Monday, December 29, 2008

Holidays in Hopkins, Belize Style

The Holidays in Hopkins center around the same things as Holidays most places: Re-uniting family and friends, celebrating with music and, of course, the all-important center of attention, FOOD.

To me, I like to use what the land around me produces locally, intertwining fresh local ingredients with customs and traditions that bring back the comforting memories of Christmases past. It is a culinary segue of past, present and future that creates a timeline for our own personal histories. This is especially evident in my many Belizean friends, Garifuna, Mayan, Spanish and Creole, all cling to the dishes that they were raised on, and all have been exposed to and are beginning to embrace and intertwine the traditions of European and hence American holiday traditions. Indeed, after watching the on site smoking of Ham and Turkey for the last 3 years during the holidays as I Incorporated the dishes expected by many of the traveling tourists that are our mainstay, asked me to smoke them some of the same for their Christmas dinner. The aroma of the full smoker Christmas Eve on the beach here have now been stored in my olfactory file for another comforting smell of, for now the present, but of course, is already advancing to the realm of history. I can certainly hope that now these same smells, will be passed on to the children of the parents for whom I smoked the Christmas dinners, there is comfort in that thought. A minute spec of culinary history in a developing nation, but culinary history none the less.
Papaya for everyone!
Machine, otherwise known as Emory Gonzalez, wearer of the perpetual smile and all around good guy poses with the papaya tree the day before it fell over, laden with fruit. In the picture you can see where it was propped up by the all useful "Y" stick, but, alas the fruit's weight proved too great and the tree fell over. Most of the fruit was ripened over time, but you cannot reproduce the sweetness and texture of a just picked papaya at its height of ripeness. Happily, 3 trees still remain and my crop of spaghetti squash is now climbing the wall along with 2 surviving Tuscan Cantaloupes, the seeds of which I brought down on my return from Alaska in September. With allot of water, I think I should have some fruit from those two in 2-4 weeks.
Angela continues to bake through the mornings as her desserts have proven to be the talk of the village and people stop by often looking for "that couple from Alaska" having been sent by the various locals and expat's who might have been asked the re-curring question that many culinary disappointed tourists ask just anyone: "Doesn't anybody have any good desserts around here?"
" Her desserts aint yo mama's coconut buns!'" I heard Kendra, my assistant in the kitchen telling a customer one day.
True enough, try Banana Rum and Italian Cream Torte, Mango Creme Brulee and Chocolate Double Diablo for just a few of her creations. She sometimes goes into a semi-trance when pondering desserts...." So anyway," I continued in what I assumed to be a riveting conversation with my wife, "Jim ended up not catching any.......Hey, are you even listening to me?"
Her nose was deep into a Chocolatier magazine and I was sure she hadn't heard a word I said about whatever it was I was talking about. Belizeans were now ordering fancy desserts to have as a grand finale to their holiday meals, creating new traditions to add to their rich cultural heritage.
And so it goes, smoked Belizean Ham with mashed plantains, Smoked turkey with Creole potatoes. Christmas Tamales with pumpkin pie for dessert. Cultural intermingling and fusion cooking are what keeps the passion of cooking alive, for me anyway.
That's all for now, the lobster boat is pulling up to the dock with his fresh catch from the cayes so from Alaska to Belize....Happy Holidays.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Basil, Papaya and Mr. Ventura

