New Musings from an Old Backpacker
05.11.2013 - 07.12.2013
Recently turned 35, Emma and I have become aware of the impending likelihood that some sort of permanent, semi-permanent, or experimental settling will happen in the next decade of our lives. The lure of hostel dorms has long left us, some of our recent overland journeys have been hard to endure, and there are bits of life we’d like to experience that just can’t happen on the move.
It sounds romantic, but at some point, I want to build my own house. I want to grow my own food, make preserves and pickles, and watch trees I plant mature into fruit pies. I want to try brewing my own beer and making my own wine, design different types of gardens and see ivy take over a trellis from start to finish, and know the feeling of staring utterly impressed at a world I’ve fostered. Emma, too. As travel becomes less in our lives, we want to share these triumphs, ideas, workloads, and new adventures.
The trip we are on now is no doubt largely rooted in these thoughts. Frankly, in order to pull off such a romantic feat, we still have a lot to learn: our way around a garden, the best building techniques, how-tos of every variety, the pitfalls we’ll be up against, the cost of such things, the timeline, the route, the order, the true extent of our necessities and desires and frivolities…
Totoco Organic Farm on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua has been our first stop and, in turn, a stark reminder of just how little we knew before and don't know now. But, we’ve also been exposed to a great deal, such as what a pineapple plant looks like, when to pick a passion fruit, and how to get a wood-burning pizza oven prepped. Already, in one month, I’ve learned more than can be conveyed responsibly in a single blog entry. So, for the time being, I’ll stick to some fun food facts I’ve pocketed here of late.
1. The Jackfruit:
It was a combination of the jackfruit and my creative wife that gave me the name of this blog. For those not in the know, jackfruit is the biggest fruit in the world, yielding single specimens up to 80 lbs., and Totoco’s farm has a jackfruit tree towering over the compost bins. The devil’s snot, which Emma suggestively insisted I call it, is a white latex that flows surprisingly freely from the fruit’s stem when it’s clipped. I was unaware of this, akin to a volcanic eruption of superglue, until I was tree bound with a good one in my hands.
Jackfruit is big in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. Many people are deterred from eating it because the devil’s snot is such a mess to deal with. It sticks—it stuck—to everything and makes old oil seem like it washes off easily. Unfortunately, our jackfruit was not ripe, which meant a lot of tacky work had been put in for some pretty starchy bites of flavorless fruit. Emma, being resourceful, got online and discovered we could treat it like a vegetable when unripe. One fruit fed three people three enormous meals of jackfruit chips—cook in oil, serve with a little salt, pepper, and ketchup.
Oh, yeah! Emma also found out that the appropriate way to deal with the devil’s snot is to coat yourself in vegetable oil (this really worked and felt slightly kinky) and to hang the fruit, letting it drain before trying to cut it open.
2. Pineapple Plants
Pineapple plants do not look like I expected. At some point in my life, I remember believing pineapple grew on trees—hey, don’t act like you were born knowing everything!—but coming into Totoco, I at least knew they were ground dwellers. Completely inaccurately, however, I thought they were the base of the plant, either sitting directly on the soil or down in it. This, too, is completely inaccurate. Pineapple is one of my favorite fruits; how in the hell could I not know what it looked like growing?
So, as a small service to those not traveling to tropical farms anytime soon, I will inform you that pineapples grow precariously balanced on a small stem in the center of spiky plant the resembles a gigantic version of the top of the pineapple you buy at the store (when it’s not canned or pre-sliced). Amazingly, you can take the top of your store-bought pineapples, plant them with the greenery poking out of the ground, and grow a new one. The bad news is that, besides needing the appropriate climate, it takes about two years.
3. Hibiscus Leaves
Hibiscus flowers are quite common to use for teas, and in Guatemala, it is known as jamaica and was used often at Earth Lodge to make afternoon refrescos. There, we’d buy the flower buds dehydrated at the market and boil them down with sugar and water to create something loosely resembling a really sweet cranberry juice. I knew this about hibiscus.
I did not know that the leaves of the trees, bright red and sprawling things, are edible, and they are indeed splendidly delicious, with a hint of sweetness to them. Hibiscus is strewn about Totoco, and pretty much daily, we throw leaves into our salad mix to add a little funk. So, tea and drinks from the flowers, salad from the leaves—I’m digging the hibiscus for more than just having a pretty petal.
