When I booked a trip to Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, Panama at the end of last year I thought I’d be sacrificing good food in pursuit of deserted beaches, hidden surf breaks and exotic jungle animals. I anticipated uncomplicated, no-frills meals: simply prepared seafood paired with ice cold caipirinhas served from a thatched-hut restaurant on the beach.
So I was blown away by the great ingredients (local honey, cacao, coffee and native fruits) and what my hosts did with them.
My first few nights I stayed at Al Natural, an eco-friendly beach retreat run by a super-hip Belgian couple, Michel and Michel Natalis. The globe-trotting husband and wife split their time between Belgium, Panama and New York City and had understatedly snuck small niceties of urban life into the property: the latest issues of Vanity Fair and the Utne Reader were piled at the bar, which was stocked with a nice selection of Chilean and Argentinean wines.
The meals had a definite European touch (the chef was also Belgian). Most memorable were a soup of celery puree and shellfish that was surprisingly creamy, almost like a bisque, and fresh tuna carpaccio topped with saffron and avocado. Cacao pods are abundant around the Bocas del Toro archipelago and the chef melted down natural cacao turning it into pure chocolate yumminess almost like a dark chocolate brownie batter. It was meant to top ice cream but one guest slyly snuck the pitcher of molten chocolate and began eating spoonfuls of it, scraping away every last drop (I was jealous I hadn’t been bold enough to make the move first!)
I spent the second half of my trip on the other side of the island, at La Loma Jungle Lodge, which is completely off-the grid, in the jungle, on a former cacao plantation. The owners, Margaret and Henry are true foodies. Not satisfied with Bimbo (the “Wonder Bread” of Central America), Henry bakes all of the bread: Australian damper bread, pane casalingo. He and Margaret also make the homemade coconut and pineapple granola and chocolate, apple banana muffins served at breakfast.
Dinner started with a nightly cocktail. The Golden Rum Punch was worthy of F&W Cocktail Book consideration. A mix of golden rum, tonic water, brown sugar, lemon juice, cucumbers and nutmeg, it managed to avoid being overly sweet and had an earthy, mellow finish. I felt obligated to try seco and milk, Panama’s national drink. Seco is basically grain alcohol and just one sip had me ordering another Golden Rum Punch to shake it off.
La Loma sources nearly everything directly from their property or from local island purveyors and their menus read like Panama’s version of the 100-mile diet.
Hens lay the eggs used for breakfast omelets. The queso fresco that was served with pickled onion relish came from a local cheesemaker. One night dinner started with quail eggs with celery salt (the quail are raised on the property). A luxurious coconut fish stew known as Bastimentos Rondon, was based on a recipe from the mother of Chappi, one of the local guides who works at La Loma. Dessert was something I looked forward to nightly. One of the local employees climbed up palm trees to wrangle coconuts for Margaret's buttery nutmeg and coconut shortbread. All of the chocolate was harvested from the property (they process it into cacao liquor and are which they are starting to sell to a chocolatier in London) and turned into chocolate cake with cashew praline. Wanting to expand her chocolate repertoire, Margaret recently started toying with recipes from chocolate-expert Maricel Presilla’s book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao. I can only imagine how good dessert will be on my next visit.