Devastated by hurricanes, Puerto Rico recovers old flavors – 05/31/2023 – Josimar Melo

I was recently in Puerto Rico, on a trip that should have taken place last September. It was aborted because Hurricane Fiona arrived first, decimating several parts of the archipelago.

It was nothing new. In 2017, another even more powerful hurricane, Maria, wrought terrible damage. Even today it leaves traces, even in the minds of the locals.

Upon arrival, before focusing on the landscape and cuisine, my first conflicting impression was that this is the United States. A Caribbean island with all the feel of a Caribbean island (in the Spanish language, music, food), but which is still part (and second class, as it cannot vote) of a foreign power, under the euphemism of Associated State.

Ok, this is not the only case in the region: Curaçao is Dutch, St. Marteen too (and the other half, St. Martin, French). But except for the current dollar, in Puerto Rico I see nothing American.

And while there is no strong separatist movement, there is an important tendency in the culture to assert local values. Even in gastronomy.

This is the case of the movement I went to discover, Mesa Redonda, led by chef (from Argentina, but based there) Martín Louzao. Historically, the archipelago was supplied mainly with its own products, but today more than 80% of its food comes from abroad (and having to first pass through the United States, on the continent).

Now, its chefs and rural producers are turning to encourage the consumption of local ingredients, from the fields and the seas (fish, native tubers and roots, forgotten or unknown fruits) – at the same time stimulating awareness of sustainable production.

The Redonda Table is part of a trade platform that connects more than 200 producers directly to restaurants. Events are also organized bringing together local and international cooks – Louzao has already hosted foreign chefs at its main restaurant, Cocina Abierta, in the capital San Juan, such as Daniela Soto-Innes and Oscar Lorenzzi, from New York, Jaime Rodriguez, from Colombia, Marsia Taha, from Bolivia, and, when I was there, the Brazilian Janaína Rueda, from A Casa do Porco, serving feijoada with some appetizers that made the restaurant famous. Among the Puerto Ricans, chefs like Gabriel Hernandez (Verde Mesa restaurant) and Carlos Portela (Orujo).

There was no time for the beach (only to see the transparent waters bordered by the white sand), but I found interesting restaurants. From Louzao himself, Oriundo (oriundopr.com), more experimental, with multidisciplinary research, Cocina Abierta (cocinaabierta.net) and a crowded café-bar, Caleta (@caletacafe), in the beautiful old and colonial part, within the walls of San Juan. Run by women, with local comfort cuisine, Cocina al Fondo (cocinaalfondo.com), by chef Natalia Vallejo. And another bar – in fact, a maze of bars with an underground flair: La Factoria (@lafactoriapr).

In these we find local versions of Creole cuisine from Central America, with ingredients from indigenous cultures (beans, cassava, fruits, peppers and roots), African and European translated into fried foods and stews. The typical dish, mofongo, is a thick puree of plantains with pork rinds, with versions stuffed with different meats.

But I also took the opportunity to visit an agroecological production site, Finca Neo Jibairo (fincaneojibairo.com), which serves a menu with some of its 25 organic products and –to my surprise— has a cigar course (also produced there).

I also visited the small (and precious) Del Barrilito rum factory (rondelbarrilito.com), from 1871. It is aged in sherry casks for up to tens of years. But one of them keeps a rum that it is not known when it will be tasted. It was filled in 1952, with the promise of the founding family that it will only be opened —and tasted by the people in the public square— when Puerto Rico gains independence.

I already have two reasons to go back.

The journalist traveled at the invitation of the Mesa Redonda movement


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