4. Cyanide in My Chaya
Chaya ranks high in the new onslaught of superfoods. Recently, I’ve been heavily exposed to moringa, which is of Indian origin but making a contemporary splash in Guatemala. I’d only heard passingly about chaya and chia, which chaya is often confused with. These two are also popular up-and-comers in the plants with an excessive protein/vitamin punch category.
Chaya, though, has the unfortunate quality of being equipped with a mild dose of cyanide, also known as poison. Didn’t sound too appetizing to me when I first heard it. Before chaya is safely edible for people, it needs to be boiled for twenty minutes or fried (note: not just stir-fried but actually fried). The other warning is that it can’t be cooked in aluminum because that will cause some catastrophic chemical reaction. Here at Totoco, chaya trees are rampant and used to add protein to the pig’s largely produce diet.
Eventually, I wasn’t able to resist. I had to try it. Online, it is also known as the spinach tree, which made me all the more curious. So, I started experimenting. I made a chaya and spinach casserole dish—delicious and I’m still alive, though I did wuss out and cook it in a glass dish when I wasn’t sure about the metals in the cast iron pot. And, I fried up some chaya leaves last night after I’d made homemade yucca chips—delicious, airy, and I’m still alive. More info on chaya.
5. Katuk—Bless you.
Katuk is yet another “superfood” to add to the repertoire. Before Totoco, I’d never heard of it, but it’s a native plant to Nicaragua. It’s more appealing name is star gooseberry, and indeed, it does have some rather delicious looking berries hiding beneath the leaves. Here, we pretty much eat it off the tree. When we need some greens, we break off a few branches and add it to a salad or a chaya-spinach(-katuk) casserole.
It’s even more super of a superfood than moringa and chaya because katuk works very well raw. As well, I’ve really taken to throwing it into stews and soups. The leaves stand up a little better than spinach and are more tasty in my opinion. Amongst its super attributes are high protein content, vitamin A and B and C and K, and for any new mother’s out there, in some Asian cultures, it is believed to improve the flow of breast milk. More info on katuk.
6. Build with Bamboo
Upon our arrival here, I became a complete sucker for the various textbooks in our book collection. I’ve read about organic farming, sustainable living, building mud houses (aka cob houses), and a lovingly researched ode to bamboo. While I found the bamboo book to be utterly useless in terms of practical application, it certainly helped to better my newfound appreciation for bamboo.
Why bamboo? Well, it grows really fast, one species clocked at almost four feet in a single day. It can be cut and harvested for some pretty spectacular and spectacularly attractive building material, especially useful for us tree huggers (Bamboo is grass, so it only grows better from being cut) who are if-y about cutting down stuff. Hell, the book listed, literally, over 1000 different items bamboo can be used to create, from full-on ships to chopsticks to sustainable firewood. It grows in just about any reasonable climate. You can even eat it.
I’m not yet the bamboo expert I will be someday, but I know for sure that, when all the house-building and trellis-making comes to be, I’ll be planting myself some patches of bamboo to provide supplies. And, Emma says to mention that she made some really cool bamboo Venetian-esque doors for the Totoco henhouse, as well as some stout doorframes for the compost heap. Ming—of the current Totoco crew— digs bamboo, too.
7. Turmeric is Terrific?
I’ve cooked for a long time now, even done so professionally, and I’ve used turmeric from time to time, but I never knew it was something to sit in awe of. Indeed, it tastes fantastic. On the aforementioned yucca chips with fried chaya accompaniment, I sprinkled a little salt, pepper, and turmeric mixture for flavoring. My wife and Ming declared it was no less than gourmet.
Totoco grows a lot of freaking turmeric. And, one of our duties upon arriving was to bottle the stuff up for sale. Emma pretty well dyed orange any exposed skin that day as well as her clothing. We still have pounds left to deal with. Oddly enough, I’ve recently stumbled across an article (thrice posted on my Facebook feed) about the “600 Reasons Turmeric May Be the World’s Most Important Herb”.
How lucky am I to be working on a farm that produces hordes of it?
Anyway, I’ll stop here for now. Obviously, I’m having some exciting new encounters. This is truly learning from your travels, and it’s a thrill, a new drive to get out and do more before I stay in and put it to practice. Fear not, I’ve got plenty of interesting tidbits to share in the coming posts, like the wonders of poop and how to compost properly. (One of the cabin’s at Totoco Ecolodge actually gets its hot water from a compost heap. I’ll fill you in later.) Until then.