions? The garlic?
Am I sure that there aren’t any tomatoes which need using more than those produced for inspection? Investigations are made followed by a triumphant return with one more with a soft spot…
Have I beaten the eggs with some black pepper and some of his potassium salt substitute?
Is the toast on? Does it need turning?

And what is the result of all this activity?

He has made us sick.

Or at least this is how the dish was christened by his sister as a child.

The onions are softened in olive oil, the quartered tomatoes follow on the top. When they are softened the crushed garlic is added and finally the beaten egg is turned into the pan and mixed in.
The result is piled on hot buttered toast….and despite the appearance which explains the nickname of the dish it is really very, very good.

I know what our health visitor had for breakfast too.

Gallo Pinto. Speckled Cockerel.

Based on rice and black beans, usually cooked off on the previous day, it sounds dull…but not at all!
The rice may have been cooked in plain water, but the black beans were cooked together with onions, garlic and coyote cilantro with its heavy persistent flavour.

To make breakfast his mother will have fried up chopped onion, garlic and sweet pepper and turned into the mix the rice and beans, finishing it with chopped cilantro (coriander).
It will have been topped with a fried egg, a fried plantain or natilla – sour cream – and is a great way to start the day.

When I was a child it was assumed that you could not hope to do a good day’s work, or do well at school, unless you had eaten a good breakfast and my mother would cook either bacon and eggs, or sausage, mushroom and tomato; boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, or poached eggs (plural you note) to be followed by toast and marmalade and to be finished half an hour before leaving the house in order to digest it.

It was a habit I stuck to…and blessed it when working where lunch meant ordering a sandwich in a brown paper bag from one of the nearby Italian sandwich bars accompanied by a cup of instant coffee.
It might have meant getting up earlier but thanks to that breakfast there was no need or desire to snack and enough energy to get home and cook an evening meal….the ranks of Spud-U-Like, KFC and the Star of India never tempted me on the way back from the station.

An introduction to France showed me the horrors of the Continental Breakfast.
Bread…a croissant…pain au chocolat…jam….chicory flavoured coffee -or, more likely, vice versa.
Ye gods and little fishes!
Battle of Agincourt explained.

Living in rural France later I was to discover that this was not the norm.
My elderly neighbours had soup for breakfast with the dry bread from yesterday soaked in it. Proper soup with veg from their own gardens with plenty of flavour and goodness.
Croissants…jam? Bof!
The coffee was the same though….

In Belgium I had their sort of breakfast…cold meats and cheeses…proper bread – even pistolei….and good coffee.
Battle of the Golden Spurs explained.

Even now. long retired, we cling to the solid breakfast routine.

Lunch is usually lighter. Danilo lunches with us on working days and is now well accustomed to the frequent arrival on the table of ‘worms’.
Chinese worms, Italian worms, worms worms.

Pasta, in all its shapes and forms.
Yesterday I made pasta shells with a sauce of broccoli, anchovy, sweet pepper and chilli….today it is linguine with spicy sausage in a sauce of tomato. onion, garlic, herbs and paprika.
Tomorrow it will be a stir fry with noodles.

In the evenings we generally have a plate of soup with bread and cheese. Easy to digest before bed and endlessly different with the range of veg available.

I have to admit to wondering how we ever managed to wade through all the courses we ate at lunch with French friends….only to start on the leftovers again in the evening….how it was that, had I taken a ‘selfie’ in those days, it would not have revealed something which would have had Captain Ahab sharpening his harpoon.

I couldn’t do it today, that’s for sure!

But I do have an atavistic longing for a good Scots breakfast…..

Not so much my grannie’s breakfast, copious and tasty as it was, but that of our holidays on the coast where we had access to that paradisiacal element – morning rolls.

Every summer the children of the extended family would be banded together somewhere on the west coast of Scotland; parents taking it in turns to act as warders. It gave both them and us a great deal of freedom.

While morning rolls were a staple…children sent to the bakery at an early hour…the other items of breakfast depended on the whims and tastes of the adults.

There was always porage. Proper porage, cooked on the back of the stove overnight and eaten with salt, with milk, or with brown sugar and cream according to your age. Youngest sweetest.

Then you might have a Loch Fyne herring coated in oatmeal and fried, accompanied by potato scones…goodness only knows where those herring have disappeared to…..

