Posts Tagged ‘food’

The culinary mangrove

May 17th, 2009

It is hard to believe that out of the sulphurous black mud of a mangrove forest come delicacies as sweet as mangrove mud crab and mangrove cockle. I have been chowing down on these gifts of the mangroves recently—see photos below. The crab can be served whole, either plain, with an accompanying salsa or vinaigrette, or slathered with a coconut curry sauce. For a less messy dining experience, serve only the claws, legs and the two meaty parts inside the carapace, discarding the rest.

The cockles work well in a ceviche. The shellfish are steamed open and then mixed with lime juice, vinegar, spring onions and other raw vegetables. I suspect that you could use any fish ceviche recipe, substituting for the fish whatever your local cockle equivalent happens to be. In a small restaurant in Quito called Martin Pescador, which specialises in mangrove and mangrove-related seafood, I saw cockles being sizzled on the half shell, and they looked delicious, so that would be another option to try.

Any recipe suggestions gratefully received! Send to laststands@kennedywarne.com

Mud crab before.

KENNEDY WARNE
Mud crab in the hand. (Click to open slideshow)

Have a banana

May 13th, 2009

Two days ago I looked across a river and saw Peru. Today I was on an estuary near the border with Colombia. Between these two ends of Ecuador lay the delights of a 12-hour trip on the night bus from Huaquillas to Esmeraldas. I’m getting used to these interminable journeys. Freezing air conditioning or no air conditioning—those are the only options. Beverly Hills Ninja in Spanish, if you should be so lucky. A 4 a.m. stop at some soulless terminal where bleary-eyed passengers stagger past bleary-eyed vendors selling trinkets, fizzy drinks and coconut toffee.

From Esmeraldas (which means “emeralds”) we travelled the rest of the way to the border town of San Lorenzo with Edgar Lemos, who, like Pedro in the south, spends his life working for the protection of mangroves. Besides a love of mangroves, we found something else in common: we are fructophiles. We both have home orchards—though whereas mine is a quarter of a hectare in suburbia, he has a three-hectare spread on the banks of the Rio Esmeraldas, planted in citrus, coconut, banana, cacao, and many other fruits whose names defied easy translation.

Statue in Esmeraldas celebrates the stevedores whose labour built the banana trade.

KENNEDY WARNE
Statue in Esmeraldas celebrates the stevedores whose labour built the banana trade.


It turns out that Edgar can spot a rare variety of banana from 100 yards, so the journey was punctuated by stops at roadside fruit stalls. That Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas is well known—and confirmed by the fact that in the south of the country you can travel for tens of kilometres and see nothing but banana palms to left and right. “On either side the highway lie long fields of palms but not of rye,” to mangle Tennyson. Indeed, one region is called El Oro, the gold, named not for the metal but the fruit.

But Ecuador also has many artisanal bananas, varieties that never see the hold of a ship. Small, plump, thin-skinned and bursting with fragrance, these yellow bombshells are a revelation in flavour, showing up supermarket bananas for the taste-deprived specimens they are.

Edgar Lemos (foreground) samples one of Ecuador’s non-export banana varieties.

KENNEDY WARNE
Edgar Lemos (foreground) samples one of Ecuador’s non-export banana varieties.


Edgar has been involved in mangrove advocacy for eight years. The issues he deals with are the same as elsewhere in the country: illicit logging, shrimp-farm expansion, transfer of public land into private hands, overfishing, pollution from Ecuador’s new agricultural boom crop, the African oil palm. But here there is the added twist of Colombia’s narcotics war, which is being waged on the mangrove coast.

Edgar tells us stories of cocaine kitchens discovered in the depths of the mangroves, of drug shipments being moved across mangrove channels by fibreglass submarine, and of the refugee problem. When the fighting intensifies, up to 3000 men, women and children flee across the border and take refuge among the Ecuadorians. Some stay. Over lunch of fried plantains and cockle cerviche, I met UNHCR staff working to help integrate the Colombian refugees into the local economy.

Edgar thinks it would be unwise for us gringos to stay in San Lorenzo. The town has an itchy-trigger-finger feeling about it, and our presence will not go unnoticed, he says. San Lorenzo has muchos oidos, many ears. We retreat to Olmedo, a town which has a community tourism project. Why would tourists come to a 187-person community living in stilt houses among mangroves? Among other things, because the mangroves here are reputed to be the tallest in the world. Tomorrow I will visit these monsters.

