They’re out there: the surfer dudes and gals, along the breaks that stretch from Malpaís to Santa Teresa, near the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula.
Consistent waves and a wide range of challenge levels make these beaches pretty much a year-round draw for surfers. However, the area is growing from its backpacker, beachbum origins, and several higher-end eateries and resort options have opened along the dirt road serving these coastal communities.
While the cheap cabinas, food shacks and funky feel are still here for budget travelers, you can sense a polishing of the edges, a smartening of expectations.
It was still a surprise to fetch up at El Cruce, the area’s main road junction – Malpaís left, Santa Teresa right – after a few years’ absence and see the new Caribbeanstyle Playa Carmen mall, with its tropicalchic tones, glass-fronted stores and inner piazza. But what better location for possibly the most sophisticated fish and seafood distribution center in the country, with its keynote product: locally grown oysters?
“Product c” is the appetizing brainchild of Demian Geneau, formerly executive chef at leading boutique hotel Florblanca in Santa Teresa. Geneau, 29, brings an uncompromising commitment to stock the finest seafood products available and to teach any who will listen about fish in all its edible forms.
“If it takes 25 years to spread the word about fish, then I’ll do it,” Geneau promises, his eyes gleaming with almost manic intention. “I want to change the mentality of people, especially Ticos, regarding fresh fish. I’ve found my clients are learning a lot, and they love what I offer.”
His credentials are impeccable. Having moved here 11 years ago from the western Canadian fishing town of Sechelt, British Columbia, Geneau started out in commercial kitchens at age 11 and graduated at the top of his class from the CulinarySchool at the Art Institute of Vancouver.
“My dad fished a lot, so the whole family grew up on salmon, shrimp, octopus and scallops. No junk food for us!” Geneau says.
“It’s why I became a chef; we all knew so much about this amazing food.”
Product c has become a family business. Geneau’s parents, who took a year to sail from Canada to Costa Rica, are investors, while sister Samantha, 27, does the in-house accounts and brother Stephane, 23, helps on the retail side of the store.
Geneau says it’s just as well his family is behind the venture, as he calculates it could take a couple of years to make the concept commercially viable.
“We aren’t really taking a salary off this yet,” he acknowledges. But the confidence that Costa Rica is ready for top-quality, hitherto-untraditional fish products offsets any start-up pains.
As Geneau shucks oysters lifted from the oxygenated-seawater holding tanks and slices some yellowfin tuna sashimi with accompanying mignonette of raspberry vinegar, olive oil, fine-chopped shallot and a touch of Honduran chili for me to try, he gives me the overview of Product c.
The prima donnas of the shop have to be the Saccostrea gigas oysters, a midsized shell with plump, sweet flesh. The seed is brought in from Chile as part of a long-term NationalUniversity sustainable fisheries project started by marine biologists Gerardo Calero, Sidey Arias and Alexandra Peralta.
Peralta, 36, was born at Punta Cuchillo, just east of the Paquera ferry jetty, where cars and passengers arrive on the peninsula from the Pacific port of Puntarenas. The calm, nutrient-rich waters by Peralta’s family home are perfect for raising oysters.
Placed initially on fine mesh shelves inside net bags that hang one meter in the water, the oysters grow quickly. The bags are suspended from 60 buoys along a line anchored just offshore and benefit from the open-ocean currents that sweep through each tide.
As the oysters would normally be exposed at low tide in their native environment, the bags are raised once a week to dry out and to “stress” the oysters. This is not shellfish cruelty; the bivalves clamp firmly shut for the duration, and exposure helps strengthen shells. An additional wash in fresh water prevents too much exterior algal growth. Some eight months to one year later, the crop is ready for harvesting.
Peralta says she can produce up to 10,000 oysters a month if everything goes to plan, which represents a 70 percent survival rate. If response is good, Geneau hopes to use Peralta’s facility to try farming scallops, mussels and clams grown along the same principles.
Other kinds of fish sold at Product c have a more familiar ring to them – tuna, dorado and grouper – but Geneau insists the quality is far superior to that usually marketed nationally.
Four times a week, Geneau meets the local fishing boats between Paquera, Tambor and Manzanillo. Shunning the commercial fishing fleets, he seeks product purely linecaught, without gaffs or dragnets. Shrimp are all farmed and of export quality.
Most importantly, this seafood is fresh; it has not been frozen in some refrigerated mother ship, to be sold at Puntarenas and possibly refrozen during its marathon journey to Tico dining tables.
To help provide a little inspiration to fish-wary cooks, a large display fridge tempts taste buds with cook-in-the-bag offerings prepared by Geneau. Of the 20 or so choices, the Thai chili dorado with star anise sounds inviting, as does the smoked paprika and garlic cabrilla, and a daily ceviche rests on ice, enticing customers to take away and enjoy at one of the nearby canopied tables. Sushi backups of wasabi, sticky rice and rolling mats are also on sale, as are pots of delectable crunchy green seaweed from the fridge.
Sadly, for josefinos (San José residents), no retail outlet is available in the Central Valley, though orders can be placed via Product c’s Web site, and a couple of restaurants – Bacchus in Santa Ana and Texturas Wine Bar in Escazú, both west of San José – now offer the oysters on their menus. But the best bet is to head to Malpaís and cruise the road for several eateries that are making sure the oysters are here to stay and savor (see sidebar and separate story on Page W6 and W7).
Product c is open Monday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. For information, call 8821-7546 or 2640-1026, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.product-c.com.
Oysters, Juice and More at Camaleón
Joanne and Kevin Young want their menu to be adaptable to what’s available. So, if change is the game, then Malpaís’ Camaleón organic juice and oyster bar is the place.
The Youngs also want fresh and organic whenever possible, and usually buy from whole-food champion Honey Akerson, who coordinates the region’s weekly mobile organic market (TT, May 30).
Joanne’s experience in the catering industry back in her native Canada lets her indulge customers in a deliciously eclectic range of juice mixes and smoothies (¢1,500-1,800/$2.70-3.30). My Surfer’s Brew of avocado, banana, vanilla soy and honey was sublime, and friends tried out Alchemist Blend (pineapple, cucumber, celery, mint) and Immune Booster (carrot, apple, beet, ginger).
Juice add-ins, such as echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba or omega-3, give added punch for lagging fun-lovers.
Simply designed in a swept sand-floor rancho, with rough-hewn but comfortable wooden seats or seats by the bar with a view of the action in the kitchen, the spot is a laid-back, roadside hangout. But the seared tuna over Asian salad (¢2,900/$5.30) and shrimp salad wrap with sautéed potato slices and fruit salsa (¢3,700/$6.70) are interesting and filling, and offer excellent value.
For ¢5,000 ($9), Kevin shucked me a half dozen oysters that, because they’d been sitting on mats in the fridge for a few hours, were particularly flavorful. In case you were wondering, oysters at both Product c and Camaleón, if not consumed within 48 hours, are sent to the soup pot or discarded.
Camaleón, 200 meters north of the Malpaís-Santa Teresa crossroads, on the right just before the bridge, is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (closed from 4 to 6 p.m.) every day except Sunday. For information, call 2640-0949.