It has been a whirlwind first 6 weeks in Belize. Aside from the usual paint and nails and re-establishing my contacts for fresh fish filet's, lobster and imported culinary niceties like arborio rice and cous cous, I was re-establishing my sensitive herb garden. The salt air on the coast is hard on the non-native varieties of Italian Basil, dill, sage, marjoram and thyme, so I seek out small micro-climates out of the wind, on the back sides of buildings, offering protection and some partial shade. One such area I had established last season was, happily, right outside the kitchen door. One big basil plant remained upon my return this year and I was able to make a very big batch of pesto before my well meaning do-all maintenance yard man, Machine, fried it with some non-organic fertilizer. I have hauled in some fertile dirt from the Sittee River and changed out the soil and have now re-planted basil, dill and sage there. I'll keep you posted with pictures as they begin to sprout.
High point of my little garden forays is the maturity of 3 papaya trees which I started in March. When they were 3 feet tall by the time I left in late April, I planted them near the driveway and in front of the entry steps. When I came back in late September, they were 15 feet tall and laden with fruit. Guests now enjoy fresh from the tree papaya with yogurt and any other fresh fruit from the local stand in Hopkins village. I was saddened to hear of the death of Mr. Ventura over the summer. He was an elderly, slightly overweight Garifuna man that became my friend by way of me practicing the Garinagu language on him. The Garifuna, of which Hopkins is probably 80%, are descendants of Africans who were on slave ships which crashed into the reef in the 1700's. the surviving Africans mingled and married with the local Carib Indians and settled in groups in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The language that evolved to these culturally vibrant people is a mix of African and Arawac Indian. Since the staff in my busy little kitchen and restaurant are all young Garifuna who speak the language to each other, I try to learn as much as I can, usually things to do with food and drink, but also saying of life etc. By learning a new sentence each day, I soon began to steer conversations towards words I knew in Garifuna and such was the case with Mr. Ventura and I.
"Abba lebu green peppers, bieme lebu jicama," I said the first time I met him.(1 pound green peppers, 2 pounds jicama).
The startled gentleman asked where I learned to speak Arawac, and I told him I was just learning and my staff taught me.
My other great encounters with Mr. Ventura showcased a skill I developed from my many years buying produce and meats, and that is I am very good at estimating the weight of anything from 1/2 pound to 25 poundsw. I can fill a bag with any vegetable or fruit, weigh it in my hands and come to with-in one ounce every time.
I would walk to the hanging scale in the old vegetable stand and hold up bag after bag of vegetables, proclaiming its weight in Garinagu before placing it on the scale and watch as time after time I got it right. This always prompts me to bet a banana or bag of fresh roasted peanuts(Banana= 10 cents, peanuts 50 cents for a bag) to any new young recruit at the vegetable stand and Mr. Ventura would chuckle each time as he watched as I would eat my banana and tell the new guy that it is the absolute best banana I have ever eaten because I won it from him.
On another occasion, the ve getable stand was very busy, with a lot of locals buying one or 2 -50 cent items. I have learned patience in Belize, and indeed find it entertaining to see the people in big hurries for nothing so I patiently waited my turn when a Belizean working from one of the larger restaurant/resorts on the beach came in wanting a large amount of potatoes right now! An exchange of words in Garifuna took place and Mr. Ventura proceeded to ignore the man completely, even serving others that came in after him first. The last straw was when the old man looked at me, asked me how much of this and that I had, never putting it on the scale and allowing me to just pay for it with-out ever weighing it. That sent the "hurried up" man out the door with steam shooting from his ears. That was my chance to spring a new Garifuna saying I had been practicing.
"Fuda Bah, Chulu Beya Haruga
Beyba-ba-dan, chulu beya Oogaen," I said to Mr. Ventura after the episode.
(Hurry up- and get there tomorrow, take your time and get there today.)
"You got that exactly right my brother, " he said.
And we both had a great laugh.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Back on the beach...and in the Kitchen.

It's great to be getting up at 5:30 am again. I have my first cup of strong Guatamalan coffee out on the dock while the sun rises. I was excited to see the distant silhouettes of a couple of dug-outs this morning on the calm as glass sea. A couple of the locals were out diving the patches of coral between the reef and the mainland for lobsters. If they know I'm back, I'll be thier first stoip in selling them.
Sure enough, Ivan stopped by with some nice sized lobsters and I bought 5 pounds of tails. They clean the still kicking crustaceans right on my dock and I ask for about 5 of the bodies. I will boil them and freeze the stock for such dishes as Belizean Boullabaisse, Lobster Bisque, and it is my secret ingredient for the clay pot version of Belizean Paella I do. I'll put the stock, saffron and rice in the clay pot with some of my own smoked sausage and cook it for half hour in the oven with no lid. Then I remove the pot and add fresh shrimp, grouper, lobster and any of the meats we smoke weekly. The lid goes back on and I finish it in the oven for 20 minutes and remove the clay pot, lid still on and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then, to the table and the resulting aroma-therapy olfactory overload as the lid is removed to the oohs and ahhs of salivating diners at the Barracuda Bar and Grill.
I will venture down to the vegetable stand in the middle of Hopkins later this morning to buy fresh veggies for tonights menu. Fresh jicama, peppers and onions, and some eggplant for my vegetarian feature of the night, eggplant parmesan. For a chef, there is no closer one can get to the food than buying fish from your own dock and vegetable from the farmers themselves. The pineapple guy will come on Monday and Thursday with the sweetest pineapples I've ever tasted, just picked that morning. Angie and I will go pick oranges and grapefruit from a friends grove for fresh squeezed juices as well as for our signature drink, the Grapefruit Margarita.

I was happy to see that one of my Italian Basil plants was kept alive through the stormy summer we had here while I was back in Alaska. I re-seeded more and the special order pinenuts should be here next week to make some great pesto.
Also growing well while I was gone are my Papaya trees, a mere foot tall when I left, these trees are now 15 feet and laden with thier succulent fruit. They'll be perfect by the time we start doing breakfast for our guests in a couple weeks.

Stay tuned for more fun and recipes and life in Hopkins, Belize, because I'm just getting started.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Two Years Later

The first post on this blog represents in retrospect our meager beginnings at Beaches and Dreams. It is now the third season that Angela and I will be beginning in September of 2008 and we have spent the last 2 summers, from May until September, back in Alaska working at a remote camp in Galena, on the Yukon River, running a kitchen for the Alaska Fire Service. We are just about to head back down to Belize now and look back at the many improvements and changes we made to our beachfront resort and look forward to finishing the projects we have begun down there. So far we have added cement walkways and built a beach side dining deck, remodeled 2 of our 4 rooms and will do the other 2 upon our return in September. we added a tree house cabana that sleeps 4 for families with children and forged many friendships that will last a lifetime. Our plans for this season, as Angela and I are preparing to spend the entire next year there to gain residency and open year round include a dock extension which will house a bar and dining area over the water, and finally remodeling the upstairs living space where we have been staying in a state of semi-construction for the past two seasons. We have closed the resort the past 2 summers during the off season as we returned to Alaska for various reasons, but are now returning to stay and we can't wait!

