Monday, March 30, 2020

Montezuma’s Chocolate

Whilst in Costa Rica, we went on a tour of a coffee plantation and farm, to find out about the coffee-making process. They also told us about the sugar-making process, and the chocolate-making process. At the end of the chocolate-making, our guide made a drink which he described as Montezuma’s xocoatl recipe. I thought this would be good to make into ice-cream. Here goes:

250ml cream
400ml milk
4 egg yolks
100g sugar
250g Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana chocolate* 
2 cinnamon sticks
Pinch of chilli flakes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla paste

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until pale. Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, and add the remaining ingredients. Stir to melt the chocolate, until almost boiling. Allow it to cool a little, then add a small amount of the chocolate cream to the eggs and sugar, and combine. Add the rest of the chocolate cream mixture, combine thoroughly, and return it to the saucepan. Heat it again, stirring constantly to prevent it catching, until almost boiling. It should be a thick smooth custard at this point. Cool in the fridge overnight, then churn it in your ice-cream maker.

* This, I am sure, is what Montezuma would have used if he'd known about it. You may substitute a local equivalent.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Tom Skelton 2020 Visions

Remember going out? That thing we used to do, where you’d go “out of doors”, and see other people, and maybe have some food and drink too?

We did a “going out” a couple of weeks ago, and I have failed to document what turned out, in fact, to be one of our last “goes out” this year… we also did pub quiz (which we won!) but that’s a weekly thing anyway. Or it was.

When the New Zealand Fringe Festival was still going on, we booked tickets to see Tom Skelton’s show at BATS Theatre. We drove into town early, anticipating the usual five o’clock snarl-up that goes on along Cobham Drive. Nothing. No hold-ups at all. We whistled through, and found ourselves parked and at a loose end in Courtenay Place shortly before five o’clock. What to do? Well, CGR Merchants opens on the dot of five, so we surprised the barman by heading straight there and ordering pre-prandial cocktails – a Jamaican Me Crazy for me, and a Siren’s Song for Nicola. We then walked the short distance to Ortega Fish Shack – a restaurant we haven’t been to for far too long. It’s one of Wellington’s established…er…establishments, and continues to offer excellent seafood in a relaxed, some say quirky, environment.

The show was at 7:30, and we were in the foyer awaiting the opening in plenty of time. We went  up to the top – the Studio – where we looked out onto a set comprising a table and a couple of chairs. Then Tom Skelton himself appeared, and started talking to us about his adventures in life, since being diagnosed in 2010 with a rare genetic disorder that left him with 10% vision in one eye, and none in the other. His show recounts the story of his life, how he got through the various challenges, and what he would have done differently had he been able to see. He’s very, very funny, and does a lot of jokes that a sighted person wouldn’t be able to get away with.

So that’s the show. An hour or so of a blind bloke telling you about his life. If you get a chance to see him, do so, although he’s probably not going to be touring much at the moment.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


We’ve done one three-hour tour in Manuel Antonio, but decided that further exertions in the tropical heat were contra-indicated. There is, however, a butterfly house just up the road, so we decided that this wouldn’t be too taxing. Our initial intent to make ourselves look like locals by taking the bus was thwarted, however, by our inability to find the actual bus stop. Sigh. We took a taxi instead.

Although advertised as being open from 8:00am, there was no-one at the office when we arrived. About five minutes later, someone turned up to open the office. There were two French ladies ahead of us in the queue, who seemed confused about what they wanted. The fact that the ticket seller couldn’t speak French, and they had limited English, didn’t help. Anyway, they had numerous discussions about what they wanted to do, whilst we waited. Clearly, they drive BMWs when they’re back in France. Eventually, we were able to talk to the ticket seller: “Two tickets for the butterfly house, please”. Done. Simples.

The butterflies are but a short walk from the office, so we went down there. The star attraction is the blue morpho butterfly, which is large and has shimmery blue wings. Unfortunately, they spend most of their time flying, so are impossible to photograph. The only time they stop is when they want either food or sex, and on those occasions they close their wings. I did manage to find a rather tattered specimen having a rest.

