Over this past March Break, I had the amazing privilege of being able to travel to the Dominican Republic on an Edutravel Trip to gain an Environmental Science credit for high school. I spent 3 full Saturdays in school, and a week in the Dominican learning and experiencing. Before my trip, I did my usual check-over of the itinerary to coordinate what I might be able to eat and where that would be. I was pleasantly surprised (as was my mother, who spends a LOT of time packing and making food for my siblings and I when we leave home) to see that we would be visiting an organic farm, an apiary, and an organic chocolate co-operative. These three excursions, as well as a restaurant that a close family friend recommended I try when we had free time, meant I would be able to eat many meals with everyone else – very unusual and extremely exciting! Overall, not only did I learn a lot about food and issues surrounding food, but it was definitely the best food I have ever been able to enjoy at a school event or trip!
If you have the opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic, I highly recommend visiting the following 4 highlights I have written briefly about. Not only will you enjoy your time and the food, but you will be supporting their local economy, the awesmazing people who work tirelessly in these businesses/projects, plus, of course, the environment.
Taino Farms is located just outside of Cabarete on the north shore of the Dominican. It is a permaculture-inspired, agro-tourism demonstration and education center inspiring sustainable, nutritious food. The farm is so technologically advanced for the Dominican culture that the country’s top universities take trips to learn about the farm and on the farm. The owner, Robbie, is actually from Oakville, Ontario and he lives on the farm for a few months a year. Taino Farms grows all of the fruits and vegetables you would see on a farm in Ontario, but with the addition of tropical crops like starfruit, jackfruit, vanilla bean, and avocado (which unfortunately weren’t ripe when I was there due to flooding – a reminder about realizing how essential it is to take care of our climate as it affects our food security). Robbie gave our group a tour of the farm, and explained with great passion, how the different farming practices they use affect the environment and their farm in a positive way. We spent a few hours exploring their aquaponic systems, which take water from fish tanks containing naturally made ammonia by the fishes’ breath and uses it to fertilize crops. We also had the opportunity to see their vermiculture practices, followed by a hike to a nearby village which is when I spoke one-on-one with my tour guide about food in the Dominican. I appreciated the perspective and opportunity to learn while walking, not at a desk! We were then treated to an amazing lunch of rice and beans, LOTS of freshly harvested kale (which I was very happy about), and eggplant lasagna made completely with ingredients from the farm! Unfortunately, I missed out on taking pictures of the food due to the fact that I was chatting with Robbie, and people had already started eating by the time I arrived. Taino Farms really gave me a one-of-a-kind, organic experience that I will never forget!
A few days into our trip, we were given the opportunity to visit an apiary run by a local family. This was very different from Taino Farm because they don’t have access to the same modern technology. The owner, Jonny, couldn’t speak English, so our guide Rene translated for us. He explained that Jonny used the apiary as a way to support his family, and that the money my trip spent on his honey would finance his family for a long time. Besides being a really great way to spend money in the local community, the honey is made without the use of any pesticides, and it is AMAZING! I brought four bottles home to share with my family, and my little brother immediately decided he wanted to drink one of them! Jonny’s Honey is not the most tourist-accessible attraction in the Dominican Republic, but it is one that I would not pass up an opportunity to visit. (I have a thing about the bees – if you want to learn more, click here)
Chocal Organic Chocolate Co-operative
Chocal is a chocolate plantation co-operative run by thirty women about an hour away from the city Puerto Plata on the north shore of the Dominican. This is the first time I have ever had the opportunity to visit a chocolate plantation, and it was a truly amazing experience. When we first arrived, we were treated to a cup of their amazing hot chocolate – made with 100% cacao! It was rich and flavourful, unlike any store-bought hot chocolate I have ever tasted. One of the owners then took us through the different kinds of chocolate they make there; everything from bars and drinking chocolate to small bite-sized candies. We were then taken through the full chocolate-making process, from the drying out of the initial beans (which tasted extremely bitter!), the week-long fermenting, the drying out, and then finally making into the goods that they sell. Unfortunately, when it came time to purchase chocolate, I learned that they use refined sugar in their chocolate bars! I always find it crazy when restaurants with a commitment to organics here in Toronto use conventional condiments, but learning that an amazing chocolate co-operative uses refined sugar, after working so tirelessly to grow, harvest, dry and ferment organic cacao. Fortunately, this sugar was not added to the hot chocolate, so I was able to bring 100% cacao logs home for my family – just grate it into and on everything and anything. Chocal is definitely another one-of-a-kind experience available in the Dominican – how often will I get to visit a chocolate co-operative?
Fresh Fresh Cafe
Fresh Fresh Cafe has a few locations along the north coast of the Dominican, serving up fresh and organic fare for tourists and locals alike. I found out about Fresh Fresh via one of my parents’ close friends (thanks, Moose!) who lives in Cabarete as much as, or more than his hometown of Toronto. I finally got to meet his girlfriend Kristina, who was super-nice and loves the restaurant too! I was very excited to visit this restaurant, and as I walked up, I could tell that the brightly-coloured space would not disappoint. 5 of my friends and I were greeted by a kind woman, who handed us menus and directed us to their back patio, which featured comfy couches to sit on instead of chairs – my friends and I were already happy. As I looked over the menu, I had my usual issue: I couldn’t decide and wanted to order multiple dishes but knew I had to choose one! I finally selected a green smoothie and a veggie burger with hummus. When the food arrived, I was amazed by the fantastic array of colours and flavours that went into every dish with a special Dominican flair. As I dug into my food (which was delicious!), I thought about how a lot more of the ingredients in the food I was eating were from local farms, ingredients that we can’t get locally in Toronto like avocado and banana. I even enjoyed the green smoothie with mango, which is not a fruit I choose to eat at home, it just doesn’t taste as good here! After we finished eating, I decided to try their house-made kombucha, and to buy a container of their hummus for my flight the next day (which made a great in-flight meal – sure beats the airline food!). Fresh Fresh was an amazing spot in Cabarete and I look forward to hopefully returning to the Dominican to enjoy! My 5 friends, who might have been slightly skeptical about coming to one of “my” kind of restaurants all liked the meal too which made me both happy and relieved.
Overall, my trip wasn’t just about food, but the food and food issues, as always, were a focus and highlights for me. I was also able to bring some goodies home from this trip – four huge bottles of raw honey, a few bags of dried organic mango, and the hot chocolate logs from Chocal. These mementos of an amazing trip are delicious additions to my kitchen at home!
No matter where you travel, it always is worth looking up restaurants and farms with a commitment to organics and using, growing and making good food!
Special thanks to my teachers from this trip: Virginia, Stef, and Mr. Felsen – you guys made it an incredible experience! I learned so much, had a fantastic time and I will never forget it! Also, thanks to my parents for sending me on this Edutravel trip – you guys give me so many opportunities and I appreciate it!