Off the hot green coast of Ecuador, pirates fly high above the waves. White-chested and fork-tailed, ruthless bands of frigate birds sail through the skies, keeping their black eyes and hooked beaks trained on the fishing boats below. They soar, they watch and as the first catches are hauled onto the beach, they strike — dive-bombing the locals and plundering any salty treasures for themselves.
I’m watching the whole thing from along the shoreline, and feeling slightly guilty — for I’m also in South America to snatch some seafood.
Six years ago, renowned chef Rodrigo Pacheco created the Las Tanusas retreat — a haven for intrepid foodie travellers perched on Ecuador’s easternmost point. A veteran of Michelin-starred establishments, including Cannes’ La Palme d’Or and Alain Chapel in Mionnay, the retreat’s restaurant BocaValdivia was Pacheco’s way of marrying his passion for fine dining with the natural world.
“I was inspired by the amazing cultural heritage,” says the chef as we clamber aboard a small blue boat. “These stunning landscapes made us fall in love with this place.”
Stunning hardly covers it. There’s something almost Jurassic about the coast of the Manabí province. The beaches are rough and winding. The air is thick and earthy. Rusting aerial masts prop up the rolling jungle canopy like tent poles. And here, in the dappled waters of the Pacific Ocean’s fire belt, some of the world’s best seafood is still swimming beneath our boat.
“We created a food ecosystem,” explains Pacheco of our destination; Isla Cayo. “We don’t have a written menu in the restaurant, so we forage and fish — and collect over 400 products with our own hands. And the same team that prepares the food is the same team that goes out and catches it.”
On our boat, we’re joined by a cadre of BocaValdivia’s best; young men in baggy T-shirts itching to get into the water. And, the second we’re close enough to Isla Cayo — a rocky dome crowned with a crop of curly jungle leaves — they grab their knives, nets and harpoons and dive off the side.
Once every week, guests from Las Tanusas are offered the chance to sail out to Isla Cayo for a unique dining experience. They are handed a cocktail in a calabash skin, and led up this very beach to a disarmingly out-of-place table — complete with silver cutlery and a white tablecloth.
Walter, Pacheco’s second-in-command, shakes my hand. From his apron strings up, the sous-chef is neatly turned-out, with combed hair and buttoned-up whites. But his sand-stained trousers and bright yellow boots betray his talent for foraging — and he soon scrambles off over the rocks to begin creating our fresh six-course tasting menu.
“The coast of Manabí is easily one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world,” says Pacheco, as we take our seats. “And not only the marine ecosystem, but also the tropical rainforest, the mangroves, the reef and the cloud forest. It makes things exceptional in terms of biodiversity — and makes it a paradise for any cook.”
"The coast of Manabí is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world..."
The divers are certainly enjoying themselves. Leaping across rock pools and free-diving the reef, they’re on the hunt for that most elusive, exclusive ingredient: the oyster. One of the most succulent seafoods, oysters are natural filters — and work to clean any impurities or pollution from the sea. But, off the Manabí coast, where the waters are clear and untainted, oysters are out of a job.
“This is why wild oysters in Ecuador are amazing,” explains Pacheco. “Their retained natural sweetness makes them a beautiful delicacy, and this is why we encourage our guests to come with us and forage for them, while connecting with nature through gastronomic experiences.
“But they do melt into the landscape,” he laughs. “It can be hard to see and catch them in the reef and the rocks.”
That doesn’t seem to be a problem for the divers, who are zipping back up the beach with grins on their faces and several fist-sized oysters in their hands. Walter stands poised with his shucker, and soon sets to work cracking into the shells and preparing the first course. Working with nothing but knives and bowls, the sous-chef seems to be conjuring a meal out of thin air.
The first dish out of the magical island kitchen is ceviche — sliced oyster cured in lime juice. It’s a plate that would usually take an hour to prepare, but Ecuadorian oysters are so fresh and of such high quality that this took barely ten minutes. Garnished only with scrapings of thick green zest, it is stunningly simple, simply stunning, and a headlong dive into the piquant, playful food of this country.
“Oysters are a very versatile product,” Pacheco chews. “And they are beautiful to work with because you can do so much with them.”
The next hour serves only to prove the chef right. On the isolated beach of Isla Cayo, five more courses are plucked from the ocean and brought to our table — via the scarred, talented hands of sous-chef Walter. Oysters topped with onion so thin the sun shines through it. Oysters swimming in bottomless bowls of passion fruit and artichoke sauce. Oysters that have navigated whirlpools of mango oil, rockfalls of crunchy salt and firestorms of jalapeño. All fresh, all natural, all outlandishly good.
The divers return as we set down our forks, an octopus skewered onto their harpoon. This will become the centrepiece of BocaValdivia’s unwritten menu later this evening, Pacheco says. But, as the frigatebirds eye the tentacled treasure from their humid perches, he adds that he’d rather serve every meal on Isla Cayo’s beach.
“I think it is very important that people reconnect with nature,” the chef smiles. “And this is a bridge of reconciliation between humanity and nature, through food. Through love. Through freshness.”