Strolling through an equatorial rain forest or a northern pine forest can be thrilling enough, if only for the lavish scenery. But when you learn that you can eat a lot of what you see, a picturesque landscape takes on added intrigue. That’s the fun behind a burgeoning form of responsible leisure travel called culinary ecotourism--a new breed of gastronomic vacation, different from the languid style of those château-and-bistro foodie tours. The goal is to experience food not just as a diner, but as a gatherer, gardener and member of the kitchen staff.
Regardless of the destination, the mantra of culinary ecotourism remains simple: the food you prepare and eat should be always grown locally, and always be in season. These low carbon-impact rules can apply even at home, combining the harvest of your backyard garden with seasonal products from local farmers markets. But when you’re itching to travel, a small yet growing network of eco-friendly tour operators and inns can stir a little edgy romance and adventure into the idea of responsible gastronomy.
Eating from the Forest Primeval: Playa Nicuesa Rain Forest Lodge
In the sultry air beneath the Corcovado rain forest canopy in Costa Rica, I amble over a leaf-strewn trail with my companions, some energetic soccer moms from suburban Washington, D.C. The soundtrack is bird chatter, insect buzzes and the scrambling of Capuchin monkeys through the branches above. We wander past possum wood and ceiba trees, hanging cacao pods and an occasional overhead arch of banana leaves the size of queen-size beds. The jungle is a steamy brew of alien sensations, but this morning our mission isn’t just sightseeing. We’re experiencing the flora in a way none of us has thought of before: as a place for sourcing food. Our trek is a favorite outing called the Edible Landscape Tour, conducted by Playa Nicuesa Rain Forest Lodge in Piedras Blancas National Park, a remote, pristine corner of Central America.
The rainforest here is a laboratory for many of evolution’s flamboyant experiments: hundreds of garish bird species such as toucans and scarlet macaws; astonishing leaf-cutter ants marching in flotillas 300 feet long to nourish the fungi they cultivate in their subterranean nests. There are formidable snakes--the eyelash palm viper and the terciopelo--and rare amphibians like the gaudy strawberry poison dart frog. Towering above are trees so massive their roots grow lateral buttresses to support their weight. This is the forest primeval, a living encyclopedia of the natural selection process and a sensitive biosphere crucial to our planet’s survival.
The earthy, elegant lodge is the hub of a 165-acre wilderness resort, maintained in harmony with the surroundings. Built from fallen and renewable hardwoods, decorative driftwood and recycled construction materials, the main building and private cabañas are powered by solar energy. They’re situated for ventilation by sea and mountain breezes; the effect throughout is of a deluxe treehouse. Playa Nicuesa is accessible only by small boats from villages across the Golfo Dulce. The staff calls the site their selva y mar (jungle and sea) location. From the “front door” of the open-air lobby guests slip into warm, clear ocean water to swim, snorkel or kayak through quiet mangrove-shaded inlets. The “back door” leads to the rain forest, where on this humid spring morning we had embarked on our edible landscape trek.
Our guides are resident ecologist Jodi Thomas and Memmo, Playa Nicuesa’s cheery groundskeeper. As we enter the jungle they steer us to examples of wild rain forest produce. First is the ungainly Espavel, a cashew tree, which produces a sweet, edible apple, the jocote de marañon, to which the actual cashew nut is attached. Up the trail there is cas, “sour guava,” harvested for juices and jams, and mimbro, a kind of dwarf cucumber used chopped in a traditional Costa Rican relish. Some of the jungle’s native foodstuffs must be left unharvested. The palmito, for example, is destroyed by the process of extracting its fruit, hearts of palm. Fortunately for salad lovers, there’s a substitute: our guides present us with palm hearts from a nearby domesticated pejibay, a tree that produces the same delicacy inside renewable stems that can be removed without damaging the entire plant.