Or if Uncle Andra was in charge it would be an Arbroath smokie. to be eaten cold.

Or Ayrshire bacon with a fried slice of cloutie dumpling alongside.

And king of kings, the slice of square sausage.

A damn sight more solid than the snows of yesteryear, but gone from me just as certainly.


You Shall (Not) Go To The Mall

Thinking that I was alone, friends telephoned on Saturday to see if I would like to go to the wonderfully named Multiplaza…a shopping mall between our town and San Jose .

Unaccustomed as I am to the mall concept I would have loved to have gone as the experience is fascinating…

Level after level of a multitude of shops none of which offer me the least temptation to buy anything.

A ‘food court’ with offerings varying from smoothies to the deeply fried…and that’s only the customers…

A high price supermarket where the mushrooms are inevitably going off….

Women jogging round the walkways in the mornings in matador pants and sunvisors…

It is so bizarre it is irrestistible.

But I was obliged to resist.

The Men had returned from their sojourn in San Jose – an urgent need to return a ladder and do some painting over the Valentine high risk period – and my husband had been exercising his hunting and gathering talents on the markets of the capital, the fruits of which enterprise were presented to me by the sackload.

This being the tropics the sackloads needed dealing with pronto…so no mall.

There were highlights.

Thanks to a change of staff at the regular bakery and the new staff not being up to date on his order he had had to try another one round the corner.
He had remembered my request for a baguette – and presented me with the best baguette I have eaten since leaving France.
I should make it clear that the baguettes I liked in France were not the razor edged bricks produced from readimix by the local artisan boulanger, but the crisp articles turned out all day by the big supermarkets with their onsite bakeries, and this offering approached that standard.

The bread in our local town is dire….a wholemeal loaf that looks as if a flapjack had had ambitions and hastily abandoned them; sliced bread to rate with the best or worst that the Chorleywood process could devise; a baguette that subsides into two soft crusts with pap on meeting the breadknife….but for some reason the San Jose bakers get it right and as my bread making hand has lost its cunning we buy there for the freezer.

So, apart from the baguette, enough loaves for a fortnight to be bagged and frozen.

Eight kilos of ox kidneys for the dogs…one batch to cook, the rest bagged for the freezer.
Ten kilos of soup bones…one batch to the fridge while soaking black beans, the rest bagged for the freezer.

A large box of distinctly ripe tomatoes…sorted for those which might stay whole long enough to use in the week and the rest to process and pass through the mouli legumes to be packed for the freezer.

A large carrier bag of sweet peppers to grill, skin, de-seed and pack into the jar of olive oil in the fridge.

Avocados…two ripe, the rest equivocal. Two out for the evening, the rest in the fridge.

Lettuces…wrapped in newspaper and in the fridge.

Spiced vinegar to make and cool to souse fish…..following the success of soused shark a few weeks earlier I had been presented with a half kilo of corvina to try…and more shark.
The trial piece had been amenable to handling…thin enough to roll round the onions and be stuck with a toothpick or two.
This piece was considerably thicker and it was as much use trying to roll it as trying to manhandle an uninflated bouncy castle with a mind of its own.
There is a succint phrase obtained from an old boy when I was young which describes the futility of the effort….you might as well shit in your hat.
So, to keep an unsullied hat the shark piece was chopped in half and put into an earthenware dish with onions sandwiched between the layers; cool vinegar added, into ziplock bag and in the fridge.
Corvina likewise…sod toothpicks.

Prawns..straight into the fridge until I could work out what we would be eating in the next twenty four hours.

The half kilo of baby squid I had asked for had been transformed into one kilo of cuttlefish, to be cut into fine strips to be
a) marinaded in the juice of the limon mandarina (tree handily by kitchen door)
b)mixed with prawns, grilled pepper and garlic in a marinade of half olive oil and half vinegar.
Both to the fridge.

Onions to sort through for the thick necked ones to use first.

Potatoes to be put into a light-free box.

In the midst of the maelstrom the hunter gatherer offered to make lunch…..and made one of the best stir frys I have ever eaten: strips of cuttlefish, peeled prawns, grilled pepper strips and crushed garlic in olive oil with a squeeze of limon mandarina….

The mess was unbelievable….but it beat the smoothies and the deeply fried – into a cocked hat..