The Curse of the Chayote.

Summer in the French countryside would be bedevilled by the problem of what to do with the courgettes. You would put in a couple of plants and the next thing you knew there would be a forest of little green devils just waiting for you to turn your back before ballooning into marrows. They must have been eavesdropping when God told Noah and his sons to bring forth abundantly in the earth and thought that the injunction applied to them as well.

From the bible of Elizabeth David I thought that you picked them when young and crisp…my French neighbours thought otherwise. When the lady who delivered the bread agreed to take some of my surplus she eyed the crop and said she would come back in a couple of days ‘when they were a proper size’. Indeed she did and was pleased with her haul, which she intended to bottle. I’d been in the sous sol of her house… the shelves were full of produce she had bottled and she had picked the courgettes when they were the height of her bottles. I would not have thought of that – or of bottling the beasts at all.

Costa Ricans hold a similar view on the size of what they call zucchini which explains the heaps of green and white striped containers of spongy flesh which you find on the stalls of the feria. But at least they don’t bottle the things…

Mark you, as far as I can see they don’t bottle anything. You can mark the increase in the number of foreign settlers in an area by the availability of Kilner jars in the shops.

The curse of the garden here is the chayote. The things pictured above.

Should you wish to plant them Danilo swears that you can tell male from female fruits by the number of shoots protruding from their fundaments. I have no idea if they are male, female or transgender but it seems to me that if you hurl one out into the shrubbery it takes root with alacrity, while its ability to camouflage itself when young means that you do not see it until it leaps into action and invades the washing line. Peg out your smalls in the morning and they will have been entwined in its loving embrace by late afternoon.

Currently they have invaded the walls of the swimming pool and are advancing along the balustrades of the balcony, cunningly taking advantage of the fact that I can reach only so far down from the balustrade and only so far up from the pool giving a margin of several feet for their activity. Danilo flatly refuses to uproot the parent plant on the grounds that he can use the fruits. My suggestion that he get in the pool to pick them was addressed with scorn.

A. He is shorter than me.

and

B. The water would come over his wellies.

I can conquer A by handing him the long handled fruit picker we use for the oranges but B is insuperable.

Why don’t I use the fruitpicker? You need space to manoevre the thing and I am clumsy.

Higher Authority has decided that he will have to take matters in hand. He will propel his wheelchair out onto the small balcony which hangs over the pool, and use the fruitpicker. The chayotes will fall into the water whence I shall retrieve them with a bucket.

But which wheelchair?

The ordinary one? No, the brakes aren’t too good and he might be catapulted over the rails into the pool while lunging with the fruitpicker.

The mobility scooter? No. That lives in the car ready for action on shopping trips.

So the heavy artillery it is…the big electric wheelchair in which he rumbles around house and garden like the Mekon in search of Dan Dare.

I can take or leave chayote….usually the latter…but when they appear in the kitchen – thank you Danilo for finding yet another plant – I feel obliged to use them. When young they have a crisp texture…rather like a half frozen apple but without the flavour….and that’s about it.

I stew them in a pan with chicken, onions, garlic, potatoes, chinese cabbage and coriander – but all they add to it is bulk.

Likewise a stew with chicken, carrots and achiote – which you probably know as annatto, used for colouring cheese, but it has a distinct flavour. Again, the chayote was bulk, but took on an ominous neon colouring.

I did once try stuffing them….but for all the good that did I would have been better off stuffing them where the sun doesn’t shine. At least you can stuff a marrow.

Locals use them as part of a picadillo..a mishmash of veg served with the midday casado – the regulation plate of rice, beans, salad, picadillo and tortilla served with options from steak, pork chop, fish or beef stew as basics or ox tongue, tripe or chicken stew if the cook has ambitions. The chayote is boiled, then skinned and diced and mixed with sweet pepper and sweetcorn. Being boiled it loses its crisp texture, but the mix is pleasant.

I have mentioned the mobility scooter….

It has enabled Higher Authority to enjoy shopping again without the limitations of being pushed by someone…it gives him independence. He can belt round the alleys of the Mercado Central and navigate the Mercado Borbon, whacking his shopping in the basket or, as in the case of the fortnightly visit for dog food, making his orders then zooming on while Danilo takes the sacks back to the car.

He can also navigate my least favourite shop….the Chinese Hell.

It is a large chaotic Chinese owned supermarket between the Central and the Borbon, where stuff is certainly piled high but is not always cheap. Previous to the purchase of the scooter Danilo would push him to the entrance and leave him to it while coming with me to pick up the dog food. As the floors are cracked and uneven he would become stuck at which point staff and customers would extricate him. Friendships were formed. When the dog food had been put in the car Danilo would go in search of him while I would wait in the packing area, looking for them on the security camera screen by the tills. It is the sort of place where you are supposed to leave your bags at the entrance, but as my bag contains my money I am reluctant to do that.

If Danilo returned in search of a trolley, then Higher Authority had found a bargain…whether it was top grade rice at rock bottom prices, top grade coffee likewise, or less welcome items like sliced bread – ‘it will be fine for toast’ – one kilo of sour cream in a plastic bag – ‘we use a lot’ – or six pineapples – ‘come in handy for stir fries’.