We meet the king

May 8th, 2009

Today started off more catastrophically than usual. We didn’t just have flooded streets to contend with, but the electricity was out, the water was off and the cellphone networks were down. We were desperate to find some crab catchers to go out into the mangroves with, but we had no way to communicate with anyone. Collecting mangrove mud crabs is a major part of the economy of the Parnaíba Delta, providing a livelihood for thousands of people. Getting the crab story was one of the reasons I had come to the delta, and I was running out of time.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

KENNEDY WARNE
Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.


We tossed a coin and decided to take a taxi to the town of Luis Correia, where Elaine had earlier made contact with a journalist who had offered to help us. But her cellphone was down, and we didn’t know where she lived. We made inquiries at the mayor’s office, and in an instant our luck took a giant swing to the positive side. It turned out that the mayor himself was in the crab business. In fact, he told us he was the “rei do caranguejo”—king of crab. If this man couldn’t fix us up with a crab collector, no one could.

He ushered us into his office, swept aside the needs of a town without electricity, and started talking about what was clearly his favourite subject, the mangrove mud crab. He had been a crab boat captain for 15 years, then had set himself up as a crab distributor and now operates two seafood restaurants as well. He spoke of the life cycle of the crab, about the three months they spend in their burrows waiting for their old shell to fall off, and how when they finally emerge their shells are as soft as jelly. Within two tides the shell hardens into the solid body armour a crab needs to protect itself from predators.

The mayor of Luis Carreia, 'king of crab'

KENNEDY WARNE
The mayor of Luis Carreia, Francisco Araújo Galeno, 'king of crab'


While we talked, the mayor’s secretary brought in trays of iced water and cups of hot sweet cafezinho, the strong black coffee Brazilians favour. Fanning himself vigorously with a piece of paper, Francisco Araújo Galeno told us about the closed season during summer when the crabs are mating. “This is the Carnival for crabs,” he said, “when the males and females are checking each other out—just like we do.”

I liked the mayor. He spoke passionately about the crucial part crab collecting played in the economic life of the delta. He scribbled notes on a pad as he talked and gesticulated with his hands. Glancing on the wall behind him, I noticed he was flanked by a painting of Christ and a crustacean montage, featuring a huge stuffed lobster and a mud crab. I asked him if he planned to run for president. He laughed and threw his hands up in the air. “Deus sabe!” he said—God knows.

I asked about shrimp farming in the area. Readers of this blog will know that shrimp farming is a major threat to mangroves. I wanted to know if the mayor ever found himself in difficult administrative position, on the one hand protecting the mangroves where the crabs live (the source of his own livelihood), and on the other encouraging new business activity such as aquaculture in the area.

He told me that with the slump in the shrimp export market, aquaculture expansion into mangrove areas wasn’t a problem at the moment. But he said he thought there needed to be a comprehensive study of the costs and benefits of farmed shrimp, to establish once and for all if the economic benefits of aquaculture was outweighed by the damage done to the mangrove environment and to economic activities such as crab collecting and ecotourism.

His own position was plain. “Our survival depends on mangroves,” he said.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

KENNEDY WARNE
From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

Towards the end of the conversation, the secretary of fisheries, a young man named Luis ‘Rogerio’ de Sousa Filho, joined us and offered to take us to lunch at one of the dozens of beach restaurants where Brazilians go for a seafood feast.

He drove us to the place, and I visited the kitchen to watch fresh mud crabs being prepared. It’s nothing fancy. The kitchenhand kills them with the stab of a knife, washes them and cooks them in a pot of water. They are served au naturel, accompanied with crisp fried manioc flour and a vinegar salsa of tomato and coriander. Most diners sit at rough tables under thatched sun shelters on the sand, where you smash the crab legs and pincers on the tabletop with a wooden beater and extract the sweet white flesh with your teeth. The sweetest flesh of all is inside the body of the crab, where with each crunch you get a mouthful of some sort of interior shell structure (I’m not an expert on crustacean anatomy). The fiddliness of eating them is more than compensated by the taste.

Rogerio runs a wild shrimp-fishing business near the port. Across the river from his operation is a mangrove forest where crab collectors go. I asked if it would be possible to go out that afternoon, but he said the tide was too high. It would not be low enough until nightfall. But tomorrow, he promised, I could try my hand at catching the caranguejo.