Those of us who have lived in Costa Rica awhile can remember the days when imported foods and products were hard or virtually impossible to find. Returning from a trip overseas, we would stagger off the plane hoping none of the stash of precious goodies would be confiscated by a zealous customs officer.
Personal use was not the only priority, because there were always friends’ cravings to satisfy as well: Marmite for the Brits, Australians and Kiwis, maple syrup for the Canadians, and Oreo cookies, grits and all sorts of other weird requests for friends from the U.S. The list was never-ending and often meant our personal needs were sadly neglected.
Those days are thankfully over. Although some select items may still be unavailable or hard to come by, generally you can get whatever tickles your palate. To help you find that “special” item, here are a few suggestions of places to shop or just browse.
For a long time, Auto Mercado supermarkets (www.automercado.co.cr) have been known for stocking many imported goods you can’t find elsewhere. A recent visit to the Lindora store in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, confirmed an excellent selection of imported products.
In the cheese section, Dutch arrivals such as Old Dutch Master Gouda and Maasdam cheeses, Spanish Adarga de Oro and Grana Padano from Italy should tempt those who enjoy cheese with character. On the munchies shelf, Kettle Brand baked potato chips and Snyder’s of Hanover seem to be adding new flavors all the time. Auto Mercado also has a good selection of imported crackers, cocktail nibbles, sauces, mustards, tapenades, vinegars and salad oils of all kinds, many by Roland specialty food company.
An excellent selection of imported cookies includes Walkers shortbread and Corsini biscotti. There are also many jams and marmalades to choose from, including Welch’s Concord grape jam. Frey’s Swiss chocolate comes with different additions, a favorite being black pepper and lemon peel. Cavendish & Harvey’s tinned fruit drops have wonderful refreshing flavors, particularly the rhubarb, pink grapefruit and sour cherry.
Chefs searching for baking chocolate should take note that Spanish company Torras’ cobertura fondant comes in large bars, not only of dark chocolate but also hard-to-find white chocolate.
Auto Mercado has stores throughout the Central Valley and in Playas del Coco, Tamarindo and Herradura on the Pacific Coast.
Saretto supermarket, with only one location in the western San José suburb of Escazú, used to attract customers from all over the country with its large selection of wines and imported foodstuffs. Today, Saretto has a lot of competition, but if you are looking for dried legumes, different types of rice, unusual flours and other products not normally found on supermarket shelves, this is the place to visit.
Lima beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, navy beans and red split lentils are among the large selection. Quinoa, an extremely nutritious, gluten-free grain from the Andean region of South America, particularly Peru, comes in three varieties, black, white and red. Other gluten-free products include baking mix, polenta mix and banana, sweet potato and rice flour. Also from Peru, you’ll find dried purple corn used to make the nonalcoholic chicha morada drink. From Argentina, packets of the dried mate and even a bombilla with a metal straw enables you to brew mate tea and partake in a drinking ceremony with your friends.
If you are planning to do some Indian cooking or make your own sushi, you’ll find jasmine, basmati and sushi rice, nori seaweed, pickled ginger, wasabi powder and many other Asian products here.
Other imports that catch the eye are dried mushrooms from China, porcini mushrooms from Italy, large bags of sun-dried tomatoes and Peruvian company Huerto Mejía’s vacuum-packed green olives stuffed with chestnuts. Also, don’t miss Roland’s finishing sauces and garnish dressings, particularly the cranberry-horseradish one.
Saretto is 500 meters west of Los Anonos bridge in Escazú. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Phone: 2228-0247.
Just two doors east is Tom Tom German delicatessen. All the delicious cold cuts, sausages and multigrain breads are made in Costa Rica; however, the shelves are stocked with imported German products. A selection of Knorr soups you’ll not see in the supermarkets and packets of goulash, rouladen and potato pancake mix sit alongside jars of sauerkraut, applesauce and dill pickles. Bottles of real Maggi sauce, white and brown sugar crystals and black cherries in syrup are among other surprises. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: 2228-7020.
Over in Plaza Itskatzú, off the Próspero Fernández Highway, Boc Art Gourmet Shop and Cooking School stocks high-caliber imported foodstuffs, kitchen utensils and household goods. They also will make up attractive gourmet gift baskets and unusual picnic hampers to order.
Owner Inés Araya has a cooking school in Guadalupe, northeast of San José, and also makes delicious mini-quiches, croquettes, pâtés, dips and other cocktail and finger foods, on sale in the Plaza Itskatzú store.
Imported shelf items include smoked salmon spread, jars of duck and goose liver mousse, tapenades, olive oils and vinegars. Robert Rothschild Farm’s wild Maine blueberry jam and Mackays preserves and marmalades make an interesting addition to a gift basket, as do mulling spices and David Rio teas with unique names such as Orca, Tiger, Elephant and Tortoise, in support of animal protection.
Boc Art is open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Phone: 2228-0804. Website: www.bocartgourmet.com.
Across the highway in Multiplaza Escazú, Grand Gourmet is another top-notch gourmet shop. Italian proprietor Lucia Mantica stocks her shelves with imported delicacies from Italy: an assortment of pâtés, marinated vegetables including red peppers, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, eggplant and jumbo olives, some stuffed with toasted almonds, and chilies stuffed with tuna. Enormous capers and smaller ones preserved in salt are also on offer, as is an excellent selection of olive oils and Balsamic vinegars.
Grand Gourmet is on the lower level of Multiplaza Escazú, across from Carrión. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Phone: 2201-8319.
Also in Escazú, at Plaza Los Laureles on the old road to Santa Ana, is Little Israel delicatessen. Owner Pnina Aharoni says almost everything on her shelves is kosher and imported from Israel; the only nonkosher foodstuffs are those made on the premises. The interesting array of products includes pita bread and a large selection of different halvahs, figs and the biggest dates imaginable, as well as packets of all sorts of snacks, sugared almonds and Turkish coffee. You’ll find couscous, matzo meal, matzo ball mix and matzo farfel, plus an impressive collection of gluten-free products such as cereals, pastas, bread, rolls and cake, waffle and pizza mix. The refrigerator is stocked with phyllo and kataifi dough, beef franks, salami, jars of horseradish, smoked trout and an assortment of herrings – home-style in cream, rollmops and matjes.
Little Israel also stocks seldom seen white sugar cubes, pomegranate molasses, rose water and many other hard-to-find kosher comestibles. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Phone: 2289-4500.
For fine food products from all over the world, Delika by Gourmet Imports, just off the Santa Ana-Belén road, is a chef and gourmand’s dream come true. German owner Jürgen Mormels, a professional chef and proprietor of Jürgen’s Restaurant in eastern San José, supplies many hotels and restaurants throughout Costa Rica, but individual customers are welcome to visit the small shop where some products are on display.
Customer Service Manager Hugo Ramírez will help you select from the catalogues offering a large and impressive selection of imported meats, sausages, ham, bacon, seafood, cheese and dairy products and frozen baked goods. Certified Angus Beef and Meats by Linz offer different cuts of steaks, racks of veal, huge thick pork chops suitable for stuffing, racks of New Zealand lamb, duck and often hard-to-get skirt steak. Russian caviar, king crab legs, Maine lobster tails, jumbo shrimp and Norwegian smoked and fresh-frozen salmon fillets are also available. French bakery Vie de France offers frozen pastry and vol-au-vent shells ready for filling, as well as rich chocolate tortes and other calorie-laden delights.
Delika is off the Santa Ana-Belén road, 100 meters north and 400 m west of the Puente del Virilla, in Ofibodegas del Oeste. Hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 9 to 11.30 a.m. Phone: 2239-1019. Website: www.delika.cr.