But all this has changed. Once mounted on his scooter he leaves us for dead. On his first appearance at the Hell, the security guard slapped him on the back, allowing him to go through with his bag in the front basket, and he went round in a welter of handshakes and smiles, even when demolishing a display of sweets. When his basket was overflowing a member of staff attached the contents with sticky tape…a regular triumphal progress.

Unfortunately the Hell has taken thought as to its image…..

On his last visit I was presented with a clutch of cards featuring recipe suggestions which looked as if they were stock from an upmarket shop from the quality. He had seen them by the till. Free. They would ‘give me ideas’.

The vegetarian hamburger suggestion was promptly turned down.

‘There must be better than that…give them to me..’

Harumphs from the front seat of the car indicated that other suggestions were not meeting with approval and then

‘Look! This looks O.K. and we’ve got everything on the list…’

A card was handed back to me.

Chayote soup.

On return, into the Mekonmobile and onto the little balcony armed with the fruitpicker. Despite lunges worthy of a duellist the thing did not reach.

What was to be done?

‘Fetch a ladder. You can put it in the pool and reach from there.’

‘It will float away.’

Call Danilo to stand on the foot of it’

‘He can’t. The water will be over his wellies’.

Ever alert, Danilo arrived bearing chayote from the other plant. I must follow him and find where it is in order to destroy it.

I consulted the recipe. Peel and boil the chayote. Drain and put chayote in a blender with a bug bunch of coriander. Blend. Pour into saucepan, add salt and pepper, greek yogurt and some of the cooking liquor to let it down. Heat and serve.

Higher Authority decided we would have it for breakfast the next day…so in the early hours of the morning I made it. It had a texture that reminded me of okra…viscous…while all I could taste was coriander. Perhaps 6.00 am was not the ideal time to sample soup…still, we ate it.

By 8.00 am we wereboth rushing for the loo…damned good thing we have two of them otherwise things might have become desperate.

Finally, I have found a use for the chayote…..

Making a Meal of Nostalgia

 gallo pinto cocina.ahorra.net
gallo pinto cocina.ahorra.net

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.

A Winter’s Tale from Costa Rica

insidecostarica.com
insidecostarica.com
No Florizel or Perdita, no statues coming to life…just a quiet winter’s evening in the country.

It has been raining since mid afternoon….cloudbursts to start with, filling the streams with the roaring dangerous waters…then thunderstorms…and now steady rain which will end sometime after we have gone to bed.

The sheep don’t go out when it rains…..the cattle have come up to the corral to eat the cameroon – fodder grass – that Danilo has put through the cutter…the horses are with them.

In the house all is peaceful after the dramas of the morning when the PC wouldn’t work and we had to contact Hewlett Packard’s helpline in Mexico to go through the troubleshooting process and finally to relaunch the Windows programme.
I was helped by a delightful man who realised very rapidly that he didn’t have to go through the script – and who did the whole thing in English for which I was most grateful as I find computerese bad enough in my own language and impossible in anyone else’s.

Luzmilla has cleaned the house from top to bottom – dogs fleeing to the chicken houses and men making themselves scarce….
Danilo has gone home.

The last batch of the Christmas puddings are steaming…

The straight-from-the-cow milk, full of cream, has been scalded and is cooling before adding the yoghurt starter…

I made a pizza for supper…but the red wine we tried with it was a disaster. Tannic wasn’t the word for it….

We checked the front label. Three years old.
Then we checked the back label…..where the wine’s ‘sweet tannins’ were vaunted…’nuff said!

So tomorrow I’ll be making a stew….a recipe from one of Leo’s aunts.
We haven’t eaten this for a while…but a bottle of sweetly tannic wine makes a good excuse….

Caramelise sliced onions…set aside.
Brown beef. Return onions to the pan with garlic, thyme and bay leaves.
Cover the meat with a half and half mix of wine and beef stock.
Add juniper berries.
Dollop in equal amounts of jam and mustard.
Cook until beef is tender and thicken the sauce with cornflour.

To be served with ‘stumf’…
Onions caramelised, thinly sliced potato laid on the top…water to barely cover and cooked gently until the potatoes are cooked and the water has evaporated.
Mash.

It’s a potato dish Leo loves…you can substitute carrot or cabbage for the onion…and ideal for a rainy night with a hefty stew.

Shortly I must take the dogs out before bed….they would normally take themselves but we have recently been given a new addition – the Pernicious Poodle Puppy – who doesn’t yet know her way around and so needs to be accompanied…and then I’m off to bed myself.

But over a cup of mate tea I have time to realise how tranquil things are…how much I have unwound….and how, if I am ever to write the book about my life and times in France, I will have to gird up the loins and put time aside to do it.

I have had two attempts…one, to use old blog posts and the other to write from scratch.
Now Perpetua has suggested an essay format and that seems a good idea.

So today I looked out my notes…and tried to start up Scrivener. Of that, least said the better. Back to the notes.

But I would be grateful if anyone has any suggestions for a format….something which would confine my soapboxing to reasonable limits but which is not yet another of the ‘how I hung up my high heels and tamed the septic tank’ sagas.

I listened to a last song before venturing out into the rain…and blessed my good fortune that the winter here is mild.
No cold winter howling o’er moorland and mountain as in ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’.