I knew something was odd when the driver had us get out of the van to disinfect our shoes. We were en route from La Fortuna, a town in Costa Rica's central highlands, to Tortuguero, a tiny village on the Caribbean coast built on a soggy strip of land between a river and the sea, and accessible only by boat. We'd planned to take a private bus to a town called Siquirres, then catch the boat there. But the guy at our hotel offered to book us a bus/boat package that would afford us a hefty discount (I should note here that the 'guy at the hotel' is the driving force behind Costa Rica's burgeoning tourism industry: the constant planning, machinations, instant translations, phone calls that they put in -- well, we'd have gotten nowhere without them). The price was right, so without asking questions, we'd agreed.
So here we were, standing before a gate, pressing the soles of our shoes into an odd orange square that was saturated in a white liquid. Had we paid closer attention to our surroundings, we'd have realized that we passed the main port several miles ago. Instead, we were entering a banana plantation. Uniform rows of banana trees surrounded us, with their giant flat leaves and heavy clusters of fruit wrapped in blue plastic bags. Ominous signs with warnings to stay out during aerial pesticide drops alternated with signs prohibiting all photography.
The driver dropped us off at a rickety wood hutch on the riverbank and told us to wait an hour for the boat. The whole thing was quite odd, but what could we do? We trusted that everything would be fine, and we waited. In the meantime, I pulled out my trusty Lonely Planet -- maybe it knew about this odd La Fortuna to Tortuguero via banana plantation route? It didn't, but I happened on an article about the costs of Costa Rica's banana industry. Evidently, for the last century, bananas have been the country's second-largest industry (after tourism), but between noxious pesticides and poor working conditions, there's lots of room for improvement. These ubitiquous blue bags hold a chemical compound designed to protect the bananas from pests (after all, as all farmed bananas are clones, they are highly susceptible to infestation). One chemical pesticide, DBCP, has a particularly dastardly past: it's manufactured in the US by Dow Chemicals, and while it was banned domestically in 1977 for being linked to birth defects, sterility, and tissue damage, it was still sent to Costa Rica until 1990. It was distressing to learn that a fruit that is so integral to the country's economy, not to mention delicious to eat at home, was mired in so much trouble.
After all, bananas (and plantains) were everywhere on my trip. Most meals came with a pile of salty patacones: slices of savory plantain flattened into discs and fried. Our hotel in the Caribbean beach town of Cahuita offered unlimited bananas and coffee to its guests. A cheery batido of banana, coconut, orange, and pineapple led us back to Ingrid's restaurant more than once. And it was a banana daiquiri (ok, maybe two) that did me in one particularly boisterous night of our journey.
But the major winner was the House Banana -- a dessert whose name we couldn't resist at the Coral Reef restaurant in Cahuita. It was quite a number: a banana sliced in half, browned in butter and redolent of dark rum, served warm with chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and a big scoop of ice cream. I wanted to recreate it at home, but there were pangs: after reading about the banana issues, and spending a weird moment at the very site where the troubles go down, could I in good conscience purchase and eat a conventional banana?
Today at Trader Joe's I discovered organic Dole bananas. Then at home, I discovered Dole Organic's website, and was fascinated. Granted, Dole is not producing organic bananas in Costa Rica, but they are doing so in 5 other countries, and -- this is the cool part -- there is a 3-digit code on each banana label that links you, on the website, to photos and information about the specific farm on which your banana was raised. Check out the blog: there's an adorable email exchange between a US consumer and a smattering of workers from her banana's farm. This pleases me immensely.
After an hour of anxious waiting, a tiny blue boat arrived. The curly-haired punk steering the thing didn't do much to quell my anxiety, but when a local man wearing a guayabero shirt and a semi-toothless smile walked confidently to the back of the boat, whistling a carefree tune all the while, I immediately felt silly for worrying. Our young captain got us safely to Tortuguero, and as Guayabero disembarked, he turned to me with a quiet "Buen viaje, reina" and went on his way.
The House Banana
This dessert is very sweet, and with ice cream, quite rich. One serving is plenty for two people, and a cup of strong Costa Rican coffee served alongside hits the spot. Go dark here: dark rum, a well-browned caramel sauce, and good dark brown sugar (molasses sugar is my favorite) will really deepen the dessert's flavor.
1 tsp unsalted butter
dark brown sugar
1 ripe banana (not too ripe though -- you don't want it to fall apart in the pan), peeled and halved lengthwise
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
about 2 shots dark rum
1 Tbs chocolate sauce of your choice
1 scoop vanilla ice cream
1 Tbs caramel sauce of your choice
Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. When butter is melted, sprinkle with brown sugar, and cook one minute. Place bananas halves in pan, cut side down. Sprinkle bananas with more brown sugar. Add vanilla to melted butter in pan. After about 2 minutes of cooking, when the bottoms of the halves are well-browned, carefully flip them, and cook for 1 minute longer. Meanwhile, spread chocolate sauce decoratively on the bottom of serving plate. Pour rum over bananas and allow to heat. Ignite carefully by pooling rum in one 'corner' of pan, and bringing a long lit match close to the rum. Swish the flaming rum around the bananas in the pan. When the flames subside, carefully remove the banana halves and place them in the plate, cut side down. Pour remaining sauce over top. Place a scoop of ice cream between the two halves, and drizzle the whole lot with caramel sauce. Serve immediately.
[Thanks brandonwilhite for the banana plantation photo.]