I can’t believe it has already been a month since I was in Belize – or that it has taken me that long to write about it. It was a great trip; and in many ways not at all what I expected. I was enchanted by the Mayan ruin of Caracol, and to my great surprise, I enjoyed our time in the Mountain Pine Ridge area more than our days on the beach, on the Placencia peninsula.
And some of food we ate was a revelation. At least for a would-be-locavore like myself.
I have to come out and say it. Belize isn’t a culinary destination. Granted, we stayed away from the big international resorts at San Pedro – where I am sure you can have a dining experience that parallels anything you can find in Manhattan, Las Vegas or Los Angeles.
I doubt we ate exactly what the typical Belizean eats either, but we did partake of the national dish, Belizean chicken, many times. This dish is always served with beans and rice, and sometimes as below, in a restaurant in San Ignacio, with plantains. It is a spicy chicken –thanks to the wide spread use of Marie Sharp’s wonderful hot sauce, and it is wonderful comfort food. (Marie Sharpe’s is produced near Dangriga. We took a trip to the factory, and brought home more than our fair share. It is totally preservative free. The Habanero Pepper Sauce is the most popular. The second ingredient on the list, after Habanero chilies, is carrots!! I plan to attempt duplicating this fiery elixir when pepper season hits this summer.)
But here’s the thing. We had some incredible meals at the Hidden Valley Inn, where we stayed in Mountain Pine Ridge; Belizean chicken, fish from the nearby river, an omelet for breakfast. Nothing elaborate, but all of it sourced locally, and as fresh as possible. The property around in the inn is vast; and includes a working farm. Much of what we ate there was raised right on the property – the coffee, bananas, coconuts, limes, cashews, were in ample evidence around us. And all the dairy products (and I suspect probably the poultry as well), were sourced from the surrounding Mennonite community. (The history of the Mennonites in Belize is truly fascinating.)
Mountain Pine Ridge is an area where the infrastructure is still a work in progress. The roads are gravel and rough, and electricity really is still a luxury. If they can’t grow it, they don’t serve it. As I found out one night when I asked the bartender for a Mojito. Mint was out of season, and I was out of luck.
And after our introduction to Belizean cooking at the Hidden Valley Inn, much of the rest of the food we ate, in the more accessible parts of the country, was disappointing. And I don’t think it had anything to do with the recipes or the technique. It was all about the quality and freshness of the ingredients.
Our only other stand out eating experience was in the tiny village of Monkey River Town–an area most easily reached the way we came there, by boat. In a tiny restaurant with two other customers, and a menu choice of fish, fried or baked, we had the most incredible fried catfish – with beans and rice. I can’t say for sure where the rice and beans originated, but the fish came from the Monkey River, caught that morning.
Our experience on this trip has made it easier for me to wait for the local strawberry crop, rather than scooping up all the California berries I see in the market right now. I’ve been relishing asparagus and rhubarb, and even some local fava beans, for the past few weeks and making plans for the cherries, blackberries, tomatoes and carrots that are just around the corner. I planted a pot of mint seeds the week after our trip. By mid-summer, I should have plenty to make a batch of Mojitos.