Overland miles: 4253 Tacocount: 68 Days without Sodas: 5
Your PFB correspondents are big lovers of all food that comes from the sea (apart from Clare, who doesn’t like shellfish), and that makes the coast of El Salvador the perfect place to come for fin fans like us. Most of the fish they serve is simply chalked up as Pescado Blanco (white fish), which covers a whole host of freshwater fish from the Pacific, but the ones we got served resembled Tilapia – an introduced species. Red Snapper is also on the menu quite often, and locals a bit further down the coast told us they often caught Yellowtail, Cat and Ratfishes in the area. Another species native to El Salvador apparently includes the Pacific Four Eyed Fish, which Simpsons fans will know as a species whose origins one should be wary of.
There are, all told, nearly 50 different species of fish swimming in abundance off these shores, and although a number of fishing trips to get up close and personal with some of them were on offer, we were too busy saving turtles for that. So we had to make do with a number of variations on Pescado Blanco being brought to our table, morning noon and night. Literally – they serve it three times a day here. I hadn’t had fish for breakfast since my birthday tacos in Ensenada B.C., so on our first morning at La Tortuga Verde, a fried fillet to start my day was definitely due.
I cannot describe how excellent a plate of fried fish is first thing in the morning: possibly the only place I have enjoyed it more is in the Japanese Alps, which goes to show you don’t even need a hot beach climate to eat it in. Of course it always helps to have those other typical Salvadoran elements alongside it: a big pile of perfectly scrambled huevos rancheros, frijoles (natch), a particularly hard white cheese (almost the texture of very dry halloumi in this region) and those delicious fried bananas. It all just…works, believe me. The owner, Tom, later told us a supposedly funny, but actually quite unkind joke about his staff (within earshot) refusing to put fish fillet on the menu because they couldn’t buy a catch big enough to find a fillet from. (The joke was that filleting simply relates to the method of preparation rather than, as they believed, a predetermined size of fish). I felt they knew well enough what they were doing with this dish.
In the afternoons we would leave the soporific calm of the Turtle Sanctuary and take a walk along the unspoilt desolation of Playa Esteron below. The sun at that time was hot but not brutally so; palm trees flapped lazily in the strengthening winds and waves crashed rhythmically onto the shore like unravelling rolls of cotton wool. When we felt hungry we would stop off at a beach-shack called something like ‘Sea Breezes’ or ‘Seven Seas’ to grab some cold beers and more fish. You can’t say we weren’t getting our Omega 3 fatty acids in our diet here.
The places, populated entirely by locals at this time of the year were the ideal of simple, fresh eating out: black clams were constantly being shucked at the entrance – rows of hammocks separated the wooden benched tables. In some places we were presented with a menu listing all the ways you could get your fish prepared (although this didn’t necessarily mean you could have it that way) – at others the waitress simply reeled off (no pun intended) the options available that lunchtime and asked us to pick one. Unbelievably this approach still managed to invoke much earnest discussion and changing of our fickle minds. Eventually we managed to plonk for practically the only full dishes available, a plate of grilled fish for Clare and one of camarones (king prawns) for me:
Clare’s fish was almost translucently white and certainly as fresh as it gets: it was a pity that it was slightly overcooked. The meat peeled away easily from the bones, though: always a good sign. Limes were in abundance – as they are with practically any food or drink you order in Central America – and a healthy squeeze of the tangy citrus juices zapped though the crisp skin and coated the buttery white fish well. At another beach restaurant in El Cuco Clare had hers topped with a rich tomato sauce, which I think was an even better accompaniment for this type of fish.
My prawns were grilled just right, and had been coated in a mustardy yellow sauce that took their rich, meaty flavour to another level. Pulling off the head and shells fragment by greasy fragment, then savouring the flamingo-pink nugget of meat beneath, was untold joy. Luckily the plates weren’t overwhelmed by rice alongside the ever-present thick tortillas, so we felt contentedly full, rather than completely bloated, by the end.
Jump forward 24 hours, to Jiquilillo in Nicaragua, which Clare will fill you in on shortly, and we were out on the beach again, only this time in the pitch black night time, to find a restaurant – any restaurant – that was still open at the incredibly late hour of half past seven. We had no idea where we were headed along the dirt track (now a slippery mud track from the recent downpour) and getting increasingly desperate to find any form of sustenance in this tiny, undiscovered beach town.
Thankfully, once I had dragged Clare onto the lit porch of a kindly Nicaraguan family, and practically demanded its father that the unfortunate man direct us to one, we found the only shack still open. Once Dad and we had competed a three-way negotiation with the owners, the desolate restaurant beside a dark and stormy sea was opened up for business again. “What would you like to eat?” the harassed but helpful waitress enquired of us, quickly adding: “Because we’ve got fish”. Some time later, we were presented with pretty much identical plates to the ones we’d had for lunch over the last few days, and ate them in splendid isolation save for the army of wild cats and dogs encircling our bare table. Perhaps it was this other-worldly setting, or simply a sign of how famished we were since we had crossed the border from El Salvador, but this fish seemed to taste a little bit better than all the rest.