Our restaurant, now named The Barracuda Bar and Grill, has proven to be just as busy as we wanted and we have gone to doing only breakfast for our guests and dinner 6 nights a week, with a daily happy hour happening from 4-6pm, closed on Tuesday. For a chef, it has moved me closer to the food than I have ever been. Daily forays to the see Francesco, the operator of the local vegetable stand, and a relationship with the actual fisherman who still paddle dugouts out every morning at sunrise, means that besides our base menu, a daily special board featuring just caught lobster and snapper fillets might just be filled out an hour before dinner time. It is a chefs dream, my personal culinary epiphany.

Angela too has reached a pinnacle of confectionery euphoria. Her deserts are highly acclaimed to visitors to the higher end resorts up the beach. It is not uncommon for one "batch" of visitors to extol the virtues of the Italian Rum Cream Torte upon their departure to a new "batch" of visitors as they cross paths on their way to the airport. Indeed, after many tourists have spent 2 or 3 happy hours at our little beachfront deck with us and later closed the bar after a lingering dinner, then a bottle of wine in our company before meandering back up the beach, they have conversations with total strangers telling them about the cuisine from "the Alaskans down the beach."

"You must stop down at the Barracuda Bar and Grill for some of the Mango Cream brulee' " they say, peppering the comment with stories of lingering dinners that started with conch seviche as an appetizer, with a segue of smoked pork tenderloin sliced over spicy black beans and the climactic ending of banana-rum torte. After a conversations at the airport, guests walk down the beach on their first foray in Hopkins and walk right up to us, as if they have known us all their lives. "you must be those guys from Alaska," they say.

"Why yes we are," I answer, and welcome to Beaches and Dreams, Home of the famous Barracuda Bar and Grill!"

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

First Year at Beaches and Dreams

The adventure gene that had laid dormant in my wife and I for 25 years while we raised a family and ran a busy fine dining restaurant in Alaska awoke one minus 40 degree day in our cabin on the Upper Chena River, 30 miles East of Fairbanks.
The fire in our wood-fired Tuscan Oven crackled and gave off an eye level haunting glow on the honey colored logs of our home. We lived off the grid using a combination of solar in the summer and generator in the long, dark and very cold winter, storing power in 4000 pounds of batteries.
Our youngest of three daughters was graduating from high school in 2 years and it would be time to make an exit plan of our own. We had our successful 120 seat restaurant, , to sell, and we would keep the cabin on the river, able to drain it down and leave it. We decided to concentrate on finding a little beachfront property that we could put a small restaurant on and a few rooms........somewhere warm, was our most important feature. We could put the restaurant up for sale and start looking for somewhere to take our next great adventure. Things would be a little easier than the first one that found a young 20 year college junior and his, then girlfriend Angela and her 2 young daughters, packing an $800 van from Ohio and making the 3500 mile drive with all our spare change rolled up under the seat. We now had 25 years of success in the hospitality industry. I was chef doing some TV spots and writing a monthly food column for the local paper and my wife had become a very accomplished pastry chef as well as managing the front of the house. Besides the confidence we had in our business capabilities, we had a little more to start out with than an $800 van and 30 rolls of quarters. Add to that the mettle that comes from living and doing business in a place that can see 2 month stretches of minus 40 degree temeratures, and, its pretty hard to throw us any curveballs.
Armed with this enthusiam, I began the search for our next dream, planning on taking the 2 years before my daughter graduated to find a few places, go and check them out and hopefully selling our restaurant in the meantime to give ourselves the capital to buy what we wanted.
Day one of my cyber-search had brought me to the country of Belize, formerly British Honduras.
English speaking, British Common Law(which is basically the same legal system of the US) and a temperate climate coupled with the fact that the world's second largest barrier reef existed there, it seemed as though property ownership in this politically stable country seemed viable.
After an hour into my day one search, the search that I had 2 years to complete, I googled "beachfront resorts sale Belize," and found a little 4 room beachfront place, already with a small restaurant, on a nice stretch of beach in the little Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins. It was perfect, in my price range, and the name of the place, our beach that we had dreamed of, was actually already named Beaches and Dreams Seafront Inn. The problem was, we still had 2 years to go in our exit plan and this property I knew would not last. We juggled funds and purchased the property in January of 2005 and were able to get an old friend of mine and his new wife and young son to go down and house sit for us for 2 years until we were able to complete our exit plan. Now, Angela and I live in Hopkins at our beachfront resort,, and these are the stories of fresh lobster, grouper and conch and everyday life in the village of Hopkins, on the white beach of Belize.