There were other species as well, including monarchs, so we were able to spend a bit of time looking around. We also saw a deer whilst we were in there. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen deer – there was one poking its nose around our hotel the other night – so we went outside to see if we could spot it. Sure enough, down by the river – a mother and fawn. We also saw an agouti truffling through the undergrowth. All in all, a successful trip. We caught a cab (same driver!) back to the hotel, and spent the rest of the day lollygagging.

That was our final full day in Costa Rica. On Monday, we drove to the airport – the driver told us three hours, but we were there in 2½, having foregone a rest stop along the way. This proved wise as traffic was already starting to grind to a halt as we approached the airport. Nevertheless, we got through check-in and security in double-quick time, and through to the VIP lounge, for breakfast. As we are travelling back across the International Date Line, we will have no Tuesday this week – we fly back to Houston, take off from there on Monday, and land in Auckland on Wednesday morning.  

Monday, February 24, 2020

Manuel Antonio

A morning’s drive from Monteverde took us to Manuel Antonio, on Costa Rica’s southern, Pacific coast. We boarded the bus reasonably early in the morning and travelled in air-conditioned comfort until we reached Orotina for a rest break. The driver slid open the bus door and…it was hot! Yes, we’ve arrived in the tropics, and away from the rain forest. Expect temperatures to reach 31°C during the day, and to fall to 27°C at night.

Why is Manuel Antonio so called? No-one seems to have a definitive answer. It’s like finding a town in the UK called Dave Johnson, but not knowing  who Dave Johnson was.

It took us another hour or so to reach our destination – Playa Espadilla, in the Manuel Antonio National Park. Our room wasn’t ready for us on arrival, so we went and had a leisurely lunch in the restaurant. Our hotel is in fact in two parts – Espadilla Gardens and Espadilla Hotel. We’re in the Gardens part, which has a pool and reception but no bar or restaurant. So we need to cross the road each time we want to use those. No matter. At 2pm we returned to a blissfully airconditioned room. There are lizards to be seen all around the place - we quickly identified Lizzie, Eddie, and Guttie, who lives in the gutter. We spent the rest of the day lollygagging. In the evening we went out and admired the sunset over the beach, and found a restaurant on the main drag alongside the beach to have dinner.

Eddie Lizard
The next day, we were up early-ish for a guided tour of the Manuel Antonio National Park. Even though we started early (8 o’clock) there were crowds of people trying to get into the park. Many were in guided groups, like us, but large numbers without guides too. It reminded me of a cruise ship day at Zealandia when three coaches arrive at once. Our guide, Allan, sorted us out pretty quickly and took us down a side track to try and avoid the most egregious overcrowding. As on previous tours we’d taken, the guides all carry telescopes on tripods to view the wildlife, as it’s often high up a tree. We saw lizards, white-faced monkeys, more bats, and some birds, including the majestically-named nighthawk, which ought to be something more substantial than a species of cuckoo. And of course more sloths – both three-toed and two-toed varieties. Allan was a fount of knowledge – he’d done a degree in marine biology and had been a tour guide on Costa Rica’s best place for dolphins and whales before coming home to Manuel Antonio.

We ended up at the beach, where we took a twenty minute break (swimming optional – we hadn’t brought our togs so not for us) before finishing the final part of the tour. This is where we had a close encounter with the white-faced monkeys – they are quite accustomed to having people around, and walked along the rails of the walkways with no problem. At the end we had refreshments – iced water or tea – and melon and pineapple. The tour had ended quite close to our hotel, so we decided to walk back instead of waiting for the bus.

After a quick dip in our pool to cool down – difficult as the water is like a bath – we then headed over the road to the restaurant and poolside bar for the rest of the afternoon.

Saturday, February 22, 2020


Here we are in Costa Rica, and my legions of enquiring fans (thanks, sis!) want to know…do they coffee? It is, after all, about the only thing that’s known about Costa Rica, outside Costa Rica.