Climate and abundant water make the rainforest ideal for cultivating a broad range of crops beyond indigenous species. Our guides escort us to Playa Nicuesa’s onsite gardens, with a brief stop among a prolific stand of mature coconut trees. In the tropical heat we hack open shells with machetes and guzzle coconut water like castaways on some desert island. The gardens are also prolific, crisscrossed by neat furrows of lettuces and tropical fruits, herbs, spices, peppers, lemon grass and hibiscus. While the soccer moms, by special request from the lodge’s kitchen, harvest some cilantro and coconuts, Memmo breaks open a chunk of fallen wood and, with a grin, offers me a sampling of the sole edible protein source we’ll encounter on this hike—termites. “Try them,” he urges, munching down a few himself. “They taste sweet…like carrots” I’ve heard about this gastronomic oddity; supposedly, wild termites derive their distinctive flavor from beta carotene concentrated in their fibrous diet. My curiosity trumps my gag reflex, and yes, they do taste a little bit like carrots.
The rest of the food for meals in the Playa Nicuesa’s family-style dining room come from local providers—eggs and meat from small farms, fresh fish caught daily in the Golfo Dulce by the lodge’s resident angler, Tomás. Breakfast and lunch are accompanied by chilled guava juice from one of the cas trees. Fruit plates—bananas, pineapple, mangos—are served with the sauce of another guava, the arazá. Grilled beef comes with a peppery condiment from the tamarindo tree, red snapper with a salsa of chopped mimbro, onions, and cilantro. One dessert consists of coconut meat dipped in pungent chocolate that’s been coaxed from the seeds of the indigenous cacao trees. The lodge bartender has even invented a cocktail that mixes Costa Rican rum with cane sugar, crushed ice and Playa Nicuesa’s homegrown lemon grass, lemon leaves and oregano.
Tonight’s dinner would be the last phase of our edible landscape excursion. Back from the rainforest, we file into the lodge’s kitchen and all begin prep work with ingredients from our trek. Tomás arrives with a dripping clutch of silvery aguja—needlefish--caught barely an hour ago in gulf waters off the neighboring headlands. The fish are filleted by the lodge’s chef, Edixon, who then instructs our group in the art of preparing his recipe for ceviche: bitesize pieces of raw fish marinated in lime juice, with spices and herbs—including our recently harvested peppers and cilantro. The ceviche will be served chilled as a first course. The main entrée, grilled chicken breast with salsa de coco, puts us to work slicing ginger, chopping onions, garlic and sweet chiles, and practicing the technique of extracting fresh coconut milk from our recent haul. Joining her guests at the cutting board, our guide Jodi talks about the importance of what we’re doing in Edixon’s kitchen. A serious advocate for sustainable tourism, Jodi sees the arc of this simple process--from harvesting to preparing food—as “a good way to connect people with environmental issues,” she says. “It makes them think about an important question for our time: ‘Where does my food come from?’”
Want to Go?
Playa Nicuesa Rain Forest Lodge
Golfito, Costa Rica
Cost: from $200 double occupancy for a one-bedroom cabin to $510 for a cabin suite.
Recommended: Edible Landscaping package including four nights accommodations, all meals, preparation of one guest meal with chef, garden foraging excursion, rain forest hiking, visit to local botanical gardens and farmers market.
The Wild Soul of the Maritimes: Trout Point Lodge Cooking School
Far to the north, in Eastern Canada’s Tobeatic Wilderness, vacationing television producer Francis MacKinnon is also standing over a cutting board. At the moment, she’s learning the virtues of the “trinity”--a mix of chopped garlic, onion and celery, the preparation of which is a basic lesson of Cajun cuisine. MacKinnon has come to the popular cooking school at Trout Point Lodge to blend her culinary education with a longstanding interest in the welfare of our planet.
The forest here--the Toby, as locals call it—is a vast patchwork of pine and hemlock stands, glacial landforms, wetlands, rushing rivers and dense wildlife habitat. Tour books dub it “the wild soul” of the Maritime Provinces. At the region’s edge, overlooking the Tusket River, Trout Point Lodge--a “haute rustic” masterpiece of dovetailed spruce logs and chiseled granite--is another serious venue for culinary ecotourism.