One of the real treats of life in Costa Rica is the year round availability of home grown fruits and vegetables available in out door markets. These little markets appear one day a week in every town and neighborhood in the cities. Local farmers or just country folk harvest their garden vegetables, herbs, coconuts, fruits and anything else that grows and sell it in these local market. Everything is grown and raised to be picked, shipped a short distance, sold and eaten. It will be a shame if this becomes a casualty to industrial farming and mass-market distribution via CAFTA.
Anyway, the meat, poultry and dairy is similarly excellent.
Free range chicken eggs are startling in their richness and taste and the local all grass-fed beef has a flavor that is just outstanding. It is a moment to litteraly slow down and smell the coffee, and while at it, and in my opinion, Costa Rican coffee is as good as it gets. My favorite is Cafe Brit Terrazu .
A little piece on grass-fed beef and grading:
Redefining The Notion Of Beef 'Quality'
By: ALEXANDRA STAFFORD, For The Bulletin
For years, purchasing a top-of-the-line steak meant finding one labeled "choice" or "select" and very rarely, "prime." To customers, these grades of quality, awarded by the USDA, marked tasty, well-marbled cuts of beef. Today, however, with concerns about E. coli-contaminated beef heightened by the increased frequency of meat recalls, more consumers are looking for a "grass-fed" label, a sign, they hope, of a leaner, more nutritious and safer type of meat. But is a "grass-fed" label a guarantee of high quality? That depends on what defines quality.
When grading for quality, the USDA looks for traits that relate to "tenderness, juiciness and flavor" (as stated on their Web site, www.usda.gov.) In processing plants, graders evaluate carcasses by inspecting the meat between the 12th and 13th rib, the area of the ribeye muscle. Depending primarily on the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) but also on the degree of maturity (ossification of cartilage, color and texture) in this area, the grader will mark the carcass prime, choice, select or standard (and very rarely, utility, cutter or canner).
Essentially, the only difference between a "prime" and a "standard" cut of meat is the fat content. And the price, that is - the higher the grade of meat, the more money it can sell for. As a result, most ranchers raise their cows on corn rather than on grass: Grain-based feeds create the marbling required to earn top USDA quality grades, and, in turn, generate more profits than grass-based diets.
While the USDA's system - one that determines quality based on fat content - certainly helps consumers identify tasty, juicy steaks, it cannot, by design, fairly evaluate the quality of grass-fed meat, the flavor of which lies in its flesh, not its fat. In fact, most farmers raising their cows on grass opt not to pay for this grading service. "It doesn't behoove them to," says Sarah Cain, manager of the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market. "At most, the meat would receive a select grade."
Upon closer look, the USDA's system, limited to identifying traits (fat) that pertain to the palatability of grain-fed beef, offers a very narrow definition of quality. For one, by rewarding fat, the system awards no points to meat that might offer some nutritional value. Allan Nation, editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, a monthly publication devoted to the art and science of grassland agriculture, reports that grass-fed meat not only is lower in total and saturated fat, but also contains 75 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, 78 percent more beta-carotene, 300 percent more vitamin E, 400 percent more vitamin A and 500 percent more conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) than grain-fed cows.
Moreover, by rewarding fat, this grading system creates incentives for ranchers to raise cattle in an environment most likely to harbor disease. For beef to achieve the degree of marbling required to earn a "prime" grade, cows must eat a lot of corn, and for cows to eat a lot of corn, they must live in a feedlot. Scientists believe the strain of E. coli 0157:H7, responsible for the outbreak of food poisoning last fall (and several others), originated in the stomach of a feedlot cow. (Corn creates the ideal environment in the rumen of an animal's stomach for this strain of E. coli to thrive.) To survive in feedlots, therefore, cattle receive antibiotics regularly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our food supply sickens 76 million Americans and kills 5,000 annually. And the frequency of food-borne illness is on the rise. In 2007, there were 21 recalls of beef related to E. coli 0157:H7; in 2006, there were eight; and in 2005, there were five. Though no beef related to the latest recall made anyone sick, the 21.7 million pounds of ground beef recalled last fall left 32 people ill from E. coli exposure in eight different states.
What label on beef, then, should Americans look for? Unfortunately, "organic," "natural" and even "grass-fed" offer as vague a definition of quality as does "prime." "Organic" cattle can still be confined in feedlots and fed corn for six months of their lives as long as the corn is organic. "Natural" cattle, although not treated with antibiotics or hormones, can also be confined to feedlots and fed corn. "Free-range" mandates that ranchers leave a corral gate open, but "free-range" cows may never actually venture out that door. And because the USDA has not yet adopted an official definition of "grass-fed," there is no guarantee that a steak labeled "grass-fed" came from a cow fed exclusively grass.
Though labels are no longer reliable, customers still know what they want: tasty and nutritious beef, produced from cows that spent their lives on pasture. This type of high-quality beef does in fact exist. Finding it, however, requires a little more effort and demands that shoppers start asking questions.
Few mainstream grocery stores carry any cuts of grass-fed beef. Whole Foods Market carries Australian grass-fed strip steak, tenderloin and ground beef, but does not disclose the name of the farm that supplies the meat. Trader Joe's, which recently stopped carrying grass-fed beef, similarly does not disclose the names of the farms that supply their meat.
In the Philadelphia area, definitive answers about grass-fed meat can only be found at the Fair Food Farmstand, or directly from the farms that supply them meat. Natural Acres Farm in Millersburg supplies the Farmstand with a variety of grass-fed cuts of beef, and Buck Run Farm in Chester County supplies the Farmstand with grass-fed ground beef. The farmers at both Natural Acres and Buck Run happily answered questions over the phone regarding the diet and life of their cows, and both farms welcomed visitors. (Grass-fed beef can also be found at select farmers' markets during the season, Greensgrow Farmstand in Kensington during the season, and year-round through the Farm To City buying club. Some farms, including Buck Run and Natural Acres, offer customers the option of purchasing a half or quarter steer.)
When it comes to flavor, grass-fed meat has improved markedly over the past few years. Though considerably leaner than corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef acquires the flavors of the pasture on which the cows graze. These flavors change with the seasons, and many consumers have grown to love - to prefer -the taste of grass-fed meat to corn-fed. If a one-time experience left you swearing off grass-fed meat forever, consider trying one of the Natural Acres' porterhouse steaks or picking up a package of the Buck Run Farm ground beef. The quality will speak for itself.
Alexandra Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.