Well, devoted fans, I have the answer: yes, they do. Early in our tour, all the coffee we encountered was of the filtered sort, and I felt it unworthy of remark. It was good, stronger than is normally served by such establishments that provide coffee in large urns. It wasn’t until we were on our way to Monteverde and stopped at Café Horizonte that I had my first opportunity to have an actual espresso made from Costa Rica coffee. Yes, they can make coffee! Hooray!

On our second day in Monteverde, we booked ourselves on a tour that promised coffee, sugar and chocolate. There were in fact two such tours on offer at the Tourist Information Centre, so I asked which was the best one. Having been told that one was more biased towards sugar, and the other more towards chocolate, as well as the coffee, we opted for the chocolate-heavy option and boarded a bus to Don Juan coffee, a short distance outside town.

We met our guide, Danny, and were joined by another group to make a total tour of 16 people. The first order of the day was to call a Costa Rican Uber, or a cart drawn by bulls. Danny asked who wanted to take a ride, and we put our hands up. There was only room for seven of us in the cart, so we took a short walk up the road and back again. The rest of the group just got to stand there, watch and wait. Then Danny took us on the tour proper, and started showing the coffee-making process, from berries or “cherries” as they’re known, to removing the mucilage, drying the beans, how long they need to be dried and stored for before being roasted – light, medium, or dark. At each stage we were given some of the fruit or beans to feel, taste, suck on etc – it was very much an interactive multi-sensory experience. At the end he got a volunteer to grind the resultant coffee beans for us, and made coffee in a non-traditional Costa Rican way. As he explained the old way: put grounds in an old sock, pour hot (never boiling!) water through, wasting much of the flavour. But you can’t tell your grandmother that she’s been making coffee wrong all her life! The best way, he said, is to pour hot water onto the grounds in a jug, mix and leave to stand for a couple of minutes, then filter through an old sock (the older the better, apparently).

And that’s the coffee-making process. Beaucoup de cheval, pas de glue etc.

Next, we went to the chocolate-making process. They don’t grow chocolate on the estate (it’s too high above sea level) but they do make it. The process is slightly different, involving fermentation of the cacao beans rather than drying, and then separating the cocoa butter from the cocoa nibs. We smelt and tasted the various stages again, before being invited to try Montezuma’s xocoatl recipe: chocolate, cinnamon, chilli, salt, monkey pee (vanilla extract), and hot water. It was a bit gritty, but otherwise fine. I may make an ice cream version of it when I get back.

The final demo was sugar cane. This is grown on the estate – in fact, it grows anywhere hot, regardless of altitude – and Danny had previously cut down a couple of stalks, which two of our group had been using as walking sticks. These were then processed through what looks like a mangle or pasta machine, with the gap between the rollers being reduced with each pass. Nicola was co-opted to feed the canes through the machine.

At the end of the process you have a liquid, known as agua de sapo, or “toad water”, in Costa Rica. The origin of this name according to Danny is that the drink is popular with policemen, who are known as sapo or toads in CR slang. It’s 10% sucrose in water, with impurities. To make sugar, you boil this liquid until you have reduced most of the water and are left with a thick molasses, then let it cool and shave it into a powder. It’s still brown, unrefined sugar at this stage. You can then refine it further to make white sugar.

This looks quite easy...


...It's all gone Pete Tong!
That was the end of our tour. We went back to the gift shop to buy coffee-related products, have another cup of coffee, before boarding a somewhat-delayed bus (we had to wait for another tour group to finish) back to Monteverde Country Lodge. While we waited, there was a rainbow.


Friday, February 21, 2020

Cloud Forest

We were up at the crack of dawn once again for our tour of the cloud forest. Breakfast at 6:30 for a 7:15 pickup, and we made sure to eat well as we were in for a three hour walk. The organisation was slightly haphazard but we eventually found our guide, Alberto, who took us through the cloud forest. He explained how it was different to a rain forest – the cloud forest maintains a steady drizzle rather than the heavy downpours of rain forests. He then searched out various birds, animals and flora to talk to us about. All the guides carry a telescope on a tripod, to allow the viewing of the bird species, as they often keep well away from people. The guide then uses your phone to take a picture through the eyepiece. He told us about epiphytes, hemi-epiphytes, symbionts and parasites, and killer figs. We saw some hummingbirds, other small birds, almost a quetzal, and a tarantula in a hole.

After the tour itself was over, we went to the café where they have some hummingbird feeders and managed to get some pics of hummingbirds. A lot of it was “hand of man” as they came onto the feeders but I did manage to get some waiting their turn on a branch. We also saw a coati which was scavenging about for food.

We asked our driver to drop us off in Santa Elena, the main commercial centre of Monteverde, where we stopped for some lunch in the Tree House Restaurant, accompanied by locally-brewed craft beer. After lunch we hit the emporia for t-shirts and other souvenirs, then decided to take in the serpentaria – reptile house to you and me. They have a number of native species of snake, some lizards and also some amphibians, notably the poisonous varieties of frog used for poison darts. Many of the snakes were a bit sleepy, as they are more nocturnal in habit. Our ticket is valid for a night visit as well but I don’t think we’re going to quite make it.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Arenal Volcano

The second part of yesterday’s adventures was a climb up a volcano. Arenal volcano was thought to be dormant, known to the locals as “sugar bread mountain”. When tremors started in 1968 they thought this was just “normal for Costa Rica” minor earthquakes. However, they presaged an eruption which happened on 29 July 1968, and continued for several days, burying three small villages and killing 87. Smaller eruptions have continued, with the most recent activity being recorded in 2010. Lava from the more recent eruptions mean that the new cone is now slightly taller than the original volcano. It has, in fact, got Twin Peaks.

Naturally, we went to climb it.

As part of an organised tour, of course! Because that makes it safer. Alvaro, our guide, explained all this to us before we started the ascent, following the path up through lava-encrusted hillside. We saw some wildlife along the way, not least leafcutter ants, which were doing their leaf-cutty thing. We posed at the top for photos, then made our way back down via a different route.

Leafcutter ants doing their thing
Us doing our thing

On our way back, Alvaro dropped us at the Tabacon Hot Springs, where we were booked in for a swim in hot pools, followed by dinner. The resort is bigger than the Volcano Lodge that we are staying in and is clearly geared towards day visitors as well as hotel guests. We had some drinks at the swim-up bar before touring the rest of the pool facilities. They are based around the river Tabacon, which is a hot-flowing river heated by the local volcanic activity. We splashed around, ducked under waterfalls, and generally disported ourselves before heading back to the calm of the swim-up bar for another drink, then changed and had dinner in the restaurant. This consisted of a buffet, but was very good quality, with spicy tacos to start, a wide selection for mains and a gateaux and ice cream bar. We both had ice cream. At 10 to 9 Alvaro picked us up and took us back on the short drive to Volcano Lodge.

We had plans – best-laid plans, in fact – to get up early for “golden hour” to photograph more birds in the environs of the lodge. But at 6:00am it was cloudy and gently raining, so we decided not to do that, and instead had an early breakfast. As we approached the restaurant we saw more and more birds…the restaurant put out bananas on a bird-feeding structure, and all the wild birds were congregating on it. By this time it had stopped raining as well, so I was able to get quite a few pics there. I’ll identify them later.

We were picked up after breakfast and driven to Lake Arenal, an artificially-created lake that powers the hydro-electric facility that provides 12% of the country’s electricity. We crossed the lake on a boat and were all allocated numbered buses to take us onwards to our final destination. This took a couple of hours’ driving, with a brief stop at Café Horizonte, where we were able to look out and see the Pacific Ocean. After a short rest break there, we continued on and arrived at Monteverde Country Lodge, our digs for the next two days.

Pacific Ocean in the distance